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Beyond the Template is the Promised Land

January 4, 2007 02:46 PM

The reasons to follow a training template have been well documented; however, all too often a lifter can become so absorbed in the program that they ignore their own bodies along the way. The main point of a training template is to give a map; but remember the map is not the territory and like any other map, YOU are the one who needs to navigate the terrain, not your training partner and not your coach. Learning to be a good "navigator" by knowing when to take advantage of or back off of lifts is as important as anything else a strength athlete learns during his career. The call to make a training modification on any given day can and should be done with confidence by every serious strength athlete. Those athletes that have spent time learning the template and its philosophy will reap the most benefits in the end; especially when these modifications should or need to be made.

Let's be honest, how many times have you been in the middle of a template that called for 85% and you just felt so incredible that you just had to try a heavier weight or band cause if you didn't you were going to explode! Furthermore, how many times have you gone in for a max effort single and felt like hell that day because you were so stressed from work, so instead you modify to a heavy 3 or 4 rep attempt . . . don't beat yourself up! You did the right thing for that day because LIFE said so, not your template. Why do I bring this up? Because here are just some the variables on any given day / week / or month of training that you need to account for:

1.)Stress / Anxiety levels
2.)Sleep deprivation
5.)Family events
7.)Emergencies, etc., etc.

We can only realistically control certain variables in our lives and although some of us are better at controlling these factors than others there will always be unforeseen factors that creep into our training. Because of this I have sustained more injuries and left some of my best lifts unattempted on other people's templates because I thought I HAD to follow it letter by letter. Does that mean you should not follow a template? Hell NO! I have made great progress on Westside's template over the past year and will continue to use it. Instead, I recommend having a very good working knowledge of your template including all of its principles and philosophies. It amazes me how many lifters blindly follow a template without ever asking "why do we do it this way and not that?" This means you may need to read some books, buy some videos, go to a few seminars, talk to others who have had success on that template, visit forums, read articles, discuss the template with your training partners etc. etc. Trust me I have done all of the above and I still know I have a lot to learn. In fact, my training partner and colleague Mike Hanley and I are planning a trip to Westside in February to go to the source of the information. My point is, master the information and do your best to stay within the framework of the template's philosophy. Based on what you are feeling on any given day make modifications that match the concepts of the template's design.

For example: Westside's template has two days devoted to DE lifts and two days devoted to ME lifts. The supplementary exercises are designed to address the weak links in the chain. If you are following the beginner's template and you are supposed to do three weeks in a row of heavy rack pulls for triples (for instance) and on that third week you are trying to beat your previous totals and you feel horrible what do you do? Well, keep in mind the philosophy of the template and the methodology. You are pulling heavy rack lockouts to help you with the lockout on the DL. If you are feeling like hell, work into a weight that feels heavy for you on that day and work to a set of 5 instead of 3. Why? Two reasons, first because the psychological effect (especially for a beginner) of failing that third week where it was all supposed to "come together" can mess with your head. Second, because it is a lot safer to opt for a relatively heavy five than a really heavy three when you feel like dog meat. Instead of setting yourself up for failure, stick with the philosophy and pull a lighter weight for another rep or two.

On the other hand, if you go in a few days later and you are doing DE leg work pulling speed deads from the floor and you are feeling ferocious (as long as you are not tapering for a competition) go ahead and ramp it up to a 70, 80 or even 90 percent pull for a single after your speed dead sets (even it the template doesn't say so! Shhh, I won't tell). Why? Because you are only going to get certain "optimal" days of training when you feel your best or even really good. Sure, you try to time those days on the days of ME work but it doesn't always happen. You need to jump on these days ? NOT over do it, but stick within the philosophy and framework of the template to do what needs to be done; perhaps an extra set or an extra few reps on your supplementary work or a couple of heavier singles after your speed deads - if you are feeling it do it!

On the Westside template (for example) or any other PL template you are ultimately trying to move maximal weight in the SQ, BP and DL. On days that your mind and body are really revved up go ahead and take advantage. Don't miss the windows that your mind, body and life give you to train hard. If you find yourself lifting a little heavier than the template suggests on the DE day, go ahead and back down the volume or intensity a little on the ME day for those lifts where necessary.

I know some people are leery of what the deem as "instinctive training" but being instinctive is the most effective way for an intelligent lifter to train and reap the benefits of a program's main principles while remaining strong, healthy and uninjured. Remember, it is the principles and philosophy of a program that needs to be followed and I promise that your body and physical state of mind on any given day precedes the numbers in a book. This goes for days where you feel like dog meat or days where you feel invincible. I have given examples for both extremes. Get educated and creative enough to understand what is being asked of that day and do it.

It is important to note that if you are one of those individuals that is good at controlling distractions and other variables in your life, then chances are you can stick to a template 90% of the time or more and not run into problems. If not, you need to start getting in control of these variables and listening to your body. There is a big difference between mental toughness and pure stupidity when you aren't feeling it. Similarly, don't be reluctant to take advantage of those days where you are feeling like superman. Stick with the philosophy and principles of the template that works for you; but more importantly learn to pay more attention to your mind and body instead of dogmatically drudging through a template and either hurting yourself or leaving your best lifts unattempted during training and thereby losing the opportunity to grow and get stronger. By looking for the signs and paying your dues along the way you will ultimately reach your destination.

The true strength "landmarks" along the way are your competition lifts. When numbers go up in competition you know you are getting stronger; if not find out why and address the strength weaknesses within the template's philosophy you follow. Whether training for a PL event, an OL event, a strongman event or trying to max the military PT test, the program that led to success or failure was either a good plan for you or a bad one. This is why most of the training world would be doing themselves a big favor by actually training for something now and then! Nevertheless, once you have found a plan that works stick with it. Every time you try a new program track your progress, learn the philosophy and main principles inside and out. Then, get ready to navigate the territory by paying close attention to what's happening along the journey. Don't be afraid to make decisions based on how you feel. Who knows what treasures you might find or pitfalls you may avoid by consciously navigating your course. Remember, in the end it is the journey that matters. If you took the time to master the maps and charted the terrain then you most certainly have found the Promised Land.

Thomas Phillips, RKC is the co-owner of Fit-for-life. He is the 2002 Body-for-life Grand Master Champion. He placed first in the deadlift at the National AAU, received first place at the AAU PL Nationals 181 raw division, and is a national qualifier for the sport of kettlebell lifting. Thomas also won back to back first place finishes in the National TSC elite class and the U.S. Army certificate of Achievement in Physical Fitness. Thomas is an assistant kettlebell instructor for Pavel Tsatsouline. He is a certified personal trainer, sport specific trainer, strength trainer, and kettlebell instructor. Visit his website at or