“We trained hard – but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing. And what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while pursuing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.” Gaius Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, 1st Century AD
There are many things I do daily in the course of my job. One of the things I’m best at, courtesy of having some of the best mentors in the field of exercise science anywhere in the world, is writing training plans. I’m not talking about workouts. Workouts are single shot deals that get you hot and sweaty and make you feel like you’ve accomplished something, while simultaneously doing almost nothing for you long term. I’m talking about the kind of thing that takes you from a skinny, weedy kid and turns you into a powerful juggernaut that could run do a suspect and restrain them or ruck all day if needed with a heavy load and still be effective to fight later.
This is one of the most misunderstood areas of training for most people. They seek to constantly change things up, to vary. Unfortunately for most people what they fail to realize is that this is actually slowing down their progress. Yes, I know bodybuilders have been telling you for years that you need to “confuse the muscles” and split the body into parts. But they also think ingesting truckloads of steroids and standing onstage in your underwear with a bunch of other guys in their underwear is okay, too.
So let’s try to map out some sensible ways to program to actually prosper from your training rather than just get sweaty. Because any idiot can you make sweaty. It takes intelligence to make you improve. And isn’t that the whole point of training? To improve and to build the body?
Continuity of the training process is vital to long-term success. And continuity implies daily, or near daily training. The first thing to realize is that the body can be trained wholly every day. As Dan Gable said “If it’s important, do it every day; if it isn’t, don’t do it at all.”
However, trying to train daily means that load/effort needs to be cycled up and down. You can vary the load, the proximity to failure, the volume, or the density. It is simply a myth that you can go all out every time you train. People who propagate it have never competed at elite level in strength or endurance events, nor trained for combat. I can remember a SEAL I once met telling me how he’d done the famed Secret Service Snatch Test (10 minutes with a 24kg kettlebell) and then been called out on an eight hour long foot patrol in the steep hills of Afghanistan. He was so depleted from his workout that he was a liability to his team. Take note – top athletes hit their max only once or twice per year – when it counts. And you should consider the same. There is no need to test your limits daily.
So enters periodization. So few people truly understand this word, yet everyone knows it can give a massive performance boost if used correctly. Periodization is all about planning to bring about a peak performance on a given day. It is about cutting the year up into chunks to focus on individual qualities of performance. But what if your life defies planning? What if you’re a soldier or a single parent and your daily needs either wildly vary or are relatively stable?
The answer is tactical periodization. Tactical periodization takes advantage of certain laws of adaptation that Russian coaches keep in mind when they plan their athletes’ training. The important element is that adaptation is cyclical in nature. Every complex system operates the same way – lower valleys tend to be followed by higher peaks and vice versa. Even the stock market operates this way, as discovered by Ralph Elliot over a century ago.
In order to be controlled, nature must be obeyed. Tough guy periodization, as opposed to tactical periodization can be categorised like this:
- If you seek your limits, you’ll always find them.
- The next step off a peak is always down.
- One should step down and not fall off.
The general format for tough guy periodization is: heavy, heavier, even heavier, injury, light, light, heavy… Meanwhile the smart person following tactical periodization goes from strength to strength.
In Russian there is no word for “periodization” they refer to it as “waviness of load” and it is this concept that is most useful to a tactical athlete, whether they be combat or sport oriented. It’s a classic wave loading method that has been around for decades and works exceptionally well to add high levels of strength in any demographic – even in clients aged into their seventies.
A side benefit of this type of training is that it almost virtually guarantees occasional overtraining. This small amount of over training is often referred to as over reaching. While many may think this is a bad idea, the fact is that the body adapts to stress such as this and learns to recover and adapt faster. Not only that, but remember what I said about peaks and troughs? A dip in ability is swiftly followed by a new peak.
Consider the candidate during Special Forces selection. If he were to wait until full recovery before every PT session he would still be in bed while his teammates were out busting their humps. And not only that, but by the end of the course, despite sleep and food deprivation, these same candidates are not only fitter than previously, but they have often gained muscle, too.
