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    • When the Perfect Plan is Not the Best Plan
      Learn why it is impossible to account for all the training variables when developing a strength and conditioning program.
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    • Perfect plan not the best planNumerous strong opinions exist regarding how one should select exercises, teach skills, establish training loads, and delineate what’s best regarding many other factors in strength training and conditioning. Disagreements are numerous, widespread, and passionate.

      These disagreements have led to distrust, harmful gossip, and slow-to-heal wounded egos and hard feelings. Using personal pronouns I will follow the reasoning of this article as if I had prepared a strength training and conditioning program and someone else prepared a different program. We find ourselves passionately defending our programs as ‘better’ than those just as passionately defended by others.

      But how do we know if our program is really better than any other program? There are bound to be contentions with predicting how each program will unfold and what effects it will have. Furthermore, there are certainly factors that neither party has considered that overrule all or some of their arguments. Let’s begin the problem of determining how ‘good’ our programs are.

      Of course, I believe that my plan is the "perfect" one; after all, I developed it. Thus, by definition, it has to be the perfect plan. My colleague also believes she has the perfect plan. She is confident and passionate about her program, because of course, she developed it. How do we, or does anyone, decide which program is better? It would be natural to start running the programs through a gauntlet of questions:

      Which program fits the environment?
      Which program fits the age group?
      Which program fits the training age?
      Which program fits the time allowed for training?
      And so forth ...

      Exploring this gauntlet of questions, I made a list of the potential variables that might intrude on the construction and implementation of a strength training and conditioning program. The list includes about 50 variables, some of which are clearly more important than others.

      Training Variables
      1. Periodization model
      2. Exercise selection
      3. Tension type(s)
        1. Concentric
        2. Eccentric
        3. Isometric
        4. Stretch shortening cycle (speed, drop height, rebound, speed, neuromuscular efficiency) 
      4. Exercise order
      5. Number of sets
      6. Number of reps
      7. Weight/resistance
      8. Rest between sets
      9. Single joint or multi-joint
      10. Rhythm
      11. Repetition(s) to failure
      12. Repetition duration
      13. Repetition speed
      14. Repetition ROM
        1. Plane
        2. Axis
        3. Variable 
      15. Volume
      16. Intensity
      17. Density
        1. Amount of total load per unit of time
        2. Number of training sessions per day 
      18. Frequency
        1. Per day
        2. Per week
        3. Per month
        4. Per year
        5. Per career 
      19. Body part(s)/muscle group(s)
      20. Time of day
      21. Time relative to menstrual cycle, females
      22. Period of year
      23. Period of macrocycle
      24. Period of mesocycle
      25. Period of microcycle
      26. Timing in training lesson
      27. Age of athlete
        1. Child/Adolescent (sexual maturity, developmental maturity, skeletal maturity, muscular maturity, neuromuscular coordination, mental maturity)
        2. Adult (young age 15-30, middle age 30-50, elderly 50-70, older age 70+) 
      28. Training age of athlete
      29. Health status
      30. Injury status
      31. Handicap status
      32. Mental status
      33. Nutritional status
      34. Supplementation
      35. Hydration
      36. Closed or Open Kinetic Chain
      37. Environment
        1. Group
        2. Individual
        3. Home
        4. Alone
        5. Partner
        6. School
        7. Class 
      38. Altitude
      39. Coach presence
      40. Testing or training
      41. Freshness/rest/recovery
      42. Noise/music
      43. Equipment
        1. Free weights
        2. Barbells
        3. Water
        4. Medicine ball
        5. Machines (isokinetic, isoinertial, isometric, isotonic, plyometric)
        6. Tubing/bands
        7. Body weight
        8. Mirrors
        9. Lighting 
      44. Audience
      45. Temperature
      46. Humidity
      47. Progression
      48. Sex
      49. Motivation
      50. Nutrition timing
      51. Indoors/outdoors
      To compute the total number of combinations of 50 variables we use 50!, or “50 factorial.” This equation results in approximately 3.04 x 1064 different combinations of variables. Clearly this is a huge number, thus, it is exceedingly doubtful that anyone can know all of the possible combinations of variables that influence strength and conditioning. It should be obvious that determining the ‘best’ program for anyone is exceedingly difficult, and may indeed be impossible.

      Strength and conditioning coaches might search for arguments to tout their program as the best because it prevents injuries and results in better transfer of athletic performance. With regard to safety, injuries that occur in strength training and conditioning are unusually rare (1,8,17-19,25). Frankly, sport training is almost always more likely to result in injury than the conditioning program (24). These facts make arguments about the likelihood of injuries for either program suspect. Studying and attributing injury incidence and severity when the incidences are so few is very difficult.

      A second argument is that a program is going to result in better performance transfer. However, the transfer of training programs to the gym, field of play, or court is staggeringly difficult to determine. Specifically in strength and conditioning, only a few studies have actually investigated whether specific exercises and programs actually transfer to performance (5). Usually, the approach is to involve easily measured laboratory or field assessments that mimic competitive performance. Laboratory or contrived measures are rarely a good substitute or simulation of real-world competition (3,4,22,26,27). Again, neither of these arguments makes one program more efficacious than another.

