An Anvil T&D training article by Marshall Officer.
What is the Anvil Training Series?
The Anvil Training Series is a series of 12 articles throughout 2020 about key training concepts, written for the general reader. Physical training, in some form or another, should be a part of everyone’s life. Most of the basic concepts are very easy to understand and implement, although these days - the industry has become muddied with complicated variations of basic concepts that can make choosing how to train quite intimidating. These articles are here so that you don’t need a degree and ten years’ experience to separate what matters from what doesn’t, and aim to help you navigate the muddy and ever-changing waters of the online fad fitness industry.
I have been a high performance athlete, and I intend to be one again. When I was much younger, I represented both Australia and New Zealand in fencing - winning individual and team medals and trophies at numerous state and national competitions. When I left school, I joined the Australian Infantry - where I constantly trained and educated myself to be the best at what I did. Although I never reached the levels of special forces (the best of the best), I trained with soldiers who reached this standard. I have an enormous amount of appreciation and respect for the limits to which a person pushes themselves in order to achieve the standards set by some of the best soldiering units in the world. When it comes to high performance, there aren’t many examples in which being the best can mean the difference between life or death. High performance in the athletic world may be the difference between a medal and not placing at all -but high performance is a standard demanded by any good combat team leader just to make sure the whole team stands the greatest chance of coming back alive. I spent multiple years leading small combat teams, and I spent a year instructing new infantry soldiers, where training others for high performance was something I took very seriously. I am currently training to compete as a powerlifter, with goals at both the national and international level. Training for high performance is something about which I am very passionate, and I hope that is reflected within this article.
If you’ve been following my training series, you’ll know by now that training takes on all shapes and sizes, and comes in endless different formats. Regardless of form, we can manipulate training to address every possible issue, injury, weakness, or goal. Any exercise is better than nothing, so no matter what type and level of training you choose - you are likely going to experience the health and wellbeing benefits go hand in hand with all exercise. However, the higher your level of performance, the higher the demand on your body and mind. High performance athletes walk a fine line between pushing their bodies and minds to extreme limits or potentially injuring themselves (sometimes permanently). High performance isn’t for everyone - in fact, true high performance will only ever be achieved by a small percentage of the population. Those within this population combine determination, discipline, and willpower to never give up, never let anything stand in their way, and never let anything distract them from their goals. If you aren’t one of those people, that’s okay. Training this way isn’t very enjoyable - it hurts, things go wrong, there is always more failure than success; and there will always be more people saying you can’t do it, compared to the few who say you can. In spite of these challenges, if you want to be the best at something - you have to be willing to go further, do more, push harder, and get back up again more than anyone else ever has - and this article is meant for you.
The “Training Spectrum”
In my last article, I mentioned something called the “Training Spectrum”. While this isn’t an official term, I use it to include all styles and types of training - from something as simple as walking for 30 minutes every day to stay active, all the way through to training to set a new all time world record in the squat. The reason I refer to it as a ‘spectrum’ is that no matter what you choose to do, and how you choose to do it - certain principles still apply. Things like progressive overload, consistency, recovery, effective nutrition, sleep, training effectively and efficiently will apply to you if your goals are staying fit and healthy, or if you are training to be number one in the world. Certain things may change. You may use higher rep schemes to achieve a certain type of hypertrophy, or lower rep schemes with higher intensity to recruit more motor neurons and develop explosive power or the ability to strain through a heavy single. You may use longer, lower intensity endurance sessions, or short bursts of high intensity work to manipulate your cardiovascular ability. But whilst you’re doing this, it’s important to remember that nothing happens in isolation. While you are doing those low rep, high intensity sets - you are also inducing a hypertrophic effect on your muscles. While you do those high rep sets, you are also having an effect on your heart rate and breathing - influencing your cardiovascular output. And, just because you train legs one day and chest the next day, it does not mean you have recovered. Your central nervous system and body’s ability to respond to stress stimulus is under load regardless of which body part you’re focusing on today - so a structured,holistic recovery strategy should be included to ensure you are giving yourself the best chance of success, and minimising risk of injury or burnout along the way (no matter what level at which you are training).