This deliberate decision to train in a state of incomplete recovery at least some of the time is necessary for any combat training personnel. But how do you plan this all out and not wind up tearing yourself to pieces? Let’s put this in martial terms:
Let’s say you’re an avid BJJ competitor and train five days per week on the mat. But you have to fit in some strength training too, and maybe some fitness work as well before tournaments. It would be easy to crush yourself in two weeks with a timetable like that so some thought needs to be given to how to best train.
An easy session on Wednesday wouldn’t destroy you for Thursdays class, provided you kept the tempo easy and went at roughly 70%. However, if you did go all out Wednesday you would be sore and stiff for Thursday. Now, this option can be useful, as you could then elect to go all out again on Thursday. While you would be likely to perform sub-optimally on Thursday you could then have an easy day Friday and the body would likely recover. This back-to-back hard session concept can be used once a month or so to see how recovery improves, as well as performance under fatigue. But what about when you add in strength training too?
Let’s look at combinations of volume (sets x reps) and intensity (load lifted, which partners you may have trained with that night, or how many rounds of free training you did):
- Medium/Medium – Pavel’s “to a comfortable stop” or as Joe Lauzon’s trainer, Steve Baccari, says, “putting money in the bank for fight nights.” These workouts are the bread and butter of training.
- High/ High – can lead to great gains if followed by a taper, however be cautious and do not stay on High/High for long.
- Low/High – sets PRs in strength.
- High/Low – sets foundations for stable gains and is perfect training for beginners.
Intelligent application of these concepts will bring far more improvement from your training than random changing of exercises. In fact, the exercise itself is the very last thing the body adapts to.
The reality is that there aren’t that many exercises. When you strip it down you’ll see you need some kind of push, probably two pulls, squats, and once a week deadlifts. For most people on this kind of schedule they’ll find two or three strength sessions per week to be all they need. Here’s how an entire week might look:
AM – strength – bench press 3 x 5, front squats 3 x 3, dumbbell rows 3 x 6-8, pull ups 4 x 3. Intensity = moderate.
PM – BJJ – 90 minutes including 30 minutes of live sparring at the end. Intensity = moderate.
AM – rest.
PM – BJJ – 60 minutes. Drill only. Intensity = light.
AM – strength – overhead press 3 x 5, front squats 5 x 5, deadlift 3 x 3, pull ups 4 x max reps unweighted. Intensity = high.
PM – BJJ – 90 minutes including 30 minutes of live sparring at end from standing. Intensity = high.
AM – rest.
PM – walk for 30 minutes, stretch for 30 minutes. Intensity = light. Recovery day.
AM – strength – bench press 5 x 5, front squat 3 x 3, dumbbell rows 5 x 10, pull ups 3 x 5. Intensity = moderate.
PM – BJJ – 2 hours open mat. Intensity = high.
PM – BJJ – 2 hours class/ open mat. Intensity = high.
Rest and recovery.
The natural flow from a high intensity day to a lower intensity day allows the body to recover naturally within the week. The distinction between what makes a day light or hard comes down to how many total reps you choose to do. 3 sets of 3 are far easier to recover from than 5 sets of 5. In order of difficulty common rep schemes go from least intense to most like this:
- 3 sets of 3
- 4-5 sets of 3
- 3 sets of 5
- 4-5 sets of 5
A genuine 5 x 5 is a very tough workout and you may not want to stress the body out like that in more than one lift per session if you have plans to do something else later on. When it comes to deadlifts you’ll find that 3 x 3 allows you to make constant small progress and won’t beat your body up too much. You’re far better off choosing to do a little less in the gym so that you’re fresh enough to fight, ruck, run, or fight off the zombie hordes later. In simplest terms a hard day is always followed by a light day. If you choose to add more training the preference is to add more easy sessions, not more harder ones.
“Tactical Periodization is short term training planning characterized by sharp and near random variation of intensity and volume and showing a bias towards high density. Its purpose is greater fitness, reduction of injuries and simplification of the training process.” – RKC Manual, Pavel Tsatsouline
It must be stressed that tactical periodization does not apply to beginners. They will make better gains on low volume/low intensity, nearly daily practice for a long time.