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How Sharp Is Your Axe?

Lots of people post their training programs on various forums, or they email their programs to me and say “Is this good? What do you think about this program?”

As everyone knows, I will be the first to say “It is impossible for me to tell if that is a good program for you unless I put you through a proper assessment to determine what you can and can not do.” However, there is one common thing that the majority of these programs have in common:

“They don’t include the important first phase of training.”

The first phase of training is our base phase. It is were we develop the proper work capacity in order to handle heavier loads and more volume in later phases of training. As well, for those of us that have been training for years and are more advanced, this phase of training is needed in order to unload our bodies (joints, nervous system, etc) and give us a break from the heavier loads that we may be accustomed to.

Most of the time, the programs in question (those posted on internet forums or those sent to me for my “critique”) just jump right into the real “sexy” training. To quote Abe Lincoln:

"Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first 4 sharpening the axe.”

Basically, we can’t do the more advanced stuff before we take care of the important things that come before it. In this case, sharpening the axe is critical to cutting down the tree, as it will make your job a lot easier. Of course there are people out there who are going to just run out with their dull rusted axe and try and jump right in and start chopping (everyone wants to go right to the competition without practice), but not Abe. He understood that we need to prepare (and the preparation in this example is double the time it will take to complete the job. 4 hours of sharpening; 2 hours of chopping) if we want to achieve the goals we set out to reach.

So, what exactly should the first phase of training include?

In most personal training textbooks, or books on periodization, that first phase of training typically looks something like, 2-3 sets x 12-15 repetitions per set. While I will not deny that this is going to increase work capacity and muscular endurance, I tend to disagree with this set up as I think there is something to be gained by focusing on less repetitions (not necessarily high weight), especially for beginners. It has been my experience that as beginners fatigue, they tend to get very sloppy with their repetitions. 12-15 rep sets of squats, tend to look more like 8 reps of squats and 4-7 reps of good mornings or round back “something-or-others.” It would be more advantageous to take those larger, multi-joint/total body exercises and perform them for 3-4 sets of 5-6 repetitions in the beginning phase. This doesn’t mean that you are using a 5-6RM or trying to max out however. What you are looking for is 5-6 clean repetitions, with good form and decent bar speed through the concentric partition of the lift. To help increase learning (and keep load down) you can slow down the eccentric portion of the lift and/or add an isometric hold at the bottom of the lift before performing the concentric portion. It is this later option that I use in my training when I go back to my base phase of training. To create overload each week, I will do things like increase a rep, increase a set, or put more weight on the bar. I usually will do a two up, one down sequence. Meaning, that for every two weeks of increases, I will back off for a week and then repeat the sequence.

In this base phase of training, since increasing work capacity is key, I typically superset these multi-joint movements with either mobility work (this comes back to the assessment partition to understand exactly where you need to increase mobility/flexibility) or some core exercises (planks, bird dogs, various chop lifts). Once the main exercise is completed, I then perform my accessory work (anywhere form 8-12 per set), using supersets or circuits.

This phase of training typically lasts me 4-6 weeks and once the axe is nice and sharp, I progress to something more intense and changing the focus.

What are you doing to sharpen your axe?