The Theory Of Training

The Guide

Because I have a (hopefully) well-deserved reputation as the residential fitness guru in my neighbourhood, sometimes I will get people who approach me at the fitness corner when I work out, asking me for advice on their own physical training.

One common trend that I have come to realise alot of these questions share is that they tend to revolve around the request for a prescription.

What do I mean by that?

Most people just want a quick fix, as if they are visiting the pharmacy or a drug store gettin’ some pills for the cold. They ask me for the best sets and reps to achieve some physical goal in particular that they desire. They want numbers – the more exact, the better.

While there are many time-honoured sets and reps combination that will work wonders for strength and muscle gains, I feel that gaining an understanding behind these numbers is something far more important than getting at the numbers themselves.

If you’re really serious about your health or strength, or both, you need to drop the mindset of going to the doctor (a perceived expert) for a prescription. You need to learn to become your own doctor, and your own expert.

When I coach my clients, I try my best to imbue them with the ability to be their own coach in the future. I teach them all that I know, but more importantly, I try to show them how I arrive at what I know, and by so doing I attempt to educate my clients on the process of self-coaching, and self-programming with regards to their own physical training.

If you have to rely exclusively on a trainer for your whole life, you’ll always be mediocre. Some of you will be fine with that, but I’m betting that there’s also an equal, if not larger number of you out there who want to be able to make it on your own eventually. This is human nature, pure and simple. You don’t want to go to school your whole life, do you? There will come a time when you want to forge ahead on your own, and decide what you want to learn, and what you want to do.

Of course, this desire for self-determination will only be present in significant quantities if health, strength and fitness is your love and your passion, in which you hope to one day achieve something more than ordinary. So this post goes out to the guys and gals out there who have chosen to undertake the quest of self-mastery through physical training. This is by no means a detailed road map, but more of a well-meaning finger pointing you in the right direction.

The rest of this article contains the essence of my own physical training – its content, its principles and its programming. These are the things that go beyond the numbers. These are the things from which the sets and reps are derived, and by which these numbers are organised and defined. This is the good stuff that I have managed to distill from long years of training experience, most of them painful.

So, assuming that you are aiming for all-rounded physical development – a generalist, as Ido Portal puts it, combining health and strength in a holistic pursuit of the flesh and the mind, let me show you some of the overarching concepts that underpin the entirety of my training regime. I have arranged the following principles in a chronological order of pursuit by which newcomers who’re looking for a way into the game (and old dogs who feel as if they have lost their way and are trying to redefine their lives in training) can refer to, as a directional guide for your considerations as you enter the arena of dedicated physical training.

1. Know Thy Goals.

This may seem like the bleedin’ obvious, but too many good men have come up to me asking: “How do I train?” To which I must respond: “And what is it that you want to train for, my friend?” To which many of these same good fellas will look confused, and begin to ponder what they should have considered before approaching someone and asking for specific training advice.

Then I get people telling me they want to be strong. Well that’s a slightly better goal, but it is still not specific enough. Do you want to be strong all over, or do you want to focus on certain parts of your body? Do you want the brute, raw power of a lifter, or the lithe, coordinated strength of a gymnast or a tumbler? Or do you want both? Or…? You get my point.

I always tell people this: “You have to have goals, the more specific the better. Your goals give you direction, and your training should be tailored to suit your specific aims. Your goals are your destination. If they are not clear or specific, you’ll end up circling the general vicinity of your desire, but you’ll never quite get there. It’s like asking for a friend’s address and leaving out the house or block number. You’ll be driving back and forth along the same road, but in the end that’s almost as bad as getting nowhere. And in some ways it’s actually worse, cos you’ll be a good deal more frustrated.”

So… Before you embark on any systematic training, it’s best to know just exactly what you want to train for. The more specific the better, because it makes your efforts more focused, and the resultant gains more measurable. And please be realistic. Don’t tell me you want to go to the Olympics in a month when you’re just starting out on serious training. We’re talking goal-setting here, not daydreaming.

2. Progression – The Name Of The Game

After you’ve got your goals down pat, it’s time to programme your training routine. Allow me to use the front lever as an example. Let us say you want to achieve a front lever in the near future. Static bodyweight strength moves are actually pretty achievable, even if you’re self-taught, but you don’t see many normal folks outside of the gymnastics circle doing them. Why?

The reason is simple: people see only the end product most of the time, and they have absolutely no clue of the previous progressions. Sometimes, some of them don’t even know that there are actually easier variations of these mind-blowing moves. Hell, I used to be one of these people back then, before my friend asked me to check out

So let’s say you want to do a front lever. Start off with the easiest progression that you can handle, and work your way upwards. The name of the game is progression. Do what is manageable until it becomes easy, and then go on to do what has become manageable as a result of your training gains. And when that becomes easy, go on to do what is just within your boundaries. That’s how we keep on pushing the performance envelope ever-outwards and -upwards.

The same goes for weights. Use something that you can handle with some effort, until such time as it becomes easy. Then you add some weight until you acquire the feeling as back when you first started out working with the original amount of weights, until the new weight becomes easy to you, and so on.

