“Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch and a kick just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch and a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.” –Bruce Lee
I spoke with Jim Wendler of EliteFTS.com about programs a couple of years ago. Jim is of the position that all programs suck because most Elite lifters don’t have more than an inkling of what they are going to do when they go into the gym. They know it’s a lower body day, but they aren’t sure if they are going to work up to a 5RM, a 3RM, or a heavy single. If they feel good, they’ll take a short rest period between sets. If they feel tired, they’ll rest longer. They may not even be sure what exercise they are going to do. They definitely don’t know how many sets they are going to do or what other exercises they may or may not do.
All Elite lifters perform different programs. Although there are similarities, they are different enough that it seems that an actual exercise prescription is an irrelevant part of their success. I can see Jim’s point. Programs are probably not needed for these guys.
However, I started thinking–that’s what most beginners do, too.
They just go in with no plan at all. That’s what I did. That’s what all of you probably did, and after a point, made no progress at all. I made better progress once I had some kind of a plan. So why doesn’t “freestyle” training work for a beginner but works really well for advanced guys?
Think of it this way. An Elite kick boxer may not know what he’s going to do exactly when he arrives in the gym. But if you’ve NEVER kick boxed before, do you really think that you’ll instinctively know how many rounds of jumping rope, shadow boxing, pad work, shield work, bag work, and sparring you should do? Or what techniques you should work on? Of course not.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a full circle. Beginners did whatever they wanted. Then they progressed to more structured programs. At some point, they evolved to less structure and went back to a more “freestyle” plan once again.
Level one: Training freestyle
This is where we all started. My first exposure to the weight room was in high school. My first program? I just went around the machines and the free weight exercises in the order that they were laid out. It looked something like shoulder press, bench press, leg press, hanging knee raise, low cable, high cable (I did curls on the low cable and triceps press downs on the high cable and the next time around I did rows and lat pull-downs by changing the handle), and leg extension/leg curl (I did leg extensions the first time and then laid flat down and did leg curls the next time). Essentially, it was a universal multi-station with some other machines or dumbbells off to the side.
No plan. No progression. No record keeping. I just picked whatever weight felt good and did some reps. I usually went three times around and then my friends and I would have a sit-up competition.
Level two: Chop-shop programming
When I decided to start training seriously, my friend Terry and I used to go to the local gym in a town called Broxburn. The program that the gym instructors gave us was actually pretty solid. But of course we changed it!
Anyway, we went on Sunday evenings and trained upper body. (We didn’t do legs because I was doing Taekwon-do, Terry was playing basketball, and we were both running. That’s all the leg training you need, right?)
The first exercise we did was the flat bench press. The second exercise was dips and then we moved on to back exercises. Only the couple of bodybuilders and the one or two powerlifters that were there at that time decided to take us under their wing and teach us some things. They’d see us bench pressing and tell us that we should add incline bench pressing to our routine. Or they’d mention that we should use dumbbells and that we should finish with a superset of dumbbell flyes and push-ups. Terry and I listened. And we took their advice. All of it!
Pretty soon, our upper body workout started with flat barbell bench, incline barbell bench, and decline barbell bench followed by all three positions repeated for dumbbell pressing. Then we finished with incline and flat flyes and push-ups. Then we moved on to dips. We did ten exercises for chest for three sets of ten (of course) each! We’re lucky these guys left before we started the back exercises or who knows how long our workout would have taken…
To be fair, the original program that we were given was actually useful. And the intentions of the other guys in the gym were great. They were just trying to help us. We made progress. All of -our lifts were increasing regularly despite training only upper body. The problem was our inability to filter the information and use it effectively. We were reading Muscle and Fitness and adding in stuff all the time. I’d bring in exercises that we did in Taekwon do class and Terry would show me exercises he’d done in basketball training.
It was a step above freestyling but at least we had some mentors. The exercises were shown to us by coaches. We were just mixing and matching it. I remember we read about “breakdowns” where you did your max set of six, cut 5 lbs, and repped out and repeated this for a triple drop set. Oh yes, we did that one for a while.
But we were making progress at least. In fact, if we’d have been on our own in the gym, Terry and I might have made better progress. With less information, we wouldn’t have been overloaded.
Level three: Exact recipe programming
I think this is the next progression for most of us. We are tired of making sporadic progress and want to know exactly what to do. The key phrase is “exactly.”
My programs from those days looked like this:
A1: Barbell bench press at 15-degree incline, 14-inch grip to mid-chest, 4 sets of 8 reps at 4110 tempo with 80 seconds rest
A1: Close stance squat (18-inch stance), heels raised two-inches, toes turned out 15 degrees, perform 7 one-and-a-quarter reps at a 4120 tempo, 75 seconds rest while consuming 3.5 g of BCAAs per pound of lean mass
To be fair, these programs work well because progression is built in and they’re generally sound. The problem comes when you’re so busy measuring your stance and counting your tempo and reps that you forget to actually train and push yourself hard.
Level four: Template programming
For me, this was a big breakthrough. I guess the Westside Barbell crew and Louie Simmons were the first people I saw implementing this strategy. The guidelines were “max effort upper body” and you slotted in various exercises and assistance exercises within that template without an exact prescription.
I think this is where most of us really start to understand training. If your goal is to lose fat, what does a fat loss program look like? What does a strength program look like? You start to realize that maybe the loading parameters and the template are what determine the results, but you have flexibility within that template. If you do your warm up sets and you feel on fire, you get after it a bit. If you’re flat, you back off.
I think most top bodybuilders, powerlifters, and Olympic lifters are at this level. In terms of sports practice, most athletes are certainly at this level as well. They have a “plan” perhaps, a rough idea of what they are going to do. And they understand some type of long-term periodization. But they are experienced enough to be flexible, yet disciplined enough to do the exercises they know will benefit them the most even though they may not be their favorite ones. They instinctively know when to push and when to back off. At this point, training really becomes an ongoing process rather than a prescription. It’s almost more of an art than a science.
I think this is like the road to mastery in any field. It’s a natural evolution of learning. And it’s almost full circle.
The founder of Judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano, had beginners start by wearing a white belt, which signified innocence. He gave out colored belts before the black belt with the idea that the belt “darkens with knowledge.” However, the highest rank of Judo master (above tenth degree black belt) wears a white belt. Kano believed that if someone achieved a stage higher than tenth dan, “one transcends such things as colors and grades and therefore returns to a white belt, thereby completing the full circle of Judo as of life.”
Maybe training is the same?