Convention Isn’t Physiology

By Rob Shaul


In the strength and conditioning world there are established “conventions” – almost dogmas – concerning proper programming, that are rarely challenged.

General conventions include …

  • Mobility and movement patterns must be perfect before loading or else the athlete will be injured doing light back squats
  • Dynamic warm ups are required, and must be lengthy
  • An athlete’s basic strength and fitness must be built before beginning basic PFT-specific training plan
  • Bodyweight strength must be built before any loading
  • Going to 1RM on any strength exercise is dangerous
  • Other than mobility/movement assessments, fitness assessments should be mostly avoided

More specific programming conventions include ….

  • Tabata Intervals are the best
  • The only way to train endurance is either fast and short or long and slow
  • Training more than one rep above 85% 1RM is impossible

Many of these conventions are found in the specific programming methodology of the most influential coaches. I’ve read all their books.

What seems to happen is a particular coach with a particular group of athletes has improvement success with a specific programming approach. He publishes the programming, other coaches jump on board, have some success, and it becomes convention.

Importantly, physiology is not physics. The laws of physics – like gravity for example – work the same and always in every scenario.

Not so with physiology. I can apply the same exact programming to two athletes with the exact same training age, incoming fitness level, sleeping schedule, diet, etc., and get significantly different results. Physiology can be significantly individualized.

Physiology can also vary for the same individual! What worked for me in my 30s doesn’t work in my 50s.

Few test convention programming against other approaches.

Testing programming is at the heart of MTI’s research efforts. We not only test conventional programming against other types of programming but programming we’ve developed against our own programming. The goal of our research is not to find the “single answer” – but constant improvement.

But … convention is powerful, and it can have significant influence on experienced coaches and even athletes.

One of the steps we deploy in hiring coaches is to give candidates a programming assignment regardless of their experience or credentials. A programming assignment tests several things for us – the candidate’s professional humility, their attention to detail, follow-through, communication skills, and project completion reliability. It also tests their anchoring in convention, willingness to program outside this box, and how they take criticism.

Most candidates follow a similar education path: BS in exercise science, MS in exercise science or kinesiology, college weight room experience. Their paradigm is built around team sports and conventional sports performance approaches.

A typical programming assignment is to build a 6-week program, 5 days/week, to prepare an athlete for a military PFT involving max rep push ups, sit ups, pull ups, 300m Shuttle for time and 3-Mile Ruck Run for time.

Ninety-five percent of the candidates will spend all 6 weeks of their program having the athlete do back squats, deadlifts, front squats, power cleans, basic plyos, and unloaded running.

“So let me get this straight,” I’ll ask them when reviewing their submission, “the first time your athlete will actually try the PFT they’ve been training for, for 6 weeks, will be at the actual event?” You can see how the conversation will go from here.

I’ve found convention also influences athletes. Strength athletes will purchase our Density strength program, look at the programming, and decide before even trying the programming they’ll never be able to complete the progression – because they’ve never done it that way before.

Recently we’ve begun a mini-study with remote lab rats applying MTI’s endurance programming approach to using power instead of pace. Spin cycles, rowers, and some assault bikes have power meters and make this possible.

The “convention” for power-based programming begins with a 20-minute threshold assessment for average power over that 20 minutes. You then take this average power, minus 5 percent, and use this number as your “Functional Threshold Power” for follow on power-based programming intervals and efforts. You’re supposed to use this number for 5-6 weeks, then re-asses.

In the ongoing MTI mini-study, I used a 30-minute threshold assessment, and use the full power average (not minus 5%) as the athlete’s “functional threshold power” for the following programming calculations. As well, the athletes test not only on week 1, but again on week 2. I know that many will improve their FTP with the second test just based on familiarity with the assessment and the machine they are using for it.

What was interesting is when I first sent the programming to the lab rats, those with power-based programming experience questioned the programming based on convention. They wanted to verify that I wasn’t using the conventional 20-minute assessment, and why I wasn’t subtracting 5% from the FTP.

These experienced individuals had completed power-based threshold training before, and doing the calculations in their head, knew the 30-minute threshold assessment and the following power-based intervals in the lab rat programming would be more difficult than what they had done previously using the conventional approach.

I made note of their questions and predicted these individuals would report difficulty completing the programming as prescribed. Not because they couldn’t do it based on physiology, but rather that their minds would think it wasn’t possible and this doubt would influence their performance.

Sure enough, this occurred. A few of the lab rats with the most power-based programming experience reported failure in following the prescribed programming – they reported that they couldn’t make the intervals at the prescribed power levels in the plan.

Those of us ignorant to convention (myself included – I’m doing the program) made all the intervals as prescribed.

Importantly, not all of the most experienced power-training lab rats reported difficulty. Some made the intervals and reported they were surprised they did based on their experience with the conventional programming. Convention was in their pocket, but not blocking their performance. They approached the programming with an open mind.

Long ago I learned the hard way that every time I became righteous about one specific programming method, I turned out to be wrong. While we’ve established consistent success with specific programming methods for most athletes, I would never say our approach is the “best” or that it will work for every single athlete. And I’ll continue to test it looking for improvement.

Should programming convention be tossed aside? No. Rather, think of it as a handy baseline to test other approaches against.




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