Flexible Training Programs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis article is written by my good friend Shaun Trainor, owner and operator of Project Warrior in Fairy Meadow, New South Wales, Australia. Shaun spent 12 years in the Australian military with the last half of it in 2nd Commando Regiment, a special operations unit. 

The subject of Justin’s recent post (Category Programming) on training around an erratic schedule is one that is near and dear to my heart. One of the things that used to frustrate me when I was trying to design a training program was that almost everything out there has a weekly structure. Obviously that makes sense for the majority of people, because they have a Monday-to-Friday job, but it makes it difficult for those of us who work in the military, law enforcement, or emergency services.

I spent 12 years in the Australian military; the last 6 in SOF. Obviously this was a job that required a high level of physical preparedness, but it was also a job that at times made it extremely difficult to train effectively. On any given day I was doing anything from hanging around the office, drinking coffee, to climbing a caving ladder up the side of a ship with 90lbs of gear strapped to me.

The problem
Say I’m running a basic Texas Method and Friday is my squat intensity day. But what happens if I spent Thurday night in an exercise that involved clearing a 30 story office building until 4AM? How do you think my squats are going to go?

The obvious answer is that I take the session off, or just go really light, and it’s no big deal. Everybody has life interfere with their training. However not everybody works an unpredictable schedule that may involve intense physical demands for a week or two on end. There is only so much that this can happen before the whole effect of the program starts to be destroyed.

Military personnel – especially those deployed in combat roles – as well as Police, Fire & Rescue, and paramedics can all been dicked around so much as to make a weekly program almost unworkable. This was certainly my experience.

Weekly Template
After spending quite some time struggling to implement a normal strength training program as an operator, I then tried a template solution. I determined what sessions I wanted to do in a standard week, and then shuffled them around week to week to fit what was going on. For example, you might decide that you were going to squat twice, deadlift once, press once and bench once. You can then decide what you’re going to do each day, depending on what’s going on with work/life.

This worked a little better than trying to stick to a weekly program, but I didn’t love it. Depending on how busy my week was, I’d often get behind my allocated sessions. If the disruption last more than a few days – as it often would – then the template didn’t work very well.

Rotation system
After that I tried a much more basic approach. I realised that any sort of weekly program wasn’t going to work for me when my job was busy, or when I was deployed. There’s too many variables when you’re overseas, and you often don’t know about a mission until a day before. Detailed planning in these sort of situations doesn’t work very well.

I tried a much more basic solution: a Rotation System.

  1. Squat
  2. Deadlift
  3. Press

Each training session, I would hit one of the lifts. The next session, whenever that was, I would move on to the next lift in the order. The order is designed so that you can still hit the sessions back to back if you’re lucky enough to get three days in a row to train.

No matter how much (or little) you’re getting to train, your work is balanced between the main lifts.

Sporting the Project Warrior gym shirt

Sporting the Project Warrior gym shirt

Rep Scheme 
The rep scheme for the day is down to you, but considering this is a very basic program I usually run a 3×5 or 5×5. There isn’t a great need for complex rep schemes because this isn’t a long-term solution; it’s just something that’s designed to keep you ticking when work is sucking donkey dick. If you want some higher intensity you could work up to a heavy triple then drop down and hit a 3×5.

Accessory Work
Depending on how physically demanding your last few days have been, you can either add in some assistance work or simply leave it there. If you’re beat up and tired, then at least you got some squats in. If it’s been an easy day or two, then you might throw in 1-2 accessory exercises. Keep the total number of sets at six or under for your accessories. The whole reason you’re doing this type of skeleton program is because training isn’t your main focus at the moment. If you’re overseas or on shift for Law Enforcement, then you don’t want to cripple yourself with assistance exercises because you don’t know what the coming days will bring.

Conditioning is going to be driven by context. Some people will be able to let this slide for a few weeks without much hassle, others will need to keep up regular conditioning as well as their lifting. I fall more into the former catagory, but if you are in the latter then at least keep it either very short or very long. Either do something like a single Tabata or a few Prowler sprints, or go for a long, easy run. Don’t get sucked into doing the 10-30min ‘mess you up’ CrossFit type workouts.

