Formulas, Mathematics & Humans: Individualized Weightlifting Programming
I had a conversation yesterday with a strength coach who stopped by the gym about how I individualize my lifters' programs. He asked how precise I got in terms of the volume of certain lifts within certain intensity ranges, if I consider the ratio of classic lifts to squats, and similar metrics.
I explained that primarily, I rely on experience with each lifter to determine what does and doesn't work for that individual. In other words, I don't usually go through a process of calculations, but rather create a program for a given individual that comes from the convergence of my many program templates (really programs I've written for lifters in the past and then have used as guides repeatedly), experience coaching the lifter and seeing what they respond to best, and the needs of that lifter at that time.
Yes, I consider the ratio of squats to classic lifts, but only in a vague sense - rarely do I get out a calculator and get to figuring. It's always fairly obvious if a lifter has a big disparity in squat strength relative to classic lift strength, and a divergence of a few percentage points from whatever I consider "good" is not going to be what convinces me to do one thing or another. If a lifter back squats 250 and cleans 140, it's not hard to understand that he doesn't need to be doing a lot of squatting, and that I need to first determine why exactly his clean is so far behind and then next program to address those identified problems.
Each of my national-level lifters has an individual program. At times, they can be very similar, all based on the same template, as they're all training toward the same basic goal: snatching and clean & jerking more in competition. And at times, they can be very different depending on what exactly that lifter needs to reach that goal. A few of my lifters are always doing something very different from everyone else; for example, Audra squats heavy every single day. In fact, she does everything heavy every single day, and she does a lot of volume. Why? Because with experimentation, I've found that's what she unquestionably responds best to. That same approach does not work the same way for any of my other lifters, at least not long term. They nearly all train to max daily during certain periods (particularly the last 4 weeks before a major competition), but not the majority of the year.
I track and pay attention to daily and weekly volume and average intensity, and the intensity percentage of every major lift. I write my programs in an Excel template that calculates those things for me to make it a bit easier. From experience with them, I have a good idea of how much volume and intensity each of my lifters can manage, and it varies considerably. The volume I give a couple of them would kill a couple of the others. These numbers also make it easy for me to keep track of what has worked and what hasn't - the more information I have at my disposal, the better I can make decisions on future programs. But again, I'm generally not being incredibly precise with this, because these numbers describe only part of the picture - I have to take into account quite a few other factors, some of which have nothing to do with the training itself, and those things are largely subjective and unmeasurable, so there is a good deal of judgment involved on my part. I don't always get it right, and that's why I'm constantly taking notes and transferring them to those Excel programs I keep filed on my computer. I can refer back to those at any time and get a good sense of what was happening and why, and then use that information when creating new programs.
There is definitely a balance to be found that will best serve each coach. You need a certain amount of information to make good decisions, but too much information can actually become a burden and a limitation. It's possible to become so engrossed by figures that you forget that these numbers reflect the abilities, performances, and needs of a living human being, who is never that simple and formulaic. Combine the math and science with the every day experience and interaction and find the balance that works for you and your athletes: pay attention to the athletes, and you'll know what works and what doesn't without ever having to do a single calculation.