Thinking of training load as stimulus and not a “program”

Training science is a young and underdeveloped branch of science. At this point in time we are still groping around the elephant that we call training.  Some people have hold of the trunk and others have a hold of the ball sack claiming they have the answer as to what this giant hairy, wrinkly beast we have before us and why it is split into two bulbous masses suspended in the middle of air by a thin layer of skin.  If you want to know more about the elephant analogy and to read about a different way of thinking about the training process then check out our article series on systems theory and it’s applications to the planning of powerlifting training

You never know I might actually finish the series at some point, a 9-week pandemic, and a stay at home order wasn’t enough free time beside a computer to get it done but you never know what’s around the corner something might be enough incentive for me to get it done.  Aside from my hilarious interludes the point of this article is to put across a different way of thinking of training load and why changing your thinking might help you to free yourself of a lot of the antiquated ideas holding your thinking hostage.

The Dose Response of strength training.

The dose–response relationship, or exposure–response relationship, describes the magnitude of the response of an organism, as a function of exposure (or doses) to a stimulus or stressor (usually a chemical) after a certain exposure time.[1] Dose–response relationships can be described by dose–response curves. This is explained further in the following sections. A stimulus response function or stimulus response curve is defined more broadly as the response from any type of stimulus, not limited to chemicals. – Wikipedia 2020

If we boil away all of the trappings of training and exercise and just look at it as a drug we can give to the body. It will remove a lot of the baggage you carry as a lifter or coach who is in the daily shit fight of getting stronger or trying to get people stronger.  Training stress can be viewed as a drug (we will refer to it more correctly as a stimulus later) for the purposes of this thought experiment.

Like a drug it has an effect on the body that is exogenous (outside the body or the bodies normal processes) that increases our abilities beyond what we can create using only our own body or the things around us. For example with a barbell and bench press we can increase our upper body pushing strength. Our ability to do so with a barbell is far beyond our capacity to do so without the barbell (you can’t use push-ups alone to bench 500lbs).

Whilst it has a main effect (increase in strength or fitness) if also has side effects some of which we may like (increasing injury resilience, increasing cardiovascular health) and it has some side effects we don’t like (fatigue and increasing our exposure to overuse injury) some of the side effects that can be termed as an overdose (overreaching or overtraining).

When you start thinking of training (all training) as a drug then you start to put it in a different framing.  This isn’t meant to be a panacea aka the one truth when it comes to training but it’s a thought experiment that can help you to clear your mind of a lot of the confusing nonsense you hold onto when it comes to discussing a topic you are heavily invested in. For a lot of people lifting makes up a big part of your ego (sense of self) and that is me included.  By taking something you are so heavily invested in and putting it into a context that is foreign or disconnected from what you know and understand on a day to day basis then you can think about it more objectively.

More is more until it’s not

Someone who is responsible for bringing this kind of thinking and popularising it more than probably anyone else is Mike Isreatel of renaissance periodization.  I really don’t think it’s the perfect system and it’s not a concept I use in my training or planning of training but it is a framework similar to what I am discussing in this part of the article fleshed out into a training system that although not without it’s own flaws, it gets results.  It is also a concept that is heavily leaned on by Juggernaut training systems.

Defining a ceiling and a basement for training volume is a pretty useful concept but for me it is taking the idea or the thought experiment I am using here and using it to trap yourself in a completely separate box.  The whole goal of changing your thinking towards a systems-based approach as opposed to taking a different ideology or framework for viewing the training world is to avoid the trap doors that rigid thinking leads people into.

You see they are grouping around the elephant the same as everyone else they are just grouping the mushroom tip while we are caressing the ball sack.  There is without question truth to what they are saying but there is also truth to what other people on the opposite side of the argument are saying.  The whole guise should be to have the humility to admit that training science is infantile and the methodology poor.  As such the actual epistemological (statements about facts and the reality of training) statements we can make about training are probably largely unfounded and off the mark. 

Taking someone’s age and sex as indications of their ability to handle training volume (dose-response) may hinder as much as it informs your ability to make successful and useful training decisions.  There are 7,800,000,000 individuals on this planet each with unique physiologies and lifestyles.  Grouping them into normative distributed data groups based on sub-groupings of sex, age, training history, strength is not a bad idea because we need to start somewhere right?  But as much as it’s a reasonable way of starting your hypothesis about the correct drug (exercise selection) and dose (volume and intensity) prescription to best suit them might equally lead you down the wrong path as much as it might help you get the right answer to the question.

