Today’s blogpost is a guest article by Coach John Grace. These days, higher workloads, higher volume, higher intensities, and higher frequencies are all the rage, but quite frankly, many athletes do better with a more moderate approach. Today John discusses a simple programming strategy that can improve recovery and performance. 

As Americans, we have a general mentality that more is better. If something is working, we assume doing more of that something must work even better. Most of the time more does not equal better. In fact, as it pertains to training, you may be putting in more work to get the same exact results. Or even worse, more work for less results.

Track and field has made the hi-low training system one of the more popular systems to follow for athletic development. The hi-low system calls for alternating high intensity days and low Intensity days, repeating for a 5-6 day training week.

The reason why this system works well is that high intensity events like sprinting, Olympic lifting, and heavy barbell exercises place a huge amount of stress on your body. Conversely, low intensity events like weight room circuits, bodyweight exercises, and long distance running place little stress on the body.

Dr Mike Young frequently uses the analogy of a sledge hammer and a ball peen hammer – think of high intensity exercises as sledge hammers and low intensity exercises as a ball peen hammer. Your body can only take so many sledge hammer strikes until it breaks, but you can take a ton ball peen hammer hits without being effected to the same degree. 

Track & Field Experts Jimson Lee & Mike Young

Track & Field Experts Jimson Lee & Mike Young

Every high CNS day puts you into a hole you will have to recover from to get to the supercompensation phase (the phase in which an athlete reaches a higher performance capacity). If you train at relatively high intensities every day, you may get some good results quickly, but it will eventually catch up to you (unless you’re superman, of course). If you don’t give your body adequate time to recover from the sledge hammer strikes, you’re digging yourself into a deeper and deeper state of fatigue. A subsequent low CNS day compliments a high CNS day to allow your body to adapt and recover from the previous day’s work.

There are training systems, like the famed machine-making Bulgarian weightlifting method that go against everything stated above. The truth is, many athletes get siphoned into these weightlifting programs at a young age and only the strong come out on the other end. This population is a special breed. These are the machines you hear about in the Olympics. What you don’t hear about are the numerous athletes who either got injured or burned out from months and years of overtraining. Even the far-overreaching Smolov Squat routine has suggested recovery days.

I’m not trying to tell you to reduce the frequency of your training or take complete rest days when you normally train.  This is meant to give you some insight of how you may want to alter your training if you do train 5-7 days a week. If you have a high intensity (high CNS) day, try to follow it with a high volume (low CNS) day. If you’re an athlete outside of Olympic Weightlifting, this low CNS day may involve bodyweight exercises, weight room circuits, tempo runs, etc. If you are an athlete that is strictly Olympic Weightlifting, some ideas would be to perform the power variations (power snatch, power clean), complexes, lifts from the hang or blocks, etc. on the low CNS days to reduce intensity.

Managing your training this way can help improve the supercompensation phase as well as performance over time. Most importantly, listen to your body. If it’s telling you to back off the intensity a little, it’s probably right.

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John Grace’s Bio:

John is an assistant fitness coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps. He is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and a USA Track & Field Level 1 Coach. As an Athletic Development Coach at Athletic Lab (Hyperlink: http://athleticlab.com/) sports performance training center, he coached high school to elite level athletes in a wide range of sports. He is an active contributor to various sports performance blogs and is pursuing publication in peer reviewed journals.

You can read more of his work at fitforfutbol.comelitetrack.com, and athleticlab.com. Follow john_r_grace on twitter for more sports performance material.

18 Comments

  • Lauren says:

    What a great article! This is something I’ve actually been wondering about lately. I’m not a competitive athlete – I lift and am currently trying to gain weight/strength/body mass. I do an upper/lower split, but sometimes I feel like I’m still recovering from the previous days efforts (even though it’s a different body part I’m training!). I’ve been thinking of changing things up and doing a full-body workout every other day, and on days in between perhaps doing something a bit lower intensity eg prowler/sled or even going for a jog/swim.

    Do you think this might be a good approach?

    • John Grace says:

      Lauren, thanks for reading. I think it would be plausible to take that approach. When you do a hi-low method it is all the more important to select exercises that are meaningful and fit into the long term goal. Since your trying to gain weight and strength, you’ll want to stick in the 8-12ish rep range for most exercises (not including Olympic lifting if it’s in your program). Occasionally, you could drop down to the 2-6 rep range to work on pure strength gains. On these days stick to multijoint movements like squats and squat derivatives, pulls, presses, etc.

      I think prowler wouldn’t necessarily be a bad option since prowler is mostly concentric work. You would just have to be really careful how you use it because you could turn it in to a semi-high intensity event by making the load lighter and completing a push at a fast pace.

      As for jogging – no real issue here either. Just be aware of your overall goal – to gain strength and gain weight/mass. Jogging at a low pace/short distance (~1 mile) has been shown to improve recovery. Although I wouldn’t suggest trying to improve time trials or distance run overtime because there is a slight interference effect when performing aerobic and strength work simultaneously.