Bench Press
I’m sure there are people who are already agitated about the lack of bench in the rotation. If you want to keep benching during this, you have two options. You can alternate press days with bench days, so that every second time you get to a press day you bench press instead. That’s what I personally did. The other option is to include it after you press. If you take this option then I wouldn’t press more than a 3×5.

Whether or not you deadlift is going to depend on your specific situation. If you’re overseas and you might have jobs coming up, or if you’re wearing armour all day – on a CQB course, for example – then you probably don’t want to pull heavy. A couple of times I went out on missions with sore legs. It sucked a little bit, but it wasn’t terrible. I only did it once with bad DOMS in my lower back, and it was not a fun night. Trying to clear compounds in Helmand with my back blowing up wasn’t a good idea. However if you don’t need the same level of readiness at a moment’s notice, then there isn’t a problem deadlifting as usual.

If you don’t want to do heavy deads then you’ll need some other sort of posterior-chain exercise. RDLs and good mornings are an obvious choice. While power cleans aren’t a bad option you’ll probably need to still do RDLs as well.

Speed and banded deadlifts work well to keep your numbers up without having to pull heavy weights. If you’re going to do speed deads, avoid the temptation to start putting more and more weight on the bar until suddenly it’s a heavy triple.

I spent another six months in Afghanistan last year, and on Justin’s advice the majority of my deadlift days consisted of RDL 5×6, followed by 3×15 banded good mornings. It let me bring up my posterior-chain without the sort of fatigue that deadlifts can bring. When I got back to Australia my deadlift bounced back to where it was before pretty easily.

Short-term Solution
Is a rotation system the perfect training program? Absolutely not. It’s designed to be used when work or life prevents you from using something better. It was my answer to the unpredictable and arduous nature of my profession. It should keep you ticking over, and split your work between the main lifts in a simple to program fashion.

Since my last trip I’ve retired from active duty and opened my own S&C facility (Project Warrior). I use a variation of this with any of our new lifters that we get who can’t, for whatever reason, commit to a weekly program.

Category Programming

Some times life gets in the way of training. Whether it’s a surprise work project, family issues, or forced physical activity, it can throw off a well-intentioned strength program. The best way to mitigate the damage is by trying to hit the most important lifts the way the program wanted (i.e. getting a bit of volume if it was supposed to be a volume day). This might mean performing an abbreviated training session by cutting some exercises. Other options include removing a whole training day, shifting the entire week forward or backward a day, or having some light or medium sessions before getting back into heavy training.

But there are some of you out there that can’t even commit to a regular template because your schedule is so erratic — like parents with a newborn baby, shift workers, nurses, fire fighters, police officers, and military personnel. I see this the most in special operations guys; training, missions, or scheduled physical training will interfere with training templates.

The following is what I like to program for these populations — especially SOF guys — that need to tack quality strength training onto their demanding schedule.


There are three or four categories that will comprise a strength training session. There is the Main Lift, a Pressing Movement, Assistance Work (or Pulling Movement), and a Trunk Builder. The trainee will pick one exercise from each category for a given session. The more deficient a trainee is in a given area of strength or muscular balance, the more they should emphasize that weakness in their week.

Deadlifts don't have to be back breaking to be effective

Deadlifts don’t have to be back breaking to be effective

Having categories allows the trainee to pick what exercises they can do based on what other stress they have had to endure in the week. For example, if there has been a lot of pounding on the knees via running or rucking, then squatting or cleans may not be desirable and will only limit recovery. Instead, that trainee may choose to do medium deadlifts.

Also, each session doesn’t have to be “balls to the wall”. Even doing a light or medium session with basic barbell exercises will maintain or build strength, muscularity, and prevent injuries. Hard charging athletes and SOF guys typically need to be taught the concept of rest or lower stress training.

The category method is essentially an organized autoregulation of strength training. It still provides a good systemic stress and if two or three sessions are preformed a week, then strength can be maintained or built on top of a rigorous schedule.

Main Lifts include squat, deadlift, power clean and jerk, and front squat.

Presses include press, bench press, and push press.

Assistance Work includes pull-ups, chin-ups, barbell rows, and RDLs.

