Consistency is King: Programming for Sport
By Max Torres, M.Ed., CSCS
Any trip onto various YouTube fitness pages yields a plethora of videos demonstrating every variation of every exercise that you could possibly think of. With all of these exercises shoved in your face, how could you possibly provide your athletes with the best program possible? It is important for coaches working in team sports to note that those who work in the private sector produce the majority of these videos. These personal trainers and private sector coaches often NEED to provide novelty to their clients in order to keep them coming back. This is not a shot at those in the private sector, it’s simply something to consider when viewing these videos. I argue that for those of us working in team sports, consistency in programming reigns supreme.
Progressive Overload, Why Consistency is King. Most quality programs apply progressive overload to the athlete in some manner. Whether via increases in intensity (load), volume, frequency, or density, progressive overload must be applied to yield adaptations as an athlete’s fitness increases. This is especially noticeable in athletes with a low training age. As popularized in linear programs like Starting Strength1, novices can and generally should add load to the bar each workout. Exercises must be programmed with enough consistency that the athlete may learn and practice the movement frequently enough so they are limited by their physiology rather than their skill. In its simplest form, this may involve squatting three times a week, adding five pounds to bar each time. With athletes of a more advanced training age, increases in volume, frequency, or density may be more appropriate in order to drive adaptations.
Regardless of the manner in which progressive overload is imposed, it is important to understand that a movement must be executed with enough consistency for skill to be developed. An athlete must be skilled enough in a movement so that he/she may impose enough physiological stress to drive adaptation. If different exercises are constantly rotated in and out of a program, without enough time for the athlete to develop skill in their completion, limited progressive overload will occur. Without consistency, most gains in strength/fitness will be achieved simply because the athlete figures out how to complete the exercise in a more efficient manner, rather than due to overload. For this reason, when choosing exercises as part of a strength and conditioning program, it is important that the main exercises remain relatively consistent through an athlete’s program over time.
But What About Variety, Won’t They Get Bored? Quite frankly, an athlete’s boredom with the program is not a huge concern of mine. Working in professional sports, I am far more concerned with programming what is strictly necessary versus what I think they will enjoy doing. I understand that some in the private sector actually do need to worry about their clients becoming bored with the program, and need to balance consistent programming with enough novelty to keep their clients coming back. However, it is my opinion that in most cases, large exercise variety in strength and conditioning programs is overrated.
With a year-round, multi-sport athlete, long-term, consistent programming of a few basic strength movements is superior to programming a variety of new movements with each cycle. The athlete will already be exposed to a variety of different movements through the various sports that he/she is participating in. Therefore, the strength and conditioning program should focus on a few big bang movements and their improvement over time.
With specialized athletes playing at a high level, consistency remains key. When in season, these athletes already have high practice and playing volumes. Thus, the emphasis should remain on providing only a few big bang movements necessary to drive the needed adaptations and avoiding additional volume of exercises for variety’s sake. The off-season can allow for a bit of room where additional exercise variety may be programmed. However, it is important to ensure that the variety is to further aid in achieving a specific adaptation rather than simply be for novelty.
In the two previous examples, some variation may be programmed over time. However, it should be subtle. For example, progressing from a dumbbell goblet reverse lunge to a reverse lunge with two dumbbells held suitcase style. Another example would be progressing from a reverse lunge to a deficit reverse lunge by stepping off of an elevated surface. This changes the movement slightly while ensuring that overload can continue to be applied to an exercise without skill becoming the major limiting factor.
A Little Novelty Goes A Long Way. Despite my earlier statement that boredom was not a huge concern of mine, sometimes staleness creeps into training. You start to see the athletes going through the motions, their execution becomes sloppy, and they appear unmotivated. In this case, some variety could inject the novelty needed to regain their attention. Changing the warm-up provides novelty without interfering with quality training time. This should only be done prior to strength and conditioning sessions, as you generally do not want to interfere with pre-game and pre-practice routines.
Another way to provide novelty is to make a piece of training competitive. For example, if you are performing acceleration drills, make the last repetition a race. Besides adding novelty, this will allow for a higher output as the athletes put more effort into the drill due to heightened emotional arousal, providing a stronger stimulus. However, in less disciplined athletes, form may deteriorate, sometimes substantially. In this case, at least it is only one repetition and they had fun doing it. You introduced a quality stimulus through the preceding repetitions and hopefully alleviated some staleness.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It. Quality, consistent training should never be sacrificed for novelty and variety. However, small, conscious injections of variety into the warm-up or as small additions to your regular training can alleviate staleness. Consistent training that allows for progressive overload will yield the largest benefits over time. As such, it is important to ensure that your programming remains true to this principle and that you are not lured away by that cool exercise video you saw last night.
1. Rippetoe, M. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd edition 3rd Edition. The Aasgaard Company, Wichita Falls, Tx, 2017.
Max Torres, M.Ed., CSCS is a Physical Performance Coach for the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club, where he develops and implements the Rockies’ Physical Performance program at the Rockies’ Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic. If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out his blog at https://ironandinference.wordpress.com/