Four Steps to Program Design

by | February 27, 2013, 2:11pm 0

Today marks the one year anniversary of the publishing of The Ultimate Athlete Handbook.

I was doing my first weekend ultimate fitness clinic in Ireland on the day the book was published.  Since writing the book I’ve worked at Power Train Sports Institute, started The Ultimate Athlete Project, and spent two months in Colombia giving weekend braindumps of everything I know.  After a year of all of these adventures, I thought I’d take a look back at The Ultimate Athlete Handbook to see if I had changed my opinions on anything or wish I had done anything differently.

Image of The Ultimate Athlete HandbookIt can be weird as an author to reread your own work.  By the time I’m done fiddling with a piece of writing I just want to get rid of it and never look at it again.  In looking at The Ultimate Athlete Handbook a year later, I’m still pleased with what we produced. The objective was to give players an overview of the athletic qualities needed for ultimate and how to best train those qualities. There is no fluff.  Every sentence has a purpose.  An athlete can easily pick a page or chapter in the book and find something new that they can apply immediately to their training.  Though I’m always looking for new and better ways to train, the book covers the fundamentals and there is nothing in the book that I would take back.

In my clinics in Colombia we spent a lot of time talking about how to put the concepts in The Ultimate Athlete together into a comprehensive workout and into comprehensive long term plans.  I know that this topic needs to be addressed in the ultimate community because I still get questions about “what’s a good workout for ultimate?”  In order to get the most out of training, you really need to think beyond the workout and embrace a more long term training plan.

Looking back, if I could change one thing about The Ultimate Athlete Handbook, it would be to have included a chapter about program design.

I hesitated to talk about program design in The Ultimate Athlete Handbook because is it such a huge topic.  There are about a million nuances to think about program design.  There is no one perfect way to do it. But the same could be said about any of the topics in The Ultimate Athlete Handbook.  So, in the spirit of The Ultimate Athlete Handbook, I present to you the fundamental concepts of program design as a place to start.

Many players are still using the linear periodization paradigm and coupling it with traditional track workouts. When players suggest you should start with long distances, then 800s then 400s and progress to shorter distances as the season gets closer, this is linear periodization.  However, linear periodization model for track is not likely to be the best model of training for ultimate.

The other mistake players make is to have no periodization at all. Some players seem to have the idea that you can find a magic workout for ultimate and the more you do it, the better prepared you will be.  A lot of players spend all of their ultimate careers in the general preparation phase of training being in various degrees of “in shape” and never taking the time to tap into the profound benefits that come with lifting heavy weights or focusing on the motor skill foundation of agility.

The best way to think about your long term planning is neither linear periodization nor the magic workout theory.  The best way to organize your training is to think of having various phases in which you have a primary focus.  Accept the fact that you will not be able to improve on all athletic qualities at once. Unless you are a novice athlete, trying to work on everything at once will likely be counterproductive.

I’m suggesting the following four step process as a way to help you think about program plan and what you might want to do in the months leading up to the season.  I’ll go through the process with two examples.

Step 1: Focus

Choose a primary focus for your training for the next 3-6 weeks.  What athletic quality will you try to improve?  Examples of athletic qualities you might focus on are strength, power, agility, jumping ability, work capacity(endurance), or strength endurance.  Change the primary focus of your training every 3-6 weeks to enhance your adaptation to your training.  You may have more than one focus if they are complementary (strength and power, power and vertical jumping).  Avoid having goals that contradict one another (endurance and power, strength endurance and jumping)

Example 1: Let’s choose work capacity

Example 2: Power development

Step 2: Choose your tools

What is the best way you have available to develop the athletic quality you are working on?  Do not worry about the “perfect” way.  The best way for you is using training methods that you feel safe doing on equipment that is easily accessible during times you can use it.

Example 1: work capacity – Do you have access to a large field? Do you have access to a track? Do you need to do this work in a small space in a gym?  For this example let’s say there is a large grassy area in a park near my apartment.

