Programming Questions I’d Have if I Were You

MTI Dryland Ski lab rats hammer through 35 minutes of step ups and sandbag get ups on Tuesday.

By Rob Shaul

I answer dozens of questions from athletes daily, mostly in regards to what type of training plan I recommend. However, a lot of our athletes want to understand why they are doing a certain exercise or even the methodology behind our programming. So here are some answers to questions I would ask if I were you.


How often do you update your training plans? How do you decide what plans to update?

It depends upon the training plan. In general, the more popular the training plan, the more it gets updated. However, this isn’t always the case. If we make a significant change to one of our programming approaches, we’ll update a training plan accordingly, even if it’s not a bestseller or used much. I do all the programming myself, so time is somewhat limited, but I have a working list of new plans to build and updates to make and try to build/update 1-3 plans per week.


How often do you build new training plans and how do you decide which plans to build?

I try to build one new plan per week. Which plan I build, depends somewhat on the number of requests I get for a specific plan. But sometimes it’s only one request, but it’s an interesting event/mission and programming challenge.


Are there any types of plans you avoid building?

In general, I try to keep programming within our wheelhouse of programming for mountain and tactical athletes and so focus on programming missions and events in these areas. Sometimes we venture outside – for example, I recently designed 8 general fitness training plans – but usually, I try not to stray often.


Why don’t you do custom, individualized, programming?

When I first started coaching I did little personal training and designed custom programming for athletes working remotely. I found I didn’t like personal training, and the athletes who worked remotely I couldn’t hold accountable. More importantly, as my coaching experience and confidence grew I learned a life truth … no one individual is “special” when it comes to mountain and tactical fitness missions or events. The fitness demands to summit the Grand Teton or getting through Ranger School are the same for everyone. There is no “special” Grand Teton summit for old, short, weak, out of shape, uncoordinated, etc. athletes. There is one summit and everyone who makes the trip has to climb up and down 8 thousand feet with a 25-pound pack. So, after those early years, I refused to program for individuals and instead focused on programming for missions/events/objectives/schools/courses, selections, fitness assessments, etc.


What area(s) of your programming do you feel is strongest?

Strength programming, chassis integrity programming, and Fluid Periodization.
What’s unique about our strength programming is the eight different strength progressions we’ve developed and tested over the years. Unlike most strength and conditioning coaches who deploy the same progression, again and again, I’ll cycle through progressions to continually challenge athletes, and also address the “burden of constant fitness” with variety.
I developed our Chassis Integrity core strength and strength endurance theory in 2015, and strongly believe it is the most functional and transferable core strength theory around. Certainly for mountain, tactical, and other industrial athletes, and likely for team sports athletes also.
Fluid Periodization is how I program cycles at the macro and intermediate levels to concurrently train multiple fitness attributes. What is so different about mountain and especially tactical athletes, is the fitness demands they face in the field are not certain – unlike team and individual competitive sports where games can be analyzed and broken down.
What this means is mountain and tactical athletes must have a solid level of all around, mission-direct “base fitness” across multiple fitness attributes. Fluid Periodization tackles and solves this programming puzzle.


What area(s) of your programming do you feel needs the most improvement?

Work capacity progression. We’re still deploying time-based progression which has certainly been effective but isn’t as agile or data-driven as I would like it to be. I’ve begun work on developing a power-based progression but it’s a complicated problem and I can’t seem to get far into it before some other programming job to do pushes this work aside.


How does your programming differ from typical CrossFit programming?

I’ll refer here to the programming on the website …. in general MTI programming is much more multi-modal (strength, work cap, endurance, chassis integrity, agility) than CrossFit programming. We also deploy focused progression across most fitness attributes – and nothing is random. See below for more on “progression”.


How does your programming differ from typical “stick and ball sports” programming?

It’s more “fluid” in terms of the fitness attributes trained, both at the macro and meso (intermediate/cycle) levels and the individual training session level. Also, our deployment of progression is more focused, and widespread than what I’ve seen from even collegiate-level programming. Finally, we don’t nearly as much emphasis on movement or mobility.


How do you choose what exercises to deploy?

Experience and practicality. I aim to choose exercises that train the goal we’re after best, but also are “weight room functional” based on common equipment and the majority of athletes I work with. “Weight room Functional” is an important programming priority I see many coaches ignore as they deploy exotic or trendy exercises many simply can’t do well. Over the years my exercise menu has shrunk significantly.


What are some exercises you’ve stopped programming because you found they weren’t “weight room functional”?

  • Snatch and variations – great total body power exercise that 60% of men can’t do well because of shoulder mobility issues
  • Jerk – super athletic exercise 50% of athletes struggle to do well


What Is your current list of favorite strength exercises?

  • Lower Body Press Strength – Back Squat
  • Lower Body Pull Strength – Walking Lunge
  • Upper Body Press Strength – Bench Press
  • Upper Body Pull Strength – Rope Climb
  • Total Body Power – Craig Special (hang squat clean + front squat)


How big is the MTI coaching/programming staff?

