Training using a well-written, individualised program usually produces better results than training using a template.
While a well-written training template can produce decent results in most people, awesome results in a few people and terrible results in a few people, given appropriate time, a well-written individualised program can produce awesome results in virtually everyone.
My point was recently beautifully illustrated by this study.
What this study demonstrated is really, really cool. Basically, the researchers assigned a group of rugby players to one of four training programs.
- The “Muscle Growth” (MG) protocol: 4 sets of 10 reps @ 70% of 1RM with 2 minutes of rest between sets.
- The “Strength” (S) protocol: 3 sets of 5 reps @85% of 1RM with 3 minutes of rest between sets.
- The “Endurance” (E) protocol: 5 sets of 15 reps @55% of 1RM with 1 minute of rest between sets.
- The “Power” (P) protocol: 3 sets of 5 reps @40% of 1RM with 3 minutes of rest between sets.
This was done for 4 exercises (Seated Row, Bench Press, Leg Press & Squats). They repeated the same session.
One interesting thing in this study was how they assigned subjects to their group. They had each subject perform each of the 4 protocols (MG/S/E/P), and measured their salivary testosterone response (the unbound testosterone found in their saliva). Then, they made half of them train on the protocol that elicited the smallest increase in testosterone (Tmin) for 3 weeks while the other half trained their “best” protocol (Tmax). Then, they had 3 weeks of retesting hormonal responses to training sessions. Finally, the groups changed their respective protocols around (the group that did Tmax during the initial 3 weeks did Tmin and vice versa).
Interestingly, the consistency across the study (before engaging in the protocols & when retesting at midpoint & after) in hormonal responses to the 4 protocols was significant (p<0.001), suggesting that these differences in hormonal responses were not due to a novelty effect (the effect of doing something new you’re not used to doing), but rather to something more deeply entrenched in their physiology – perhaps their genetics.
So, what happened when the subjects trained with their Tmax protocol? What about their Tmin protocol?
Now, before you go off to get yourself a salivary testosterone test, I’d like to point out what’s probably the most interesting point of the study that I haven’t mentioned so far.
You would think that everyone responded best to the Muscle Growth or Strength protocol while responding most poorly to the Power or Endurance protocol, right?
In fact, there were a lot of people who didn’t respond optimally to MG/S.
Yep. While most people did”respond best” (Tmax= hormonally anyways – which doesn’t paint a complete picture) to the Muscle Growth and Strength protocols, there were some people who responded BETTER to Power or Endurance Training.
(On a side note, I think it’s to be expected that the Muscle Growth protocol had an advantage in this study – short rest periods & higher rep ranges & set numbers are notorious for causing acute & transient spikes in hormone levels – not that acute spikes in muscle growth after training are necessarily causative of significantly more muscle growth/strength gain.)
Out of 16 people, two had larger increases in 1RM using the Power Protocol than they did using the Hypertrophy protocol. One other subject experienced larger increases in 1RM using the Endurance protocol than he did using the Strength protocol.
Individual response to Training
To sum it up; there is a LOT of variability between people’s genetics, and, hence, how they respond to training. In fact, genetics aren’t the only factor affecting response to training when you do a program, so it’s even more foolish to expect everyone to respond similarly to a given program.
What are the take aways?
- Some people respond very well to some training programs, and very poorly to others.
- Just because a certain program(s) doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean you can’t make excellent progress given the right program. Experiment.
- You more than likely won’t get the most out of a template. As I mentioned – for any given (good) template, a few people get an excellent response, a lot of people get a decent response, and a few people get a negative/terrible response.
- Because of this… if you want the best possible results, you NEED to write your own program, or hire a coach.
- The best way to operate when writing a program is as follows (when you don’t know what works for you); begin by setting up a very average program that should work decently for most people. This is where science is super useful – it gives you an idea of what principles to use to guide decision making A PRIORI. Once you’ve trained on this sample program for a while, it’s time you start experimenting. ONLY MAKE MINOR CHANGES. In science, there’s something called a confounder. Basically, whenever you want to know that a change occurred in a dependent variable (results – gains) BECAUSE you changed a dependent variable (the change you want to test) , you want to minimise all potential confounders (things that might’ve affected your outcome besides the dependent variable whose effect you’re trying to measure). For example, if I want to test out whether sets of 15 reps work better for me than sets of 6 reps, but I change from 3 sets of 6 Back Squats to 6 sets of 15 Leg Presses, you’ve got two confounders. What I wanted to figure out was whether changing the rep range would positively affect my results; however, the result is also being affected by me changing exercises (BS->LP) and number of sets (3->6). Because of this, I can’t say for sure that my improved/worsened results are a direct consequence of doing 15 as opposed to 10 reps. Because of this, make SMALL changes and see how they impact your training.
- By engaging in this process, you’ll SLOWLY find out what works best for you. Take measurements (weight, strength, circumferences), take notes, observe and experiment. It might be that you respond best to the super basic, average program that works well for a ton of people (in your population – the best program for an elderly person simply isn’t the same as the best program for a child). However, most likely, you will benefit from a few minor tweaks in most cases, and from a lot of tweaks in a few exceptions. Hell, as you saw above – some people respond better to typical super explosive and easy work than they do to typical strength/hypertrophy work. Over the years, you’ll slowly find what your best program looks like… and you’ll be able to repeat it and make excellent results. You’ll know EXACTLY what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and all that will be left to do is to repeat it, with very minor tweaks. You’ll know exactly that the way you set up your training is superior to any other combination.