This is not a complete list. Some of these things I learned directly from Rob’s writing, and others are realizations I came to while digesting his work, doing the work myself, and then reflecting on the work. Not everything on this list is directly from MTI, but the majority is derived from my constant experimentation with different training modalities, avid reading, and study of effective program design.
Every time I think I am starting to know a little bit about a little bit, I discover another layer. There’s a reason coaches can spend years doing this stuff and still be learning and experimenting. In the future, I will likely look back on ideas I now hold to be true only to realize I was wrong. Learn what you can from what I’ve learned as I continue to read, study, experiment, and question everything I know.
In no particular order, here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years from reading every article on the MTI site (worth your time) and re-reading many of them several times, using multiple programs to train for and complete challenging military training and selection courses, de-constructing the programming for many of the programs to learn how to design plans, and using the principles to benefit my training even when I’m not doing an MTI plan.
Since I have a military background, many of my notes are tailored to this arena, but principles are timeless and apply regardless of domain. Here are some that have benefited me. Some broad statements and a few short rants. Hopefully, they will prove beneficial to you as well. Thanks Rob for the inspiration and all the great training.
Working out is for amateurs. Training is for professionals.
Determine objectives and program backwards. Nothing is random. Define your goal and make a plan to reach it. Especially when training for an event or a selection course with publicly available standards. There is no excuse for showing up unprepared.
Random programming is lazy and inefficient. Walk into the gym with a plan. Each session has a goal and fits into a broader objective.
Testing a protocol with lab rats. This is something I really admire about MTI. Plans are tested before they are released. When you realize that the majority of the plans you find online have never been completed by the author (and have likely never had results observed by the author), it should give you some pause in blindly trusting someone because they call themselves a coach.
Base fitness vs training for something specific. What is your objective? Is it to train for a specific assessment or just to be generally physically capable of meeting the demands of your job/life? If you have no specific physical “gates” or assessments, you have more freedom to specialize (taking a few months to really focus on lifting and putting conditioning as a lesser priority for example). But if your job (military or mountain professional or similar) requires “the burden of constant fitness” (often without a true off-season), concurrent training is the answer. No – you will never be the strongest or the fastest. But being well above average across a broad range of physical attributes is elite in its own way. A training cycle can have a strong emphasis on a particular attribute or a subtle emphasis. In base fitness training, these vary frequently to avoid stagnation and maintain forward progress. Critics of this method may see a 6-week cycle as too short, stating that a longer cycle would yield greater results. Yes, but potentially to the exclusion of other attributes. Is taking several additional weeks to add another 5 lb to your bench going to make you more effective at your job? Maybe. Don’t get caught up in the numbers game. You are not training to beat others in gym lifts. The sheer number of times I have seen an individual far stronger than me literally collapse on a ruck is evidence enough for this fact. But specific training follows a different set of rules. A few months out from a military selection course for example, training will be tailored to the specific demands of the course. This will likely mean scrapping things you enjoy for things you need to do (get out of the gym and put a pack on your back). It doesn’t last forever – by very definition, specific training is temporary and unsustainable long-term by nature.
Gym legs vs mountain legs. Squats are important. Very important. But if squat 1RM was the key factor to mountaineering prowess, a small, skinny climber shouldn’t be able to literally run laps (uphill) around a bigger, buffer companion. Strength endurance for the legs is not a commonly trained attribute in most programs. High volume step-ups, leg blasters, SGUs, and rucking all help develop this trait. Not exciting stuff but it works. Who wants legs that are only strong for 5 reps or less? Train squats to build max strength and to allow you to take your strength endurance farther. Max strength is a foundation on which to build other attributes. But it’s a foundation. It’s meant to be built upon.
Test/Re-Test model. Often multiple times in a cycle. When strength isn’t your only goal, the cycle doesn’t have to build to a perfect peak. Test your training max, train to improve it, re-test, and move on. Very small changes to 1RM don’t have a high degree of transferability to life outside the gym. Train consistently and hard to improve strength while developing other attributes concurrently.
Placing too much emphasis on strength. Strength is critical. But when you examine the fitness demands of nearly every military job in a combat arms MOS, there is a serious endurance demand. I shake my head when I read prescriptions for military that treat conditioning work as “throw in a couple burpees once a week after training the powerlifts and call it good.” Don’t think I am undervaluing strength. Especially coming from an infantry background, I have seen first-hand the durability benefits and plain utility of raw strength. Simply put, the strong guys are more effective team members. They are more physically useful. They can carry themselves (and others and their gear…). But strength fades hours into an event or a training mission. You need to have a gas tank with reserves. Bonking is not an option. You always need to have something left in the tank no matter what because you don’t know what’s going to happen next or how long it will last.
