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Occam’s Razor in Program Design

October 26, 2006 12:26 PM

Warning ? Philosophical information ahead!!

In the realm of program design and exercise there is a paralysis that can occur when trainees begin to seek information to design a program. The science of periodization, muscle fiber types, energy systems and other exercise science can overload the trainee. This is followed by a shotgun approach where the trainee tries to hit every muscle and every possible function and cover every possible permutation of training in a single program. Poor results, frustration and confusion are often the result.

Where is a confused trainee to turn? Leonardo da Vinci had stated: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." A master of so many esoteric and philosophical arts and he relates simplicity to the highest level of understanding and application. So the trainee should seek a simple approach, but how do we do this without feeling like we are missing out on the good old complicated stuff. Because people do believe that the more expensive and or complicated something is the better it is ? we need to provide some comfort to those heading in a simpler direction.

Enter "Occam's Razor" which when boiled down to its simplest level states: "All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best one."

I'll let you chew that one over for a moment?..

Sounds too good to be true? Well, we are going to delve into the Razor for a bit and see if we can apply it without murdering the science. There are several caveats to applying Occam's Razor but once we have a grasp on those it can be applied well. You see what Leonard da Vinci stated about simplicity being the ultimate sophistication assumes that you understand that that simplicity was purchased at the price of great study and expansive work through the complex to arrive at the simplicity. So do not make the jump that simple means easy!

Einstein (yes that Einstein ? bear with me here) stated: "Theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." It is possible to go too far in the pursuit of simplicity and miss the mark. The base of Occam's Razor is that you are making a decision between two equal theories and deciding that the simplest is the best but not necessarily perfect explanation. This is further expounded on by "anti razor" philosophies. Karl Menger was an anti razor scientist who countered Occam's with: "Entities must not be reduced to the point of inadequacy." A warning that if you cut too much of the fat off of the meat ? you ruin the taste.

So be simple but not too simple and don't reach the point of inadequacy!!?? Now I am sure you are finding this very helpful but keep reading.

One more philosopher to pitch in here to assist us in reaching the nirvana of simplicity in training, Thomas Aquinas a 13th century philosopher stated: "If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several, for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices." Now here is a statement that should ring true in the realm of exercise science. How you ask? Well we have finally laid the foundation for simplicity in training ? so let us get to it by examining a couple of common areas of complexity.

Let us take a look at exercise selection for the upper body as an example. Instead of trying to isolate and imagine all of the muscles and combinations of muscles in the upper body, simply breakdown the movements. Essentially you have four movements: horizontal push, vertical push, horizontal pull, and vertical pull. And before you start throwing Menger in my face ? combinations of these movements create crossing and spiraling patterns in the upper body. But you can break those complex movements down into the component parts listed above. So to effectively train the upper body you should pick a direction, horizontal or vertical, and train the push and pull for that direction. Or combine a vertical pull with a horizontal push ? or vise versa. Then once you find a weakness or area that needs further attention, just a raw bench presser will need extra triceps work, target that area with one tool.

In the area of training one of the most confusing to trainees is how to target a specific muscle fiber type. I mean how can you truly reach your potential unless your training targets those coveted type II fibers or better yet your type IIA fibers?? But stop for a moment and apply Occam's Razor. Is the simplest explanation that your body selectively recruits muscle fibers and you must target these fibers with selective precision or does the body adapt to the stresses you place it under?

Simplest explanation ? the body adapts to the stress you place it under. If you want to target your Type II fibers, lift something heavy and lift something quickly. Deadlift and kettlebell swings come to mind as a good combination in this case. Basically, place your self under the stress that you want to adapt to and let the muscle fibers sort themselves out.

How to best achieve cardiovascular conditioning? Long and slow or sprint interval are the two popular options and if you look at the amount of time people spend on the treadmill or step mill or running ? you would assume that long and slow is the way to go. However, Thomas Aquinas already gave us a hint here ? "nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices." The Tabata protocol is a high intensity interval program that was shown to produce very significant increases in both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. If you had forgotten about anaerobic metabolism you missed out on the journey though the science to the simplicity. So if I can achieve both anaerobic and aerobic improvements with one tool ? why apply two or a lesser tool that will only accomplish one.

We are told that in order to burn this or do that that we need 45 minutes of activity (input your own number if you wish). But the Tabata protocol, Dr. Al Sears and others are showing us that one tool ? high intensity intervals are a superior tool and Occam's Razor would lead us in the direction of choosing the simplest option.

Does this cover all contingencies? No. But if you apply the Razor and the other philosophical information and run your training program through those filters, you might just arrive at a program that will accomplish your goals. This is what I do for my clients ? cultivate simplicity in training.

To show you that I am not "armchair" training here let me share with you some of my current training goals and how I am applying the Razor to achieve them. My current long-term goal is to hit a powerlifting total of Raw Elite. This means hitting a total of 1396 in the three power-lifts (squat, bench and deadlift) in a meet. Broken down this means a 500+ squat, 350 bench, and a 550+ deadlift ? all without any gear or assistance other than a weightlifting belt - I've got some work to do!

So how do I go about accomplishing this? Simply!

I want to achieve a high level of proficiency in the three power-lifts so those will form the base of my program. To achieve skill in a lift you must practice the lift. There are powerlifters out there who have been honing their technique in the three lifts for 15-20+ years! So don't think that after six months that your technique is perfect and your low total lies elsewhere. Practice what you want to be good at doing!

Designing the program around the three power-lifts was easy but now to the nuts and bolts of the program. Sets, reps, volume, intensity, and frequency are the nuts and bolts. For myself I am a low volume kind of guy so I will be hitting between 3-5 sets of 1-3 reps in the three lifts. Intensity will overall be on the high end of things, in the 75-90+% range. For my deadlift this will place me between 405 and 495 pounds. I prefer to train 2-3 days a week on this program. If I am going heavier on my squat I go lighter on my deadlift and vise versa. Other assistance work is weighted pull-ups and the floor press. Targeting the lats/back and triceps/lockout strength for the bench press. That is it ? 3- 5 exercises and done!

For volume and conditioning I hit the kettelbell. Centered around swings, snatches and Get-ups on the off days for variety and volume. While I want to become very skilled at the power-lifts I do not want to become a one-groove machine with all sorts of compensations and restrictions. This is where I also incorporated movement screening and drills from Gray Cook, Pavel and Steve Maxwell. Being strong is fantastic but being strong, injured and non-functional is not! Balance of all aspects of fitness is necessary even if I am centered on one goal.

So there you have it ? an Occam's Razor approach to training. Filter your training through the razor and see what happens when simple is best.

Brett Jones Sr. RKC, CSCS is a strength and conditioning professional based in Pittsburgh, Pa. You can read more about him and his services on his website ?

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