      • Lauren says:

        Thanks for the advice and pointers John!

        Yeah – jogging would be a nice little leisurely lap of the park 🙂

        Defo going to implement this approach to training to see how it goes.

    • Rob Panariello says:

      Lauren,

      When developing a training program there are certainly numerous factors to consider. However, a word of caution. In my experience I have witnessed many training programs where reducing the weight and increasing the reps on the “light” workout day that follows the “heavy” workout day, in reality does not incorporate a “light workout day” at all. This is where you have to be careful in your workout programming. Just because you reduce your weight intensity on the light workout day does not necessarily mean that your workout that day will be a light workout.

      As an example, we know the formula for work performed is as follows: Work = Force X Distance (W = F X D). So let’s say you are performing the squat exercise. We will assume that regardless of the weight of the intensity lifted (heavy or light); you achieve the same squat depth with proper exercise technique. This will then keep the distance portion of the work equation consistent regardless of the amount of weight that you lift. The force will be the resistance that you lift, high intensities on your heavy day, and lighter intensities on your light day.

      Now there is one another factor to consider, and that is the total volume of work performed, or essentially the total number of squat exercise repetitions performed. Often when exercise intensities decrease the “logical” exercise programming thought by many is to have the exercise volumes (reps) increase. Although volume and intensity go “hand in hand” the problem that occurs is when these lighter day higher volumes become excessive. It is the excessive exercise volumes that will get you into trouble.

      So once again, assuming that your squat exercise performance distance (depth) is consistent let’s look at the amount of work performed on a heavy workout day (heavy weights and fewer reps) vs. a light workout day (lower weights and higher reps).

      Squat Exercise Performance

      Heavy Day – 100 pounds X 5 Sets of 5 Reps = 100 pounds X 25 Total
      Squat Reps Performed
      100 Pounds X 25 Reps Performed = 2,500 pounds lifted

      Light Day – 75 pounds (a 25% reduction in exercise weight) X 3 Sets of 12 Reps = 36 Total Squat Reps Performed
      75 Pounds X 36 Reps = 2,700 pounds lifted

      So essentially you have performed more work on your light workout day than you did on your heavy workout day even though you reduced the workout weight by 25%. So was your light workout day really a “light day”? The individual training may then become confused as to why they are becoming tired as their training program progresses, even though they are performing light training days. The answer is that their light training days are not light days at all due to excessive exercise volume performance.

      This is a programming mistake that occurs way too often so be aware as to not to make your light day workout in reality, another heavy workout day. Just because you reduce the exercise weight intensity doesn’t mean it will become a light day workout day as demonstrated above. There is nothing wrong with maintaining a lower exercise performance volume (reps) along with your lower exercise intensity on your light workout days.

      Just my opinion. Good luck.

      Rob Panariello

      • John Grace says:

        Rob, some good points here, although a “light day” should not be synonymous with “low CNS day”. You point out in your example why this is the case.

        Low CNS days are not the same as high CNS workouts at lower intensities or lighter weights though. Low CNS days should be comprised of submaximal exercises to enhance general strength qualities and to either improve or maintain work capacity.

        Depending on the level of the individual, the weight room may not even be necessary on a low CNS day. Performing a longer dynamic warmup and hurdle mobility and some body weight exercises may be sufficient for the day (again, dependent on the athlete). Body weight lunges, squats, core work or even a non-competitive metabolic conditioning circuit are also all good options.

        I think the programming mistake that you’re referring to occurs when people don’t understand how to implement the method being described.

        • Rob Panariello says:

          John,

          I understand your point and it is well taken. I was referring to Lauren’s statement regarding her “changing things up and doing a full body workout every other day”. Based on the context of her statement I assumed this full body workout to occur in the weightroom as it was replacing her upper/lower split routine. I was just cautioning Lauren that submaximal exercise performed at excessive volumes result in excessive fatigue to the body and stress to the CNS as well.

          • Lauren says:

            Hi Rob!

            Thanks for taking the time to write your detailed reply! However I perhaps wasn’t clear in what I meant by “changing things up”. I meant doing a full body weights routine Mon, Wed, Fri, and then perhaps on 2 or 3 of the other days performing low intensity/low CNS work. I didn’t mean do low intensity weight training 🙂

  • Antonio flores says:

    I wish there was a chart with High stress exercises and less stressful variations and/or how to modify them to make than easier…such as full squats vs half squats, deadlifts from floor vs deficit deadlifts, deadlifts with straps vs without, good mornings vs RDLS…

  • Marcus Beasley says:

    Here’s my strength power phrase routine:

    Days 1,3:

    Squat 5×4-6
    Deadlift 4×4-6
    Leg leg curl 3×4-6
    Pull up 5×4-6
    Row 5×4-6
    Biceps 3×4-6
    Biceps 3×4-6
    45 back extension 3×8-12

    Day 2,4

    Power clean 4×4-6
    Bench press 4×4-6
    Incline bench 5×4-6
    Push jerk or press 5×4-6
    DB upright row 4×4-6
    Tricep 3×4-6
    Triceps 3x 4-6
    What do yaw think of his in terms of volume? I find I get the best strength gains from this but it does affect my sprinting speed as the week gors on although when I start a new week, I seem as fresh as new. I run this for 6-8 weeks then I take a week off before begi ing a new phase.

