April 20, 2020

Programming Energy System Development

In our line of work we see all types of gyms all over the world and it strikes us that even in this day and age when high quality information on training systems is so readily available, there are still countless facilities whose coaches and staff don’t understand how the human body and its energy systems are developed, maintained and enhanced.

Too often when we walk into a group class, be it a Boot Camp, HIT class or some other type of group training, we see people being run into the ground, lactate build-up almost shooting out of their eyes and the quality of movement deteriorating by the second. If the group doesn’t crawl out of the gym, then obviously the coach hasn’t done his job, right?

Well, no. If it was that simple, everyone could be a coach. Taking people with low levels of fitness and cardiovascular endurance and starting them off with frequent high intensity training can actually be very dangerous and harmful.

That’s why it is important to understand the reasoning behind a sound program that trains all of the energy systems to a different extent based on desired outcomes, benchmark preparedness to train at a high intensity and recover from the different forms of training.

There are numerous periodisation protocols that take these principles into account, with perhaps Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis’ “high-low” approach to high intensity training being one of the better known approaches to high intensity training. His approach mixed days with high intensity and days of low intensity (instead of using the term aerobic, we prefer the term “capacity” in this context) training in order to allow the body at least 48 hours in order to properly recover from intense training sessions.

Ultimately, the aerobic system is critical to any type of sports performance, as it underlies all other energy systems, particularly its importance in recovery between intense bouts of activity or training, and the more developed the aerobic system is, the better the other energy systems are able to function.

With this in mind, it is important to include aerobic system development into both individual as well as team training protocols and program for high level athletes as well as the general population who wants to attain specific goals, be it power or endurance related. The only thing that will change will be the volume and focus of training in either direction of the power-capacity continuum, which we term the spectrum that defines sports and activities with a predominantly neural effect (think “power” sports like weightlifting) on the one hand and a metabolic effect (think endurance sports) on the other. Most people think that aerobic training involves running at a moderate pace and that it will make you slower and weaker, but in fact, the right type of aerobic training will make you stronger, help you improve recovery, and improve your skill or competence of movement. One of the great tools we can use as part of developing the aerobic system is oxidative (or tempo) lifting, which is a way to promote slow-twitch muscle fibre hypertrophy, as well as helping to develop control and stability throughout the body. Oxidative lifting can actually be quite a grueling workout, as it involves a lot of eccentric work, which is quite taxing on the body, so it is important to choose moderate loads when performing this type of training.

Taking this into account, when designing a team training program that would address the three energy systems that we will outline for the purpose of this article as alactic, lactic and aerobic energy system, it would make sense to divide the training week that consists of 4 training sessions (optimal for anyone wanting to lose fat, improve athletic performance or strength) as follows:

  • Day 1 (example: Monday) - Alactic power (power training, heavy squats, maximal sprints)
  • Day 2 (Tuesday) - Aerobic power (oxidative/tempo squats or lunges)
  • Day 3 (Thursday) - Alactic capacity (heavy KB swings, 250m rowing ergo intervals)
  • Day 4 (Friday) - Aerobic capacity (longer intervals of moderate loads, ex. KB swings)

Lactic power and lactic capacity training would be used very sparingly, as these are the toughest workouts to recover from, and while having a place in the overall training protocol, including these workouts into the program too frequently, i.e more than once a month, will not yield optimal results, particularly as recovery for other training qualities will be inhibited. Remember, always build from the ground up. When it comes to training, your body will be grateful for it.