Training to improve your body and your health is a journey towards self-improvement; it takes time, energy and discipline, but the rewards can be tremendous. However, for any journey to be successful, there has to be a destination. Just as you wouldn’t get in your car without knowing where you want to go, you shouldn’t begin a training program if you haven’t clearly outlined your goals. Whether you are training as a power athlete, looking to improve overall strength or hypertrophy, or building for endurance, the ability to set constructive goals and create a roadmap to achieving them is the fundamental building block of a successful training program.
Setting S.M.A.R.T Goals for Success:
Goal setting is crucial to training success, and you should set both short and long term goals as part of this process. The old acronym of S.M.A.R.T. goal setting is a great way to start. Your goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, result oriented, and time bound. For example, if your goals are “I want to lose weight”, “I want to get stronger”, or “I want to get ripped”, those are vague, subjective, and have no accountability attached to them. On the contrary, a goal such as “I want to lose 10lbs in two months”, “I want to run a 5k in under 20 minutes” or “I want to squat my body weight in 12 weeks” are specific and have accountability measures in place.
Setting Long and Short Term Goals: Periodization Basics
The first step is to identify the overall goal and the parameters attached. Most training goals can be loosely identified as a power, strength, or endurance goal depending on the primary energy system in use (more on that later). Examples could include increasing your max dead lift by 50 lbs. in 6 months (power), putting on 20 lbs. of muscle in 3 months (strength), or decreasing your 5k time by 2 minutes by next month (endurance). All of these goals are specific, have measurable and result oriented benchmarks, are reasonably attainable and have a timeline so that accountability measures are in place. Now we have to create the roadmap to success based on our final goal. For this article we are going to use the example of increasing our max deadlift 50 lbs. in 6 months; bear in mind however that our training principles can apply to power, strength, or endurance goals if we adapt the program to meet those needs.
First we have to chop it down into short term goals. We want to use a concept in strength and conditioning called periodization to break up our goals and training; increasing your deadlift by 50 lbs. is certainly daunting, however when chopped down it is actually achievable. We set an initial timeline of 6 months, so we will set 6 monthly short term goals. 50 lbs. divided into 6 is 8.3 lbs., so our short term goals will be to increase our 1 rep max deadlift by 8-10 lbs. each month. For a strength or endurance goal, we would want to use a similar approach and chop our big goal into smaller goals.
You Know Where to Go, How do you Get There? The Principle of Specificity
Now that we have our long and short term goals established, we can begin to the fun part; how do we get there? In our deadlifting example we will clearly have to do some deadlifts, however it is not necessarily that simple. We have to use another strength and conditioning principle called specificity to determine how to accomplish the goals we established. Specificity means our training needs map back to our goals and the activity we are training for. While this can be a very complex process when analyzed at the granular level of extreme performance, we will take a macro look at how to determine a specific training approach.
There are two primary, fundamental factors to study when determining the training approach needed for a specific goal. First is the biomechanics or movement patterns associated with that particular goal, and second is the energy systems associated with that activity. While there are many more aspects of this, if you understand the biomechanics and energy system requirements of your goal on a macro level you will be on the right track with your training.
Biomechanics: Learn How to Move
You absolutely have to understand the basic biomechanics of the activity you are training for. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, “biomechanics focuses on the mechanisms through which the components of our anatomy (muscles, bones, joints etc.) interact to create movement.” In other words, biomechanics is the study of how the body moves, similar to how engineers might examine the working processes of a car or plane. We won’t dive into the minutiae of deadlifting mechanics as part of our example goal, but we will look in depth at the major movements and patterns.
Most of our complex or total body movements follow patterns. By understanding these patterns, we can outline training programs to accomplish our goals effectively. Using our deadlift example, there is a specific movement pattern to correct deadlifting which will help us determine what muscles to train. In a correctly performed conventional deadlift, an athlete will attempt to pull the bar off the ground through extension of the hips and knees while maintaining a strong posture and strong grip on the bar. Based on the sequence just described, we know that athlete needs:
- A strong grip to hold the bar.
- Strong lats to pull with the arms.
- A strong core and especially strong erector spinae (lower back) to maintain spinal integrity.
- Strong and flexible hips/glutes to allow for full flexion and extension.
- Very strong hamstrings/glutes to generate the power needed for knee and hip extension.
- Loose ankles to allow greater range of motion at the knees and hips.
Based on all those factors, we now know what we need to train. For any of our goals be it a max deadlift or a half marathon, we first have to examine the muscles, joints, and movements associated and how they will work within that activity.
