Popular Training Systems: Are They Really “Systems?”

by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D.

Oh, my aching brain!

Training systems galore! Training techniques beaucoup! All of the competing systems and techniques available these days are enough to fry anyone’s brain! It’s called “hyperchoice” and the result is that more and more iron worshippers are opting for the one that’s presented with the greatest sizzle instead of carefully scrutinizing each relative to personal needs and objectives.

If you have the time to peruse all of them, and adequate knowledge of training science to make an informed choice, uncertainty as to which is best will still paralyze you! And if you don’t, there’s no way you’ll be able to make an informed choice anyway! Some, they say, work best for strength, others size. Some for cuts, some for speed. Some for sports, some for fitness, some for hard gainers, some for beginners. Oh, woe is me! It’s mind-boggling! So, let me tell you right up front what my objective is in this article. It’s to help you cut through all the hype, bombast and nonsense. How to cut to the chase. How to instantly discern what’s going to be best for YOU by using a short checklist of relevant questions!

My guide in all this? Science. After all, when all’s said and done, there’s really only one science. I hasten to add that those who would interpret this “one” science had better be prepared to defend their interpretation. All too frequently, science is misinterpreted by those not well-versed in it. And, all too frequently, readers of their tripe aren’t well-versed in the science either. Therein lay the problem.

Everyone of Irondom — including some “wannabees” and “neverwases” who are NOT of Iron — who has been given a journalistic forum, it seems, feels a need to get into the theoretical mode these days. My belief is that most do so out of some need for recognition beyond their station, or perhaps from mere unbridled ego. That’s good in a way. It augers well for maintained interest in the iron game. In general (recognizing that many of the systems and techniques have varying measures of merit), their efforts are “cute,” but “cute” doesn’t cut it in the world of a peak performing athlete!

Let’s take a look at what’s out there (i.e., in the bodybuilding magazines, in training books, on the world wide web and elsewhere) to choose from.

There’s:

  • Positions of Flexion (POF),
  • High Intensity Training (HIT),
  • Heavy Duty (HD),
  • Body Contract (BC),
  • Optimum Training Systems (OTS),
  • Big Beyond Belief (BBB)
  • Bigger, Faster, Stronger (BFS)
  • Serious Growth
  • Bulgarian Power Burst Training
  • Power Factor Training
  • Hardgainers System
  • Supersquats Training
  • Superslow Training
  • the good ol’ one-set-to-failure training system (FAIL), and
  • Periodization.

Let us not forget the ever-growing series of training systems and techniques incorporated in the hierarchically arranged “ladder of intensity” system that Joe Weider has preached in all of his magazines since the forties! Add to that the myriad sport-specific systems out there and you have nothing short of physical — if not mental and emotional — gridlock.

If I were a beginner at lifting, I’d quit before I started! There seems to be a complete absence of consensus as to how to go about doing something as simple as trying to grow bigger, faster or stronger by moving around a bunch of pig iron!

Being an ironhead through-and-through, I endeavored to discern the elemental workings of each system and training technique ballyhooed over the past few months (years in some cases) in this and other muscle mags. I used the old Benjamin Franklin trick of making a two-sided checklist to compare the pros and cons of each.

And what to my wondering eyes did appear? Aside from a whole slew of (often strange) items in many of the “cons” columns, there was absolutely NOTHING new, that’s what! Nothing new with any merit, that is. My exhaustive survey produced (I plead for your pardon, Yogi Berra, if I’m misquoting you) “dejavu all over again!”

THE SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES BEHIND WEIGHT TRAINING

There are some rather well documented training principles — laws, really -that are of overriding importance in whatever system one follows. There are at least seven overlapping principles upon which all systems must rely if maximum effectiveness in training outcomes are to be expected. Let me state right from the get-go that most (not all) training systems currently popular in the muscle mags adhere, at least in part, to the seven grand daddy laws. What determines whether a training system is more or less effective than another lies both in HOW these laws are implemented — how they are used to the best advantage of the trainee — as well as whether they are even considered at all. How each interprets SCIENCE.

