Group programming: how our system works

Over the past decade, group fitness has grown drastically. To give you some background history, I started out as a Strength and Conditioning coach back in 2004, got involved with CrossFit in 2006, and opened my box in 2011.

Before CrossFit, I began learning and practicing Louie Simmons’ Conjugate Method at a facility I had interned at, while also reading books such as “Westside Barbell Book Methods,” “Supertraining,” and “Science and Practice of Strength Training.”

In addition, using some of the practices borrowed from Joel Jamieson for our conditioning methods has allowed us to draw a clear line on the intent of our conditioning and avoid overtraining which is common when high-intensity work is programmed too often.

By using the Conjugate method with a definitive template, our clients and I experienced consistent results with strength, conditioning, and body composition as well as improved recovery and motivation to train. The question became, how can we help people get closer to their goals in a group setting where the ability to “specialize” with the individual is not guaranteed?

There are a few questions that need to be asked when developing a system for group programming in order to ensure our programming is mindful of the greatest good for the greatest number.

  1. Schedules: Most of your clients will have different schedules and availability. As such, the programming must follow some structure and assume your clients will attend your classes multiple times a week.
  2. Training age: This is going to vary across the board, but we need to be able to satisfy a broad range of abilities in one setting.
  3. Goals: Most of your clients will be drawn to your program initially to look better, so prioritizing single-joint work will allow for improvements in body-composition and imbalance.
  4. Greater Good: We can’t base our programming on a group of clients, so greater good for the greatest number must be considered.
  5. Consistency: Offering a consistent template allows athletes to narrow down which days of programming most closely satisfy their goals, but overall a consistent plan allows us to track real progress and eliminate chances of burnout.
  6. Recovery: It’s no mystery we live in a world where people are chronically stressed out, have poor diets, and poor sleep patterns. If you’re running your clients into the ground with high-intensity work on the regular, they’ll invariably overtrain.
  7. New Clients: Most boxes have new clients all the time so programming linear based progressions do not make sense as this can be confusing to your new clients and create more stress in an already stressful environment.

All of these things considered, using a system of concurrent fitness like the Conjugate Method with balanced energy systems work allows a balanced attack that works with athletes of all abilities. You’d be hard-pressed to find such versatile way of training that encompasses the needs of beginner and advanced folks all in the same setting.

The Conjugate Method & CrossFit

So how do we ensure our clients are getting what they need while avoiding things that are common in the functional fitness world? Consistency with a template that allows for a concurrent style of training, built-in recovery, and addressing what all athletes need: a base of fitness.

These are principles that are consistent across the board whether your facility is in Texas or in Ireland. At the end of the day, people are people, so thinking only you can “really know your clients” is just not true and is a common misconception among box owners.

I’d venture to say the biggest aspect of this template and system of training is recovery. As previously stated, your clients are likely under-recovered already and should NOT be prescribed high threshold work more than a few times a week. 

Furthermore, we now know that simply training harder and more frequently does not guarantee results, and can actually have the opposite of the desired effect. Training smarter, not harder, is vital to the success of your athletes and the health of your business.

This, of course, is one of the biggest challenges coaches face: educating their clients that they do not need to be lying dead on the floor after each workout. Luckily for us coaches, there is a plethora of information at our fingertips to help build our cases.

Moreover, we can simply prove to our clients with how they feel, look, and perform by retesting strength and conditioning pieces on our 12-16 week timeline. Overall, though, you’ll need to remind your clients of the importance of being patient. At the end of the day, results (combined with how your clients feel) do not lie. Let the proof be in the pudding.

Let’s take a look at a sample template that we use with our clients all over the world. Keep in mind the conditioning methods will vary and are not limited to what is listed. This is simply an example.

Monday

• Max Effort Lower Body Movement
• Alactic Power Intervals
• Accessory Work

Tuesday

• Dynamic Effort Upper OR Repetition Upper Body Work
• Cardiac Output Method
• Accessory Work

Wednesday

• Low Skill GPP Work or Special Exercise Work
• Skill Development Work
• Long Slow Distance Work 

Thursday

• Dynamic Effort Lower-Body
• Lactic Power Intervals
• Accessory Work

Friday

• Max Effort Upper-Body
• GPP Based Conditioning or Aerobic Power
• Accessory Work

Saturday

• Partner or Team Conditioning. Energy System varies based on intensity load from each microcycle.

