What is programming?
One of the big differences between exercising and training is the existence of a programme. This is a guide of how to manipulate training variables in the long term to create manageable overload and continuous adaptation. Writing a programme is an art form that all coaches will have encountered in their education and all will have been tested on their ability to produce one. In fact, the programme alone is a significant part of the price for any personal trainer or coach to the point that many non-professional trainees will pay thousands of pounds a year solely for the x's and o's on a sheet before any of the soft skills of coaching even come into play.
There are also infinite variations in approach to programming: concurrent, linear, block, conjugate, undulating, reverse, autoregulated, percentage based, velocity based... the list goes on. Within those titles there are infinite variables and parameters than can be tweaked here and there to meet the demands of the athlete, their sport, their goal, their lifestyle etc. The interesting thing is that many of these approaches contradict others' approaches in their principles of efficacy. Simply put: they can all be effective and we don't really know exactly why.
When researches have used daily performance based testing to assess athlete readiness and dictate programming parameters the results have been all over the place. Very few athletes fall into the training patterns associated with traditional programming, with most being highly erratic in their "ideal" inputs day to day. I myself have had countless occasions where I have followed a well crafted programme to the letter with no yield at the end, and others where I have seen substantial strength gains with no justifiable reason based on the quality of the preceding work. In my younger coaching days I would often hit athletes with party line: "If you go off programme you won't make progress" and then when they did happen to fluke a personal best I'd reply: "it worked this time, but it won't in the long run". But over the years I have seen and experienced far too many programming "anomalies" to take the exact sequence of numbers too seriously. When you're dealing with human beings there are so many millions of factors you aren't considering, that putting too much emphasis on the few bits and bobs you do know about is nothing short of ignorant arrogance. As the years have gone on I have been far more open to taking my own programme detours if the mood strikes, or the atmosphere is right, and more and more I find my instincts to be correct. Many of my best training experiences have come from trying something frankly outlandish in contradiction of everything I was formally taught. I refer to instinct here rather than judgment because until the moment strikes I cannot yet pre-empt it. Maybe one day, but as I have suggested just now, given the complexity of human adaptation, I am not arrogant enough to be optimistic.
All of this leads me to my commonly uttered phrase whenever I PB by 20 kilos on deadlift while fatigue is high, and there has been no hint of strength gain, and I had no right to even attempt the weight I just lifted: programming is BS, and training makes no sense.
Why follow a programme?
And yet; despite everything I have written above; the first thing I look at when an athlete is struggling to make progress is indeed: the programme. And I often see that with the only change being within the programme, you can rapidly transform an athlete's fortune. So the question then becomes: what is the value of a programme? Does it work or does it not?
If we think of a programme as a recipe, we can start to see why it might or might not work. There are many different combinations of ingredients you could use to make a specific meal. All of them can work, but also any of them could be ruined by external factors. All the correct ingredients won't make a great cake if the oven is only 40 degrees. Same goes if it's 400. No chef would be foolish enough to set an oven so low or so high, but a child making their first cake without supervision (even with the ingredients laid out) could easily make such an error.
A good coach is like a chef. They can follow a recipe, but they can also improvise. In fact, many of their strokes of genius may come in the moment with an instinctive change. As a terrible cook myself, I do not have the confidence to deviate from a recipe even slightly. Nor do I expect it to turn out well if I do start to improvise. The true chef however, knows that even when things are forced to change, they can salvage the situation and make it work.
Do I follow a programme?
Contrary to popular belief, I actually write myself a full programme in advance of starting a new block after competition. However, I am happy to admit it has been a long time since I followed that framework to its conclusion without edits. This is not an approach I advocate for the vast majority of trainees. There are a number of factors involved which make me comfortable to make changes, or to attempt a PB off-programme. Unless all of these apply to you; I suggest sticking to the plan whenever possible.
- I am fully aware of the risk/reward ratio of success versus failure with whatever I am attempting in the full context of my training.
- I am comfortable with the psychological repercussions of success or failure.
- I am confident in the knowledge of how to adapt the programme moving forward to accommodate the change.
- I have years of experience in understanding the signals of faster or slower progress than expected.
- I know the phases of my programme where I have leeway to improvise, and those phases where I do not.
- I have the discipline to keep my improvisations within the realm of plausibility. I'm not putting the oven on 400 degrees.
When it comes to humans making adaptations, absolutely anything can work at any time. That is not to say that the approach is optimal or advisable for anyone other than you, or even advisable for you under any other circumstance. Every individual training day is subject to an enormous amount of context that is almost entirely beyond our current comprehension. While there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that we are not in full control over the adaptations we make to training inputs, this does not mean we should just throw our hands up entirely. The nuance exists in knowing that the programme you follow cannot possibly be optimal; but that if it has been properly crafted it provides the best possible chance of predictable progress. Deviate from the plan at your peril, and be humble enough to take the information it gives you earnestly. Only make changes if it can be fully justified within your honest understanding of the adaptive model. One final thought: if your current programme never allows any degree of improvisation there is a high likelihood you are flying a little too close to the sun a little too often.