Is individualized Training Overrated?

Written by: Kevin Cann

Ever since I got into the field of strength and conditioning around 2005, I have been told that profiling athletes or giving assessments on clients is the way to go.  This has evolved into every little variable in training needing to be profiled and then individualized into a training program for the athlete.

Testing an athlete, or performing an assessment, is used to identify strengths and weaknesses in order to structure a program to fit that athlete’s needs.  I do think that this is important information to a certain extent.

It still comes down to the practical application of these ideas.  If you have a team of 20 athletes that train together with one coach, you can’t have them doing 20 different things.  You also would not want to.  The benefits of training with the team and building that camaraderie and pushing each other is going to yield far better results than an overly individualized program.

There can be slight differences in accessory work, or perhaps a specific warmup exercise, but at the end of the day the meat and potatoes of the work needs to be done together.  The coach-athlete ratio alone might dictate this.

Powerlifting is an individual sport at face value.  I think this leads to the individualization of training to go a little overboard.  Especially when we are in this period of subjective feelings dictating much of the training plan.

The argument is that the person’s feelings can help navigate the chaos and complexity of human behavior and adaptation.  I actually believe that this brings more variables into the training picture.  How we feel, or how a certain weight feels on a given day is extremely variable and at the end of the day you just need to put in the work.

You need people to hold you accountable to put that work in.  That is where a coach comes into play.  A program, that has stable and consistent workloads is important for this as well.  The program should allow the athlete to adapt in small incremental increases instead of just continually pouring stimulus on top of them.

We average between 500 and 600 lifts per month between 70% and 85% of 1RM.  We also get our heavy singles in throughout a training block to practice the sport.  We get our adaptation through manipulating the daily workloads but keeping it consistent over the long term.

If a lifter has 16 sessions in one month and has a monthly volume of 500 lifts, that means that an average day is about 31 lifts.  10% to 20% higher is a high day, and 10% to 20% less is a low day.  The high days stress adaptation, medium days are for maintenance, and low days for recovery.  A max effort day, even though low volume, is a high day due to the psychological stress of the training session.

The greater the well-being of the athlete, the more higher stress training days we can get.  This is where individualization can come into play.  Individualizing day to day training loads based off of subjective feelings is unnecessary in my opinion.  This is especially true when we as coaches should be placing the accountability on the athletes to put in the hard work necessary to see results.

Often, I feel the use of these measures removes the accountability from the athlete and places it on the program.  Now, when the athlete sees a lack of results, or even good results, they blame it on the program.  The program is not as important as many people think it is.

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to train at Westside Barbell.  Everyone in the group did the exact same exercise with the exact same band tension.  The band tension was about 33% of the strongest lifter in the groups squat.  For me, that band tension was about 50% of my best squat.  That didn’t matter because everyone trains together.

The pace was fast, the intensity was high, and everyone motivated and coached each other up on each set. Louie ran the monolift and coached each lifter up on each set as well.  We immediately moved onto deadlifts and the exact same thing.  This was one of the better training sessions that have ever done in my life, and it was not geared individually for me.

One part of that was how the group holds each other accountable.  It is not the program that drives results (of course some are better than others), but what you bring to that program.  Having a group of training partners that push you to be accountable and to bring your all to the training session is more valuable than an individualized program.  

The workloads are consistent, so you are not getting these large spikes that would lead to injury.  For the 2 days of dynamic effort work that I did, I was very sore.  However, after a couple of weeks I would be adapted to the workloads and would be able to truly bring my best to each session.

Powerlifting is just not like this anymore.  Everyone trains in their own racks, doing their own individualized programs.  I do think in part, this ability to train alone has increased the growth of the sport but has also led to a change in culture that is very individualized.

Lifters will go through those programs, and usually they work for a bit, but then stop working.  Then they switch to the next thing and continue to do that until they eventually quit.  Not many lifters stick around for the long term.

I think most lifters would benefit more from a training group where everyone does the exact same program and holds each other accountable and pushes each other to train harder.  Now, of course this gets difficult with the business of coaching.  I can’t just write one program for everyone and send them off to do it.  No one would pay for that.  The business aspect of coaching has a negative impact on this.

The individualization of training can come from the secondary movements and the accessories for each lifter to build up their weak areas.  We can also manipulate those secondary movements in terms of volumes and intensities to make the workload more applicable to each individual.

It is also more fun to train with a group of people and this cannot be overlooked.  I think having a good solid training group can make people stay in the sport for longer periods of time.  This alone will have greater results in the long run.  You will be stronger the longer that you do it.

I know it is unlikely for the sport to shift in this direction.  It is unfortunate because many lifters will never experience what it is like to train like that.  It is also unfortunate because I think it would yield to greater overall strength gains than some overly individualized program.  This is mainly due to the accountability that it brings to make each member of the group train hard.

 I also think it would create a greater culture in powerlifting.  To be honest, the culture sucks.  Everyone shits on everyone else and no one wants to help one another.  If there was more group training, people would understand more what drives success, and it just builds more of a community in general.

I think some individualization of training is necessary for sure.  However, I think we have swung that pendulum much too far in the wrong direction. 

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