Training= Patterns + Stress + Recovery + Progression
If training is exercise for the purpose of adaptation, then how is this exercise organized to do so? Don't think of this as a recipe to be followed for improvement. Training is NOT math and the inputs don't always result in an output that makes sense, or even one that's measurable at all. Instead, focus on the idea of scaffolding, a framework from which we can make the changes we want, and without which our reach is limited.
We start with a Pattern, which is a static position or a movement through a given range. There are no rules here. There is no one right way to move that is independent of context. It’s only once we look at the context in which we’re moving, the task the movement performs and the stresses placed on it that we can begin to suggest “rules” or best practices for moving. For example, lifting a heavy weight off of the floor with a rounded back is not wise in the gym as it exposes the spine to potentially dangerous shear force. However, to cognitively leap from the heavy lift and say that we can never have a rounded back and must always aspire for a neutral spine in all activity is equally unwise and will ultimately lead to any movement in the spine becoming dangerous for us precisely because we have avoided it for so long. Learn to pay attention to context, then extrapolate carefully.
It seems to serve us best to think in terms of movements and the fundamental patterns they fall in, rather than individual muscles and how to target them. To reach up into a cabinet for a coffee mug, one doesn’t think about depressing their scapula and recruiting the deltoids to flex the shoulder joint and the tricep to extend the elbow. We just reach. To be clear, some of us must be reeducated in how to move, but the simpler and more intuitive we can make this process the better. Below is a basic list of fundamental patterns that most complex movements can be distilled down to, whether they fit neatly in one category or a combination.
Patterns are not limited to movements. Sometimes, resisting motion is much more important. Once we have a pattern that corresponds with the adaptation we want, we apply Stress to it. This is what a workout is, essentially. Remember, we’re mostly interested in training rather that just exercise, so the stress we chose to apply should be an attempt to create adaptation that addresses a limiter (a problem, a shortfall, a gap) in our ability. Options for stressing a pattern include:
Energy system used
Tempo (speed of movement)
Manipulation of rest interval
Recovery state leading into workout
Frequency of training sessions
Fueling (source, quantity, timing)
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and the coach and athlete are truly limited only by their imagination and willingness to experiment. If an athlete is limited by strength in the squat -meaning that their ability to produce force in the squat pattern is inadequate for the demands of their sport or work or daily life- then an appropriate stress for the squat pattern could be squatting with additional weight (i.e. loading). This works in reverse as well, where the stresses placed on a pattern can give us a clue of how we should be moving in context. If my job is to lift heavy rocks into the bed of a truck, then I need to learn how to hip hinge with a braced neutral spine for safety, but I don’t need to be as careful when bending over to pick a flower on my lunch-break. If an event in my sport requires high repetitions of unloaded air squats, then a rigid neutral spine is a surely a benefit but not an imperative for safety and performance. To sum up, the keen athlete should approach the session with an intent to apply a specific stress; to prioritize teaching their body a specific “lesson”, to write or erase a specific habit.
Training is the stimulus to create an adaptation. Recovery is the bridge that connects the two. Without allowing time and paying attention to fueling, our body’s ability to rearrange our physiology in response to stress is blunted. Even if you train 40 hours per week, there are still 128 hours in that week to fill with behavior that either supports or harms your progress. Any recommendations for diet, sleep, and other recovery practices will be eschewed here in favor of personal conversation, and the warning that if you're not sleeping enough or eating appropriately, then sleep and food are sources of stress for your body, not recovery. Start thinking honestly about whether you eat and sleep appropriately for the lifestyle you want. If the answer is no, start asking your coach questions that show you’ve spent time thinking about the subject and are invested in the answers.
The final variable in our training equation is Progression. Put simply, this means that we have to trend towards “more” not “less”. More stress. A louder signal for adaptation. What got you where you are won’t take you where you’re going, so the more capable we become in a pattern or energy system, the more persistent and creative we must be to challenge it and “convince” our bodies that it’s worth the investment of resources to adapt further. How to change the stress will vary based on intent, but it’s important to remember that the difference between poison and medicine is the dose, thus progression is best handled slowly and thoughtfully. An infinite, shallow trajectory will eventually out perform a short, steep one. Choose acceleration over velocity.