My key point is that training for high performance isn’t about changing the game completely, doing things that are wildly unsafe or implementing some “never been seen before” protocol to reach new heights. It’s primarily about being the very best at the basics. It’s about training and recovering so efficiently and effectively that you surpass your competition. It’s about nailing your technique day in and day out, listening to your body and paying attention to the niggling pains and the things that just don’t feel right. Training for high performance is about knowing how to train harder and smarter than anyone else, as well as taking the time to recover properly - so that you can keep training at this high standard, without pushing yourself past the point of injury or placing so much strain on yourself mentally that you fail and can’t get back up again. High performance is being excellent at the simple stuff first, and earning the right to get creative.
What does High Performance really look like?
For anyone who isn’t exactly sure, high performance is nothing more than a long string of failures leading toward huge success. There is no such thing as a top performer that has never failed. At the risk of sounding too much like a motivational speaker, high performance athletes are the ones that refused to give up, no matter how many obstacles got in their way. However, it is important to remember that each failure must be treated as a learning opportunity. To fail over and over again in the same manner without implementing change is insanity - and repetition without adaptation will have a detrimental effect on an athlete’s mental health, motivation, and overall drive to win. It is essential to understand why we fail, and then modify our behaviour in order to ensure success the next time around. It is also essential to structure your training in a way that allows you to “fail forward”. Whilst I will cover this in the next section in more detail, a key aspect to remember is that an athletes “failures” must be controllable, safe, and under a repeatable measure. For example, 1RM testing should be stopped at technical breakdown, rather than pushing someone to complete failure and risking injury. In this example, the breakdown in technique can be observed, the primary weakness can be recorded, and then the next training cycle can focus on that weakness in order to bring up the whole lift.
At the end of the day, every single failure should be viewed as a learning opportunity. What does high performance really look like? It looks like someone who learnt from their mistakes every time they missed a lift, couldn’t hit that tackle, didn’t make their sprint time, or couldn’t go the full distance. It looks like someone who takes that step back as an opportunity to take two more steps forward, work on their weaknesses, and go further than anyone ever thought possible.
How to Structure Your Training
Structuring your training is probably the most difficult and individualised part of this training type. As I previously mentioned, mastery of the basics is essential. A high performance athlete needs to spend the majority of their training time perfecting their technique, which requires enormous amounts of focus. Of course, each athlete will need to spend time ensuring they excel within their particular field - and this part of training can be more generalist. All athletes should strive to continuously get stronger, faster, and more efficient. A sprinter with stronger leg muscles will outperform those who do not do strength training. A powerlifter who is faster, or more highly conditioned, can lift heavier for longer on competition day - meaning they won’t experience the same levels of fatigue as others who don’t take the time to work on these performance facets. It is important to look at your weekly, monthly, and yearly break up of training and ensure you are spending enough time on what will ensure your success. In technical terms, these timeframes are known as microcycles, mesocycles and macrocycles.
The difference between a high performance athlete and someone who is training for themselves is that an athlete needs to perform at a known point in time. For example, a football athlete has a season, with a set amount of games spaced out over a known period. A powerlifter has meet days of which they are aware weeks, months, and years in advance. Bodybuilders know when they will get up on stage, Olympic athletes know where and when they will be competing years in advance - the list is endless. By knowing the required moment of performance, an athlete and their coach can structure their training, so they will be in the best possible condition to win at that set point in time. They can manipulate their training focus, so by the time that day comes around - they perform at the highest possible standard.
The best way to structure your training is to start general, and end specific. Powerlifting is probably the easiest example for me to use, however it can be translated to almost any sport. Let’s say your competition day is twelve months away. You have a year to perform to the best possible standard, and you want to structure your training in a way that emphasises this - how do you do it? Well, when we look at all the things an athlete needs to succeed, it’s best to start broad and gradually make your way to a more narrow focus - until the weeks before your competition, all you know is how to successfully complete a heavy squat, bench and deadlift. From this perspective, it would be important to first increase conditioning. Improving an athlete's overall ability to perform many tasks sets a good foundation, allowing the athlete to recover more effectively as the intensity increases over time. The first six months of that year should be spent nailing as many variations of the squat, bench and deadlift at safe, submaximal weights with as close to perfect technique as possible. The training should be continuous, with varied intensity, and a training week should include sessions focussed on overall strength, hypertrophy, and conditioning/endurance - with everything being challenging but never impossible, whilst still managing any previous injuries or niggling areas of concern.