Garbage reps. I avoid these like the plague. If you’re not familiar with the term, this is something I learned directly from Rob. Garbage reps are reps that aren’t at an appropriate intensity to force an adaptation and thus only contribute unnecessary wear and tear to the joints. Without naming names, this is a major issue I have with typical workouts prescribed for military and other demanding professions. There are more effective and less destructive ways to train legs than AMRAPs with lightly loaded barbell squats, especially if you are “a hard man with high mileage” (credit Pavel Tsatsouline for this term that I find very descriptive of many of the people I work with). In general (there are exceptions to every rule but this is a good guideline) train heavy/low rep or unloaded/load specific to your job (body armor or ruck as an example) at a higher volume, but stay away from the in-between territory as a frequent focus.
Sandbag getups. These are fantastic. Do them. I saw a huge carryover in rucking performance incidentally as my SGU and squat/DL went up even as my conditioning stayed largely the same measured by more traditional metrics like run times. I was also able to get up and down off the ground with less effort under crushing pack weights when it mattered compared to people who hadn’t trained these. It might not seem important at first, but when you are carrying close to your bodyweight in pack weight, getting up and down off the ground saps your energy in a crazy way. That short break doesn’t help you much when you are wheezing for breath just from the process of getting back to your feet. Unpopular opinion – no matter the pack weight, you should be able to get up without assistance (and without using a rifle as a crutch – that’s not what it’s for…). It’s often as difficult to get up with someone else’s help because the angle is not ideal when someone is grabbing your hand to pull you up. You take another person out of the fight, it’s slower (who helped them get up?) and it’s actually easier to get injured as you balance your way out of a deep squat with a pack on when your hands slip.
Loaded conditioning is very different than un-loaded running. There was a point when I was very fit by many common PT test standards, but I was crushed by heavy rucks, shuttle sprints with a flak, and SGUs. I’d take where I am now over my old frame, which was lighter, slightly faster, but weaker. If your job involves movement under load, loaded conditioning (which can take many forms from ruck runs to sled drags to farmer’s carries, etc) should be a major component of your training. Get used to a pack or a sandbag constantly bearing down on you, making it difficult to breath. There is no rest.
Rucking might be high impact, but it’s a reality for infantry/mountain types and must be trained for. Once you’ve reached the level you need to be at, maintain it with the lowest possible volume to avoid unnecessary wear and tear. It does beat you up. There’s no way around it. The stronger and more durable you are beforehand, the better you will adapt to it. I used lower impact activities that still carried over well to rucking (mainly long-distance sled drags) to supplement the ruck runs when the volume got to be more than I could recover from in training for selection. Know your body. But the confidence that came from doing 15-mile ruck runs was invaluable at selection. My body could handle the volume. Rob – I have often hated you during the sessions but I thanked you after…
Training leading up to a specific event should narrow to sport specific means. High-volume lower body strength endurance work like SGUs, loaded step-ups, and ruck-running actually does a surprisingly good job of maintaining the majority of your max effort strength even when you aren’t training it. Trying to improve your squat several weeks out from a selection course just isn’t the best use of your time. It’s not that it isn’t important. It’s just not tested at selection.
The only thing that matters is transfer to life outside the gym. We aren’t competing in fitness. Your squat or row time doesn’t matter if it doesn’t improve your performance outside the gym.
Each cycle has an emphasis. Some are more subtle than others. This is how you can train multiple attributes concurrently while at least largely maintaining others.
Be efficient with your warmup. Some days you just need to grab a sandbag and “warm-up” with a 10 min SGU effort. There is no postponing the grind. Just start. We never have the luxury to warm up in real life. On the flip side, if you need to hit some problem areas before you train, don’t be lazy. There are days when squatting heavy or doing sprints without some deliberate prep work is just plain stupid. The military doesn’t do your body any favors. We are not pampered athletes with a sports massage and endless time to rest and recover. Some days I am so tight I can’t even get into the positions I need to hit without a warmup. This is different than lying on a foam roller watching the TV. Fix your issue and train.
“Simple” programming is the most complex. Complicated programming is for amateurs – it’s lazy and less effective.
Fitness tests for military. They should be efficient (consider time to complete and equipment required), repeatability (sleds on different surfaces, weather considerations, etc), mission direct (is what we’re measuring a good representation of the demands of the job?), simple (don’t need multiple tests for the same attribute), and scored in an intuitive fashion.
The model – determine objective, test, program backwards, re-test, re-evaluate, and repeat is applicable to life, not just fitness programming. After reading countless books, articles, and programs from an enormous variety of different fitness goals, sports, and events, I now use this model for achieving other goals in life. Define your objective. Determine the time available. Conduct an honest assessment of your current ability. Determine what you need to do to achieve your goal. Take a step back and cut the waste. Refine ruthlessly until you find your priorities. Set a realistic schedule. Be consistent. Re-test soon so you can course correct if your plan was off. Correct if necessary but stay the course. Re-test. Be honest with your assessment. Did your plan work? If yes, why? Use these principles for future planning. No? Now you learned what not to do. This might be more valuable in the long term, albeit hard to accept short term. Now the work has just begun. If you need to maintain the skill/ability/knowledge you have gained, make a plan for sustainment while you shift to other priorities. There are always other priorities that demand your attention. Never stray too far from the basics.