Trunk Builders include side planks, Turkish get-ups, and spinal stabilization exercises (e.g. Stuart McGill stuff).

Note the exercises are all compound movements that work lots of joints and musculature. If you have limited time to strength train — as SOF personnel often do — then make the most of that time with movements that use large muscles that take the major joints through a full range of motion. Prehab/Rehab and Mobility work is not included here as it should be a separate, yet consistent, element in a training program.

Mike uses front squats in his program to build his squat and stone lifting strength. 

The trainee can vary the above exercises (i.e. they can perform cleans by themselves or clean and jerks instead of the power variation), but exercises don’t need to be cute. Chains, bands, or weird-ass partial movements are unnecessary for most athletes. Once a good strength base has been established (in the barbell lifts as well as balanced musculature), training can shift into more explosive or speed training to maximize the strength-to-weight ratio, but most athletes and SOF guys are in a perpetual state of being beaten down and recovering that a shift in training usually isn’t necessary.

Generally the Main Lifts and Presses are done for three sets of three to five reps whereas Assistance Work is done for three to five sets of five to ten reps. Certain exercises will require a different set and rep scheme — like deadlifts, clean and jerks, power cleans, and Turkish Get-Ups — but their inclusion is more important than their rep schemes.

I keep referencing SOF guys because I made this template when programming for them, but this can work for any person who has a crazy schedule or simply wants more freedom and variation in their program. If you’re busy or getting beaten down throughout the week, try this Category Method of programming and choose exercises you want to focus on for a couple of months. Even if your schedule isn’t crazy, this type of programming may give you some stimulating variety in your training yet still focus on a handful of lifts you want to improve on.

This kind of template will allow someone to be consistent in their training regardless of what else is going on in their life. And with strength and muscularity, consistency is the first step to success.


QB’s Can’t Gain Weight? Bullshit.



Adam Schefter works for ESPN and is an NFL reporter who gets all the “insider” information. The above tweet is talking about the top three quarterbacks that will be going into the NFL draft this year. These stats are gleaned from the NFL Combine, which allows the NFL personnel to evaluate the talent coming from collegiate sports to the NFL. It’s a lot of mental and physical testing to try and project how well these athletes will do in professional football, yet it is often incomplete because physical stature and prowess do not always make the best football player, though it helps.

I was listening to Mike and Mike on ESPN radio this morning, and they were talking with various experts on the size of these quarterbacks, particularly Manziel and Bridgewater. The important stats for quarterbacks, from an anthropometry perspective, are height, weight, and hand size. The hand thing is apparently a good projector of success (i.e. it’s easier to hold onto a football in adverse weather), but let’s ignore that. Height is also very important — seeing over the large lineman to throw a pass is important — but we’ll ignore that too. How much a guy weighs and fills out his frame is important because football is a rough, collision-based sport, and frail guys will not have durability. Especially when there are mastodons who weigh anywhere from 250 to 350 pounds wanting to crush your soul.

The experts point out that two of the above quarterbacks weigh 207 and 214. As a “lifting and athletic population”, we know that these guys aren’t heavy. Yet we also know that it’s actually kind of simple to add mass on to a guy, especially when their frame has room to fill out (as both of those quarterbacks do).

What I find baffling is how difficult the experts think gaining weight is. And I’m not even just talking about gaining weight for the sake of gaining it, like in Starting Strength-style linear progression. I’m talking about putting a focus on retaining athleticism, agility, and speed yet increasing lean body mass. Most rookie mini-camps don’t start until the end of May. Training camp starts in July. The season actually starts in September. How long was your linear progression? I got some pretty solid fucking progress in 8 weeks by moving my three-sets-of-five from 325 to 445 while increasing my body weight from 195 to 215 (in 2009).

If the experts think it’s difficult to put five, ten, or even fifteen pounds on a guy in three to six months, then either the strength and conditioning is really shitty, there’s no athlete compliance, or they don’t even try. I’m no expert in the realm of NFL strength and conditioning, and maybe we should get John Welbourn’s thoughts, but it sounds pretty stupid to see a 21 year old’s body and think that it can’t be improved. I’ve done it over and over with athletes, so why can’t they?

