Evolutionary Steps in MTI Programming – Part 1

By Rob Shaul


(1) Progressive Overload Applied to Work Capacity Programming

When I first began programming – even before owning a facility, I was familiar with the concept of progressive overload applied to strength training. I’d experienced this first-hand way back in high school during early-morning Winter football strength training.

At that time, about all that was available to coaches was the Bigger Faster Stronger programming system, and this is what we used. Everything began with a 1RM assessment, and subsequent sessions were pyramid based. Week 1 was three sessions of  5×5 @ 80% 1RM. Week 2 was 3×3 @ 90% 1RM, and Week 3 was a 5-4-3-2-1 set/rep scheme aiming to get as heavy as possible for the last set of the single rep.

Week 4 we re-assessed 1RM and re-set the progression. Simple and super effective.

However, when I started coaching CrossFit was coming on with its work capacity focus, but random programming. At that time (2004-2005) random was the rule in the CrossFit world.

I was voraciously reading everything I could get my hands on and came across Athletic Development: The Art & Science of Functional Sport Conditioning by Vern Gambetta.

Prior to finding Gambetta, I’d spent time reading Mark Verstegen’s Core Performance and work his colleague Mike Boyle, but found books by these coaches lacking in specific programming methodology. Verstegen’s work, especially, was super focused on movement, not fitness. By then his Athletes Performance facilities were training NFL rookies for the combine, and he later re-branded as Exos, and today has many contracts with SOF units in the military.

But despite Verstegen’s success, I found his programming overly complicated and geeky. I even attended a week-long Athletes Performance mentorship in LA and came away disappointed by the lack of any programming instruction. To this day, I’m not convinced Verstegen/Exos has a fully developed programming methodology.

In contrast, Gambetta’s approach to work capacity progression was direct and simple to understand and apply:

  • (1) Move away from the random work capacity events deployed by CrossFit;
  • (2) Identify 1-3 work capacity events you want to include in a cycle;
  • (3) Repeat them throughout the cycle adding difficulty as you work forward.

Here’s a quick example using burpees … we’d do each progression twice before moving to the next:

  • Progression 1: 10 Rounds, 10x Burpees every 60 seconds
  • Progression 2: 10 Rounds, 12x Burpees every 60 seconds
  • Progression 3: 10 Rounds, 14x Burpees every 60 seconds
  • Progression 4: 10 Rounds, 16x Burpees every 60 seconds
  • Progression 5: 10 Rounds, 18x Burpees every 60 seconds

Today, not all work capacity efforts in MTI programming is progressed like this, especially in the Base Fitness programming. But a significant amount is, and a majority of the work capacity in event-specific programming (selection plans, pre-season sport-specific plans, etc.) is.


(2) Development of “Mission-Direct” Research

When I started full-time coaching in late 2007, there was little existing published programming for mountain athletes, and none quality programming published for tactical athletes.

So initially I applied programming from team and endurance sports to these disciplines, with mixed success. Soon I started experimenting on my athletes … who were unwitting ‘lab rats’ at that time.

My focus early on was simply in identifying fitness programming that transferred to the field. Of course, I read the academic strength and conditioning journals and gleaned what I could from them, and we tried a few times to apply this stringent academic research methodology to our own work.

But we found it lacking in several ways. Often our subject population was high enough for statistically significant academic conclusions, even though direct observation and coaching instinct could easily see what programming worked, and what didn’t.

As well, we could identify programming differences soon in programming cycles (3-4), but academically would need to continue for 3-4 more weeks. I found this frustrating as I wanted to move quickly on to the next study.

We struggled for a few months to apply the academic standard, then finally I realized it wasn’t a good fit for our mission, and I developed MTI’s Mission-Direct Research Methodology. See below for the primary differences between traditional academic research and MTI’s approach:

At MTI, our research isn’t focused on finding the “perfect” programming approach. Rather, we’re simply trying to continually identify programming that works better in Mission-Direct application than what we’ve been doing. What this means practically is MTI programming is more agile and continually evolving.

It’s hard to describe how many times I’ve quickly replaced programming I’ve sworn by for years with programming our mini-studies have proven works better.

We’ve always conducted mini-studies with our local athletes, but this population is limited. Most recently, we’ve been experimenting with “remote lab rats” – and several of you reading this have or are participating in one of our mini-studies.

This is an exciting development for me, as it has the potential for MTI to be running multiple mini-studies concurrently, and thus exponentially quicken our programming evolution and improvement.


(3) Assessment-Based Programming Across Multiple Modes

Assessment-based programming is super powerful as it automatically “scales” the programming to the incoming fitness of the individual athlete.

If done across multiple modes (strength, work capacity, endurance) in the same cycle, and if the progressions are well thought out, assessment-based programming allows athletes of vastly different incoming fitness levels to train side-by-side, and be individually challenged, but not overwhelmed.

Most of MTI programming for both Base Fitness and Event-Specific fitness includes one or more elements of assessment-based progression. For example, a 1RM Back Squat effort and follow-on percentage-based progression based on the athlete’s initial 1RM load.

Or, a 3-mile run assessment followed by threshold intervals based on the individual athlete’s initial 3-mile run time.

Assessment-based progression is very effective at developing specific fitness attributes. In MTI’s world of developing mission-direct programming for mountain and tactical athletes, we need to be careful in choosing applicable assessments.

It’s easy to get “cute” or “creative” and develop an assessment that may or may not transfer to outside performance. For example, using a 1500m rowing erg assessment and subsequent progressions for a tactical athlete. Does rowing increase overall fitness and work capacity? Yes, but …. tactical athletes never row anywhere. The danger is that at some point early on in the programming, rowing erg work will stop transferring to the running, sprinting and rucking tactical athletes do in the field, and just make them better at rowing – a fitness dead end for them.

Another downside of assessment-based programming for full-time tactical athletes and mountain professionals is its redundancy. I must always be conscious of the “Burden of Constant Fitness” these athletes are under and ensure their programming transfers to the field, but also doesn’t become “stale.” For this reason, I deploy as a whole, less assessment-based programming in Base Fitness cycles than in event/sport-specific cycles.


To be continued …

Questions, Comments, Feedback? Email rob@mtntactical.com