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Trouble Shooting Your Program: 5 Powerful Principles for Better Adaptation

By Jeff Moyer

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The men who grasps principle can successfully select his own methods.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do you do when your program has stalled or isn’t achieving the given results you thought it would? I have never been, nor will I be that type of coach that only talks about my successes with athletes, as if I have it all figured out. I have messed up, failed and guessed wrong on plenty of occasions and I am not afraid to admit it. However its because of my failures along with my obsessive compulsiveness to always find answers to issues that has allowed me to have success and it has sharpened my BS meter.

Taking a page from Dr. Bryan Mann here for a second; I am not a physical therapist, or a biomechanist, a physiologist or an MD. I am a coach. A practitioner. I’d like to think that one of the things that I am good at is that I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. When I don’t know something, I obsessively search out people that do know. I believe that one of the most important things to have as a coach is a reliable network of coaches to bounce thoughts and ideas off of.

From the little that I actually know, as much science as there is that goes into coaching, coaching is an art form. The art of coaching is to place stress on the athlete and see how they respond. We take various techniques & tools and apply them onto a living canvas in hopes that the final product comes out how we thought it would. However, some artists couldn’t paint the Mona Lisa if it was paint by numbers. To quote Henk Kraaijenhof “Where science generalizes and averages, art individualizes”.

Science is interested in unravelling the underlying mechanisms; the WHY. Training, however, is interested in applying this mechanism to the individual, keeping individual variation and responses in mind; the HOW.” The challenge for us as coaches is to stress the athlete when they are biologically ready to adapt to the stress, not just when the training program says so.  We can’t speed up the adaptation process but we can certainly fuck it up!

stress the athlete when they are biologically ready to adapt to the stress

“The challenge for us as coaches is to stress the athlete when they are biologically ready to adapt to the stress, not just when the training program says so.” 

Sometimes the problem is that we are trying to out push the body, when in actuality all we need to do is just outsmart the body. This is where the art of coaching can become deeper than the data. When training isn’t going in the direction I want or feel that it should be, I use a little trouble shooting check list to help me see what and where I can make a change to get my back on track. I start with #1, and then work my way down if each step doesn’t work.

1. Are They Over-Volumized?

I look at this first because I truly believe that with (particularly lower level) athletes there is a separate threshold for recovery and for adaptation and often that threshold for adaptation is much lower than coaches think.

When I see an athlete’s progress not moving in the direction that I would like, the first thing I do is look at their program and see what I can cut out. Are they doing too much? Understanding that “too much” is relative to that individual, not compared to myself or other athletes. You don’t know what too much is if you don’t start with the least amount and then work up. Dr. Bondarchuk talks about this; “Every level of athlete has an optimal amount of exercises, volume and intensity.”

A couple of thoughts have lead me to believe this point; why is it that you can see athletes of the same level do 3-5 sets of an exercises and achieve a given result, while other coaches can use 1-2 sets of the same exercises and get the same, if not better result?!  I have seen this with coaches all over the internet along with my own personal experience of using 1×20 compared to 5-3-1 with a high school football program. This isn’t a knock at all on 5-3-1 at all. But just a point that sometimes even less is all that is needed to move the needle. As coaches, all we should be looking for is what tips the needle in the direction we want it too.

I think that one of the top problems in athletic development is over volumization of training. The paradigm is that most people view “overtraining” as the athlete wasn’t prepared enough so they should have done more. I tend to be on the other end of the spectrum and believe that perhaps the athlete did too much! If more is better, why not double what you currently are doing? Why not 10 sets? 15 sets? Why are 3 sets better than 1? Why are 5 sets better than 2? How do you know that isn’t too much?

Case Study: Male High School Tennis Athlete.  We were in this athletes SPP phase of training, and so I progressed him to 3 different plyometric exercises, one of which was depth jumps. For the first two weeks, two of the three plyos were progressing on point, however his depth jumps (which we consider the cherry on top of plyo-exercises) was not improving at all. My first instinct was to give him another set of them and move the box up higher. However instead what I decided to try, was I took out the other two plyo jumps and just had him to the depth jumps. Low and behold his depth jumps then started to improve substantially. I can’t tell you the science of why that worked, but it worked. For whatever reason, 3 sets of jumps was too much for this athlete, so one was all he needed. I have many other cases of such as this.

3 sets of jumps was too much for this athlete, one was all he needed

“3 sets of jumps was too much for this athlete, one was all he needed”

2. Have They Recovered From the Last Training Session?

This one ties in a bit with the first point. Sometimes, even if you try to low-dose an athlete, they haven’t recovered for whatever reason from the previous workout. Some athletes take a little longer than others to recover from what even may seem like simple/light stuff.

The art of what we do is to track and monitor the types of adaptors our athletes are and plan training towards them, not necessarily to a calendar. If they haven’t recovered from the previous training session, I will typically one of two things:

  • I will have them go through and not change anything from the previous workout. Stay the same weights, exercises etc.
  • Or I will cut out some exercises for that day and see how they respond for the next workout I try and keep my monitoring as simple.