The Principle Of Individual Differences:

This principle is an acknowledgement that we all have different genetic blueprints. David Q. Thomas, Ph.D., in a recent internet communication with me, said, “We all will have similar responses and adaptations to the stimulus of exercise, but the rate and magnitude of these changes will be limited by our differing genetics. Some are fast responders and others are slow responders. Some have the capacity to reach elite status and some do not. If we have everyone perform the same exercise program, they will all not receive the same benefits at the same rate or to the same extent. This is an important principle to teach to people wishing to start an exercise program or to youngsters just coming into sports. There are two reasons: 1) so they can set realistic goals, and 2) so they don’t get frustrated when they don’t see miraculous changes in their bodies or performance.”

The Overcompensation Principle:

Callus builds up on your hands as an adaptive response to friction, muscle fibers grow in size and strength in response to training, and lacerated tissue develops “scar” tissue. All involve Mother Nature’s law of overcompensation as a stress response. Putting it another way, it’s nothing more than a survival mechanism built into the genetic code of (at least) this species.

The Overload Principle:

Related to the overcompensation principle is the principle that In order to gain in strength, muscle size or endurance from any training, you must exercise against a resistance greater than that “normally” encountered.. If you use the same amount of resistance for the same number of repetitions every workout, there will be no continued improvement beyond the point to which your body has already adapted.

There is a built-in problem with this principle, actually. That is, your body is wonderfully adaptable to stresses imposed during training. And, as you get stronger and stronger, the stress levels required to force added adaptation rise to such a height that your recuperative powers simply can’t keep up. The solution? It’s very, very simple. At this point you MUST go to a split system of training. Then, perhaps later, a double or even triple split. The only other solution will be for your training progress to plateau (or worse, you’ll enter a state of overtraining), as you are not affording your body ample time for recovery — and further adaptation — to occur.

The SAID Principle:

Your muscles and their respective sub cellular components will adapt in highly specific ways to the demands (adaptive stress) you impose upon them in your training. This applies as well to various bodily systems and tissues other than your muscles. This is the “SAID” Principle, an acronym for “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. If your training objectives include becoming more explosive, then you have to train explosively. If you desire greater limit strength (primarily from an increase in the cross section of myofibrils), you must use heavier weights than if you were training for (say) local muscular endurance (capillarization and mitochondrial adaptations). If your objectives include deriving cardiovascular benefits, then you must tax the heart muscle as well as the oxygen-using abilities of the working muscles.

In fact, the SAID principle is so uncompromising in its highly researched tenet of specificity that problems frequently arise if an athlete is required to train for more than one training objective at a time. The specific training required for one will frequently detract from the extent to which you can expect to gain in the other. For example, training for aerobic strength endurance (aerobic power) will severely limit the level of limit strength you can attain. Similarly, stressing one’s ATP/CP energy system calls for different training methods than does training one’s glycolytic (lactic acid) or aerobic (oxidative) energy systems.

To throw a monkey wrench into this basic tenet, your specific adaptive responses to exercise can change dramatically over time. This is particularly true as you age. But it’s also true if you’ve successfully improved your body’s recovery abilities. Clearly, this can be accomplished through the use of (illegal and often dangerous) drugs or through the use of certain nutritional supplements. Simply, with improved recovery ability, your body has become a different body! So the adaptation mechanisms have changed .

The Use/Disuse Principle:

The principle of use/disuse applies to both training and detraining (cessation of training). Putting it another way, “use it or lose it.” If you stress your body and its systems enough, it will adapt to meet the stress. For example, in a bodybuilding program, hypertrophy, or increase in size, occurs in the trained muscle. If you stop stressing it (disuse, or detraining), it will adapt to meet the lowered stress. In other words, when you stop your bodybuilding training program, atrophy (decrease in size) occurs in the previously trained muscle.

Unfortunately, it takes much less time to become detrained than it does to become trained. The “detraining” effect is known as the “Law of Reversibility.” Fortunately, some training-related changes in your neuromuscular system remain over long periods (“muscle memory”) which allows you to regain your strength or size more quickly than it took to gain it in the first place. The presence of muscle memory is at this point an hypothesis based upon voluminous anecdotal evidence. As far as I know, while its presence is generally acknowledged, how it occurs has yet to be explained.