Making no assumptions

To reach the correct decisions it is probably better to remove as many assumptions from the equation as you can (making an ass out of you and me).  To really make the process more effective you need to 

  • Treat people as an individual data point, don’t group them with their age, sex or whatever characteristics they possess because it doesn’t provide any hard rules since they are a biological system that is adaptive and unique.
  • Use their context to inform your starting point.  What they have been doing in the recent past is way more indicative of their training sensitivity than their training age or strength level.  Training sensitivity is not a hard set thing it ebbs and flows with exposure to training.
  • The better you get to know them the better you will be able to guide their training.  The purely physiological view of training is going to be incredibly antiquated in the near future.  People’s psychology and personal situation have just as much influence if not more than their biology ever will.
  • Something no one is going to wave a flag about is that you need to push the boundaries to find out where the boundaries are.  The vast majority of people are going to get injured training for performance.  Until you start pushing people hard enough to the point they start creaking you have no idea where their limits are.  Someone telling you they are going to be able to train you for performance and not injure you is lying.  Injury comes with the territory. 
  • Individualisation of training is the key but it probably takes at least a year of working with someone to confidently get towards an individualised approach.  Firing someone’s details through a series of filters isn’t individualisation it’s just more complex template fitting.    

Good coaching is the ad-hoc destruction of planning

When I first started working with people I held the planning of training in massively high regard and looked over intricate perodisation schemes with wonder.  Now when I see a hugely detailed plan I just see naivety.

The plan is important but how you adapt and change the plan is way more important.  It is a lot of work to set out a plan going forward for someone, it takes a lot of time, effort, and mental capital to layout something that is going to be effective, appropriate and is put together in a feasible way.  For all of that effort to be rendered useless by someone breaking their collar bone going for a mountain bike session before their first meet (Struan I’m talking to you if you are reading this) will make you have a pause for thought.

You need a plan, everyone has a plan but the difference between a good coach and a new coach is the willingness to rip it up and adapt it when new information is presented.  To know what is important in the scheme and what isn’t important is essential, to know how you can adapt the spirit of the training cycle while readjusting the training load up or down to try and match the lifter’s ability to recover and adapt to the training is essential. Being able to change and adapt to new information is the difference between success and launching yourself off the side of a cliff regardless of the new information you are being presented with because it’s IN THE PROGRAM.  

How do you want to apply your training dose/stimulus?

When it comes to strength training we can manipulate a number of variables to try and adjust the magnitude of the dose being provided.

  • The intensity of the acute stimulus (% 1 rep max)
  • The amount of the  acute stimulus (total number of lifts x % intensity)
  • The type of stimulus (exercise selection)
  • The number of times in the week we use the stimulus (frequency)
  • Total load of the stimulus (cumulative number of lifts x % intensity over the week)

What is the best way to apply a dosage?

As you can see from above we have a whole host of ways in which we can manipulate the way we apply our training similus/dosage.  We can decide to give out one big acute dose of training one day a week or we can take the same dosage and spread it out into 3 different smaller doses.  There are many things to consider when making these decisions.  What is an effective dose, how much is too much?  When does the amount of dose lose it’s effect as the organism becomes resistant.

Tissues and the body have thresholds and a receptive or sensitivity to inputs.  An example of something like this not related to training necessarily is the development of type 2 diabetes as muscle cells build up a resistance to insulin and no longer respond to glucose or insulin levels in a way that is expected in a healthy person.  This can come from a variety of factors two of which can be the overconsumption of sugar in the diet and a lack of exercise.

The purpose of this analysis was to identify this relationship in collegiate, professional, and elite athletes. A meta-analysis of 37 studies with a total of 370 effect sizes was performed to identify the dose-response relationship among competitive athletes. Criteria for study inclusion were (a) participants must have been competitive athletes at the collegiate or professional level, (b) the study must have employed a strength training intervention, and (c) the study must have included necessary data to calculate effect sizes. Effect size data demonstrate that maximal strength gains are elicited among athletes who train at a mean training intensity of 85% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM), 2 days per week, and with a mean training volume of 8 sets per muscle group. The current data exhibit different dose-response trends than previous meta-analytical investigations with trained and untrained nonathletes. These results demonstrate explicit dose-response trends for maximal strength gains in athletes and may be directly used in strength and conditioning venues to optimize training efficiency and effectiveness. – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8564090_Maximizing_Strength_Development_in_Athletes_A_Meta-Analysis_to_Determine_the_Dose-Response_Relationship

There is data out there on the dose-response to training in differing populations.  The data is still insufficient for you to just go ahead and take their findings and apply it to your training populations however there are some data points you can use to form your own hypothesis.

Back to our thought experiment if you were tasked with the best way to establish a dose-response relationship with this new drug called strength training which approach do you think makes sense to start with 

1 – Set the variables in a way that makes intuitive sense initally and to allow changes in effects and side effects time to make themselves known as you monitor vitals (est RM, heart rate variability, subjective measures of wellness, bar speed to name a few).

2 – Set the dose out for a set 3 week period, lower the dose on week 4 and only monitor one variable 1x per week.

3 – Set out a week of dosage and increase one variable of the dosing strategy every week regardless and monitor no variables.

Here you have a sense of the arguments set out in bottom-up perodisation the sort of thing being popularised in powerlifting by reactive training systems and two strategies taken from two of the most popular training programs on the internet (5/3/1 and starting strength).

