Building a Workout Plan

It’s Thursday morning, which means I have a little over ten hours until I’m back in class. I’m already getting excited. It’s hard to sit down and write, because I want to run around and shadow box. I want to hit my L-sits. I want to move. I don’t want to wait til tonight for class. It doesn’t seem fair that I have to wait…I’m bursting with energy now.

A good workout program manages your energy levels, and keeps you excited for more work all the time. It also keeps you steadily improving. It doesn’t make any sense, though. If you don’t understand the science behind it, it can feel kind of weak. It’s not the workout you think you should be doing, and it’s not as challenging as you feel it should be.

We want the montage. We want an incredible few weeks of mind-bending effort that magically transforms us. How can you not be eager to do that? Before the first class of a training session, everyone has visions of pushing themselves to new levels, grinding themselves into dirt…only to drag themselves out as superman at the end of it.

Which is what most people, and most martial arts programs, try to do. When you start a workout, you go full out gonads-to-the-wall all-in effort. You want change and you want it now. Nothing less than the most severe punishment for the body will do. So you do exactly that. You punish yourself.

You suffer through the first class, make it through the recovery the next few days, get back in and keep pushing. You nail it every day, and the instructor keeps hammering you, giving you new challenges to overcome, meeting your enthusiasm with something more difficult every session. You have awesome willpower, so you brute through it. You improve in leaps and bounds.

But you start to dread each session. Just a little. And you are tired all the time. You get sick a lot, but you tough it out. Your appetite fluxes. If you check your heart rate regularly, you’d notice an upward tick in your resting heart rate. No matter…being superman, being true to the montage, means putting up with inconveniences. You push through. You grind.

And then you get really sick. Sick enough to miss a week or two of training. Or you feel a twinge in your back, or knee or leg or shoulder…a twinge that turns evil the next morning, and you can barely move without pain. No training while you heal. And that’s all it takes. You’re off the train. If you are most people, you never come back to that school or gym ever again. You might never even work out again. Most likely, you just keep repeating the process over and over again.

Or you might be one of the small percentage of people with the genetics to handle that kind of abuse and just get better. If so, good for you. You’ve got what it takes to train like the top athletes in the world, if you so choose. I fall into the same category, and it’s a great place to be. No injury is ever more than a small bump in the road. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s anything other than a genetic freak trick. You can’t expect it from anyone else. Everyone else needs science, not guts.

The basic science of a good workout program is simple. You get the best results from working out the hardest, and poor results from working out lightly. Working out the hardest depletes your resources rapidly, working out lightly…can actually restore your resources. The best workout plan is one that blends hard workouts and light workouts to balance results with recovery.

If you extend that balance over time, you can develop what are called peaks. Peaks are brief windows where someone attains the perfect mix of results and recovery at the same time. You are healthy, energetic, and can perform at your very best. Managing athlete peaks is an art form built up from solid science. Some sports need a once a year peak, other might need smaller peaks as often as once a month, for a few months. Ideally, you don’t want to peak more than once every few months, or you start to repeat the overtraining cycle on a larger scale.

To design a workout plan, you first…well, you first get some training! It’s a complex thing, and demands an education. Take some coaching classes. Or a very high level personal training certification. But as an overview, the first thing you do is examine what exercises you do. Break them down into what kind of energy system they use. Are they short and explosive, long and grinding, or light and easy? Short and explosive would be sprints or olympic weight lifting, light and easy would be walking or doing a familiar drill.

A single workout session should start with the short and hard, then move to the long and grinding, and finish with light and easy. If a session is mostly short and hard, then you classify that as a heavy day. If the short and hard work is only a tiny portion of the class, then it’s a light day. In between are moderate days.

Each week should include a blend of hard, moderate, and light days. If the week is mostly hard sessions, than it’s a hard week. If it’s mostly light days, than…you get the idea. Light days are recovery days. Light weeks are recovery weeks. A training cycle is a period of hard, light and moderate weeks broken into phases, that peaks with a competition or personal best attempt.

The phases vary by sport, as do the blends of intensity. But there are always phases of pre-habilitation, where you prepare an athlete for the work to come. There are also phases of recovery, sometimes called de-loading. These phases are not only light, but include specific exercises to balance out the more specialized work of the other phases. Some phases are designed specifically to build muscle mass, others for endurance, or power. But they all include heavy, moderate, and light work.

I run my classes on a rough six-week cycle. Since we are not as yet competing, I don’t have any serious peaks built in, just natural increases in ability. Every sixth week I focus on structure work…stretching, posture…light and easy recovery work. The remaining five weeks are a structured blend of hard, moderate and light classes, and each class has the same breakdown within it.

Of course, that’s just planning for the workout portion of a class. The same structure and scaling has to apply to skill learning, as well as ability drills and tactical lessons. It’s a lot of work to plan for, even before considering the content of a single lesson. It’s the bare minimum anyone who can call themselves a teacher or coach should do. It’s one of the reasons you should occasionally feel free to buy your instructor a beer or tasty beverage…

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