When it ain't broke, don't fix it

Let's start off with a little visualization practice:

-You just started a new training program. It is well designed and incorporates all of the movement patterns (horizontal push and vertical pull one day, vertical push and horizontal pull the other. Squat/split stance one day, hinge/single leg the other, for an example) split in to two separate workouts, with some purposeful corrective work tossed in between rest periods.

-You have a training journal, which you keep updated daily. You even go so far as to record your psychological and emotional state pre- and post-training session. You're training five days a week-three strength training and two more anaerobic conditioning focused days.

-Your diet is such that it supports strength and lean muscle gain while simultaneously maintaining your body weight, but not increasing it.

Everything is going great, and then four weeks change it up for a new batch of exercises and a new set/rep scheme, because that's what you're supposed to do, right? Four weeks later, you switch it up again, and then again, and again. "I know!", you think to yourself. "I'll try out the same program I started a few months ago. I bet I've gained a ton of strength since then, since I've been strength training all this time!! Yeah!". To your dismay and confusion, you aren't any stronger in your lifts. What the heck gives?

Unfortunately, you have just become a perfect example of someone who doesn't have a clue what the SAID principle is, or why it's important. In the most simple of terms, the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) means that if you do the same crap all of the time, you're going to get really good at doing that crap. Bill Gates unknowingly used the SAID principle when he began computer programming back in middle school. Young William wanted to get better at programming. What did he do? He PROGRAMMED! He didn't play baseball one day, watch a few movies the next, play board games the following day, and then "crosstrain" by programming for a few hours another day during the week. No! He programmed every day he possibly could, which was quite often, actually. By the time he was of college age, he had amassed over 10,000 hours of time honing that skill (If you haven't read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, he goes in to great detail of the set of circumstances that allowed him to do so. It's pretty interesting).

What the heck does Bill Gates have to do with the SAID principle as it relates to fitness, then? Well, he practiced something over and over again until he had mastered it. Likewise, in strength training, if you treat it just as an activity--something recreational to do like a pick up game of softball or playing a board game--it will never amount to much in terms of results. But if you have a program of a specific few exercises that you do on a regular basis, well, chances are you are going to make a significant chunk of progress in improving your strength in those movements over time. For example, if Jennifer wanted to improve her deadlifts, she had damn well better be deadlifting! Remember, Jennifer, you are improving movements, not just strengthening muscles! Jennifer doesn't need back hyper-extensions, the reverse-hyper, and prone hamstring curls. She just needs to deadlift, an exercise that will improve her hip hinging ability while simultaneously strengthening all of the muscles the above exercises would have, while also strengthening her joints and connective tissue. Only then will Jennifer see the kind of progress she wants to see, and it comes from consistency, and frequency of practice.

In their book Easy Strength, Pavel and Dan John wrote about the importance of the concept of "more is less". By focusing on a fewer number of exercises and lower number of reps in total (10 total, in some combination of reps over 2-3 sets), avoiding muscular failure always, and gradually pushing up your "sorta max", it's possible to maximize one's strength gains while keeping the body feeling fresh. The crazy thing is how simple this makes programming become, and how little needs to be changed in a program to keep the body moving forward instead of plateauing.

I read Easy Strength in July of 2013, so not long ago. Yet the concept of becoming a "master of few versus mediocre at many" resonated so strongly with me that I had to try it until it didn't work anymore. Well, here I am eight months later, still moving along steadily, with no signs of plateauing. Before I talk results, I should mention that for about two years I have been dealing with a chronic cervical/thoracic/shoulder issue that came about as a result of compensation from past injuries in my college track days. At its worst, I was having headaches 24 hours a day. In my current state of rehab, I'm able to do most things, but have to be extremely careful about tweaking any variable in my training program. In a way, this limitation has forced me to program better out of necessity; I find what works, and throw out what doesn't. Pretty scientific, I know. But if I insert something new, and my pain symptoms increase, I know exactly what I need to remove, one variable at a time.

Here I am, six months later, five pounds lighter (160lbs), and much stronger. In eight months, I've been able to gradually insert a few new exercises in to my program, and stuck with the ones that were already working well. See below for the differences between then and now:

Day "A"

Front Squat: 130x5; 190x5 (difference of 60lbs)

Chin Up: BWx8; BW+35lb x5 (difference of 35lbs)

ASLR/SM corrective during rest


Deadlift: 160x5; 240x5 (difference of 80lbs)

Single Arm Kettlebell Clean and Press: N/A (pain); 40x5ea 

ASLR/SM corrective during rest


Day "B"

Back Squat: 160x5; 235x5 (difference of 75lbs)

Chin Up: BWx8; BW+35lb x5 

ASLR/SM corrective during rest


Contralateral Single Leg Deadlift: 35x5; 80x5 (difference of 45lbs)

Bench Press: N/A (pain, started in October @115); 140x5 (My horizontal pressing took a huge hit. Used to be able to bench 180x5 before this all started)

ASL/SM corrective during rest

That was my program. Extrapolate the gains from six months and apply them to 1 year, and I can confidently project being at 240-250 for front squat, 60-70 for chin ups, 300-310 for deadlifts and back squats, and hopefully around 185-190 for bench press, all barring any unforeseen setbacks. The only "tweaks" I made were to my reps, and corrective homework stuff from physical therapy. Following the Easy Strength routine has converted me in to a true believer of the SAID principle. Regarding reps, I found that a combination of 5,3,2, 3x3, and 3x5 worked great. Every few training sessions I would toss in a 3x5 or 3x3 day to mix it up and keep my body from getting too used to it, but that is honestly all I've needed to do to keep moving forward. The extra benefit of making such small changes is I've grown to know well how much load I'm actually capable of moving for a given number of reps, while keeping quality movement and not going in to failure. Though I am far from being considered "strong" by the community at large, this is the strongest I have ever personally been. Even when I was running personal best 200 (22.67a) and 400 (50.78a) meter dash times in college, I wasn't this strong and explosive. 

The greater takeaway from all of this, though, is that the whole trend of "keeping your body guessing" by constantly mixing up exercises and programs is a crock of @#%! and isn't the answer for long term, sustainable, safe strength gains. If I wanted to stay the way I am, great! I'll keep doing my ball-busting "met-cons". But I wouldn't be surprised if I weren't any stronger a month later. If I wanted to blow off steam and punish my body in a tough 3 hour "workout", I'll have fun recovering for the next week. But if if were serious about seeing results on paper, about how my body performs in life outside the gym, and eventually how it looks in the mirror, I would do well to steer clear of training myself, and my own clients that way.

Author Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated, "As to the methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble." Take from that what you will, but the best principle I have learned these last six months is "when it ain't broke, don't attempt to fix it". Those who are continually getting stronger don't get bored with their program. Those who are continually getting stronger are eager to see what their body can do the next day, even if it's doing the same thing as last time. Those who are continually getting stronger will trust in the process, remain patient, true to their technique, and will ride the metaphorical strength wave as far as it will take them.

I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to those who have inspired me, mentored me, taught me, and encouraged me along the way: my wife, my parents, my teachers and professors, my physical therapist colleagues and friends, and the members of the SFG and RKC community who push me out of my comfort zone towards greater heights on a daily basis. All of you have been invaluable in helping me to believe that I could become stronger, heal up, and one day be pain free. My journey as a coach and athlete is far from over--it's just beginning.