The bottom line is any starting point you choose to follow or to adhere to is arbitrary this is completely fine as realistically any starting point is arbitrary.  It’s what you do week to week and month to month that is the important factor.

The strategy that monitors vitals and changes in the presentation week to week is going to be able to optimise it’s self to the individual vs the top-down dictate approach where one of the biggest memes is you shouldn’t change any aspect of the program. This blind top-down approach has no way to adapt to changes or to optimise so it just is what it is.

You have no chance to determine for example if squatting heavy 3x per week works best for you if you only get to rep out once per week for every 3 week out of 4.  The only way you are going to find what kind of training or how much/little training works best for you is if you are paying attention to what is happening week to week in your training and you are willing to experiment with different ways of doing things in a structured and systematic way.

Looking at training as a program puts it in the wrong frame of reference.

Even the framing of how we talk about training doesn’t help our thinking.  We discuss powerlifting or strongman programs as if it is a case of simple input and output.  Well I got news for you, you are not a computer and your body isn’t either.  Anytime we use simplistic thinking or simplistic framing for anything other than intellectualising or trying to understanding the world we are putting ourselves at the very real risk of not just being wrong but being consistently and fundamentally wrong.

The way I have been framing training in this article as a drug isn’t reflective of reality as training is not a drug, it’s an environmental stressor but the frame of reference I have been trying to get you to adopt at the start of this article is probably closer to the reality of training and adaptation.  Your body will adapt to a stressor or stimulus and the adaptation is non-linear and your body will build up resistance and your body can resensitise to the stressor or stimulus depending on how it is applied.

When we talk about programs or methods (bleugh) we are attributing some kind of top-down knowledge or attribution of competency where none exists.  No one program taken out of context is going to be way better than another.  There are programs that apply too much stimulus for most people and there are programs that apply too little stimulus for most people and there are programs that hit a pretty decent sweet spot for most people.  But without the context of that person and their performance in training there is no way of telling if that amount of stimulus is the best amount of stimulus for that person at that time. 

A common complaint people have when someone adopts a program off the internet and changes certain elements to it are that they aren’t doing that “program”.

If you aren’t training at westside you aren’t doing westside! 

What we should be promoting and discussing is how we can help you to understand this loading scheme or this set out stimulus and why are you adopting it.  The fact is that most people when they adapt a program is that they do so arbitrarily. This is because they don’t apply a useful or consistent framework to their thinking. They go with their gut.

They might arbitrarily be thinking 1x per week squat is not enough for me or 2x per week deadlift is too much for me.  Often without looking at how the week of training is set out and how it interlinks with each other it might be that the 1x per week squat is a pretty hefty overload and there is another similarly large stimilus of deadlift coming in the same week so the author of the program has factored this in.  It might be that the deadlift workouts aren’t stressful in themselves but when done alongside the squat side of the program, with the variations being used in the deadlift sessions and with the suggested assistance work it might be a really effective training approach and balances out well when done together.

The problem isn’t that 

1 – The person who wrote the program is some all-knowing being who has come down from the mountain on high with the one true way of splitting up volume, intensity, frequency and variation divined from the one true god of gains (no matter how much shite Louie drivels).  They are putting out a reasonable scheme of loading towards a certain goal based on their own experience and knowledge.

2 – The person who is adapting the program isn’t desecrating the work of the all mighty.  They simply don’t have a fucking clue what they are doing or why they are doing it.  They are making whimsical decisions based off what made sense in their head at the time.

The problem is that 

1 – The person putting out the program doesn’t have the full context of the individual they are putting the program out to which in most cases is a free template so it’s a non issue.

2 – The person adapting the the program doesn’t have a good framework to apply their thinking towards so can’t make good or even informed adjustments from the outset.

Stimulus + adaptation = Training

You have probably seen something like the above before but it is important to let it permiate your thought process.  The above is a way over simplified conceptualisation of what training does to a person.  No training session is an island and every bit of training in a session, day, week, month will have some kind of interaction with each other.  Every aspect of your life has some kind of overlapping interaction with the other. As I am writing this we are in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic and if there has ever been an example of how other extrinsic factors can interfere with your training then the lockdowns and stay at home orders keeping people away from gyms and training venus is certainly an example of that fact.

When you start to take a more holistic approach to how you look at training. Taking it out of the vacuum that thinking in terms of programs and inputs = output, then you start to be able to put training in a more useful and realistic context.

You can start to set out a blank slate for your training.  In my current circumstance I can commit this amount of days and this amount of time to specific training.  Outside of those times I can maybe make this amount of time for additional work such as mobility or general strength and conditioning.

You realise that there are no set rules to how you should train, how many exercises you can do, no hard sets and reps to follow.  No reason really why you should or should not do dynamic work.

The more you realise that we don’t know about training and the more you accept what lays ahead of you is a totally blank slate. The quicker you will realise just how much room for progress and learning lies ahead of you.


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