Athletes and coaches often think an effective strength training program is all about exercise selection. The thought is that if I have the proper training ingredients, the meal will be good. They randomly assort a list of exercises, conditioning moves and drills they think will develop the attributes necessary for their sport and miss the most important part—the recipe.
The human body is an adaptable machine. It responds to stressors placed on it during each training session. When too many competing demands are placed on the body, the training methods often cancel each other out. The trick it to promote the most adaptation possible by aligning exercises and drills and applying the right doses at the right times. This requires a training structure to organize your work and optimize the benefits from your expenditure of time.
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Famed Olympic sprint coach Charlie Francis popularized one such system, the High-Low method. This structure, though initially created for track athletes, has fantastic carryover, particularly for sports requiring heavy power and heavy conditioning elements. If you can pay attention to its guidelines, it can easily organize your training, allow more time for sport, and give you your best results.
Three central tenets form the backbone of the High-Low method and every other sports performance program:
General Adaptations Syndrome (GAS) explains how the body reacts to trauma or exercise. Any stressor is initially met with an alarm stage as the body prepares its resources. Then a resistance phase kicks in, in which the body adapts. Finally, there is an exhaustion phase where all the body’s resources are sapped. The goal of proper training is to not reach the exhaustion phase, because overtraining leaves the body too depleted to recover stronger and makes injury more likely.
Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID) means the body reacts to the specific stimuli it encounters and nothing else.
Progressive Overload means that workouts should gradually progress in duration, intensity or both. For example, if an athlete gets stronger in his or her Squat but never adds more weight, reps, or time under tension, he or she will stop making progress.
The High-Low method is built upon these foundational principles. It categorizes days as either high intensity or low intensity.
High Intensity Days
High intensity work is extremely taxing to the central nervous system, which you can think of as the electrical center of the body. There is only so much electrical or power output available in a given time. High days cannot be consecutive, since they would push the body into the exhaustion phase of GAS and deplete all power output from the central nervous system.
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During high intensity days, you want to group your strength training and your speed, acceleration or full speed agility work. Anything that requires an expression of maximum effort, from Plyometrics to Med Ball Throws to Squats, should be reserved for high intensity days. Special consideration must be given to work-to-rest ratios. When an athlete competes at a high intensity level, the work typically is shorter in duration—15 seconds or less—and the rest will be anywhere from 1:12 to 1:20 work-rest ratio. I use rest periods as opportunities for mobility work. As stipulated by the principle of progressive overload, high intensity day weight loads, number of sets, and length of workouts should advance over time. No benefit comes from poor execution, so don’t start too heavy or work too long initially.
Low Intensity Days
I know what you’re thinking. Low days sound boring! Let me assure you, low days are what make this structure magical. On your low days, you can slow things down and really invest in low-intensity sport skill practice. Rather than feeling you have to lift four days a week or have different days for lifting and agility or speed work, you are freed up to work on actual sports skill and understanding. Quarterbacks can work on mechanics, linemen on pull steps, infielders on bunt defense, and soccer players on footwork drills.
For an athlete needing both power and heavy conditioning, low days are great opportunities for tempos. Simply run 100’s (the length of a football field) at 60-65%. Then walk 50-60 yards (approximate width of a field) and run back. The total volume of tempo runs depends on your sport, but these will help you recover from high days while expanding the tank with some much needed aerobic work.
Putting it all Together
An easy split is to use Monday, Wednesday, Friday for high intensity, and Tuesday and Thursday for low intensity. For this split, I recommend total-body lifting three days a week on high days. This is the best structure for sport, since sports are played with the total body. Furthermore, it allows you to hit each body part three days a week, rather than the two days a week of an upper-lower split. Again, we are able to get more out of less time invested.
With all the sport skills to train, why not compartmentalize and optimize the benefits of all training. Bring reason to your workouts by categorizing them in this simple structure. Then have the discipline not to make every workout an all-out interval gauntlet. As Denton Guyer strength coach Kyle Keese says, “your athletes are just getting good at getting tired.” The high low method allows your team more time for sports skill work, better overall conditioning and optimal benefits from the selected training modalities. In this competitive age, when we never seem to have enough time, what’s not to like?