Programs vs. Systems

Programs vs. Systems

When considering strengthtraining and program design one of the most important distinctions to make is differentiating between a training program and a training system. And therefore a programs-based approach and systems-based approach.

Program Design is often explained and taught by individual programs. Which is just an isolated view on one training method. You take an exercise from this exercise group and combined it with these specific training parameters to end up with a program based on this method.

An example is the 6-12-25 system which was original popularized by Dr. Fred Hatfield, the first man to ever squat 1000lbs. The described it as a holistic approach to training as one will train muscle group in three distinctively different repetition ranges. The 6-12-25 program for an Upper Body workout can look like this:

A1 Pullup, close, neutral, 4 sets of 4 to 6 repetitions, 4010 Tempo, 10s rest
A2 Latpulldown, supinated, shoulderwidthgrip, 4 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions, 3010 Tempo, 10s rest
A3 Seated Rope row to neck, pronated grip, 4 sets of 20 to 25 repetitions, 2010 Tempo, 180s rest
B1 Dips, 4 sets of 4 to 6 repetitions, 4010 Tempo, 10s rest
B2 DB Flat Benchpress, pronating grip, 4 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions, 3010 Tempo, 10s rest
B3 DB 30° Benchpress, neutral grip, 4 sets of 20 to 25 repetitions, 2010 Tempo, 180s rest

Using such a program or teaching program design by just handing out a program like that will lead to very mixed results. And by mixed results I don’t mean that you cardiovascular system might not be challenged while doing the above program or that you won’t be sore after doing a this 6-12-25 program, because both will definitely be the case. By mixed results I mean that most will not progress from training to training with any given program, more precisely progress towards their goals, which is the essence of successful program design.

This lack of results with this programs-based approach is primarily caused by a lack of orientation of where, when and with who to use the program. And also by creating variations of a program that are far inferior of the program originally handed out. Classic examples of such useless variations are 10 sets of 10 reps German Volume Training programs using Front Squats or Split Squats which will lead to basically to zero relevant results. On front squats the upper back will be the limiting factor to use and progress appropriate loads and with the split squat the cardiovascular system will diminish almost all neuromuscular adaptions. Still I see these two options all the time. Such inferior programs are based on a program-based approach. Which only works if that one program one uses is specific to the current status and goals.

Having directions that lead you from Stuttgart to Rome is great. Yet, only when you are currently in Stuttgart and your current goal is to get to Rome. If one of these variables are not in place, those directions are useless as they will not lead to the desired results.

What one needs is a map, which is systems-based approach.

The two most important aspects of a systems-based approach a clear consequential progression and completeness.

For the success of one program and multiple programs build onto each other its absolutely necessary these programs are designed to take someone from the current status to the desired goal. And these has to be done in a step-by-step approach that builds on top of the last step, as the height of each step is determined by the stability of the step before. Or a simple analogy, if one has a hard time learning math in elementary school the odds of becoming a Phd in mathematics are very low. In the context of training that will for example mean to if your scapula retractors are to weak to maintain the proper position of the scapula and therefore upper back during front squats, one will never excel at front squats, so training the scapula retractors to a sufficient level of strength as an important step preceding a superior performance in front squats.

Next to such a consequential progression a system needs to be complete and complex enough to be able to adapt and overcome the various hurdles, setbacks and problems that will appear along the way of the career of everyone who trains in any form of training, on the road, field, track, gym and so on.

Understanding a system is primarily based on the aspect of problems and the aspect of goals. With the current status of someone who trains being a given, the problems are what lies between the current status and future goals. The complexity  of the problems is the main reason why there is no such thing as a program design software that actually works. Every problem is another variable in the equation. Some problems will constantly pop up, like weak scapula retractors, weak lumbar erectors and a weak vastus medialis. Some problems are more exotic, like adhesions in the popliteus, fascial constriction of a muscle or a nerve entrapment. The goal of any system is to systemize certain methods that will address these problems. The base of this systemization is a clear definition of the purpose and prerequisites of each method.

A prerequisite is for example that someone needs to able to back squat 1,5 times bodyweight before starting any plyometric training to improve reactive strength, as a lower level of maximal strength will diminish the improvement of reactive strength and increase the injury risk. So, if someone can’t properly walk, don’t teach them how to run. And not meeting prerequisite is one of the most common reasons for a program to fail.

Then the aspect of the purpose of a method is its training effect. The training effect is what a certain method will force the body to adapt to. Based on the above example of the 6-12-25 method it is local lactic acid capacity, or the ability to of one muscle to exert and maintain high force primarily in the anaerobic lactic energy system. As the 6-12-25 program that will pair three different exercise for the same muscle group with decreasing complexity at each of the three specific repetition range of 4-6 repetitions, 8-12 repetitions and 20-25 repetitions, hence the name 6-12-25. These roughly 43 repetitions in a row with three points of circa-maximal fatigue will produce high levels of lactic acid in that specific muscle group. And therefore improve the muscles ability to exert and maintain high force primarily in the anaerobic lactic energy system. Which makes 6-12-25 an excellent training system if exactly this is your goal. Of course, at any point this system will make one tired, hurt and sore. To achieve that, one can also just do 400m sprints with bare feet down a hill.

To sum it up, a systems-based approach uses a clear consequential progression and completeness to determine what method to use based on status and purpose at the current point to ensure progress towards the end goal.

A systems-based approach is basically picking and choosing whats the most appropriate methods and training program to use at one point. When I teach the Module 3 of the YPSI Trainer License on the topics of program design and periodization part of my introduction of the course is always the distinction between a cooking course and a cooking school. The cooking course is learning how to cook a set menu. Its like taking a training program and doing that training program. And the other hand in a cooking school its not about specific menus. Its all about analyzing, understanding and experiencing different ingredients (exercises) and methods of preparation (training parameters). With the goal of ultimately creating dishes and menus in your own that taste great. In cooking school its all about the systems of food preparation. In cooking classes its all about one program in this case learning how to cook a set menu.

Both have their advantages. The most obvious is the time invested. Its much easier to take one menu, learn how to cook it and then cook it for guests, families and friends on occasion. With cooking school the time invested is much greater. And the same time though, it allows one to consistently create programs that work consistently. Obviously, the later is important for a coach and trainer or someone who wants to become a coach and trainer as writing programs that lead to progress is an essential component of a career and success as a personaltrainer.

Programs are a great way to start out in training. Its exactly the way how everyone starts out in training. You get a program and you do it. The more you will go into the finer aspects of training and greater heights of progress and results the more important it is to follow a system to continuously get further progress and results. Which is what everyone wants.

All the Best going from Programs to Systems in Training to get the most continuous Success!

The english Module 3 is part of the YPSI Semi-Private Internship.

Picture: A navigation system is a excellent example of a systems-based approach as its uses a detailed and broad map that constantly adapts its recommendation where to go based on your current location, the traffic and the destination.

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