Just one – Me … a couple of years ago I had a staff of 5 but due to regular attrition people left to pursue new opportunities and I haven’t replaced them.


What is your favorite work capacity training mode?

Sprint repeats. Nothing is as simple, or hard, as sprint repeats for training transferable work capacity to mountain and tactical athletes. 300m shuttle sprints are a great example.


What is “progression?”

Where you increase the difficulty over the course of a training cycle. Here is an example using 300m shuttles:
Level         Progression
1                4 Rounds, 300m Shuttle every 2:30
2                4 Rounds, 300m Shuttle every 2:20
3                4 Rounds, 300m Shuttle every 2:10
Progression can be applied to strength, endurance, chassis integrity, climbing, and tactical agility programming.


What is the difference between “Base Fitness” and “Sport Specific” programming?

Base Fitness programming lays a solid foundation or “base” of mission-direct all-around fitness upon which more focused, “sport-specific” programming can be built upon. “Sport-specific” includes focused programming for specific mountain seasons (ice climb, ski, Denali) and tactical missions/events/schools (urban conflict deployment, SOF selection, Ranger School). Sport Specific programming is super focused on the fitness demands of the event and is not concerned with all-around base fitness.


Why can’t you design a training plan which makes me good at all things at all times?

Because focusing on being good in one area comes at the expense of decreased fitness in another area. For example, training to perform your best for a 12-mile ruck will negatively affect strength gains. Instead of trying to design one training cycle which trains both “base fitness” and “sport specific” fitness, we want athletes spending most of their time training “base fitness”, but then in the weeks directly before a mission/event, drop out of “base fitness” programming and complete the appropriate “sport specific” plan for the mission/event. After the event, drop back into base fitness programming.


What is your “hardest” training plan?

It would depend upon your individual strengths. I suck at swimming, so for me, the “hardest” training plan would be one with a lot of swimming – likely the CDQC Course Training Plan (Combat Diver). In general, any of our Military SOF selection training plans are super intense and demanding.


I don’t have a specific training plan but want something different and to be challenged. What do you recommend?

Any of the military SOF selection or course training plans which include swimming/pool work such as BUD/s V2USMC MARSOC A&S, USMC Basic Recon or USAF CCT/PJ/CRO. Each of these plans involves high levels of multi-modal volume (run, ruck ruck run, swim/tread), work capacity, PFT work, and intense work capacity. Each also includes 6 day/week training with multiple 2-a-days,  and most have long weekend “mini events.” They’re all pretty terrible – but in a good way….


I’m not in the military or a mountain athlete – what is your best all-around training plan for general, all around fitness?

Just this summer, after dozens of requests, I designed 8 training base fitness training plans for civilian athletes. which deploy MTI’s Fluid Periodization. I named them after country singers (Thursdays are “country music” days at MTI), and separated them into two packets of plans, Country Singer 1 (the men) and Country Singer 2 (the women).


What is your best training plan for general, all around endurance?

Operator Pentathlon Training Plan. Running, ruck running, swimming, plus bench press and pull ups!!


What is your best training plan to gain just pure strength?

Big 24 Strength. Killer….. the closest I’ve ever come to throwing up in the gym.


Do you have any training plans appropriate for pre-teens or teens?

For pre-teens, just Bodyweight Foundation. High-school-aged student-athletes can complete any of our strength training plans. I’m currently designing specific programming for prep-aged athletes which will offer through another website, We hope to have it up and running this Fall.


How come you never program sit-ups?

In studying functional core strength demands during the development of our Chassis Integrity theory, I found little demand for flexion.


How come you rarely program deadlifts?

I’ve found the Hinge Lift to be overall safer, and more effective at targeting the posterior chain.


How come you never program snatches?

Great total body strength exercise, that 60-80% of the men I work with don’t have the flexibility to perform well or safely.


How come you never program wall balls?

I consider them “Garbage Reps.”


How come you never program rowing? Assault Bikes?

Great for general fitness work capacity, but not very transferable outside the gym for mountain and tactical athletes, who never row or assault bike somewhere. At some point, rowing and assault bike work stops training general, transferable work capacity and only keeps making you better at rowing or assault biking. Our focus is on outside performance, and thus, we work hard to select exercise modes we are confident will transfer.


How did you develop the paces in the run, swim, and ruck calculators?

We began with some general assumptions and then began testing these assumptions based on actual results with our lab rats. Based on the testing we modified the calculations, and continue to test and modify to this day.


What are the primary differences between programming for tactical athletes and mountain athletes?

  1. Mountain athletes don’t need to be as strong as military athletes because the loads they carry are generally lighter.
  2. In general, military athletes don’t need as much endurance as mountain athletes.
  3. Mountain athletes don’t need to train agility.
  4. Military athletes don’t need to train climbing fitness.


What are the primary differences between programming for military athletes and first responders?

Military athletes, in general, need more endurance.
First Responders – LE Patrol/Detectives specifically, can benefit from upper body hypertrophy (mass) – which doesn’t benefit military athletes.
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