Sunday (Optional for the gyms that run programming on Sunday’s)

Total Body Training

There are a few things to keep in mind regarding our energy systems’ work:

  1. Higher threshold pieces follow the same logic as we do with separating “extreme workouts.” There are 72 hours of recovery between these sessions (Monday/Thursday and Tuesday/Friday).
  2. The energy system utilized is dependent on the athlete’s training age, but more times than not we can facilitate the demand we are looking for by offering a wide range of scaling options.
  3. Work-to-rest conditioning pieces are commonplace in my programming. You cannot feasibly improve if you don’t have built-in rest on the regular.
  4. Classic CrossFit benchmarks do fit into this template and are strategically placed within the programming.
  5. Retesting with both strength and conditioning pieces is done on a 12-16 week basis.
  6. This template contains equal parts of strength and conditioning so there is less concern about what days your clients decide to train as long as they are smart and listen to their bodies.

Sample Week of Programming

Assistance Exercises, Sledwork, and Loaded Carries

Unilateral work, sledwork, and loaded carries are often forgotten about and replaced with higher-skill modalities. Single-joint exercises have been deemed “non-functional” by the CrossFit community many times over.

The reasoning has always been something along the lines of, “CrossFitters don’t do direct arm work” or “pulling a sled is not as cool as a clean and jerk.” This work is a staple in our programming. In reality, your clients’ number one goal is to look betterand feel better.

Of course, there is value in great coaching and skill development, but often times there is a higher value placed on skill development/coaching than there is actually helping individuals improve body composition.

In addition, this work can double is high-resistance aerobic work, which we know improving cardiac health can increase your life expectancy. Hard to argue against that!

Accessory work, loaded carries, and sledwork are 100% necessary for EVERY facility for a few pretty straightforward reasons. The first one involves reaching one’s true potential; if you don’t strengthen the weakest link in the chain, you’ll never maximize your real potential.

Similarly, if you don’t work on your limiting factors, you run the risk of injury. This must be done with special exercises. Here’s some logic as to why your accessory work is 100% necessary for clients success and long-term health:

 1. Unilateral vs. Bilateral

Single-joint exercises allow us to work weak links unilaterally. Think of movements like a split squat versus a back squat. The agonist muscle groups are the same, but the context is entirely different. We can really identify and single out weak links because this movement works one limb at a time. Of course, you should still perform compound movements, but remember always to supplement your big lifts with your small lifts.

2. Added Volume to Small Movements, Not Big Movements

It’s much safer to push the volume of a unilateral movement like a split squat in comparison to a bilateral movement like a back squat.

3. Crawl Before You Walk 

Let’s face it, most of our clients are not trying to go to the CrossFit Games, and even CrossFit Games athletes can benefit from more accessory work. With athletes that have low training ages and less exposure to basic compound movements, the need for more unilateral work is even higher. If your athlete has trouble performing a split squat effectively then does it really make sense to load up their back squat? With that said, accessory work can be a great teaching tool for new athletes and a much safer method of getting their feet wet.

4. Time Under Tension

Because unilateral work requires less skill and neural demand, we can increase loading and volume commensurately, thereby increasing time under tension. This leads to increasing muscular hypertrophy. I don’t think anyone of your clients will complain about having better-looking quads or biceps.

5. Bring Up Other Movements

If you want your sexy movements like squats, pulls, and Olympic lifts to go up, then you have to prioritize where you are weakest. For most, it’s as simple as adding more direct posterior chain work to see noticeable gains in all of the aforementioned lifts. Remember, technique will only take you so far. At some point, you need to get stronger.

 6. Prehab/Rehab

We can effectively reduce the risk of injury as well as rehabilitate current injuries with accessory work. The reasoning is simple: we must focus on the “problem areas” knowing the result we are working for is the result we are going to get. This is quite difficult to do if we allow other muscle groups to take over. Put simply, our ability to compensate and let stronger muscle-up groups dominate is the cause for many issues and injuries. We need to be assured that result we are looking for is the result we are going to get, making unilateral movements a must.

7. Low Skill

Performing low-skill variations incorrectly with accessory work is less likely because they are not dependent on one’s current level of ability, making it easier for coaches to ensure reliable results.

I’m always surprised to find out how little coaches prescribe sledwork. Using a sled may be one of the most valuable training tools we have available and for the price of around $120 bucks, you can take your clients recovery and progress to the next level.

The sled is a mainstay in Conjugate Programming and is used for strengthening as well as restoration. We can also effectively train all three energy systems with the sled, performing both short and long intervals of work, making this tool quite versatile.

Moreover, sled work is a great way to unload with little to no external loading. The sled also provides a nice unilateral component which allows us to continuously address asymmetries.

Loaded carries certainly should have a place in any training program, and throughout this programming, we’ll have a rotation of carrying on a regular basis. In addition to improving core stability, we can also use loaded carries coupled with sled work as a high resistance aerobic method. This combination is a great way to build your resiliency.

Lift Heavy vs. Lift Fast

“Lift heavy every day” is the last thing you want to do with your training.