Shameless plug, but this diet style would help an athlete build quality mass and aid recovery.

Shameless plug, but this diet style would help an athlete build quality mass and aid recovery.

Edit: I forgot to mention what I would do for a guy that needed to retain athleticism but increase size. I’d have him lift three days a week in conjunction with his agility, speed, and/or skill sessions. He’d squat, press, row, and do pulling movements that wouldn’t interfere much with his other training (i.e. stuff like power cleans, RDL’s, and lighter deadlifts instead of trying to push his deadlift up). A quarterback would be doing weighted pull-ups and chin-ups, possibly some barbell pullovers. I’d throw a Paleo for Lifters diet at him, which would be a quality, clean diet of meat, potatoes, fruits, veggies, and good fats with a little bit of protein powder in quantities that would help him grow. It wouldn’t be all that hard for kids that are described as “not very thick” or having a “slight build”.

AC Meet Recap – 2013 Southern States

I hope that reading about AC’s experience will inspire you to enter a local competition. Have fun and train hard. –Justin

I recently competed in the 2013 Georgia and Southern States Powerlifting Championships hosted by Josh Rohr and held at Meadow Creek High-school.

Started off the day well. Got roughly 7 hours of sleep the night before, which was a lot considering I was really nervous/anxious. It’s only inevitable to get some pre-game jitters. Everybody knows them well. You think about the excitement during the day of the meet. You feel that don’t you…that tingling in your balls? Big metal butterflies fluttering around your stomach? No it’s not testicular cancer; that’s your mind fucking you. Hope you’re wearing a condom.

Fortunately I slept well. Woke up around 6. Made my way to the meet. Checked in/Rack Heights/Equipment check. All done. I get to the scale. The guy looks at me and says 101.7. I stare blankly at him and say words Chris has spoken before “Hey man, I don’t do kilos”. He said I was over the limit. He urged me to go take a shit. I said NAY, I have already shat! The future plan is to compete as a 231 lifter at Nationals and the Arnie so I didn’t really care about weight. However this meant I was lifting at 2:30pm instead of 9:00am. Kinda fucked that one up. I re-weighed in around 12:30.

The other flights were taking a long time to finish. A 30 min delay which turns into a 2 1/2 hour delay. This sucks if you’re waiting around trying to stay calm and keep your energy levels up. Luckily I had a great group of people there to support me. Nelson (my chiro) had some extra energy bars that HE PLANNED ON EATING. He gave them to me. I bought him a 40 dollar Chipotle gift card as a thanks (for the meet and the free chiro work).

Warm-up time finally rolled around. I do some quick stretching/foam rolling, then on to the bar. Squats feel good. I hit my last warm-up at 500. It feels EZ. I’m ready for the platform. My dad let’s me know that I am 3 out. I stay ready for my opening attempt. I’ve prepared for several months for this moment. An easy smooth opener to get into the meet. I’ve tripled this weight before. No problemo.

I FUCKING MISS IT. Great. It felt off-center/mis-loaded. I almost fall backwards. I was ashamed/embarrassed. My family and friends had been waiting all day to watch me lift and I fucking blow my first attempt. Callahan and my dad say to move on. That’s exactly what I did. I ended up reducing my attempts so I could go 2/3. It was the smart move. My confidence would have been shot if I missed another one. They load it to 540 for the second attempt and I crush it. Felt much better. I take 551 after that. It was rough. Not a PR by any means, but my squats were not working that day. A guy named Chris was one of the spotters; he was a real cool dude. He follows 70’s Big along with some other great guys I met. He was right there in the thick of it trying to help and motivate me. It’s great to meet dudes like that.

I talk to Shawn during my breather in between Squat/Bench. Even though my squats didn’t go according to plan, we agreed I was the best looking guy in the building.

