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Understanding the Concept of Loading in Training, Part 1

Lifter preparing to snatch the barbell


This article explores the fundamental principles of physical training, focusing on how to induce and optimize adaptations in athletes and clients to enhance their performance in various domains. The discussion is divided into several key sections:

  1. The Purpose of Physical Training - Understanding why we expend effort in the weight room, track, field, and gym.

  2. Training Load: A Key Concept in Exercise Science - Defining training load and its significance in the adaptation process.

  3. Aspects of the Load - Differentiating between external and internal Loads and understanding their interdependent nature.

  4. Driving Adaptation - Explaining the necessity of overload stimulus and how adaptations occur in response to training loads.

  5. Manipulating the Load - Discussing methods for adjusting training loads over time to ensure continuous adaptation and improvement for trainees over different levels.

  6. Training Units and Periodization - Outlining the structure of training cycles and the importance of Periodization for achieving peak performance at critical times.

By understanding and applying these principles, trainers can effectively guide their athletes and clients toward performance goals.

The Purpose of Training

The purpose of physical training is to cause serial adaptations to the organism (athlete or client) over time. These adaptations culminate in developing certain physical qualities and enhancing performance in athletics, work, and daily life. These adaptations affect all aspects of the organism, including mental, neural, structural, metabolic, hormonal, and circulatory systems.

A critical load of stressors must be applied through training to cause adaptations. The concept is simple: an organism encounters a new stressor in its environment, inducing a genetic mutation that secures its future survival when faced with the stressor again; this happens when we work hard (and intelligently) in the gym, rest, and improve fitness.

Effective training involves controlling and optimizing these adaptations by correctly calculating, prescribing, and applying the dosage of stressors according to the trainee's purpose; this is where the concept of training load comes into play.

the effect of the trainin load on the body

Training Load: A Key Concept in Exercise Science

Training load is a term in exercise science referring to adaptational stress. Whether physiological or biological, stress is an organism's response to a stressor, such as an environmental condition.

As trainers, we prescribe and govern loads at the daily and weekly levels for our athletes and clients.

Aspects of the Load

There are two interrelated aspects of the training load: external and internal.

  • External Load: We define the External Load by calculating the relevant physical quantities according to the type of training done (e.g., kilograms lifted, total heartbeats, heart rate, number of throws). It describes the amount and intensity of work done.

  • Internal Load refers to the effect an external load has on the organism internally and its biological impact on all the organism's subsystems; this is commonly known as "stress."

We prescribe training intensities, numbers of reps and sets, or time to develop an external load that will cause a specific internal load. The internal Load will create a particular adaptational effect, manifesting as a specific athletic profile desired at a given time in an athlete's training-competition program.  

We must calculate and prescribe all Weight Training, Cardio Work, Jumping, Throwing, Sprinting and agility, and Sports Practice Loading integrally to ensure that athletes progress optimally and manifest performance peaks at the right moments.

Driving Adaptation

The internal Load developed through training must be above a critical level for the adaptive processes to engage. If the internal Load is significant enough, it becomes the catalyst for adaptation, known as stimuli overload.

Overload is a training load exceeding the normal or habitual magnitude the trainee has already adapted to.

Simply put, a training adaptation occurs only if the external Load prescribed is above the habitual level, causing an internal load more significant than the organism already adapted to.

If a standard exercise with the same weight and number of sets and reps is used repeatedly over time, no additional adaptations will occur after the initial phase; physical fitness will not improve. Eventually, a slow decay of ability will occur.  Therefore, it is necessary to increase the Loads in training gradually.

The gradual and intelligent increase of loading in a training program is what is known as the principal progressive overload.

Manipulating External Load

The methods of manipulating the loading in training over extended periods can be complex. The same external Load can produce very different internal loads in different trainees according to age, genetic factors, training history, current level of previous adaptations, and other factors.

Thus, how a trainer increases the external Load over time will vary from person to person. The more advanced a trainee is, the longer a training cycle constitutes an overload stimulus.

For a beginner, a single training session constitutes an overload; a day off after it is sufficient for recovery, and we see a performance gain just 48 hours later; this is why we use daily planning with beginning trainees.

Intermediate trainees have adapted to the point that loading a single training day and a single rest day can no longer produce a noticeable performance gain. At this point, their adaptation requires weekly planning.

Advanced trainees require more than a month of training to achieve enough adaptation and noticeable performance gain.

The graphic below shows the variations in training loading according to an athlete or client's stage of adaptation.

Beginners make the fastest progress, notice the slope of the weekly loads (green area). Loads are progressed linearly from season to season. (This method was pioneered by Mark Rippetoe and Glenn Pendlay in their seminal work "Starting Strength."

Intermediate trainees progress loading weekly so the rate of progress slows down at this stage (see the decreased slope of weekly loads).

Advanced training is very complex and loads are progressed at the monthly or even longer level. The trend is still upward but at much reduced rate. Good trainers understand their client's stages and organize loads optimally for development.

the organization of training loads

Training Units

As trainers, we organize loads across days, weeks, and months into training cycles around important performance dates (competitions) for athletes and clients.  

A Microcycle is a group of training days that achieve a specific performance objective. It always ends with at least one rest day. The simplest example of a microcycle (beginner program) is a single training day and a single rest day.

A Mesocycle is several microcycles grouped to achieve a particular performance objective. It always ends in a "Deload" microcycle to facilitate complete recovery before beginning the next mesocycle. A deload microcycle has approximately 60% of the loading of the previous one. We use Mesocycles in advanced programming.

A Large Mesocycle is a group of mesocycles that achieve a larger particular performance objective.

A period is a multi-month training unit comprising a group of large mesocycles that develops a concrete performance profile.

A macrocycle is a large (at least six months) training unit comprising a General, Specific, and In-Season (competitive) Period.

The General Period aims to maximize General Physical Preparedness by building the foundational performance abilities to maximal levels: Muscle Mass, Absolute Strength, Power, and Cardiovascular Endurance.

In the Specific Period, training begins to transform the improvement of GPP into SPP: Special Physical Preparedness. Here, the performance profile transforms into a sport-specific one. GPP is maintained with lower loading, while more loading is dedicated to Sport-Specific Means and Methods.

Competitions take place during the in-season period. Here, training maintains SPP and GPP from the previous periods and develops performance peaks on the days of competitions.

We often follow the in-season period with a relatively short transition period before beginning another General Period (new Macrocycle).

The organization of training using these cycles to achieve particular performance profiles and performance peaks at certain times for competitive success across an athletic calendar Periodization. Periodization is the Gold Standard of intelligent Strength & Conditioning and Athletic Coaching.

The first step in creating a periodized program is prescribing loads at every level to an adaptational topography to the program across a macrocycle.

Cycles in training


The art of training involves calculating and prescribing the external loads across time to develop the optimal level and kind of internal loading at the correct times. This approach ultimately causes the desired adaptations to manifest when desired. This art is the essence of athletic preparation and applies to all competitive and non-competitive trainees.

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