Of course, the max effort method (ME) is the best method of training we have available to us, but too much of the ME method will cause you to go backward with your progress. (Just to be clear, I’m specifically referring to 1-rep maxes, or your “1RM”).

Of course, multiple-rep maxes have their place in certain programs, but if your overall goal is to increase maximal-strength, then this style of training should be limited.

Let’s address some of the traits of the ME method:

  • Strength-speed work is low velocity and will not facilitate rate of force development (RFD). Bar deceleration is inevitable with loads higher than 90% of one’s 1-rep max.
  • Neurological improvements from both a central perspective as well as a movement pattern prospective (intra vs. inter-muscular firing).
  • Intensity = 100% (or more), or maximum
  • Volume is intended to be low (typically 60% or less of our Dynamic Effort Work).
  • Can lead to accommodation if variations are not rotated weekly or are done too often.
  • Must be separated from DE work by at least 72 hours.
  • Is incredibly safe when used with athletes that already demonstrate proper movement patterns.
  • Follow Prelipins chart performing no more than the optimal number of 4 repetitions with loads that exceed 90%.

Now let’s compare the Dynamic Effort Method (DE):

  • Speed-strength work is intermediate velocity using loads of 75-85% of one’s 1-rep max (1RM).
  • Utilizes high-threshold motor units and facilitates RFD.
  • Can be used as a teaching tool for those that do not present efficient movement patterns because we are using sub-maximal loads with the focus on movement efficiency.
  • Volume is high with a moderate intensity.
  • Accommodating resistance is recommended to ensure we have proper loading throughout full range-of-motion (ROM)
  • Must be separated from ME Method by at least 72 hours.
  • Is incredibly safe for all levels and can help athletes with higher concentrations of Type 1 muscle-fiber (slow twitch) to develop Type 2 muscle-fiber (fast twitch) which later translates to other aspects of fitness.
  • Follow Prelipins chart performing the optimal number of repetitions with loads ranging from 50-60% of 1RM using 25% of accommodating resistance in the form of band tension or chains.

As you can see, there is a balance between the two methods that are undeniable, both with unique and similar characteristics.

How does this apply to athletes that just want to look and feel better? As we know, we only have a limited amount of time with our clients on a weekly basis, making the need for an efficient training session paramount.

If we are only utilizing one method (most gyms utilize some form of the ME method, but fail to utilize the DE method,) then we are selling our clients’ progress short; even if the goal is to only look and feel better.

Both modes of training illicit a different hormonal responses that can aid in fat-loss and post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) which can elevate one’s basal metabolic rate for 12-24 hours prior to exercise.

We are also ensuring that our clients are not being put at risk of overtraining because the training is diverse. The moral of the story is this type of training does not just apply to powerlifters or competitive athletes, it is beneficial to athletes of all abilities and goals.

Another important consideration is the ability to properly blend strength-work with conditioning work in a group setting. Many coaches believe this approach is not possible (at one point I was one of them). I’m here to tell you it is, and it can be quite effective if done correctly.

For instance, if we plan to have our athletes perform a conditioning piece that involves some heavier hip-dominant movement like a KBS or deadlift, yet we have our athletes perform a 5RM deadlift where volume is particularly high prior to, do you think their ability to be efficient during the conditioning piece will be compromised? The answer should be yes.

On the other hand, if we perform a different movement pattern like a knee-dominant Front Squat for a 1RM where the volume is significantly lower than a 5RM deadlift, do you think their ability will be hampered? Doubt it.

Actually, in most cases, assuming their warm-up sets were done correctly, their ability should be enhanced due to the simple fact their central nervous system has been primed.

Another example using the DE method. For example, do you think if we performed 12 doubles with the box squat at 50-60% of our clients 1RM followed by some form of jumping that it will compromise their performance in a moderate intensity conditioning piece even if the movement patterns are similar? Probably not.

The Overall Goal

  1. Prioritize recovery (high intensity vs. low intensity)
  2. Improve limitations (both muscular & hormonal)
  3. Improve body-composition (unilateral vs. bilateral)
  4. Improve strength, conditioning, and track progress (structured into the plan every 12-16 weeks)
  5. Longevity (the ability to stay engaged in the process and physically fresh)

The best part of this template is that we are setting up our clients for longevity. Improving body composition, strength, and conditioning is great, but the bigger picture is improving the quality of your client’s lives and their long-term health.

With that said, it’s important to adhere to a “less is more” approach and disregard what you see on social media; athletes putting themselves through the ringer on a daily basis.

This is simply not the norm. In reality, correct doses of volume and intensity and built-in recovery measures ensure consistency and your athletes’ ability to remain members of your community for a lifetime.

Works Cited

Simmons, Louie. Special Strength Development for All Sports. Westside Barbell, 2015.

Jamieson, Joel. Ultimate MMA Conditioning, 2009.

OUR PLANS

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