When the athlete walks in I am immediately asking them a ton of questions and having conversations with them. I don’t like to gloat, but something that I believe that I am good at is reading people. I tell my athletes that I have a PhD in two things: Reading body language and bullshit. And you can’t bullshit a bull-shitter.

I also have a 5-question questionnaire that is on the bottom of each athletes workout sheets that they can fill out with numbers or draw me an emoji. If an athlete is sore for whatever reason from our last workout, then I make them do exactly what they did from that last workout in order to let there bodies recognize and adapt to it. We have had very good success doing this and when the athlete comes back after the second workout they do not complain of any soreness. We then begin to move things forward.

From a quantitive standpoint, we always have “test” exercises. These are based on the main objectives that we are currently trying to work on at that time. For instance; that could be mechanics, jumping, sprinting and specialized exercises. If these are off, then I make a decision from there on what next to do.

3. Outside Stressors

When dealing with student-athletes, sometimes shit is just out of your control and the “Stress of Life” comes into play. This is where we need to get out of living in the Matrix, only seeing numbers, and be a coach, ask questions and remember that we are dealing with people who are trying to get better to play a game. Sometimes the best training for that day is to just roll out, stretch out and go home. I always want my athletes to try and feel better leaving the gym than when they came in.

4. Rotate Movements

This one is a bit of a no brainer for some coaches as we have all be taught that in order to elicit an adaptation, we must manipulate either volume, intensity and or novelty of exercises. What’s funny about this is I have swung my pendulum on both ends of this idea and feel that I have finally landed a bit more in the middle.

For instance, I use to switch exercises every 3-4 weeks with athletes because that’s what I read to do. Then I switched my thoughts to, well what if the athletes can use that same exercises and keep improving for longer than 3-4 weeks and I am just cutting them short?!  The idea of milking the cow for all that it is worth before moving to the next one. However I sometimes would tend to stay on an exercise a bit too long. Tracking the exercise and improvements has helped me find “sweet spots” for when to dovetail exercises in and out.  So now I may have an athlete stay with an exercise anywhere from 6 – 8 weeks, depending on progress. For me, this idea also applies to the whole Olympic lifting for athlete’s debate.

Trouble Shooting Your Program: 5 Powerful Principles for Better Adaptation

I used Olympic lift in college and had good results with it. Then after college I swung over to the “there’s no place for Olympic lifts with athletes” side of things. But now that I am older, I find myself simply not caring. If Dr. Bondarchuk, Dr. Bryan Mann and others smarter than me say that Olympic lifts are good, show good results in speed and power development, then who am I to argue?! I might throw them in to the training, I might not. Depends on the athlete and the circumstance. I believe that JUST ABOUT everything has a time and a place.

I say “just about” because I believe that there is some crap stuff out there that just doesn’t need to be in the training program of an athlete. For those of you reading this, I’m sure you know of somethings…

5. Rotate Methods

I liken this idea to be last because when all else has failed to move the needle, I will just change up what the athlete is doing completely. This could be changing the set structure, the rep structure or the exercises entirely.  Examples here are going from 1×20 into 1×14… or going from 1×8 to more of a VBT based program. This to me should be last though because I don’t want to completely change up the training cycle if perhaps something simpler such as just taking one or two things out, or just changing an exercise would have gotten us back on track. You can’t get back a training cycle.

If all else has fails, make notes, talk to your network of coaches, and then change up your approach.

About Jeff Moyer

moyerJeff Moyer is the owner of Dynamic Correspondence Sports Training, whose motto is, “We Build Better Athletes.” At DC Sports Training, athletes work on the physical, mental and visual aspects to the sports. Their goal is to deliver the athletes of the greater Pittsburgh area the highest, most efficient results year after year of training with us. We will exhaust our means in order for our athletes to achieve the highest results, and to create a system model that will develop our athletes both physically and intellectually. Education must be the road to which will help us set this standard. Our results will be the vehicle which to drive us.

Jeff graduated in 2004 from Hartwick College where he was a two-sport athlete (Football & Track & Field). Jeff has been a sport coach (Basketball & Football) at the youth, JV, Varsity and College level for football for over 10years. Jeff has been in the strength in conditioning industry for over a decade, having worked in the medical, private, team, high school and collegiate settings, training clients from youth development, to rehabilitation and sport performance.

Jeff has a relentless passion for all things physical preparation. His pedagogy is heavily influenced by Eastern Bloc sport science, while apprenticing under Dr. Michael Yessis and Yosef Johnson of Ultimate Athlete Concepts. Jeff has also been fortunate enough to extensively study with and work with Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky, Mike Woicik of the Dallas Cowboys, Louie Simmons of Wesitside Barbell and Fellowship under Dave Tate of EliteFTS.

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One comment

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