Be Strong, Be Kind

Strength coach, trainer educator, writer, mom to three awesome kids, pie enthusiast. Creating monsters since 2009.

The Economics of Training Part II

David Van Skike

“The idea that the harder you work, the better you’re going to be is just garbage. The greatest improvement is made by the man or woman who works most intelligently.”
Bill Bowerman

In Part One, we introduced the idea of training economy.   Good training economy is spending limited training resources on those things that are known to contribute directly to the goal.  It means understanding that each new component you add to your program (lift, drill, or practice) has learning and recovery costs that need to be accounted for.
By analogy, training economy means investing in tools that will last, that are versatile and that have proven value.  Bad training economy is buying up interesting but ultimately useless gadgets from the outlet mall in hopes they will contribute to the cause.
Squat More is the answer…what was the question again?

Let’s talk practical terms.  It is my position that there are few if any “bad exercises” (except sumo deadlift hi pulls, those are bad).  Certainly, there are poor applications of really limited tools (like tricep kickbacks), there are overblown or over prescribed ideas (circuit training or so-called Metabolic Conditioning)  but mostly there are poor application of a good tool, say prescribing the snatch and clean and jerk for distance runners.

Still, there are rarely absolutes when it comes to training.  Every trainee learns in their own way.  What may seem like a useless drill for one athlete may give another athlete major breakthroughs in their sport. Instead of throwing up our hands and succumbing to relativism, where all systems have equal possibilities of producing results (they don’t) let’s talk about best practices.
You should be able to look where you are relative to your training goal and prioritize what needs to be done first.  This sounds simple on its face…and it is.  Most people over-think it.  Whole books have been written on periodization and training for sport that don’t touch on this extremely simple concept that as an adult, you probably already know.  

If you decide you want to:
  • throw the discus at a masters track meet having never touched one, what’s the first thing to do?
  • want to run a marathon, having not run for several years, what the first thing to do?
  • compete in a submission wrestling tournament having not been on a mat since high school, what’s step one?
You know that the answers are learn to throw, run, wrestle…or more specifically, find a resource to learn to throw, develop your running technique and find a group to train your wrestling skills.   This is Base Training.  Base is not GPP.  GPP is preparing the individual to train.  Base is working directly the fundamental skills and qualities of your sport.  Base training is also specific: Runners Run, Weightlifters Lift, Throwers Throw.  Base is where you need the bulk of your actual training time.

These priorities should be obvious because they are the fundamental prerequisites for accomplishing the goal at hand. These abilities also take the longest time to develop.  Economical training is based on this prioritization, such that you focus on the critical pieces early and often.  This probably sounds like the old saw of focusing on the fundamentals. That’s because it is and because fundamentals work.

The purpose of every training session, or block should be Obvious
If a trainee or a coach does not know the specific purpose of every component of the given session they are doing it wrong.  All components of training should be included to provoke a specific desired training effect.  The purpose of training is not to provoke fatigue or soreness. 
Here’s an example training session.  I picked this somewhat at random from an off season highland games thrower.

Throwing Drills:10 full turn drills,5  power position throws, 10 full indoor shotput throws

Snatch Pulls


Bench Presses

Box squats
142 x5

What do you see?  I see Simplicity and Efficiency

He starts with primary skill work for his sport.  He  moves on to snatch pulls, which this athlete has found to have better carryover to his throws than a full snatch or power snatch.  This movement develops his ability to deliver maximum hip extension in a forceful and coordinated manner.   Then he does some bench pressing for developing upper body pressing strength crucial to the stone throws.  He  finishes with the king of full body strength exercises, the squat.  Squats make you strong. Period.  Notably absent is any fluff, excessive GPP, “metabolic conditioning” or bodybuilding work that this athlete does not need (some people do). All the lifts are contributing  directly to the sport at hand. 


Limited Variety-Economical Training requires limiting variety

The myth of variety is that it will make you well rounded.  Lean and powerful, flexible and strong, quick with great endurance…these are fitness follies.  The sooner you recognize this as a myth, the better. One of the hallmarks of good athletes is that they strive to do fewer things better rather than many things mediocre.  Sacrifice means giving up something you want for something else you want more.

