Developing Your Own Training Philosophy

TAGS: training philosophy, Chase Karnes, programming

Developing your own training philosophy is something I think most serious lifters should do. I know guys who’ve been training for years and take their training seriously, but they have yet to develop their own philosophy. They follow this program or that program but never take the time to evaluate what works for them and what doesn’t. This is a very important process. Blindly following a program may get you results, but the process of evaluating your progress and tweaking things along the way will get you optimal results. While we are all human, what works for me might not necessarily work for you. I find that speed deadlifts really helped my deadlift. However, I know guys who say that speed deadlifts didn’t do jack for their deadlift.

Through observation and personal experience, I’ve come to find that the majority of lifters go through the following process when they begin training:

Stage 1

Most of you reading this are probably past this point, unless you’ve stumbled across this site or article on accident. And if that’s the case, definitely keep reading. This is the step where you start going to the gym and start haphazardly doing random stupid stuff. The majority of lifters have spent at least some time in this stage. You go in and max out on bench press, hit some curls and lateral raises, and maybe sneak in a set of leg extensions so you can say that you train legs. There isn’t any thought-out programming, and you find yourself doing what other people are doing in the gym because it looks cool. I remember seeing a jacked guy doing low back extensions when I was 14 or so. For some odd reason, I assumed it worked your abs (obviously I didn’t know anything about kinesiology at that point). Once he finished, I went over and did a ton of these, even holding a weight across my chest because he was. I couldn’t stand up straight the next day because my low back was destroyed. Lesson learned.

Stage 2

You’ve decided you are serious and pick up a popular bodybuilding muscle magazine to educate yourself a little further. You find a program that looks promising with a name like “8 Weeks to Jacked City” or “10 Weeks to Shredded and Big.” You loosely follow the program because you assume you know more than the author. You make modifications, such as doing leg presses instead of squats, and you usually justify this by using one of the following excuses—bad knees, bad back, no spotter, etc. Regardless, by the time you finish the program, you actually notice a difference in your physique. You’re a little bigger, stronger, and leaner. It’s nothing major, but it’s noticeable and very motivating. While these are beginner gains, and honestly running hill sprints will make your squat go up and quads grow if you’re a beginner, it's still progress.

Stage 3

You’ve dabbled with the programs from the muscle magazines for a while and then start looking online for a better program or a book on training. You find a program and decide to follow it. But with your minimal experience, you still think you are smarter than the author of the program. So you change things up without rhyme or reason and the end result is that you aren’t even doing the program. You say it doesn’t work, but you aren’t even following it.

Stage 4

You’ve wasted the past six months or longer without much to show for it. Your beginner gains are a thing of the past and you are frustrated. This is the "make it or break it" point for most lifters. They throw in the towel and quit or they find another program and/or start seeking advice from the bigger, stronger guys at the gym. Usually they find a solid program (whether on their own or with guidance from other lifters) and actually start to see gains. At this point, one of two things typically happen:

  1. They fall in love with the program and soon get engaged to it. Not long after they marry the program, they are committed for life. To them, this is the only way to train and all other programs and methods are wrong. This is where many lifters may be holding themselves back. By staying with their first love, they don’t learn what works for them and what doesn’t. They don’t evaluate and tweak things. They blindly follow it for a long time or forever.
  2. They hear of another program that’s supposed to be even better—whatever is hyped-up and hot at the moment. They buy it and follow it until the next big thing comes out. Then they switch to that. They hop from program to program, never giving any of them time to work. After four weeks of 5/3/1, they decide it isn’t working for them. So then they follow The Westside Conjugate Method for four weeks, but they soon decide it doesn’t work either. Next, they decide to give Block Periodization a try, but after a few weeks they decide it's not the one them. Now they hear about German Volume Training, so they jump to it. And this continues on and on and on. They have a severe case of training ADD and have no specific goals other than getting big and/or strong. They are lost and are always looking for that magic program or the next best thing.

It’s time to develop your own training philosophy. I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d bet a lot of you reading this are in Stage 3 or Stage 4. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you are, I hope you can benefit from this and get bigger and stronger—because isn’t that what we are all after in some way or another?

Steps to developing your philosophy

Before I get too deep into the steps of developing your philosophy, I want to point out that top strength coaches and strength athletes may seem to disagree on topics quite often. However, they all seem to agree on some basic things: 1) Multi-joint compound movements should make up the majority of your program. 2) Frequency, progressive overload, and intensity are all important training principles. 3) A program that sucks, but that you believe in and perform with proper technique and passion, will yield better results than one that appears to be the “perfect” program on paper but is done without faith in it and with lackluster effort.

