Workouts And Programs - The Key Differences!

I heard a great quote today from a fellow Brit who’s killing it and making waves abroad, Alwyn Cosgrove.

‘There is a big gulf in our profession between trainers who can design workouts and those who can design programs. There’s a big difference between the two and the results you’ll get.’

This is VERY true and I believe there is even a huge inability in trainers who can even write good workouts. Even if they can they then lack the ability to interpret the parameters into something a client may or may not understand.

I’m going to go through what is somewhat of an ‘Idiots Guide’ to some training parameters and when they should in theory be applied. Take note I said ‘In theory’. Parameters are a way to adapt a workout in many different ways to illicit different end products. Those of you with a scientific background will understand controls and variables (something that alters and something that remains constant) those of you from a coaching background will understand the difference when we talk of something as open or closed chain. An open chain exercise is something that has variables out of our control, closed chain means variables in our control. Working with a human being means we are almost always dealing with open chained variables so what works for one WON’T work for another.

Parameters must be understood and controlled as even with the most indepth physiological analysis, MRI’s,  Biopsies, bloodwork etc etc we STILL cannot get a full picture as to how an athlete will adapt to training program until he or she has done it. What we do know with certain training modalities and elite sport is that if an athlete doesn’t adapt to something accordingly genetically they probably aren’t in a position to excel. This is the sad truth of it.

Those of you that know me will know that I look heavily down on a LOT of people who blame genetics…..typically for laziness (easy get out of jail free card right). Remember though that for the most part people are generally ONLY trying to look better naked. They’re NOT trying to be Olympic level athletes. If you are and genetically you’re just not suitable for that sport or endeavour, trust me I’ll let you know my thoughts.

My point being is that when looking at aesthetically altering a physique for the better there isn’t someone who ‘can’t’ do it and when people say I’ve tried everything I assure you it’s either true and they’ve simply ‘tried’ and not concluded or they actually in most cases havn’t touched the surface or have no idea what it actually takes.  Those of you that read my previous article will hopefully understand a little of what it takes and what sacrifices are needed to look like a competitive physique athlete.

SOME BASICS OF PROGRAM DESIGN (And s*** you may have forgotten)

This isn’t a definitive quide by any means, simply something to get a better understanding of what you’re trying to build or in some cases trying to read or understand.

A simple rule that you’re looking to build lean tissue and prepared to compromise on the function of the athlete to some degree the use of varied stimulus is critical in the long term. Looking at short term and understanding how someone fairly new to it all would best be served will remind us where parameters come from. ‘If’ they do what you ask of them will all come down to application, assessment and correction. There is NOT a single plan that won’t work. We must question when we start seeing diminishing returns and also what is the path that will minimise failure and maximise results.

We have two primary goals when looking at mass gain. Engage as many motor units within a muscle as possible and then fill the cells full of blood and sarcoplasmic fluid to make them swell, pump up and tear. The adaptation in simplified terms  is the surface area of the muscle over time will grow to accomodate all of this. The motor unit activation is like taking a bag full of deflated  balloons, and giving someone the ability to blow more of them up. The sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the actual blowing up of the balloons in the bag. The bag is like the outer sheath of the muscle which if enough balloons are able to be, and of course blown up the bag becomes hard and swollen. Make sense so far? For those of you who are slightly more scientific, Hyperplasia is adding more balloons to whats already in the bag.

So how are we going to do this. For the purists out there this perhaps isn’t going to rub too well.

In order to engage more of the motor units (balloons) to be blown up you have to lift with force production in mind. Added mass to the lift and/or acceleration. Slow intentional stretches with contractions at 65% 1RM just simply isn’t going to do this. Never mind the negative adaptive response to muscle fibres over time (fast twitch convert to slow).

The fact of the matter is that fast twitch fibres are the Rolls Royce of muscle fibres. Doesn’t matter what age they are they look DAMN good and their potential for growth is HUGE! Why shut all those good looking and useful fibres down when they can be part of building an AWESOME and somewhat functional physique.

Breaking a lift down and tempo.

A lift needs to be seen as a series of movements or points. We have the eccentric portion of a lift (the lowering NOT dropping), this is followed by a transitional phase which what I like to class as a pause, stretch or the stretch reflex point. The lifting is the concentric phase followed by another transition which is either a pause or contraction.