Now, everyone bristles at the idea of these limitations.  People love to look to examples of multi-sport athletes who, through  grit and talent became great in several sports: the Bo Jacksons, the Bryan Oldfields, the talented all rounders.

Couple of things on this:

Thing 1. This will sting a little.  Elite athletes are born gifted. Many would excel at any number of sports regardless of how well or poorly they trained.  If you have to wonder if you were born gifted, you probably weren’t. I know, bummer...but 99.999 % of the world is in the same boat, so get over it.  Accept that we’ve got no free ride genetically, and we have limited time and recovery ability, we need to make it our mission to master a very limited set of things.  


Thing 2.  The examples are usually horseshit.  Most multisport athletes, even at the high school level, are pretty average outside their specific area and this amazing talent set disappears under the harsh light of adult competition.  Even great athletes like Michael Jordan, who tried to push beyond their sport, found out they were average at best outside it.

Back to the point at hand.  We need to be suspicious of spending our recovery dollars on “variety” or chasing elusive “all around” qualities that don’t clearly contribute to a tangible measurable goal.   If the very best limit their variety and prioritize, why are we adding variety?   Again, the clear sign of ineffectual training progressions is variety without clear purpose.  If you’re not training for something specific, you’re just exercising, then sure, variety is the spice of life.  Just know that all you’re getting is the spice, not a meal.

There are legit reasons for including some variation,  say rotating exercises or training multiple qualities within a training session or block  (Conjugate or Complex periodization,depending on how precise you want to be).  The first legit reason is the sport itself is very complicated in terms of either the skills needed for success (think combat sports, which are a mixture of skills and physical abilities, from power to extensive endurance) or a sports movement that is extremely technical.  An example of this would be the pole vault, where trainees will use a long series of  drills to allow the  movement to be broken down into manageable pieces, learned in sequence. A program for these athletes would appear to contain a great variety of elements to master and it is a legitimate  need of that sport.  

The second purpose of variety is to work on weaknesses.  For instance a strength athlete might break a given movement down to work on a lift from multiple approaches, overloading the movement, doing speed work, doing partial range movements to overcome a sticking point in their technique or leverages.  This is a legitimate need.   An example would be the bench press which might be worked from 2 or 3 positions even within a session.

The third semi-legitimate reason for variety is to combat boredom.  I say this is a semi-legitimate reason because most people training require some amount of variety to stay motivated.  This is not surprising.  However, no one ever said training for a goal was easy, and if boredom places a significant damper to motivation, then perhaps that athlete is not terribly motivated to begin with.  In any case, the least amount of variety necessary is what’s called for.  Frankly, focusing on a goal and hitting personal records is far more motivating.

Bang for the Buck, not esoterica or hype.

Thing One: By and large, some version of basics will work for (nearly) everyone.   When you reflect on the science, art and history of your respective sport, best practices emerge.  For instance, a list of accepted best practices for training highland games throwers might include in addition to the throws:

  • Sport Specific Drills
  • Jumps
  • Sprints
  • Olympic lift
  • Squat, Front and Back
  • Pressing/Benching
  • Deadlifting

A list of best practices for a rugby player might include:

  • Jumps
  • Running/Sprints
  • Power versions of the Olympic lifts
  • Squat, Front and Back
  • Pressing/Benching
  • Deadlifting

Hmmmmmm……..That’s weird. What about something like a Judo player or a wrestle

  • Sport Specific Drills
  • Jumps
  • Sprints/Running
  • Power versions of the Olympic lifts
  • Squats
  • Pressing/Benching
  • Deadlifting
Notice anything?  That’s right, the effective tools to build power and strength in sports that have a need for power and strength, are basically the same. There’s nothing fancy or exotic.  These components of training have proven,time and again, to have  the best bang for the buck.   If your program includes much else, you had better have a very good reason.   
“Everything yields to diligence”
T. Jefferson