Pretty straighforward, huh? I would think so. But apparently the obvious isn’t quite so obvious to some of us, or there will be more alot more strong people and alot less ineffectual grunting and moaning out there in the commercial gyms.

3. The Search For Optimality

There are a hundred roads that lead to Rome… or maybe more. The intelligent traveller will ask: so which is the fastest?

The same is true for training. Let us re-examine the example of the front lever.

You can train for this position by manipulating the variable of leverage. Tuck your legs and you’re effectively under less resistance. Extend your legs more and the corresponding load increases. So this is one way to train for the front lever – increase the leverage to something that you can work with and gradually reduce it as you grow stronger, until the day comes when you can hold the position with your legs together and fully straightened.

Now here’s another way to train for the front lever: start out with your legs together and fully straightened in a dead hang, and attempt to pull through to the final position with arms straight and locked at the elbows. Chances are you will be able to move, if only for a few inches… or a few centimetres. But this can be made progressive – you can endeavour to hold a semblance of the final position at whatever is your current limit, and as you grow stronger you will be able to pull your body increasingly parallel to the ground.

And yet another way to train for the front lever: this is the reverse of the previous method. Go into an inverted hang on the bar (if you can), and slowly attempt to lower yourself into the front lever from this easier position (easier in terms of leverage). Lower only as far as your current strength permits, and then hold for time. As you grow stronger you will be able to lower your body increasingly parallel to the ground, and one day you will be able to lower yourself down from an inverted hang to a front lever.

I have presented you with 3 possible ways, all of them progressive, of training for the front lever. So which one would you pick?

Of course, you will pick the one which you think is the easiest in terms of time-investment. To put it simply, you will pick what you believe to be the fastest route.

And now I ask you this: can you do all 3?

Of course, I don’t have the same answer for everyone when it comes to training programming, because we each have our own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and different people respond differently to the same type of training.

The intelligent trainee will always seek to optimalise his approach, and the process of his training, to get him where he wants to be, within the shortest possible time, and with the least amount of effort. This is pretty much like investment – you want to get good returns for what you’re putting in.

Training? It’s an investment. Optimalise it.

4. The Great Balancing Act

I’m betting that most of you reading this aren’t professional athletes. Chances are you’re someone gunning for a better-than-average health, mind and body with the life of an average man or woman, with the full complement of demands and stresses, both mental and physical, that accompany your work or study.

Odds are, you don’t get a guaranteed amount of sleep each night. Projects and presentations may force you to stay up late, and screw with your recovery when you’re in the midst of serious training. The same odds say that you may not be able to exercise such fine control over your diet as you may desire, and you may be stuck on the shitty menu at your school tuckshop, or workplace canteen.

You’re worried about the bills all the time, you’re worried about your kids, you’re worried about the rising prices of food and necessities that’s making your everyday gorcery shopping feel like episodes of daylight robbery. There are at least a hundred and one worries on your mind that stay with you throughout the day, everyday, and this feeling of constant anxiety haunt your subconscious like a restless ghost, even as you sleep.

Well, we all live in the real world, and the real world is a real cruel place for the most of us.

That is the reason why simple body maintenance has taken a backseat for so many of us – we are so burnt out from the perpetual rat-race that defines and dictates our lives that we have precious little time and energy for anything else. We don’t want to work out after a long, gruelling day at school or work. We just want to get home, get on a bed or a couch, and wind down by hypnotising our minds and spirits with the numbing salve of comfort food, music or TV programmes.

And nobody has a right to despise you for that.

But I’m also guessing that you are somebody who deserves better. You deserve to look your best and feel your best, and be on top of your game, everytime, all the time. And these are things that physical training can give you. I’m not talking about some 8-hours a day, everyday kind of hellish regime that only a professional athlete has the time for. I’m talking 20 – 30 minutes a day, 2 – 3 times a week, just to keep you in shape and keep you sharp for the challenges that your life’s gonna want to throw at you.

You owe it to yourself to keep yourself fighting fit, so that you can take on your life with the strength and vigour of a stubborn battlefield veteran. When your body is in good shape, that’s one less thing you have to worry about. It won’t be as easy for you to fall sick and wind up forking out money at your local clinic on top of your daily expenses. You will also manage stress better, and get things done faster and more decisively with your strength and energy.

A life in balance is a life well-lived. Don’t train past the point of recovery, and keep your training programme in context, making adjustments as is necessary to help you cope with the other demands on your life. Training is meant to help you along with life’s many burdens, not become a burden in and as of itself.

Keep things balanced.

5. The Only Sensible Rule Is to Have No Rules

You may be wondering why I am quoting the Joker. When it comes to physical training, I believe that the only sensible rule is to have no rules. Now, don’t get me wrong on this. You’ve got to have a set of sound principles upon which your training regime is founded, but don’t get yourself tied down with the useless nitty-gritty.

This links back to the idea of people looking for prescriptions. Take strength training, for example. The principle that anchors the entire concept of strength training is the gradual and progressive increase of the resistance, or load, that is being carried or worked against over time as the body adapts and becomes stronger. Every set and rep combination that has been derived to that effect stems from this simple idea of progressive increase.

