Using Feedback to Manage Your Training

If you’re familiar with my rantings on the forums, and understand anything about my philosophy, you’ll understand that I’m pretty much anti-program.

This doesn’t mean that I’m against the idea of you having a plan. It means I’m against pre-made off-the-shelf solutions. I don’t think that the secret to your success lies in the latest workout from a magazine, and certainly not in the new e-book that costs $70 for 10 pages of information you already know.

Let’s face it: there’s really nothing new under the sun. What you see in any program is going to simply be someone’s take on the same handful of rules.

Not all pre-made programs are bad, per se. The problem isn’t that. The issue boils down to one simple thing: the stronger you get, the more that progress is determined by things that aren’t written down on the page.

What do I mean by that?

Well, think of the standard program. What does it give you?

Usually a list of exercises, number of sets, number of reps, approximate weight to use, and occasionally you’ll see a few extras like tempo and rest intervals between sets.

This is about the limit of what a written program can give you. The problem is, all that information is just serving as a proxy for the real matter.

The weight you’re using at any given time is some percentage of your best capacity – your 1RM. But at any given time, you’re also guessing. A program is inherently inaccurate; you won’t ever know what you’re actually doing. This is something most of us just accept, because usually the inaccuracy isn’t that big of a deal.

No, the real issue is total stress on the system. This is a concept very few coaches and trainers even seem to realize exists, let alone account for in their programming.

A stress is considered any stimulus that puts the body on guard. That’s a really vague way of putting it, but look at it this way: anything that pushes your body out of its comfort zone.

This is what exercise is: a stress that forces particular changes in your body. Stress is thought to have two different effects, one positive (gaining strength or size, for example) and the other negative (fatigue that impairs performance). Positive effects are generally thought to outlast the negative, but the trick is understanding how those effects interact: this is not always easy or intuitive.

Obviously you want a little of this; but you don’t want too much because it causes some pretty bad problems in excess. This would be the feared Overtraining Syndrome, and it’s weaker cousin, short-term overreaching.

Beginners don’t really have to worry about this. The workout that a beginner is capable of doing isn’t going to put enough stress on his/her system to be an issue. But a strong person with years of experience can knock himself out quite easily by using either too much weight or doing too much work with something a little lighter.

Intensity, or the weight on the bar, will always be main the determinant of stress. Volume, the amount of work you do, is always going to be modulated by intensity. High volume with a lower weight isn’t stressful at all. High volume with a heavy weight is murder. It’s no wonder then that most productive programs spend most of their time with moderate intensity, moderate volume training. Other combinations tend to cause more of a disruptive effect – this leads to greater gains, but also results in longer down-time because you have to recover.

For those of you that aren’t beginners, this is the Number One issue that you will have to face. Stress and the fatigue it generates will hamper your gains more than anything else. And unfortunately, those cookie-cutter programs you get from the magazines and the overpriced/overmarketed books do not account for this.

So how do we actually get around it?

There’s been several schemes and approaches over the years, some better than others. Virtually all of them require that you have some experience training, and more importantly, have an idea of how different types of training feel.

Bill Starr’s old 5×5 program, given new life in recent years by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, simply uses heavy, medium, and light days, with different combinations of volume and intensity to manage the stress.

Even before that, Doug Hepburn was using even simpler programs based around a simple increase in volume, with benchmarks set to trigger weight increases. You’d start with X reps, and add to that from session to session. When you hit X+Y reps, you’d add weight and start over.

This is a basic example of a concept called auto-regulation, where the training process actually manages itself. Auto-regulation is related to another concept, the idea of cybernetic periodization. This is where you use feedback and monitoring to manage things.

One of the more interesting ways to do this has you using the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to provide feedback. RPE was first described by the Borg scale to get feedback from endurance athletes.

I read about it in Supertraining awhile back, and have used it fairly extensively in training clients; it’s invaluable when training someone that’s contest dieting, as you can get a good idea of how hard (qualitatively) any given weight is. It helps to not push them too hard, and also make sure they aren’t losing too much strength.

Basically you just provide a simple scale, and give an idea of how heavy the weight is. The actual scale doesn’t matter; you can use 1-5, 1-10, Borg’s original 6-20, whatever. Just be consistent.

Research has shown that RPE is very accurate when it comes to gauging difficulty, so at least it’s not totally made-up thinking.

Well, not too long ago I stumbled across a new site run by a guy named Mike Tuchsherer. Mike’s a very impressive powerlifter, but more relevant to this piece, he’s near the release of a book detailing what he calls the Reactive Training System.

The RTS is basically this process in a nutshell: how to take feedback from RPE and use it to manage a training program. I don’t get excited about new products very often, but this one’s got me more than a little interested.

Anyways, have a look at Mike’s site, and keep an eye out for the RTS book.