Thing Two.  Never forget that each individual is an experiment of one, with their own unique set of weaknesses and strengths.  Economical training is recognizing that not everyone derives the same benefit from one training tool versus another.  The degree to which certain tools work for an individual is… well…individual.
 What’s more important is not that you have the best tools,  but that you master all the tools you do have.  As they say in drag racing,  Run what Ya Brung.  For instance Olympic lifts have long been prescribed for throwers.  This is, in no small part, likely because the qualities that make one a good Olympic lifts (explosive and strong) are also the qualities that make one a good thrower.  Does this mean all throwers should do the Olympic lifts?  Well, it depends.  Can they learn them expeditiously? Can they safely and powerfully execute them better and heavier over time? As with our thrower example above, he found that limited partial Olympic lift from the hang is good enough.  That lift transfers to his sport. Time spent learning a complicated lift to support your sport is most often better spent either lifting more or doing the sport.  Having a “pretty” power clean has some value, being a diligent and consistent thrower has more value.  Any time spent learning a supportive skill takes away from and conflicts with the main skill in some small way.  Does this mean don’t do supportive work like lifting? No.  It means spend your energy wisely.   Observe below.  Many rank amateurs can execute a better looking power clean than Robert.  Mr. Harting’s gold medal in the discus is a pretty good consolation prize.

Good coaches and athletes can work around limitations and tailor their approach to the individual.  Bang for the Buck is not about avoiding the hard work, it’s about not letting the dogma of “thou shalt do X” get in the way of the hard work.  I know a prominent Olympic lifting coach who swears his snatch goes up when his bench goes up. This may not adhere to the accepted thinking of his peers but it works for him and you can be sure he includes bench in his programming for this reason. 


 Avoid the “3 step problem”

This is a trap a lot of self coached athletes fall into.  When it comes to programming,
don’t do in three moves something you can achieve in two moves with consistent practice. Here is egregious example that cuts to the heart of uneconomic training.

  1. To develop as a track cyclist, I need to be stronger
  2. Front Squats will make me stronger.
  3.   I can’t seem to hit a good depth on the squat so I need comprehensive flexibility routine to be able to front squat well.

And so on…. The athlete goes from chasing his goal to chasing his tail in three easy moves.  Need to get stronger?  Find a version of squat you can execute well and go to town.  Need to develop coordinated explosive power?-  Focus on mastering one power tool that seems to carry over, whether it is snatching, jumping, or throwing….pick one and work it.  Don’t try to develop a repertoire of half ass movements. Pick the one that suits you and work the hell out of it. 

This kind of three step thinking is probably at its peak with trainees whose goals are aesthetic (bodybuilding) or esoteric (all around fitness competitors).  The prevailing assumption with this group is that in order to achieve a general goal, they need to do everything in general.  This leads to some of the most nonsensical and unproductive kitchen-sink “programming.”  Remember our example from Part 1?

My diet is paleo, I’m throwing often, I’m getting in my strength lifts in twice a week at least, squatting and pressing heavy.  I’m doing the Olympic lifts and I’m Crossfitting 4 days a week! 

Too many irons. Not enough fire.


 Most of these points are not a surprise to you.  The fact is whether you’re coaching yourself or someone else, it is not that different from being a therapist.  You simply need to hold up a mirror and point out the obvious.  I think one of the most useful bits of advice I have received is that the difference between rich people and the rest of us is that rich people spend less of their own money, that’s how to stay rich.   What’s the least amount of your training  resources you can spend to get the greatest return on your investment?

Focus on core modalities that widely transfer to the sport.  This is true whether you are a self-trained athlete or a coach.  If you pull any training program off the web or out of a book you should be able to develop an opinion within minutes whether the program works or doesn’t.  If upon reading it you have any question as to Why a given movement is included, it’s probably a wasted movement.

Economical training programs are simple and elegant.  They focus energy on the most essential elements that contribute to performance.  They also minimize or eliminate the minor pieces that are at best a distractions at worst, derail progress entirely.  Think of training your body in the same way you might think of investing your life savings.

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