Energy Systems: How to Program Intensity, Volume, Frequency and Recovery
Next we need to know how to train those muscles and joints just identified, and that tracks back to energy systems. We have three primary energy systems in our body, the ATP/CP system, Glycolysis, and the Oxidative System. While it is infinitely more complex, the simplest explanation is the ATP/CP system is for high intensity exercises that last less than 10 seconds. Glycolysis is anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute of exertion, and the Oxidative system is generally longer than a minute in duration. Based on this very rudimentary explanation of energy systems, a max deadlift falls under the ATP/CP system as it should take less than 10 seconds to complete one rep. Conventional strength training or hypertrophy falls under the Glycolytic system, and endurance training tracks back to the Oxidative system.
Knowing which energy system is needed gives us the programming information we need to determine our volume, frequency, intensity and recovery during our training. For our max deadlift example, this means the majority of our training should take place in the ATP/CP system. Thus, we are looking at most of our training consisting of low reps at relatively high levels of exertion, a high number of sets, and lots of recovery time both between sets and between workouts.
Putting It All Together:
It’s time to put it all together. We know our goals, we know what we need to train and how to train them, now we just need to arrange the pieces. First, we need to identify our periodization cycle, or how we arrange our short term goals to peak at the right time. For this article we will use a very simple linear periodization method. Each month, we will increase our resistance in the workouts the first 3 weeks, then the 4th week cut back a bit. For example, if the exercise is a Romanian Deadlift and we are doing 4 sets of 5 reps at 100 lbs. initially, our first two months or cycles might look like this:
Week 1: 4 sets of 5 reps at 100 lbs.
Week 2: 4 sets of 5 reps at 105 lbs.
Week 3: 4 sets of 5 reps at 110 lbs.
Week 4: 4 sets of 5 reps at 100 lbs.
Week 5: 4 sets of 5 reps at 105 lbs.
Week 6: 4 sets of 5 reps at 110 lbs.
Week 7: 4 sets of 5 reps at 115 lbs.
Week 8: 4 sets of 5 reps at 105 lbs.
While this is a very basic template, that should give you an idea of what basic linear periodization looks like, and how we want to structure our long term plan; depending on your goals you could use a different exercise and a similar template to progress in that activity.
Now that we have that framework in place, we need to identify our key exercises for the primary biomechanical processes in the deadlift. While there is a multitude of different strategies to attack these various elements, I have included a few sample exercises for each component:
|Deadlifts (Total Body)||Deadlifts, Sumo Deadlifts|
|Mobile and Strong Hips||Romanian Deadlifts, Glute Bridges|
|Strong Lats||Pull Ups, Lat Pull Downs|
|Strong Hamstrings||Hamstring Curls, Glute-Ham Raises|
|Strong Grip||Plate Pinches, Farmers Walks|
|Strong Erector Spinae||Back Extensions, Good Mornings|
|Stable Core||Plank Variations, Anti-Rotation Exercises|
|Loose Ankles||Ankle Dorsiflexion, Standing Calf Stretches|
Now, we have our specific exercises and we know what energy system we are training in, to put it all together we just have to sequence our workout effectively. It is vital to perform a thorough dynamic warm up prior to any workout. Post-warm up, exercises that tax our nervous system should be performed first, such as multi-joint or heavy lifts, explosive movements or our primary focus for that day. These can be followed by supplemental, singe joint or lighter exercises. In addition, for training efficiency it is often best to combine non-antagonistic exercises (an example is a lower body exercise with an upper body). Based on that basic principle and all the factors previously discussed, a sample workout to improve a deadlift might look like this:
Dynamic Warm Up 10 Minutes
1A: Deadlifts 5×3
2A: Romanian Deadlifts 5×5
2B: Lat Pull Downs 5×5
3A: Good Mornings 4×5
3B: Farmer Walks 4×30 feet
4A: Hamstring Curls 3×8
4B: Plank-Rows 3×10
Cool Down: 10 minutes, emphasis on ankles, hamstrings, lower back and lats.
The K.I.S.S. Principle
In conclusion, I want to reference arguably my favorite training principle of all, the K.I.S.S. principle; Keep It Simple Son. What it means is don’t take this article as a Masters in Exercise Science and set out to break the world deadlift record, rather I hope that you can take one or two items away that piqued your interest to research further and possibly implement some new elements into your training program. The takeaway here is the process of designing an effective, safe training program that will map back to your goals. Set S.M.A.R.T goals, identify the biomechanical needs and the energy systems needed, then take the time create an incremental plan to accomplish your goal. Once you have the planning done, the fun part begins. Train smart, train safe, train hard and get results!
“Writing S.M.A.R.T. Goals”, https://www.rochester.edu/working/hr/performancemgt/SMART_Goals.pdf
Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd Edition; T.R. Baechle and R.W. Earle