Going Back to Basics in Your Training
“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” — Harrington Emerson
When looking at all the information out there online about health and fitness, the famed industrial engineer and business theorist Harrington Emerson’s quote might actually be a significant underestimate when it comes to back to basics training.
While there are benefits to the ease, speed and scale at which such information can be shared, there are also downsides. These include sheer volume and the fact that there are many imposters, influencers and self-proclaimed authorities who people find it hard to distinguish from true experts, whose knowledge they’d do well to apply. As a result, it’s all too easy to become stuck in complexity and confused by misinformation peddled for profit. It makes it hard to find guidance as you go back to basics training. In this post, I’m going to take you back to basics and provide a simple, yet highly effective training plan.
One of the main goals of XPT is to make you more resilient and well-rounded, and I believe that following such a plan will check both these boxes. Most athletes gravitate towards the kind of sessions that they’re best at or enjoy the most, whether that’s heavy lifts, speed work, or endurance. But if you’re going to ready for anything, you need to develop every athletic quality to some degree.
We also need to consider that one of the three XPT pillars, Recover (the other two being Breathe and Move) is essential for closing the loop on adaptation. If you redline all the time or keep racking up the miles, your body won’t be able to bounce back and you’ll start to break down. You need to find balance in your training and make sure you’re stressing certain systems sufficiently, while allowing others to recover.
Here’s a simple system to help you become a well-rounded athlete. This is based on the assumption that you can train five or six days a week. Don’t have the bandwidth? Condense these principles into the three-day plan I’ll provide later on.
Long-Duration Endurance: Once or Twice a Week
There are umpteen ways to think about endurance training, and lots of arguments on social media and forums about the best methods. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to consider long-duration endurance work to be a session that challenges your cardiovascular system with 30 minutes or more of low to mid-level exertion performed without a break.
Your heart rate shouldn’t go up or down too much in these sessions, which I recommend doing once or twice a week. If you’re tracking your HR, it should stay within 60 to 80 percent of your max, which may well be around 120-150bpm. If you’re going for longer, it could be lower.
Activities such as hiking, biking, running, SUP and surfing fit the bill here. You should finish these sessions without feeling exhausted.
High Heart Rate Training: Once or Twice a Week
These are typically high-intensity sessions where you take your heart rate way up, then let it come back down before going again. Examples include Gabby Reece’s HIGHX, interval training on a bike or rowing machine, or an XPT pool workout. I suggest doing such a workout once or twice a week as you go back to basics.
There’s significant evidence to suggest that this type of session is the most efficient type of exercise for overall health. The benefits cross over with those of long endurance training, but there are some notable differences, too, so you should do both each week. You could do one twice and the other once, depending on your performance goals or simply which you prefer or feel most challenged by. Switch the emphasis occasionally to keep things interesting.
Strength: Twice or Three Times a Week
Muscle mass and strength are two of the highest predictive factors of all-cause mortality. It’s not about looking a certain way, but rather keeping yourself at a high level of function for the rest of your life. We’ll talk about the importance of being fast and powerful in the speed section, but strength training is also invaluable to stave off sarcopenia—the age-related loss of fast twitch muscle that compromises vitality.
I recommend doing a total-body strength session two to three times per week. Focus mostly on compound exercises (multi-joint movements involving several body parts) like squats, deadlifts, lunges, kettlebell swings, overhead presses, pull-ups, and so on. Each session should be around 30 to 45 minutes long—enough to provide adequate stimuli without too much volume.
The key is not going to failure, contrary to what you might read in bro-science articles. You also should avoid extreme fatigue—that’s for your interval days. When focusing on strength, perform three to eight reps, with two or three sets of one to three exercises. As with your speed days, you should come away feeling that you could have done more volume.
There is no scientific relationship between how sore you are and your gains. All excess soreness will do is prevent you from training consistently, which will be detrimental. Quality is paramount! If you feel yourself slowing down or starting to compromise your technique then stop. It’s a case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” You’ll pay for that last crappy rep or two later. Be patient and progress more slowly than you think you should be. Practice quality in every rep.
Speed: At Least Once a Week
Muscle speed and power is a highly emergent research area that I’m personally involved in at my lab at Cal State Fullerton. What we’re finding out is that keeping your fast-twitch muscle fibers active and able enables you to age well, hhereas those whose fast-twitch fibers decline become frail, less mobile and more prone to debilitating falls.
The best way to head this off at the pass is to complement your strength sessions by training speed and power. At a minimum, I recommend doing five to 10 minutes of this type of work at least once a week. This could be a standalone session or combined with an XPT pool workout or strength session. Warm up thoroughly and do your speed/power work first. Choose two to four exercises such as medicine ball slams or throws, box jumps, clapping pushups, or short sprints. If you’re in the pool, you could cover 15 to 25 meters as fast as you can.
Perform two to four sets of three to five reps, with plenty of rest in between so you feel ready to go as quickly as possible in the next work period. Keep perfect technique as best as you can, and move as fast and powerfully as you can while maintaining control. On your interval days, you will be expressing these qualities with some fatigue, but your speed work should be done without fatigue. Remember, it’s not conditioning work. If you start to tire, increase your rest and do less reps or sets.
You should finish the session feeling like you haven’t done enough. You can always do a bit more next time—but you can’t go back an un-pull that hamstring. If you’re combining speed work with intervals, strength, or endurance work, be sure to go fast first. Doing it in this order reduces the chance of injury and improves long-term adaptation for both kinds of training.
Covering All The Bases in a Three-Day Plan
If you only have time to train three days a week, here’s a simplified version of the plan to follow. It should give you everything you need to play your sport and live well:
Monday: Speed and power + high heart rate (intervals/circuits)
Wednesday: Strength + pool workout
Friday: Long-duration endurance
Remember, although the back to training basics concepts we’ve covered in this post are few, the methods are many. I’ve tried to simplify the principles. It’s up to you to go and experiment with them. Use lots of variety, try out different exercises, use various tools and see what works best for you.