      How well can we predict athlete performance? The answer of course is, “Not well.” Talent identification programs serve as useful surrogates for this question (2,6,9,13,16,20,23). In a paper by Sands and McNeal, the ability to predict performance at the 1996 Olympic Games showed that even short-term predictions, such as for the next day, were unlikely to be accurate (21). Predictions of athletic training effects are extremely difficult, and assertions that imply this type of perspective are fanciful (7,10-15). As such, our two program developers have little evidence upon which to build a coherent and valid foundation for their particular programs.

      Do any of the previous arguments and evidence, or lack thereof, make any difference in the implementation of the different strength training and conditioning programs? The issue in program design and implementation often boils down to who is going to do the implementation. If the person implementing the program believes in the program, then he/she is likely to be careful, vigilant, and able to modify exercises at any instance because he/she understands the exercises and values the program’s objective.

      When someone tries to implement someone else’s program, the personal pride of authorship doesn’t exist. Thus, the implementation is likely to be poor. A less than perfect program implemented with enthusiasm, confidence, commitment, and responsibility will beat a perfect program implemented with skepticism, laziness, apathy, and lack of confidence—every time. Thus, a ‘perfect’ program is not necessarily the ‘best’ program. Rather, the ‘best’ program depends largely on who implements the program.
    • Bill Sands

      About the Author:

      William Sands, PhD, CSCS

      William A Sands has a wealth of experience as a coach, researcher, and educator. Most recently, Dr. Sands served as Education Director for the NSCA and Director of the Monfort Family Human Performance Research Laboratory at Colorado Mesa University. He has contributed research and coaching expertise with the U.S. Olympic Committee in the fields of exercise recovery, biomechanics, and exercise physiology. Dr. Sands coaching background is in gymnastics where he produced several Olympians, more than a dozen national team members, and several World Championship Team members.

      REFERENCES →

      1. Baechle TR, Earle RW, and Wathen D. Resistance training, in: Essentials of strength training and conditioning. TR Baechle, RW Earle, eds. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008, pp 381-412. 
      2. Baker J. Do genes predict potential?, in: Talent identification and development in sport international perspectives. J Baker, S Cobley, J Schorer, eds. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK, OX14 4RN: Routledge, 2011, pp 13-24. 
      3. Bishop D, Burnett A, Farrow D, Gabbett T, and Newton R. Sports-science roundtable: Does sports-science research influence practice? International journal of sports physiology and performance 1: 161-168, 2006. 
      4. Blazevich AJ, Newton RU, Sharman M, Bronks R, and Gill N. Specificity of strength training exercises to the sprint run and vertical jump tests, in: 5th IOC World Congress on Sport Sciences. Sydney, Australia: 5th IOC World Congress on Sport Sciences, 1999. 
      5. Bondarchuk AP, ed. Transfer of Training in Sports. Michigan, USA: Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2007. 
      6. Geithner CA, Malina RM, Stager JM, Eisenmann JC, and Sands WA. Predicting future success in sport: Profiling and talent identification in young athletes. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 34: S88, 2002. 
      7. Henry RA and Stickland OJ. Performance self-predictions: The impact of expectancy strength and incentives. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 24: 1056-1069, 1994. 
      8. Jones CS, Cristensen C, and Young M. Weight training injury trends. The Physician and sportsmedicine 28, 2000. 
      9. Kemp M. Identification of talented young athletes in China. Modern athlete and coach 33(4): 19-22, 1995. 
      10. Loehr JE. The ideal performance state. Science Periodical on Research and Technology in Sport: 1-8, 1983. 
      11. Masood E. Bannister urges spreading the net. Nature 382: 13, 1996. 
      12. Masood E. Swifter, higher, stronger: pushing the envelope of performance. Nature 382: 12-13, 1996. 
      13. Matsudo VKR. Prediction of future athletic excellence, in: The child and adolescent athlete. OBar-Or, ed. Oxford, England: Blackwell Science, Ltd, 1996, pp 92-109. 
      14. Morgan WP. Prediction of performance in athletics, in: Coach, athlete, and the sport psychologist. P Klavara, JV Daniel, eds. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1979, pp 173-186. 
      15. Noakes TD. Implications of exercise testing for prediction of athletic performance: A contemporary perspective. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 20: 319-330, 1988. 
      16. Nunn-Cearns G. Testing the talent pool. Modern Athlete & Coach 45: 5-8, 2007. 
      17. Raske A and Norlin R. Injury incidence and prevalence among elite weight and power lifters. American Journal of Sports Medicine 30: 248-256, 2002. 
      18. Reeves RK, Laskowski ER, and Smith J. Weight training injuries: Part 1: Diagnosing and managing acute conditions. The Physician and sportsmedicine 26: 67-71, 74-75, 79-80, 83, 96, 1998. 
      19. Reeves RK, Laskowski ER, and Smith J. Weight training injuries: Part 2: Diagnosing and managing chronic conditions. The Physician and sportsmedicine 26: 54-63,73, 1998. 
      20. Sands WA. Talent identification in women's artistic gymnastics, the talent opportunity program, in: Talent identification and development in sport. J Baker, S Cobley, J Schorer, eds. Abington, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2011, pp 83-94. 
      21. Sands WA and McNeal JR. Predicting athlete preparation and performance: A theoretical perspective. Journal of Sport Behavior 23(2): 1-22, 2000. 
      22. Sands WA, McNeal JR, and Urbanek T. On the role of "Functional Training" in gymnastics and sports. Technique 23: 12-13, 2003. 
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      27. Wughalter EH. Task complexity and contextual interference as factors in intratask transfer of motor skills. University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, 1977, p MS.  

    • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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