With that being said, I believe that if you want to get bigger and stronger, your philosophy must be based on these lifts or variations of them: Squat, Bench Press, Overhead Press, Deadlift. I think of my training philosophy as mostly science but also art. I respect science as much as anyone, but something doesn’t have to be backed up by research for me to try it. By now, I’m sure foam rolling has research behind it or it will very soon, but I don’t care regardless. I foam roll before my training sessions and on off days because it makes me feel better. That’s all I need for me to use it. I don’t think there is any research that shows that high rep face pulls increase your overhead press, but I can guarantee that my log press went up when I started doing these regularly. I do know the reasons why these things either do what they do or why we speculate why they work, but they aren’t always backed by science.

Step 1

Decide what your goals are. Getting swole isn’t a goal. Getting strong isn’t a goal. Gaining 50 pounds of bodyweight or squatting 500 pounds raw are goals. Make sure your goals are S.M.A.R.T.—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

Step 2

Now that you’ve decided what your goals are, it’s time to seek out those who have already done those things. Find a handful of guys or girls who’ve done those things that you wish to accomplish. Now find what they have written (articles, books, blogs), spoken about, or presented. Also, find out if they offer program design services. Read articles by them, watch YouTube videos of them training and speaking, read their training journals, buy their books/DVDs, and email them to ask questions and learn all you can about their training philosophy. After reading their work and learning more about them, decide whose philosophy seems most on par with you. Find out to who you relate most and in which program you have the most faith.

Step 3

Buy their program/hire them to write your program/follow their program from an article. Do this for long enough to know if it works for you. Don’t be a program hopper. Don’t do it for four weeks and say it doesn’t work. Commit to it and follow it for a minimum of six months, but honestly a year would be better. If a year seems like a long time, step back and look at the big picture. If you’re serious about training, you are a lifer. To a lifer a year isn’t very long at all. Keep that in mind. And don’t change anything they’ve written. During this time, follow it as is—you haven’t earned the right to make changes yet. You will soon enough, though.

Step 4

The next very important step is evaluating your progress. Look back at your training journal (and please tell me you keep a training journal—if you don’t, start now) and analyze what you feel worked for you and what didn’t. Don’t just glance through your journal, though. Sit down and study it in depth. What are your weak points right now? What are your strong points? What did you hate about it? What did you love about it? Figure all of this out, write it down, and organize it on paper.

Step 5

Now comes the time to experiment. However, and this point is very important, be sure to keep the core of the program the same. Change one or two, or possibly a few more, variables. What lift would you like to improve now? What is your weak point on it? Read articles on these topics (elitefts.com), buy books, eBooks, DVDs, and other training programs. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. Let’s say you’ve been following 5/3/1, but your deadlift has seemed to stall and your weakness is off the floor. Well, do your research and see what can build that part of your deadlift. Speed deadlifts? Glute Ham Raises? Front Squats? Are these things that you haven’t been doing? Now is the fun part: Program these in where you see fit and give it another three to six months or so. Don’t test your strength during this time, but build it. Maybe you add in speed deadlifts early in the week and pull your 5/3/1 set/reps later in the week. You add the Glute Ham Raises in and pull out the Reverse Hypers you’ve been doing. You make front squats your main squat movement and hit some back squats for accessory work. The combinations are endless. Just figure out where you think these belong. Ask other lifters that are smarter than you if you are not sure. It’s trial and error, but that’s part of developing your own philosophy. Always remember that if you add something, you must subtract something from somewhere. A quick note: One thing you must not do is remove a lift just because you dislike it. Much of the time, the lifts we need as lifters are the lifts we dislike the most.

Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own.” – Bruce Lee

Once you’ve established your philosophy, don’t be scared to try new things. I’ve gone from a novice (at best) strongman competitor to finishing second place in the nation this year. I’ve experimented and tried new things along the way, but my core philosophy has never changed. It’s always evolving and I’m always learning. I’ve done things at which my training partners have laughed... but when it worked, they stopped laughing. I’ll plug new things into my own philosophy and give it a go for six months or longer. Then I’ll evaluate it and tweak it. Did I accomplish what I planned? Did “x” lift go up? Did “x” lift go down? Did I get faster on “x” event? Did I get slower on “x” event? Once I answer these questions and more, I’ll decide if this is a mainstay in my training philosophy or if it is something I should drop. And just because you drop something doesn’t mean you can’t revisit it in the future and give it a try again. I tried speed deadlifts twice before I realized they worked for me. Perhaps when I first tried them my weak point on the deadlift was different than the second time around, or maybe I just didn’t have faith in using weights around 50% of my one-rep max to make me stronger. Both are possible.

My philosophy has grown over the 14 years I’ve been training. I began training for football, then bodybuilding, then powerlifting, and now strongman. I started training as a Stage 1 lifter, no doubt. I progressed through all of those stages until I eventually developed a philosophy of my own. Hopefully you can take this article no matter what level of a lifter you are and use it to help develop and shape your philosophy and become a better, bigger, and stronger you.

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