Time to bench. It feels way better from the start. As the meet moved on I felt my body and mind working together. We loaded the bar to 350 for my last warm-up. Joke. I go out to the platform with 374 loaded. Blasted it. My abs started to cramp, and I think it was due to some dehydration. I thought I had diluted my Powerade enough, but yeah I was fucking wrong. I take 391 for my second attempt. I was concerned about cramping up at this point. 391 is a PR and even though I’ve done more in the gym the goal was to PR during the meet. My abs cramp even more. Callahan gives me a lift off. I kill it. The commands were loud and quick. I wave my third attempt Bench because I was concerned about cramping. I really wanted to hit 402 on my third attempt and I think I would have been good for it, but I wanted to save myself for deadlifting in case I cramped. At this point in the day this is not where I pictured myself, but sometimes you have to roll with it and make adjustments.

I try to stay calm during my warm-ups. My dad knows I am on the verge of an emotional eruption. He tells me one word when he sees me. Calm. Over and over. I did 500 as my opener. It felt like nothing. My dad puts in 550. He looks at me and he says with a smile on his face “One more then let it all loose”. I’m trying not to cry. Not sure why I need to get upset in order to rage out. It’s mainly a huge stress relief for me. It’s just the way I get pumped up. I take 550 and it feels even better. I turn and look at him and say “Welcome to the fucking show”. I’m in a haze at this point. He says something along the lines of “We are at the show now baby”. My dad is all smiles. He puts in 600. I find a song to play before I am 3 out. Before I know it my dad puts his hand up. He is holding up three of his fingers. I tighten my shoes, pull my socks up, and tighten my belt. I walk over the the line and put on Dom’s death scene from Gears of War 3. The music times out perfectly. The head judge looks at me and gives me the thumbs up. Right when he does it the sound fades and Dom says “Never thought it would end like this, huh? Huh, Maria?“. The first piano strike of Gary Jules’ Mad World hits. Marcus screams “Dom no!”. I can’t stop crying. I scream and rush the bar. This was a moment in the making for over a year. The set-up is perfect. I grab the bar and it was perfectly smooth all the way up. I scream in excitement once it is gliding past my knees. It’s a huge meet PR for me. I let it down after the command and I scream again and hug my dad. Exactly how I wanted to end my day.

For the delays and the changes in weight class I had a great time. I couldn’t have had any better handlers and people supporting me. I went 7/8. 551/391/600. A total of 1542. Placed 1st in the 242’s and I got 75 bucks for placing 3rd overall at the meet. I can’t thank everyone enough. Thanks to everyone who follows 70’s Big. Wish we could train with all of you!

Here is my 3rd deadlift.

Here it is from Brooks Conway’s perspective (who had a pretty good meet). You can see the epic man hug post lift.

A few of the photos courtesy of GT All Sports.

PR Friday and Robert’s First Meet

I asked one of my Vintage Strong lifters, Robert, to write up a recap after his first powerlifting meet last week. I’ve been incredibly proud of his work in and out of the gym, and thought his story would be a great one to share with you all, and knew that he’s a great writer and it would make a good read. What he sent me impressed me even more than I imagined. This is a heart-felt and honest story, folks. Check it out, and post your PRs in the comments as you would any other Friday – but go ahead and mention how many days out from your next meet you are while you’re at it. – Cloud 

When I first started trying to write this I had a difficult time deciding what was worth sharing. Should I talk about how I learned pretty quickly that a competition bench is much wider than the bench I use for training at my gym, and as a result I felt rock solid steady on that thing? Or how on my third bench attempt my face split into a huge grin as soon as I got the press command because I felt how easy 248 was, and then got teased by the judges because, “there ain’t no smiling during the lift?” How about the incredible embodiment of strength in all the participants through their support, compassion, and empathy? Or how I went nine for nine (and got a perfect 27 for 27 from the judges), set four PRs (three coming on my final attempts for each lift), and I shattered my goal of a 1000lb total by hitting 1063? All of these were eye opening, and very important for me, but I was still curious as to what I could possibly have to say that is worth hearing. Then it hit me: this has been my biggest hurdle both in and out of the gym. I rarely understand why anyone would think I am worth whatever he or she is asking of me, because I constantly think I am not good enough. Maybe, just maybe, Cloud is still coaching me out of the gym, and knows I need to work on this… so I decided to write about how I hit 1063 by NOT listening to that asshole little voice in the back of my head that tells me, “you are not good enough,” and instead listened to my coach and my handler (here is a great article by Cloud that hammers this same stuff out very clearly).

