By Jukka Mäennenä, SFG, SFL
Have you written down your goals? Great.
The next step, of course, is to determine how to reach those goals. Some methods will work better than others, for any given person or task. On the other hand, there may be several similarly-effective ways to reach your desired endpoint. Either way: You will have to put in the work and hours.
How you perform that work and the way you construct the process can make all the difference.
Number of goals
If you're like me, you want to do it ”all”. Heavy pulls, pressing the beast, handstand and ring work, Olympic lifts, the list goes on…
When forced to trim it down, the list might look like something like this: Pressing the Beast overhead on both sides, pulling a 2.5 x bodyweight deadlift, becoming proficient with the ring muscle-up, becoming equally strong in pistol squats on both sides, and hopefully excelling in the sport of your choice.
But how could you cram all of these things in the weekly or daily training schedule? A wise individual has said that if everything is a goal, then nothing is a goal. That certainly holds some truth because our time and adaptation reserves are limited.
Picking just one goal and sticking to it is certainly effective, but most people have too short an attention span for the length of time required. There's also the downside that you could lose some other qualities in the process if you're not doing anything to maintain them. For elite-level performance, however, this is often necessary. To be the fastest person in the 100m will leave very little wiggle room when it comes to training.
For effective goal cycling, limit the goals to 2 or 3. They might be more skill-oriented or pure strength goals. An example of the former: holding a proper handstand for 30 seconds. For the latter: a 1RM front squat with (+)1,5 x bodyweight is something worth pursuing.
After you've listed your 2-3 goals, determine whether they support each other or interfere with each other. Pursuing a goal of completing a marathon in under three hours will most likely make everything strength related very hard to achieve. If there's a clear contradiction, refine the goal selection.
Planning the work
As soon as your goals are determined, you can program the weekly training. One option is to dedicate days to a single goal, though this may be less efficient. Sure, you can squat or deadlift for an entire 45-60 minute training session. But towards the end, the quality of the work will drop and so does the productiveness of the session. In most cases you can work towards two goals within the same day and even during the same session, if they're compatible.
The process, listed out:
1. List the goals.
2. Determine the type of goals: Are they strength or skill-based? Or perhaps both?
3. What is the optimal frequency to train them? More skill-based goals usually benefit from greater frequency.
4. How many days or sessions can I train during a week?
5. Place the most important goals first in the week schedule.
6. Continue with the other goals.
7. Get to work.
8. Assess and adjust after 1-2 weeks.
9. Do deloads when needed.
10. Continue for as long as the work is productive.
The last point is worth expanding. If after several weeks you have not yet met the goal, you can allow yourself to move on to other goals for some weeks or months and come back to it when feeling refreshed and maybe with even better requisites for accomplishing it. Hence the name, goal cycling. You don't need to rigidly stick to one thing. Sometimes, a temporary interruption can be beneficial. Goals are important. But enjoying the training process, and having the adaptability to be able to take a break and return to the plan without giving up on it is just as important.
Determination and commitment are virtues. But if you hit a wall with your training, then do not be afraid (or too stubborn) to back off for a while, and come back at it when ready. You have two choices: modify the training (specialized variety comes to mind), or move on to a couple other goals for a training cycle or two.
Here are some examples from my own training.
- RING MUSCLE-UPS AND HANDSTANDS
I can do them, but they can be better. Neither will get better if I don't devote more time to them under concentrated training blocks. I put 3-4 sessions of 20-30 minutes into my training week and I'm on the right track. Some of the sessions might be separate, some might precede strength training sessions etc. Almost any period of time will do, except for after any heavy upper-body work.
As always, of course, it is important to treat these sessions as skill practice. When the quality threatens to drop, I'm done for that session.
For the past 3-4 years I've put a lot of work in to BMX-racing which is a type of sprint bicycle race on a track with jumps, rollers and berms. It's a strength and power sport with a high skill component. When I learned that Olympic level riders aim for a 1RM front squat of 1.5 x bodyweight, I got to work the very next day.
Barbell front squats and double kettlebell front squats were my weapons of choice most training sessions. I did squats two times a day if I felt like it. Even when I didn't have squats planned for the session, I did a few light reps as a warm-up. In hindsight, it was probably too much, which is not uncommon among the young and overly eager.
Nevertheless, I got the 1.5 x bodyweight squat within 6 months. Now I'm pursuing 1.75x... not for the sport, but just because I want it.
During this period, overall strength improved on chin-ups, deadlifts and one arm presses.
To be more competitive in my sport, I needed to work on speed and acceleration. Off-season, I did 2-3 sprint sessions a week. Sport practice occurred several times a week once the season started. Disappointingly, my speed was not much improved to the year prior.
I suspect I pushed the strength training too aggressively throughout the year. For speed development, you need to be as fresh as possible for each session to ensure quality practice.
Lessons learned. Next year I'll turn down the volume of the other training a couple of notches.
Things to consider
Some skills stick with you for years even if neglected. Others may require that you ”sharpen your blade” several times a week.
Maintaining the qualities is certainly a lot easier than attaining them. It has been said that it takes about 1/3 of work to maintain them as opposed to reach to them. I've found this to be quite accurate.
At this point, something called training residuals comes into play. This helps with planning since you can gauge how long the training effect should last after the training session.
Quality – Duration of training effect (days)
Aerobic endurance — 30±5
Anaerobic glycolytic endurance — 18±4
Strength endurance — 15±5
Maximal strength — 30±5
Maximal speed — 5±3
- Goal Cycling is certainly not new or revolutionary, but if you have been dabbling with everything or frustrated with your progress toward one certain goal, consider giving it a try.
- Be sure the goals you choose are meaningful. A one arm chin-up is a great feat of strength, but if it is not truly important to you, your likelihood of complying with the training is quite poor.
- Be able to identify the point of diminishing returns. Pavel gave an excellent example of this at the SFB Certification:
”When you can hit 5 sets 5 of 1-arm/1-leg pushups anytime you like, it's time to move to another pressing goal.”
Keep strong and go after your goals!
*Sources: Issurin, V. (2010) New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization. – Sports Med, 40: 189–206.
Jukka Mäennenä is an athlete and coach in Finland, an avid BMX and mountain bike rider, and interested in everything related to strength and performance. He has earned each of StrongFirst's SFG, SFB and SFL Instructor Certification credentials.