“Behind the Whiteboard” – Why 4-Week Cycles
Walk into any functional fitness gym and you will receive a different style of programming. You’ll see some that fly the flag of constantly varied, all the time. You’ll see others that focus on a periodized approach. We can tell you that over the course of twelve years, we have programmed both styles, and believe both are successful for the sake of achieving a state of generally prepared fitness. In 2016, we made the switch to monthly cycles with our lifts and workouts and it was one of those obvious aha, no brainer moments that we’ve never looked back from, for good reason.
We have found that structure wins when it comes to providing more tangible, linear progress, but we also believe in keeping the elements of variation, even random at times, for both physiological and psychological reasons. We’ve tested 4 week cycles, 6 week cycles, 8 week cycles and completely varying cycles. The absolute winner is 4 week cycles.
Working on something in a focused, linear manner yields a more tangible improvement than working on something in a random, non linear manner. Today we will pull the philosophy of our programming straight from our Coach’s Workbook and share it with you all in hopes of answering some of the technical components of it.
We like a hybrid approach as the best way to get great results, fix deficiencies, and also keep people’s attention span and interest levels. Our program is based on three key drivers.
- Structure Specificity – Consistent 4 week lifts
- Minimum Effective Dosing – 2-3 strength efforts/week
- Movement Reciprocity – Allowing four weeks of focus in a movement to benefit four weeks of focus in the following cycle. People helpin’ people.
Here are our three key drivers explained.
1. Structured Specificity: Consistent 4 Week Lifts
Specificity Principle 101. If the goal in a particular cycle is to increase squat strength, we’re going to squat. Squatting has a host of carryover benefits aside from just getting better at the squat itself so while it may be the focus, it doesn’t mean all we care about is improving your numbers. Within this structure, we generally like to stick to similar rep ranges so you guys can see linear progress week over week. Provided your movement posture is good, we encourage you to go up in weight every session, even if it’s literally only five pounds.
We don’t try to achieve absolutely everything in a cycle, just a few focused efforts. By doing so, we are removing your need to always try and get better at everything, which is an exercise in futility if there ever was one. This reduces clutter, turns down the noise, and provides you an environment of focus without getting FOMO that you’re missing out on something else. If every cycle isn’t your favorite, that’s kind of the idea. Left to your own devices, too many people cherry pick a random training program, and end up no better off than when they started.
Four week cycles has been the most effective in the sense that it allows enough time to improve while not getting stagnant, ensures we don’t neglect anything for too long, and grants us the ability to provide you more opportunities for each movement throughout the year. While 8-weeks was slightly more effective for driving pure strength numbers, it resulted in stagnation, movement deterioration, imbalances, greater risk of injury, hitting plateaus, boredom, and less opportunities to become a capable, well rounded athlete. Longevity and safety is one of our primary drivers in program design.
As far as what we rotate, there is no magic combo. We follow basic physiological pairing. We pair an absolute strength focused lift that has a heavy eccentric component (squat, deadlift, lunge), with a strength-speed movement that has minimal eccentric component (like a clean, press or jerk).
This allows you to work force generation multiple ways (strength and power) that do not compete with one another.
2. Minimum Effective Dose: 2-3 Strength Efforts/Week
We believe in Minimum Effective Dosing (MED) when it comes to strength training.
Programs that yield improvements are a function of progressive overload stress doses matched with adequate recovery. It is only during the return to homeostasis with CNS recovery that physiological adaptations, aka #gainz, are made. Where our opinions might deviate is not in specificity, but in frequency. We want to dose at just enough frequency to allow constant adaptation and progress without putting the body into a state of chronic fatigue.
You want to eat to the point you’re nourished, not stuffed.
If you constantly strength train within your window of recovery (~48 hours), then you are never allowing your body to return to homeostasis, and you are not getting the highest returns from your efforts. An increase in dosing may or may not create slightly more adaptation, however it will come at the cost of time and energy removal of other development. It will create fatigue, and the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in where our increased effort does not correlate to an equal increased results.
Again, specialization for the purpose of competition is vastly different than training for generally prepared fitness.
3. Movement Reciprocity: People Helpin’ People
Movement Reciprocity is when a movement has planned carry over and benefit to another movement. This can be direct reciprocity, such as a back squat helping a deadlift (through training similar muscles). Or, it can be indirect reciprocity, such as a back squat helping pull-ups (through isometric lat action). For example, we’ve seen many pull-up PRs following back squat cycles.
If your hamstrings are weak deadlifting, then constantly deadlifting at 85%+ might never actually fix that. Your low back might continue to take over on the lift and likely a self-fulfilling prophecy of weak hamstrings and over strong low back would be allowed to exist. A “constantly varied” approach is beneficial in that it doesn’t allow you to continue to reinforce imbalance. Instead, it forces you to step away from the deadlift and do workouts filled with kettlebell swings, RDLs, etc, so perhaps the next time they step up to the bar that hamstring weakness is cured.
We believe that this is the ingredient that allows a lot of progress in a constantly varied model. However, that progress can be a crapshoot. If you miss a few instances where the deadlift is programmed, who knows when that lift can be practiced and the progress be realized? It may be months. This is why we like to have focus in the lift, but with secondary objectives and inclusions that provide benefit outside of the primary objective of the month.
Some examples of direct and indirect movement reciprocity include:
- Back squats will build lat strength for your pull-ups. In fact, we’ve seen more pull-up PRs happen concurrently alongside back squat PRs than we have with an isolated high volume program. This is exactly why athletes who come to us with pull-up goals are quickly told to focus on increasing their back squat.
- Lunges and core strengthening will improve locomotion and running economy, shaving time off your mile, without any mile training specificity whatsoever.
- Powerlifting alongside weightlifting is a great way to get stronger at each. Technique conflict aside, when you start to understand muscle synergy and the speed strength continuum it makes perfect sense (strength helps speed, speed helps strength).
- Goblet squats building push-up strength through isometric chest and arm contractions of holding the bell in place.
Tempo pull-ups helping front squats by training the lats when they are lengthened and weak (like they are in a front rack position). And, vice versa.
- Front squats helping pull-ups via lat strength.
- Front squats training off-the-floor sticking on a deadlift via quad strength.
There are many wrong ways to program, just as there are many right ways. This the product we feel most comfortable putting on the board for you, and since we’ve implemented it, we’ve seen injuries decrease, performance increase, and a great focus on movement technique and tracking of how we all feel, week to week.
A random approach will always yield random results.