Cloud started coaching me back in March. I had been running the Greyskull LP for about a month or so, and had been really enjoying it. However, I had been program hopping for the last three and a half years, and as a result, I had basically the same PRs in March that I had four years prior. GSLP might be a good program, but I finally realized that I needed to reach out and ask for some help.

Cloud slid into the role of coach effortlessly, and he knew really quickly how to explain to me the plans we were implementing, and how to get my head out of my ass. We continued to run a modified LP right up to four weeks out from the meet, when we transitioned to a Texas Method taper approach. I could go into all the detail for you, but suffice to say, that for the first time since my D1 swim coach in college, I trusted someone to tell me what to do, when to do it, and that it would be the right move. I trusted that Cloud knew more than I did, and as a result the whole “not good enough” attitude started to fade.

Come meet day it was impossible for Cloud to be there in person to keep an eye on me. He was out in Austin for his Push/Pull, and I was in Atlanta. Cloud and I did take some time to map out exactly how to approach the attempts, and he made a fantastic plan for me to give to my handler when things got rolling. Enter my buddy Alex.

I asked Alex to handle me because Alex coaches another guy at our gym, Dave, and Dave set some solid PRs a few weeks back. He told me he never knew what was on the bar because Alex put in the weights so he wouldn’t think. I immediately wanted Alex to do the same. As someone who overthinks, I knew I could ruin the meet by overthinking my second and third attempts.

Alex is a few years my junior, but he is a huge inspiration to me. He also competes in the 198lb weight class, and is a trainer at the gym where I train: Core Body Decatur. Besides his great lifting knowledge, Alex is just an all around great person, and despite my insistence on paying him, agreed to come handle me free of charge. I sent him Cloud’s spreadsheet two days out, and all I heard from him between then and meet day was, “looks good, but let’s see how your openers look.” I was a bit disheartened by this, because I of course interpreted Alex’s response as, “You are not good enough to hit those weights.” Boy, was I wrong. Alex did not tell me, but he thought I was shortchanging myself.

When Alex arrived on Saturday morning he completely overhauled what I had planned. He cut my expected warm-up reps by almost two-thirds, and I was admittedly a bit nervous going into the first squat. Next thing I knew, 319 felt like kiddy weight and was quickly followed by a very easy 342 (which was the worst case scenario third attempt Cloud and I had come up with). I was starting to buy in. Third attempt goes up with a bit of a fight, but nothing bad. I went to the table and asked how much it was. They just laughed at me and said 358. 358!? A thirteen-pound PR that easily? That was what Cloud and I thought might be a best-case scenario. Needless to say, I was listening to my handler from there on out.

The bench went similarly. Smaller warm up, super easy opener and second attempt. Third attempt felt so light I grinned like a fool, and then came to find out I had just pushed 248, an eight-pound PR, easily. Moreover, Alex actually had to go beyond the plan Cloud and I had mapped out, because we guessed 242 at best.

Deadlift time: my bread and butter. The one lift I knew I had in the bag. I also knew that I had performed so well on the squat and bench, that all I had to do was hit my 395 opener to break 1000. That felt awesome. No pressure now, just fun time. Same thing: super short warm up, incredibly easy opener. Second attempt, Alex gives me advice for the first time: “Keep your hips high and your shoulders over the bar. This ought to go up pretty easy, but you tend to hitch when you get those shoulders back too early.” Fair enough, except it was not pretty easy. It was SUPER easy. It was also 430, a fifteen pound PR, and what Cloud and I mapped out as my most likely third attempt. I am geared up now, thinking “third attempt, what might happen?” Again, Alex steps close to me, “I have no doubt you have the strength to make this pull, but you have got to keep your shoulders ahead of the bar, otherwise you will hitch.” I step up, start to pull, and it gets going and then it hits me, this is a tough pull. However, I kept my shoulders back, and actually remembered Cloud’s advice instead of Alex’s: “when it gets heavy, just ride it out. Do not let go. Just keep it moving. It will be there.” It was. A 457 deadlift, a forty-two- pound PR, and it sure as hell was good enough.