Example 2:  power – Have you been coached in the Olympic lifts?  Do you feel comfortable doing simple derivatives derivatives of the Olympic lifts and have access to a place to do them?  Do you have a medicine ball?  sandbags?  Can you get access to any of these things?   For this example we’ll say I have a gym with a squat rack but no Olympic lifting platform.

Step 3:  Create your schedule

Here you need to ask yourself two questions.  How often do you need to do the type of workout you’re doing in order to get the best training response (here is where a little knowledge of supercompensation goes a long way).

Fill in the days that will get you the best response for your primary focus.  Other days will be spent maintaining other athletic qualities and not doing work that will interfere with your main objective.

Example 1: Work Capacity (conditioning) Let’s say I have access to a large field and I have decided to use alternating linear and lateral conditioning workouts as suggested in The Ultimate Athlete Handbook.  Let’s say I have about one hour per day available for training four days per week and practice on the weekend.  My schedule for a phase in which my primary focus is conditioning may look like this:

Monday:  recovery
Tuesday: strength training legs, lateral conditioning
Wednesday: linear interval workout
Thursday: strength training upper, lateral conditioning
Friday: linear interval workout
Sat: ultimate practice
Sun: ultimate practice

Because the lateral workouts are very short (20 minutes maximum) and don’t take up much space, I can probably do these in the gym.  This will allow me to do a short strength training session beforehand to maintain and hopefully build some strength.  Because I am working on conditioning, it does not matter if my legs are tired after a lifting session.  If I wanted, I could also put extra mobility drills or a few speed and agility drills before my M, W, F conditioning workouts.

Example 2: The focus is power development.  Let’s say I have access to a gym with a squat rack.  I have decided to use Olympic lifting derivatives as my main tool for training.  Let’s say I have five days per week available for training plus a winter league game tuesday night. Wednesday night is trivia night at the local bar.

My schedule might look something like this:

Monday: snatch grip jumps, reactive squats, strength training
Tuesday: league game
Wednesday: recovery
Thursday: high pulls from hang, dumbbell snatch, strength training
Friday: light conditioning
Saturday: 3-4 Plyometric drills, hard conditioning
Sunday: Agility drills, light conditioning

Power development work must be done when you are able to work near 100% intensity to have a training effect.  More is not better so it would be best NOT to do a lot of power focused work every day unless you are doing very low volumes.  Your desire for good quality power workouts should be a factor in deciding the difficulty level of a conditioning workout the day before.  In the above schedule the conditioning on days before my power days are going to be light enough that I do not have residual fatigue.  And I still want to move and do my warmup/mobility drills every day so that I am not sluggish coming into my power focused exercises.  With one day of playing ultimate, one day of a harder conditioning workout, and a few days of lighter conditioning, I will easily be able to maintain my conditioning while improving my ability to produce power.

Step 4: Organize your training blocks

After 3-6 weeks, change your primary focus.  There are a few ways to think about organizing your training blocks.  You could choose your greatest weakness that is holding you back and improve it. You could develop your greatest strength.  You could plan your training blocks in a way that they build upon one another.  For example, a strength block followed by a power block makes sense because first you develop strength, then you learn to express your strength over a shorter period of time.  Other logical progressions are strength followed by strength endurance, power followed by speed, agility, or jumping.  You also want to take into account the time of the year and how much you are playing.  In season is not the best time to work on maximum power development because you may be playing too hard and too often to do high intensity work on a consistent basis.  Off season is not the best time to work on conditioning because you can quickly develop that when you need it closer to the start of the season.

Closing thoughts

What we prescribe as strength and conditioning coaches will always be part science and part art which is formed from experience.  I hope you take the principles above and experiment with your own training plans.  Remember there is no such thing as a perfect plan.  And what will be perfect for you one season, may not be perfect for you now.  So don’t be afraid to try new things, experiment, make mistakes, and constantly improve upon what you’re doing.  If you’re still using the same training plan you were using three years ago, change is long overdue.  Good luck in your training this season and feel free to leave comments/questions below!

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