    • John Grace says:

      Marcus, overall a good selection of exercises. A couple things that I feel are needed to make any suggestions to change what you have outlined:

      Are these 4 consecutive days or broken up during the week? That could make a difference here in your selection.

      What type of sprinting volume are you performing and how many days a week do you sprint.

      What type of intensities are you performing you big movements at?

      Any insight here will be helpful.

      Where I personally would make some adjustments

      • Marcus Beasley says:

        John,

        Thanks for replying. As far as my lifting goes, I lift MT & TF. I do my sprint work before my squat day and I perform short sprint work for a total volume of 250 meters. I take 3-10 minutes rest between my sprints depending on the length and I take 3 minutes rest between all my lifting sets. All my lifts are performed where I fail on the last rep of the last set.

    • John Grace says:

      Also, what type of athlete are you?

      • Marcus Beasley says:

        Also, I’m a 100m sprinter and with my lifts, all my intensities are in the 85< ranges except for my back extesnsion

    • John Grace says:

      Marcus,

      Based on your training schedule here are a few suggestions:

      I would take all of your power/strength movements (sprints, olympic lifts, squats) and put them on Monday and Thursday. Perform these at high intensities. I wouldn’t suggest going to failure too often unless your testing a 1RM or rep max effor

      Take all of your accessory lifts (biceps, triceps, leg curls/extensions) and move them to Tuesday and Friday. Keeping this day in a higher rep range and moderate on the intensities.

      This would give you much more focused sessions. M&Th focus on speed/power/max strength and Tu&F focus on general strength qualities/hypertrophy.

      Any of your off days (W Sat or Sun) would be the time to focus on extra flexibility/mobility work needed that you may not have address in your sessions in the warmup.

      Any questions, please let me know.

      John

  • Nate says:

    Hi John. Thanks for the insight on rest. It’s definitely something that I need to employ more and more. It’s easy to just get into “machine” mode, and not think about the stress on my body. I hadn’t considered high vs. low CNS either. Thanks again.

  • jess says:

    You say in the article that long distance running places little stress on the body (later in the comments you mentioned that about a mile run can help recovery). I was talking to a friend of mine who ran cross country in high school and college about the way he trained. It sounded to me like the weekly volume he was asked to do was relevantly similar in its demands on the body to what some weight training protocols demand. He said in high school the volume was about 30 miles per week and in college it was almost double. Is long distance running low stress up until a certain volume is hit?

    • John Grace says:

      Jess, the mile run (as a means of recovery) is meant to be jogged at a slow pace… usually 10-15 min should suffice.

      Here is a general template for distance running on a 7 day cycle (below). While this has no weight training in it, you can still see the general hi-low CNS flow to the 7 days. Intervals, assuming they are done at higher intensities because distance is shortened, are harder than a steady state run (which comes after an interval day) and this hi-low trend continues throughout the week.

      While continuous long distance day after long distance day at relatively low intensities are feasible because you’ll rebound quite fast, overtime this may result in some overuse injuries.

      Day 1: Intervals – Interval training involves a pace near maximum effort. As an example, for a 5 mile race, you could run 10 reps of a quarter mile with a work to rest ratio of 1:1.

      Day 2: Steady state run – This is meant to work as a recovery day. The steady state refers to “exercise intensity at which maximal lactate production is equal to maximal lactate clearance.”(1). This type of training should produce very little fatigue and no burning sensation in the muscle.

      Day 3: Tempo runs: Tempo running involves intensity at or slightly higher that race pace. This type of training may also be called lactate threshold training. This is the “I hope I don’t throw up” training that you may have experienced in our CF Endurance class. Since you won’t be able to sustain the intensity level above race pace for the given distance, running a quarter to a third of the race at this pace is enough.

      Day 4: Steady state run – Same as Day 2

      Day 5: Intervals – On the second interval day for a 5 mile competition, 5 reps of 1 mile intervals with a work to rest ratio of 1:1 would work well.

      Day 6: Long run – This intensity is very similar to a steady state run. The expectation of a long run is running at least as long as the race distance.

      Day 7: Rest – A light jog, mobility, and flexibility work well here also.

      Hope this helps.

  • Colin says:

    John

    In the context of ‘fitness’ clients that are interested in improved body composition, are ‘finishers’, interval training for 10-30 mins, and other HIT methods considered CNS intensive? Where do you think they should be placed – if anywhere – in a clients weekly programme?

    Regards
    Colin

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