The Specificity Principle:

This principle relates to factors involved in both neuromuscular adaptation as well as a system or technique’s “functionality.” Neuromuscular adaptation will occur over time as an adaptation to repetitively “grooving” on a specific movement pattern. For example, you’ll get stronger in squats by doing squats as opposed to leg presses, and you’ll get greater endurance for the marathon by running long distances than you will by (say) cycling long distances.

Functionality refers to whether your system or training technique is specific to your ultimate training objective(s), or whether it has more “general” applicability. For example, a shot putter may begin a training cycle with squats for limit strength, but later (as competition draws near), switch to twisting squats because the adaptation in his muscles and other tissues is more applicable to his sport movement.

It must be made clear at this juncture that much misunderstanding persists in weight training circles regarding the application of the specificity principle. Performing twisting squats (in the example cited) does not appear to result in greater motor learning (skill). Twisting squats will instead yield adaptation in the muscles used through the sequential act of twisting better than will straight up-and-down squats. Motor learning will occur by practicing shot putting under the watchful eye of a good coach, NOT by doing twisting squats! And (to be sure that you fully grasp this important distinction), doing a throwing motion with a weighted wall pulley will NOT give you a better fastball pitch any more than running with heavy ankle weights will give you a faster stride. Indeed, your skill level in pitching or running would dwindle somewhat by employing these respective lifting techniques! Yet, there’s a time and place for such training, but it’s most certainly well before the end of one’s pre-competition cycle when limit strength takes a back seat to skill and speed.

The GAS Principle:

GAS is the acronym for General Adaptation Syndrome. The GAS is comprised of three stages according to its originator, Dr. Hans Seyle: 1) the “alarm stage” caused by the application of intense training stress (The Overload Principle), 2) the “resistance stage” when our muscles adapt in order to resist the stressful weights more efficiently (the Overcompensation, SAID and Use/Disuse Principles), and 3) the “exhaustion stage” where, if we persist in applying stress we’ll exhaust our “reserves” and then be forced to stop training from the sheer collapse of the bodily systems involved, or even when death occurs as a result of severe overstress.

In gym parlance, the GAS law states that there must be a period of low intensity training or complete rest following periods of high intensity training. The reason for this is that the stress you’ve applied is a traumatic episode of sorts, forcing your “injured” muscles to heal and then adapt. The recovery and overcompensation time must be taken so that further stress doesn’t continue the downward spiral caused by repetitive bouts of trauma.

Confusion frequently arises in applying this principle. Some tissues and cellular components may have been stressed very little or not at all, and are therefore in need of little or no rest. In fact, if you do not work these tissues, owing to the Law of Reversibility, some atrophy will occur. Here’s an example. When heavy negative training is performed, much rest is needed because this form of training is highly traumatic to your muscles. On the other hand, if the same exercise were done with the same resistance and speed but the eccentric stress is removed, the rest period needed would be far less. The most frequent misuse of this principle is seen among those who insist on training each body part once weekly (for example) just because “it works.” This is generally not advised, as it is far more often than not too much rest. Inevitably, either precious time is wasted or detraining results in some systems’ tissues or cellular elements.

Many applied sports scientists believe that this is the “Master” principle of all principles. On the other hand, the GAS concept has been seriously questioned of late, in particular by erudite scientists such as Dr Zatsiorski of Russia, Dr. Mel C. Siff from The University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Dr Yuri Verkhoshansky of Russia’s prestigeous Moscow Institute of Sport (formerly the Lenin Institute of Sport). Siff and Verkoshansky hold a principle called “The fitness-fatigue model” as far more definitive. In their view, GAS needs to be carefully reappraised.

Are There Other Principles?

Siff and Verkoshansky discussed many of the important principles of strength training in their excellent book, “Supertraining: Special Strength Training for Sporting Excellence” (available through Dr. Mike Yessis’ company, Sports Training, Inc., Escondido, California). In addition to the ones listed above, they talked about another principle, “The Principle of Central Nervous Control,” which posits that all patterned activity and computerized instructions to the nervous and endocrine systems comes from the highest command and integrating center in humans. “Far too many fitness professionals focus on training the muscles as if they are an independent entity,” said Siff in a recent communication I had with him on the internet.