During this period, for a powerlifter specifically, it would be important to figure out which technique maximises a lifter's leverages and confidence under load, whilst also including as many variations as possible (to keep the body guessing, the mind primed to learn, and teaching the athlete to adapt to a variety of different situations). This gives the athlete the best possible foundation to deal with lifts going wrong, building weaknesses and prehabilitate any injuries that may come from training one specific way for long periods of time. This isn’t to say the training should be completely random - but it should include a large variety of movements and training styles to build the strongest, most capable base to work up from.
The following three months prior to competition should be spent narrowing the focus on the competition lifts. Whilst still including variation and conditioning work to maintain high levels of fitness, the coach should narrow the amount of exercises the athlete does on a weekly basis to maximise strengths and minimise weaknesses. This is the period where it is important to really zone in on the athlete’s greatest concerns, or where the athlete has sticking points (their minimax, or failure points). Things like working the triceps for bench lockout, building the hip drive for squat and deadlift lockout, or working on upper back tightness under the bar to prevent falling forward out of the hole in the squat are all examples of common weaknesses that would be focussed on in this three month period. The lifter should spend a small period of time each week in their chosen competition technique on each lift, ensuring that variations continue to be the main focus - with maxing out being done regularly to teach the body how to strain under load. For a conjugate style program, maxing out can be done once a week with a main lift variation, and competition lift technique can be worked on during the dynamic training day (using submaximal weight for these lifts). It is extremely important during this time that a lifter learns how to strain within a controlled environment - ensuring it is done as safely as possible. If we aren’t talking about powerlifting, and we translate this over to someone like a sprinter - this period would be a good time to really focus on weaknesses in the gym, to bulletproof the athlete as best as possible, as well as introduce types of training that would mimic working at 100% intensity for 13 seconds or so. Doing so would teach the central nervous system to adapt to this kind of performance on a track. For a football athlete, it could be the time to introduce training that contains periods of extremely high intensity work, with longer periods of low intensity, to mimic the situations they experience during a game.
Finally, the last three months before competition (or a season beginning) are spent tapering. Over time, an athlete should gradually reduce the amount of exercise variation, until 6-8 weeks out from competition they only do their competition version of the lift. This will vary between athletes, as some may take less time to neurally adapt to that technique. Some may only need a few weeks, however - more is better than less to ensure technical success. When athletes are only doing one variation of their lift, they will need much more time recovering between sessions. Training sessions during the week will decrease, but it is important to conduct sessions to maintain overall conditioning and performance - without frying the CNS so they can’t perform their lift variations. By this point, the athlete should become very comfortable with their competition lifts. They might use the occasional variation or conditioning session to maintain their ability to strain for a period of time, but this period of time will not be one of volume. It will be a period of maximum recovery, weight management, conditioning maintenance, and competition lift technique perfection under circamaximal (fairly heavy) load, building to a point where the athlete is comfortable with the weights they will be lifting on the day. This applies to other athletes as well. The closer you get to game day - the more you need to focus on recovery, technical preparation, and conditioning maintenance rather than improvement. If you aren’t ready by now, it’s too late.
What about the rest of your day?
When I say the rest of your day, I mean every other time of day you aren’t training. This is arguably even more important than the time spent in the gym - and should follow a similar pattern to the training cycles described above. Performance increase must be sustained by an increase in fuel and sleep. Performance maintenance, and sports that require athletes compete in a weight class, will require careful nutrition management, sleep and hydration to ensure they make the weight at which they are most comfortable competing, or the weight they need to be at to set a record. A good guideline to work off is if you are trying to make big improvements or are in an “off-season” where your sole focus is getting stronger, faster, and more conditioned - you should be in an ongoing caloric surplus. Even if significant weight gain isn’t a part of your goals, some weight gain can assist with increased ability to perform more effectively, so your aesthetic/weight class should not be a priority during this time. Fuelling your sessions and maximising your recovery should be your one and only focus outside of the gym (or off the track, field, or pitch). This theme should remain consistent throughout the entire macrocycle, however the closer you get to competition - the more focus you will need to put on your nutrition and hydration to ensure your weight is both within the weight class for your sport, or at a point where you can maximise your performance during the game. You can’t perform if you don’t recover - so stress management, recovery sessions, a top tier nutrition plan, and getting as much sleep as possible, in combination with discipline, consistency, and making the hard choices are the keys to success outside of your dedicated training time.
