Another way to look at variability in a program - StrongFirst Plan 996

Image credit:  StrongFirst

Image credit: StrongFirst

One of my common rants is the need for variability in a program - not randomness, but variability.  (Though, randomness is still better than static programming, that's why folks who get started with bootcamp style workouts do so well at the beginning). As long as you're below the injury rate, your body's response to a stress is a convex function of that stress where Jensen's inequality holds - or in other words, you're antifragile. The more I re-read Antifragile (and the rest of the Incerto), the more I get out of it. I'm in another re-reading phase, so you get to hear more antifragile rants from me.  

Let's look at variability in an exercise program.  You can vary the weight you're lifting, let's call that intensity. You can vary the number of lifts (sets and reps), let's call that volume. And you can vary the time dedicated to the work, let call that density. All three of those variables aren't truly independent, and there are general rules about where to land for different goals. 

Though, I think there may be fewer rules than the fitness industry likes to preach. 

I need to take one of Pavel's Plan Strong classes, but from what I'm piecing together from what's out on teh intarwebs is that the old Russian systems had ways of introducing variability along those three dimensions in an almost uncorrelated way. That is, sometimes the starts may align and you may have a high volume, high density, high intensity workout. The apparent randomness of this would be really good for your body. 

Aside: variability vs randomness - I want to take a quick moment to come back to planned variability vs randomness. If I'm such a Taleb fan, why don't I just make the workouts truly random? The idea is that we want to be prepared for the random, but having a random input is not the most efficient way to get prepared for a random event. It would be a really bad idea for me to randomly program a 500lb deadlift for everyone tomorrow because you'd all get hurt. But if we're smart about our progressions, you can get strong enough to handle the black swan emergency case where some day you might have to lift 500lbs in a life-or-death situation.

So how do we introduce variability into your workouts? Generally, I can plan with intensity and volume, it's hard to mess with density when we're constrained to an hour class - but there still are days where you get out early, so even that's variable. The strength portion of the day changes volume monthly (June was 8's, July is 5's, for example) - naturally you have to adjust the intensity with the volume, but I'm programming volume as the independent variable there.

In the second portion of the daily program, we're playing with intensity. The lifts stay the same all cycle, but some days are heavy, medium, or light. I could prescribe actual percentages here, but I like to let you be a little more responsible for your weight choices.

As I was thinking about this concept more, I looked back at my experiences with CrossFit. While day-to-day they're constantly varied in the modality (what movements you're doing), the actual variability isn't there.  Weights are prescribed, and usually the same for most movements. For guys you're almost always going to have 95lb thrusters, 135lb snatches, 185lb C&J, 225lb deadlifts, and so on. Likewise the density is always something like AMRAP in 7min, 12min, 25min, etc. It's also hard to vary the density when everything is as fast as possible, for time, or EMOM. I know I'm nitpicking a little, but I just scanned the last couple of weeks of programming for local CrossFits, and there was little real variability.

The program that got me thinking about this in more detail was the Strong First Plan 996 that some of the folks are testing out right now. I can't share that program because it's proprietary to Strong First right now, but it's an interesting approach. I've been getting lots of questions about what the folks in the corner were doing, so here's how the program works:

Generally, we prescribe sets and reps and weight. For example, "do 5x5 at 85%". It's up to you, generally, to rest long enough between sets so that you're ready for the next set. We all have gotten pretty good at learning how our body reacts and resting long enough to do the next round of work prescribed.  But what if I inverted that thinking? 

Instead of learning how long to rest to do the next round of work, what if your rest time was fixed and you had to chose your work so that you were recovered? That is, I want you to do N swings every minute for 10 minutes. You have to start each round at the top of the minute, but you have to pick N so that you are recovered for the next round.

I'm finding that to be a harder problem - or at least one I have much less experience with. We are introducing variability in the volume with load (can't change bell weight) and density (it's always EMOM 10) fixed. I'm finding that you really need to pay attention to your body to make this work, you can't just turn off your brain and go through the motions. We'll probably experiment with some programming like this later this year after I tweak it some, but it's something to think about. I always like finding ways to make you more present in your workouts rather than just turning off your brain and going.

Michael Deskevich