The control of all these portions is what we call TEMPO. Tempo is a series of 3 or 4 numbers outlining the timing behind each phase. Using a squat as an example a 2-1-2-1 tempo would signify a 2 count on the eccentric (lowering), a 1 second pause, stretch or stretch reflex, a 2 second lift on the concentric (lifting) and a 1 second contraction or pause at the top. At this stage it’s the coaches decision on how a lot of this is interpreted and relayed to the athlete.


Tempo allows us to keep athletes focusing on what we want the muscles and surrounding tissue to adapt to. It allows us to control the time under tension and when the muscle is under tension in the lift. There is also a difference between forced contractions within a lift and simply whats probably best described as an automated contraction, one that simply happens due to the lift itself and movement required.

A lift is a series of happenings within muscle tissue.

RECRUITMENT – The actual number of motor units and fibres recruited to complete the given task. Under stress or duress the body is capable of immeasurable levels of recruitment. The survival instinct should we call it. We call upon this in the gym environment through various means, targeting the two elements of force as aformentioned is one of them.

RATE CODING – This is, to analogise again the speed at which we go from 0-60mph. It’s the time it takes for an athlete to send appropriate signals to a muscle before it actually does what is wanted of it. A reactionary based phenomenon. The Olympic snatch probably being one of the best example of all three of these happenings.

SYNCRONISATION – This is how the muscle innervates nerves and systematically fires groups and bundles of fibres. This is the point where technical ability comes in and the simple fact that the human body will take the path of least resistance. When someones hips jack in the air early on a deadlift this is an example of not only a weakpoint but that the syncronsiation pattern is out. This is why technique is CRITICAL in strength and power sports and in bodybuilding prevents to some degree imbalances. The issue with bodybuilding is that the muscles responsible for knee flexion may be of a different fibre type to those responsible for hip extension. In which case using the same parameters for both movements may not be the best option for complete hamstring development and sometimes form has to somewhat override function. Make sense? Again what works for one won’t for another.

How we interpret and how we actually execute a lift will play it’s part on all of the above, not only that but the end product will be determined by it.

To put into a little bit of application and variations.

An Olympic Squat

The bar position is high in an olympic squat to allow crossover to a front squat. The hamstring engagement is less than a conventional squat as the knee position is slightly more anterior.

Tempo of 2-0-x-0. The lift will be executed with no intentional contraction at the beginning of the lift (unless activation is required to deal with any of the three happenings). The weight is controlled into the hole and with no pause and the stretch reflex occurs in the last few inches of the lift, allowing no pause at the transition phase and the rebound back up to the start position. You will see almost a ‘bounce’ from the bottom of  an olympic squat.

Olympic Squat

Powerlifting or ‘Low Bar’ squat

Due to the lower bar position the hamstring engagement is much higher than that of the Olympic style squat.

Tempo of 3-1-x-0. Again no intent in the contraction but a slower descent allowing minor mechanical adjustments to be made on the descent. A pause at the bottom at which point the engaged hamstrings act as a brake (or a suit if equipped lifting), the stretch reflex occurs at about parallel for this style of lift almost preventing the lifter going too low.

Powerlifting Squat

Bodybuilding Squat

The bar position may vary depending upon the mechanics of the individual and what particular emphasis is to be placed on the muscle.

Tempo of 2-1-2-1. The quads and glutes are intentionally activated at the top of the lift and slowly released to a transitional point (again depth dependant upon target area/s) the muscles are allowed a moment to stretch against the contraction, the lift is then executed with the quads particularly being contracted hard throughout until a partially flexed knee executed a full contraction at the top of the lift, the contraction being held on the second rep is executed. The intention being that throughout the entire lift muscle tissue is continually under tension. This can be done with almost any rep, tempo and set parameter.

Time under tension is the total amount of time that a muscle will be under tension during the set.

A tempo of 2-1-2-1 will be a 6 second rep, in a parameter with 12 repetitions will give us a TUT of 72 seconds.

It is commonly believed that the ideal TUT is about 20 seconds for strength training, 40 seconds for muscle mass and 70 seconds for muscular endurance. This would tie in with also the energy systems that would be relevant to that sport or activity. A TUT of 20 seconds for an Olympic lifter would be too much in most cases as crossing over into the lactate energy systems would result in muscular breakdown. When neural adaptation is a large part of what you’re attempting to achieve this is contradictory.  This is where we cannot rely on anything that is specific, even with energy systems, merely guidelines.

Start to think about tempo and the ‘Intent’ behind your lifting. What is the purpose, muscular development, strength development, speed, endurance etc etc. Take your knowledge of energy systems and what you hope to achieve from the session and PLAN!

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