Patrick Neary, Ph.D., of Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, B.C. Canada would include what he refers to as the “Taper Principle.” Says he:
“This principle is one in which the physiological adaptations of training are maintained with a reduction in the training volume (intensity and duration) and frequency. This reduction occurs prior to competition. The overall reduction allows the body adequate rest to perform maximally. There appears to be a fine balance between the amount of rest and the amount of exercise performed. If you rest to much, you lose the physiological adaptations of training; if you exercise to much, you “overtrain”.

“Swimmers typically have been the biggest proponents of tapering. However, the literature has a number of published studies that include runners (Houmard et al 1990, 1992,1994; Shepley et al 1992; Johns et al 1992), cyclists (Neary et al 1992,1993). This list is not complete by any means but those that come to mind immediately. David Costill (Ball State) has also done a lot of work on taper.”

He concluded by stressing, “It is NOT detraining, but a separate principle of training.” To me, it doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the GAS Principle, except that it’s restricted to the short time span immediately before sports competition.

Charles I. Staley, B.Sc., MSS, Program Director for The International Sports Sciences Association, says, “I would also add the principle of variability to this list. Even if the training load is specific to the desired outcome, and progresses over time, the organism eventually accommodates to the stress. Various studies, as well as “in the trenches” observations show that varying various aspects of the training load (character, volume, intensity, density, etc) tend to allow the athlete to make more progress before accommodation [adaptation] sets in.”

However, it seems to me that this is part of the precepts outlined in the Overload Principle, wherein it’s said that one must constantly add greater stress than theretofore accommodated. Certainly, this could mean changing the nature of the stress, and not just the amount.

There are many differing points of view when it comes to training principles. Nelio Alfano Moura, Brazil’s track & field coach, informed me of his belief that in most reference sources there are listed only three training principles: Overload, Specificity and Reversibility. “Everything else,” says he, “seems to be concepts that can be subordinated to them, and no matter how important these concepts are (and they are really very important), we should not call them ‘principles.'”

And, finally, I have always preached that the “Principle of Accommodation” is important to athletes in particular. As your train hard, and your body adapts by getting bigger, faster or stronger, you essentially become a “different” person — your abilities, timing and so forth all change. So, in order to maintain skills, timing, flexibility and other sports attributes, it is wise to practice those skills such that you are “adjusting” your skills to “fit” your new body.

My own belief is that the seven principles listed above (plus the Accommodation Principle) are the ones I’ve adhered to all my life because they are both well supported in the research literature, and they have worked well for me in the “trench.” Despite this, I am not close-minded about rejecting any of them or embracing others for that matter. But ONLY if sufficient scientific evidence is presented to warrant the change.

Concluding Comments:

A big problem persists among pundits for each of the listed systems with how these training principles are employed — how the “Grand Daddy Seven” are interpreted — or whether they should be employed at all. When are laws “Holy?” When is each affected by other rules? More importantly, when does a training system which follows one rule, but is in violation of another (which sometimes seems to be the case in many of the above-listed popular systems) become so important that it’s “OK” to be in violation of another?

To answer, let me give an example straight out of a HIT Man’s notebook. “Why bother squatting [for greater performance capabilities in] the shot-put?” they ask. “Muscles cannot tell the difference between sources of [overload] stimulus.” The HIT Man further states, “…explosive lifting (power cleans) won’t help a lineman fire off the line quicker.”

He obviously completely ignored the tenets of the SAID principle. The answer then, is that these seven laws ARE NOT holy ALL of the time in EVERY training situation! They should, however, be firmly in place when you view your entire training cycle.

Some pretty good training guidelines have been developed over the years. Of course, these guidelines derive their scientific legitimacy from the seven grand daddys. All you must do is compare the basic tenets underpinning some of the alleged “systems” and lifting techniques mentioned above in order to determine whether the seven grand daddy laws are being adhered to. They aren’t in every instance, which makes them (on a scale of good, better, best) only (ho-hum) “good.”

Then you’ll KNOW! Wouldn’t it be nice for a change from having someone try to “shoehorn” your size twelve needs into a size 6 container?

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