Conditioning doesn’t transfer well between modes. If you want to be good at something, you have to do it. Know when too much is too much. Especially with higher impact activities like ruck running and high volume running, there is a volume that reaches an unnecessary level for developing other attributes, not to mention long-term longevity. But if you define your goal as improving your ruck-run and you find yourself on the rower every session, ask yourself “am I avoiding the work?” It’s easy to get so caught up with transferability and theory that you forget to do the things you want to get better at. Ruck running sucks. Most things worth doing suck. For military athletes, running is important. Sprint repeats and shuttles are simple but effective. With no exception, I include some running in my programming at all times, even if it is very low volume. I’ve found it’s much easier to maintain even with very low volume than it is to stop running even for a cycle and then try to start again. I’ve had good success maintaining my running speed with very low volume when I had other higher-priority goals. But I don’t stop running completely. Hard to explain, but I feel very unathletic if I stop running completely (even if my conditioning in other areas is still good). Stick with the basics.
Most of the best pure strength plans are designed for pure strength athletes. They are effective for the intended population. Don’t fall prey to the temptation of imitating a professional athlete’s training when he has a narrowly focused goal (no less admirable but very different) and you have a broad one. A plan that assumes your cardio training consists of a 10-min morning walk will not play well with your intervals, long distance running, etc. Similarly, the best pure endurance plans are written for runners, triathletes, etc who again have a narrow scope and wish to optimize one characteristic at the expense of others. Can you learn from both? Absolutely, but don’t kid yourself. What are you training for? By very nature, if you choose to strive for all-round fitness, you have to sacrifice the ability to train absolutely optimally for any one trait. Does that mean you should just do a sloppy circuit with everything but the kitchen sink and call it concurrent training? Just as sloppy.
Short hard efforts don’t train recovery for long efforts. You might be able to get away with it occasionally, but to go hard for a long time, you have to go hard for a long time. If this weren’t the case, marathon runners would crush some lung busting repeats and call it a day instead of running long distances. Hard, short efforts and long, slow, easy efforts are both important. If you find you tend to only train one of these ways, you probably have some serious deficiencies to correct. Long efforts build mental fitness and durability. You can’t be smoked after one hard, long day. You need to be able to go again the next day.
The training mindset (training in focused cycles generally around the 6-8 week length) is incredibly accumulative. If you visit a commercial gym and see regular folks doing the same workout they did last year and the same workout they will do next year, it’s easy to understand why they don’t make progress. They are not training for anything. They are stagnant. They have no objective, so it is impossible to reach an objective. By not striving for progress, they arrive at their anti-goal. Now to avoid seeming overly critical, I am just happy to see normal people being active. Not everyone wants to do physically demanding things. Each to their own. But mimicking this training style is foolish if you do have goals. A year’s worth of 6-8 week cycles, with appropriate time for occasional de-loads, slight shifts of focus during periods of travel, and time in the field training for military personnel is a huge opportunity. When you see the progress that can be made in a single, focused cycle, you chafe at wasted time. Consistency is a powerful weapon. Short (6 week or less) cycles can produce big results.
The mountain doesn’t care. You’re not special. While it is important to adjust programs if there is an injury that needs to be worked around, there is no special summit for someone with a bum knee or a bad back. Be careful that rehab work/light days/mobility work/low impact cardio/etc/etc/etc don’t start to become an excuse for avoiding hard work. If you’re hurt (or just hurting), pick something you can train and train it. No one cares about your excuses.
Don’t be a slave to one specific modality or method for training. Don’t be self-righteous and think that other programming is dumb just because you don’t understand it. First of all, consistency and plain hard work can win even with poor programming against someone with a perfect plan but without consistency, drive, intensity, and focus. Second, sometimes you just don’t understand (yet) why something works. Rob has used 20 rep squat programs as an example here. They violate most “laws” of normal strength programs, but they work. Do you really care about the method or the results? The more I study, learn, and experiment, the more I see that there are countless ways to train. Some are better than others, but there are a lot of ways that work. They all share common attributes, and no one can do the work for you.
Don’t program hop. Pick a short-term focus or goal and stay the course. Also avoid trying to train everything at once. I’m often guilty of this even though I know better. Don’t be the guy who asks if it’s fine to combine an MTI strength focused plan with a marathon training plan while training BJJ 4x/week plus dropping your swim time and training to climb Everest (while preparing for your first MMA fight…). You get the idea. Easy to say, harder to do if you really like to train. The concept of training age comes into play here. You will not completely lose an attribute by shifting focus for a bit to something else. If you’ve been training for years, your body remembers its old abilities. It generally seems easier to re-gain something than to achieve it for the first time.