by Aaron Friday, 03/27/2018
At Friday Strength, we plan our classes according to certain guidelines and principles, some of which I will explain in this article. When you understand the rationale behind the training, you’ll be able to approach the workouts with the proper focus and derive the fullest possible benefits from them.
Each one of our classes is designed to work the entire body via basic movement patterns such as push, pull, lunge, squat, and hinge (swing, deadlift). Focusing on movement patterns rather than individual muscle groups or calorie output is what is called “functional training.” We need to be able to perform these basic movements well in order to have functional bodies throughout our lives. That means we need to keep working on these movements as long as we live.
Functional training tends to have a great carryover into “real life” activities such as outdoor hobbies, sports, and physical work. For example, we can train lunge variations in the gym and automatically get better at walking up stairs, climbing up hills, or skiing. These are not benefits we can reasonably expect from exercises that isolate single muscle groups, such as a leg-extension machine isolates the quadriceps muscles. Functional movements involve using the entire body as a complete, organized whole, so that our balance, coordination, sensitivity, and timing are also improved by training.
Functional training also works a whole bunch of muscle groups at the same time, which is actually quite a big deal for our health. Working a lot of muscle tissue at once is exactly the kind of beneficial stress we need to fire up our metabolisms and fend off metabolism-related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers. A robust metabolism is also the path to improved body composition (more muscle and less fat), which is something we should all be trying to achieve. See Why Should I Care About Muscle Mass (Part 1)?
Skill of the Month
While continuing to work on the basic movement patterns in every class, we highlight a particular movement for extra attention each month. Throughout the year, we rotate among the swing, snatch, squat and lunge, press, get-up, and variations on these movements. For example, January might be “snatch month,” and then February might be “get-up month.” We teach progressive and regressive drills to improve that skill and include plenty of working sets to increase our strength or endurance, or both, depending on the skill.
During the last week of each month, we provide opportunities to test our ability in that skill. For example, snatch month always includes opportunities to perform a 5-minute snatch set in a group – how many repetitions can you do in 5 minutes with the weight of your choice? Get-up month includes an opportunity to try a get-up with the heaviest weight you can manage. This is typically when people establish or attempt to exceed a personal record (PR).
Heavy, Medium, Light
Every week contains “heavy, medium, and light” training days. This should not be misinterpreted as “difficult, average, and easy” workouts – our regular members know very well that our “light” workouts are some of the toughest workouts we do. Rather, “heavy, medium, and light” refer only to the amount of weight lifted (also known as intensity). This is a relative measure; in other words, if a weight is heavy for you, then it’s a heavy weight. Of course, what is heavy for one person might be light for someone else, and vice versa. We all need to identify and use appropriately sized kettlebells in our workouts.
We have heavy, medium, and light days for two reasons. First, research shows that varying the intensity from session to session results in better improvements than training with the same intensity every session. For example, lifting light weights every time will not stimulate our bodies to get very strong. We need to include some heavy workouts in our plan. Conversely, lifting very heavy weights multiple days a week would not give our bodies an adequate opportunity to recover, and we should know that the recovery phase (nutrition and rest) is what actually makes us stronger. Research also shows that our bodies get “bored,” so to speak, when the same stimulation is experienced over and over. Not only do we stop getting stronger, we can actually get weaker if we keep pummeling our bodies with the same stimulation for too long. So, purposeful variations in intensity, volume, duration, and exercise selection absolutely must be included in a program to keep the gains coming.
A second reason we use this approach is to support multiple fitness goals within the same program. Coming to class every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example, will support improvements in strength, muscle gain (body composition), and strength endurance (aka, conditioning) for as long as you continue to participate.
Our heavy training days are Wednesdays and Thursdays. On these days, we use the heaviest weights we can manage for relatively few repetitions – typically three to five per set, but as few as only one. This type of training is needed to increase our absolute strength, which is the amount of weight we can lift only once. Although the weights are heavy, the volume, or the total amount of work done, is relatively low. On heavy days, the focus should remain on using progressively heavier weights and generating more and more muscle tension as long as strict form can be maintained. We should feel the need to rest at least a couple minutes after a hard set. When they are included in class, interval-training bouts on these days employ heavy weights and short work periods.
On light training days (Fridays and Saturdays), we use much lighter weights but for higher repetitions. Although the intensity is reduced, the total amount of work performed during the session (volume) is greatly increased. Sets are typically 12-30 or even more repetitions, depending on the exercise and the class plan, and interval training (controlling the work/rest periods using a timer) is commonly used. The focus is on strictly performed, usually quick, whole-body movements done for lots of repetitions. This type of training places a lot of stress on one’s metabolism, causing what is known as “afterburn” – the elevation in metabolism that can last up to 36 hours after we stop exercising. This training greatly improves strength endurance and can also support fat loss through the elevated metabolism.
Our medium days (Mondays and Tuesdays) fall somewhere in the middle for intensity and volume. Sets are typically between 8-12 repetitions, which supports an increase in muscle size while still building strength. Additionally, one or more bouts of interval training are included for metabolic conditioning. Medium days can be thought of as a blend of strength and conditioning. Again, don’t think of these as medium-effort workouts; these are tough classes when you use appropriately sized kettlebells.
Both intensity and volume are important in training, so we include plenty of both in our weekly class plans. However, we avoid combining high intensity with high volume in the same workout because it’s too stressful and requires too much recovery time. We need full recovery within 48 hours so that we can train hard every couple days and keep making progress for the long haul. This training variable – how often we train — is known as frequency. For programs that train the entire body each session, the NSCA recommends a frequency of three sessions a week (or two for beginners). When we sincerely apply ourselves to a well-conceived, three day/week program, we can reasonably expect all of the health benefits that resistance training offers (see What Are the Health Benefits of Exercise?, Does Exercise Support Mental Health?, and other articles on this site). Some people want to train more frequently, and that is easily accommodated by modifying the exercise selection, intensity, and/or volume of back-to-back sessions. Talk to an instructor if you have any questions about how to approach 4- or 5-day training weeks.
A “backoff” week is planned for the first week of each month. This is when we introduce new skills and reduce the physical demands of our workouts a little. The first week of each month is a natural backing-off point, because the previous week was spent maxing out on a skill after increasing intensity and volume all month. Our bodies respond well to gradually increasing exercise demands, but only for about 3-4 weeks at a time. At that point, it’s best to reduce our exercise stress for a brief period and give our bodies a chance to catch up on recovery. These aren’t lazy sessions; we just reduce the weights we use by about 25%: maybe snatch a 12kg kettlebell for a few sessions instead of a 16kg kettlebell. After a backoff week, we’ll be fresher, stronger, and look forward to the next round of challenges. There is a natural rhythm to all of this.