Is it sustainable?
Short answer? Yes, if you do it right. However, being a high performance athlete means consistently out-performing your competition. Eventually, you will get older. In many sports, age classes don’t exist, so being a part of the All Blacks when you are in your 60s may be an unrealistic goal. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t maximise your time. I use the All Blacks as an example, because they are one of the most successful sporting teams of all time (and being from New Zealand, I’m biased). Even so, they hold onto their best players for very long periods of time. This goes to show that increasing age is not always related to a decrease in performance, and training smart can lengthen a sporting career far past what many would originally expect.
Notably, in sports like powerlifting, strongman, and bodybuilding, the masters class has become more and more popular - with people over 40 consistently outperforming people half their age. Why? Because age isn’t nearly as limiting as many would believe. Anyone can get strong, and being strong can help with injury management and prevention. Building muscle can be done with the right nutrition and a coach who understands long term goal setting and manageable progressive overload, without pushing an athlete past technical breakdown. There is the possibility for an athlete to perform to a high level within one field, and then transition to another, to maximise their particular strengths against their competition at any particular period of their life - something that is increasingly more common within strength sports. Being a high performance athlete is sustainable, as long as you are smart about how you train - looking at the long term rather than just short term, setting realistic goals, and listening to your body to prioritise technical excellence over brute force.
The hard choices of a high performance athlete
Being a high performance athlete is about making sacrifices. High performance within a particular sporting field means putting that sport first, above everything else. If you want to be first, then everything else needs to come second. When you need as much sleep as possible, you can’t be going out with your friends and staying up late out for dinner or at a nightclub. When everything you eat and drink matters, even having a few drinks on a weekly basis could be detrimental to your overall performance. At the end of the day, if you are trying to be the absolute best, you will be forced to choose training and recovery over family and friends, and this could be the hardest possible decision you make. Dave Tate, a very successful powerlifting coach and ex-powerlifter in the US, has listed his only regret from his time as a competitive powerlifter - putting his wife second. So, it is very important that if you want to be the best, your support network understands exactly what this might look like. It is important to set clear, realistic boundaries - providing an honest structure from the outset that includes ensuring everyone understands the time frame that is required. Some people might be comfortable with being put second for a year, or two, or five. However, in order to prioritise your training as something that is important to you - then everyone in your support network needs to be on the same page regarding what competing means to you. It is extremely common in the military to put family second, because the job takes up so much of your life. But, this comes with its own set of consequences, and has a big carryover to professional sporting and high performance. You can be excellent and still prioritise your family, as long as everyone is on the same page. Make sure your priorities are clear from the start, with everyone that could be involved - and you will maximise your chances of success.
Training for high performance isn’t easy, but not for the reasons most people think. No matter who you ask, if they plan to become one of the best at something - they probably know of the hard work involved. Whether it’s on the footy field, on the powerlifting platform, on the bodybuilding stage, or anywhere else in the wonderful wide world of sports - the unique people who strive to reach the highest levels of their chosen discipline are always fully aware about, if not a little excited by, the training side of things. It’s a challenge, a learning experience, and a chance to push yourself harder to break through boundaries you may have never thought possible. However, this is rarely the hardest part. The hardest part of being the best is all the work off the field. It’s everything you do outside the gym. It’s the early nights, the early mornings, the endless eating, and the inescapable routine to ensure success. It’s the repetition of the things that work, to the point where you’re sick of it, and the endless attention on the things you suck at. It’s the goals that always seem impossible, or too far away. It’s the hard conversations with friends and family, and the doubt (both internal and external) that will flood the world of those seeking to achieve more than has ever been achieved before.
Most of all, it’s the knowing that you will get knocked down countless times before you succeed, and that you will always feel like you’re taking two steps backwards for every step forward - that you never really feel like you’ve ever mastered anything. And still, it’s worth it. Not only for the possibility to sit at the top, but for everything you will learn about yourself and the world around you along the way. If I have to leave you with anything, it’s this: you will never succeed if you stay down, and if anyone tells you it’s impossible, prove them wrong.
Train Smart. Train Hard.
Anvil Training and Development is a group of Australian veterans who care about the physical and mental health of veterans and emergency service workers. We’re passionate about ongoing education and working with others to implement positive change.
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
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