Approaches to Division of Training Time – Multi-Phase v. All-At-Once Approach

-Coach Novak

Key Points:

  • Conditioning, Strength and Technique are necessary components of improving athletic performance.
  • Volume and Frequency are the keys to developing these components
  • Where you are now and where you want to be should inform the approach you take.
  • As with anything in fitness, the program that will work best is the one you will stick to.

You walked into our gym for a reason. Maybe that reason was to know strength. Maybe it was to look like a Greek god. Maybe it was to be able to do things that pedestrians could only dream off.

Please don’t do this.

Whatever the reason – in order to get from where you are to where you want to be, you will need to put time and effort into three major attributes; Strength, Conditioning and Technique. Before we look at ways to approach these attributes, let’s quickly define and give examples of each one.

Strength – your ability to move your body and/or external loads. The ability to do a pull-up is a reflection of strength. How much ya’ deadlift is a reflection of strength. How many calories you generate per pull on a rower is a reflection of strength.

Conditioning – your ability to do more of the things you’re doing or trying to do, aka work capacity. How many pull-ups you can do in a row is reflection of your conditioning. How many deadlifts you can do before you have to sit down and catch your breath is a reflection of conditioning. How many high-calorie pulls you can do simultaneously before you start to lose power is a reflection of conditioning.

Technique – the ability to do what you are trying to do in a mechanically efficient way. Using your biggest strongest muscle groups instead of your smallest weakest muscle groups to pull yourself up is a reflection of technique. Being able to use hamstrings to deadlift instead of “squatting” the bar up is a reflection of technique. Being able to drive through the whole foot or to initiate with legs and finish through traps and arms when rowing is a reflection of technique.

Which one you should work on and when will depend on a variety of factors, but the key is that they must be worked. We’ve all known strong and technical individuals that can’t jog a quarter mile. We’ve known all-go-no-quit athletes that are constantly sidelined with injuries from poor technique. We’ve known individuals that move with grace and poise in the yoga studio and fold like a fourth grade love note when they hold something that weighs as much as they do. If you feel personally attacked by any of those, you’re welcome. This article is for you.

In our above examples it is pretty clear which attribute each individual needs to work on. Typically, imbalances as pronounced as the ones in our examples are only seen in highly specialized athletes. When you take stock of your own athletic standing it may not be as clear where your weak spots are. It will be even harder to tell where the weaknesses are if you never do workouts that are different from your norm. If you only do single reps, you’ll never know how bad your conditioning is. If you never squat, you’ll never know how weak you are. If you’ve been doing CrossFit, you are in luck. One of the beautiful things about CrossFit is that it exposes you to a variety of training modalities. Theoretically you would be attempting heavy lifts, pushing yourself to keep your breath with light weights, and trying to learn new skills regularly.

All of these individuals could benefit from an investment into the Style and Wardrobe attributes.

In order to assess your own particular strengths and weaknesses I recommend looking at your gym performance. Are you top of the class when you do 45 minute AMRAPS but at the bottom on Press day? Strength could be your best friend. Can you string 30 Pull-ups together but look like a double pendulum on Muscle Up day? Technique time! If everything looks pretty well balanced I recommend asking your coach, they can usually see the things you can’t.

Once we have an idea of where we are, it’s time to look at where we want to be. It’s entirely possible that all you want is to be super well-conditioned and graceful and don’t care about strength… until it’s time to move a couch. Each imbalanced athlete will get more out of their training with some improvements to their weakest attributes. Beyond top end performance it’s the ability to do the little things that is really going to enrich your life. Being able to bend down and pet a dog without throwing out your back, to climb a mountain and receive its tidings, to be able to sit up and walk by your own volition as you move into old age – all of these things will require an equal dose of strength, conditioning and technique. Even in the immediate case, being a more well-rounded athlete is going to mean better workout scores. Balance is the key, so how do we get it?

The All-At-Once approach means working on each of the big three attributes each training day, or working on all of them over the course of a week. This is the approach I see people take the most often and with a little tweaking we can take this approach from OK to Super Effective. The ideal multi-phase workout will have a strength piece, a technique piece and a conditioning piece. Even more ideally, the conditioning piece will make use of the same movements you are working on in your technique piece. In general I recommend training the element that needs the most work first. If your technique needs work don’t wear yourself out with bodyweight conditioning and then expect to be sharp and coordinated enough to learn something new! However, if strength needs work and squatting first makes even moderate snatches (technique) feel heavy, that’s OK! Stay focused on what needs the work. The exception to this general rule is if your conditioning needs the most work. I usually don’t see conditioning being as negatively impacted by strength and skill work as the reverse. So either strength or technique first, depending on your needs and conditioning last.

Where time constraints prevent an individual from working all three pieces in a single day I recommend working on two pieces each training day, with exposure to all 3 twice across 3 consecutive or semi-consecutive training days. For example, Strength and Technique on Monday. Technique and Conditioning on Tuesday, Strength and Conditioning on Thursday. Rinse & Repeat.

The Multi-Phase approach means biasing one of the big three attributes for somewhere between 3 and 6 months at a time. The cycles we offer at Solace New York take the guess work out of this approach and I am extremely proud to be at the forefront of the cycle programs. With this approach the only real question is when to do which cycle. If you are more technical or more well-conditioned I recommend doing the strength cycle first to build a good base. Not only will you get stronger but you will start to learn the basics of technique development with relatively lower complexity movements. Once you have some strength I recommend working on your technique with a weightlifting or gymnastics cycle. Not only will you maintain or even build strength, but you’ll dive deep into the methods by which you can improve your technique and master a skill. You’re not just learning a skill; you’ll be learning how to learn a new skill. Finally, once you are strong and technical I recommend spending a chunk of time biasing CrossFit and Body classes, developing your ability to apply your newfound strength and skill again and again and again. After this block it’s time to get back the small amount of top end strength you will have inevitably lost and build some more on top of that. In two words, rinse and repeat.

I personally prefer to do my strength phase in the winter, conditioning phase in the summer, and skill in the spring and fall. This keeps my heaviest work during the time of year when I’m eating the most and going out the least and keeps my conditioning work around the time when I’m going to want to be outside using my fitness. That’s just what works for me. I know plenty of people who focus on strength in the summer when they heave shorter work hours, less job stress, and want to spend as little time as possible in the gym.

It should be noted that even with the Multi-Phase approach you are never solely working one attribute. It’s very difficult to not have them bleed together a bit. The important thing is that you show up to train with the intention of improving one attribute, and allowing any improvement to the other attributes be incidental.

If all of this sounds more confusing than helpful, let’s simplify it. Beginners should take the All-At-Once approach, trusting the programming in CrossFit to hit all the bases. More advanced athletes or individuals who want to work on a specific attribute should take the Multi-Phase approach, using the cycles for strength and technique and CrossFit and Body for conditioning.

When all the testing, assessing and programming is done, the thing that is going to work is the thing you’re going to do. If you know you don’t have the patience to focus on a single thing at a time, take the all-at-once approach, even if that means playing into attributes that are already pretty well developed. If you know you don’t have the discipline to do the things you aren’t already good at every day, take the multi-phase approach, even if it means spending a few months a year gassing yourself up more than Lizzo on a Friday night. The truth is, dear reader, you deserve it. You deserve to give yourself the time, attention and effort necessary to become better. You work hard and I think you owe it yourself to invest in being the best version of the person you want to be. There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, “It works if you work it – and you are worth it.” Now, get to work.

-Coach Novak