So, the idea of progressive increase is the principle. Abandon it at your own peril. The sets and reps being bandied about by many self-professed fitness authorities are the rules. And most of the time, these rules are meant to be broken.

What do I mean by that?

I don’t ever prescribe someone a specific combination of sets and reps for an exercise. I prefer to give a range which has been proven for the most part to be effective, leaving alot of wriggle-room for the individual trainee to customise the programming to his own unique needs. Everyone is born and built differently, and no two individuals will respond in the exact same way to the exact same training method or routine. Throw in contextual differences and it should be obvious that no two individuals should be doing the exact same training, at least if we were keen on preserving the interests of optimality.

That is why I have a strong personal dislike for group trainings where everyone does the same things mindlessly, without any thought or effort directed towards the minute, personalised adjustments that can mean the difference between a good training, and a great training.

Typically to the aspiring bodyweight strength trainee I will advise 3 – 5 sets of an exercise, for a comfortable rep range that can be sustained over the working sets. And the uninitiated will ask me this: “So do I do 3, 4 or 5 sets?” 

To which my reply will be: “3 on a bad day, 4 on an okay day, and 5 on a good day. And if you’re feeling really sharp, don’t let this hold you back. Do 10 or even 20 sets if you feel like it. But if you’re feeling off, take a break and maybe do something else entirely.”

Now one of the guiding tenets of my training philosophy is “train by feel”.

Once you’ve reached a certain point in your physical development, you would have become more in tune with your body, and you will be able to feel its needs. I know when I need to train, when I need to rest, when I need to eat, and when I need to fast. All these will come to you in time, if it hasn’t already done so. Listen to your body, and don’t bog it down with a load of useless rules. Live and train by a sensible set of principles, and don’t weigh yourself down with the fetters of rules that don’t do you any good.

In the words of Bruce Lee: “It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

Keep only what works, and don’t be afraid to throw what doesn’t right out of the window. Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

And then some…  

Here are my final words to you in this post:

“Have faith, and keep on moving forward.”

All the best for your training.

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~


An Analysis Of Rep Speed And Rhythm

Have you ever wondered why the speed and rhythm of your reps on a given exercise experience changes over time, and even within a single set? Here are some of my thoughts and analysis of the rep speed and rhythm – an oft-underlooked set of indicators in both strength and skill training amongst amateurs and self-taught individuals.

Rep Speed And Rhythm As An Indicator

The speed and rhythm at which you complete repetitions of a given exercise can be an indicator of your mastery of the particular drill, as well as your prevailing strength levels.

Strength-Intensive Drills

When we are talking about exercises which taxes your strength more than your skill e.g. classic strength-builders such as pull ups, incline pull ups, push ups and dips, drills in which the skill component should not present a challenge equal to that of the strength component, here is how you can interpret your rep speed and rhythm:

If you have been training with the given exercise regularly for some time, you may notice that the first few reps that you do in a set experience a sort of a “bounce”. This is because you have built up more than sufficient strength to do multiple repetitions, and when you are fresh your strength shows – the excess amount that is being exerted causes you to “bounce” on the first few reps.

After this initial stage when you are fresh and raring to go, you should settle into a quick and easy rhythm. This is because your body is instinctively efficient, and “bouncing” on your reps represent a waste of your strength and energy. Thus the body will settle into a steady rhythm for the rep range in which you have acquired sufficient strength through your training. This is the part of the set when the reps feel “smooth” and relatively effortless – strength-wise, this is your comfort zone.

As you progress further through your set you will find your rhythm on the reps starting to slow. This is because you are approaching a strength endurance threshold. This is where you have the strength to keep going, but what strength you have left is insufficient to maintain the smooth and steady rhythm that your body prefers. As you push the set to failure you will notice your range of motion on your reps diminishing as your strength flags and finally fails. Your bodyline may start to get broken up towards the last few reps, or half-reps e.g. piking at the hips in a pull up and sagging at the lower back in a push up.

Take note that when your rhythm starts to slow, your rep speed may or may not do the same. Your rep speed will only slow most noticeably when you feel that your range of motion is being taxed i.e. when you feel that it is increasingly difficult to maintain the original range of motion in your reps that your started the set with.

Skill-Intensive Drills

When we are talking about exercises which taxes your skill (tension and coordination) more than your strength e.g. things involving an element of balance such as handstand push ups, drills in which the skill component presents a greater challenge than the strength component, here is how you can interpret your rep speed:

When you are starting out on a new drill such as the classic handstand push ups, your reps may be fast and relatively uncontrolled, and you may “speed” your way through the skill using a combination of momentum and luck. The use of force from kicking the legs and/or jerking of the torso may be evident as you are struggling to coordinate the exertion of your strength in the demanding position.

When you get better at the drill, your reps will become slower and relatively controlled. Every part of the range of motion of your reps will be more or less under your control, and you are able to “power” your way through a rep smoothly. This is in contrast to the previous stage, where your reps may be fast, but may also suffer from jerky start-and-stops within the range of motion as you struggle with the control and coordination of the skill-intensive drill.

When you have mastered the drill to a certain level, you will find it possible to execute your reps fast and relatively controlled. Your control and coordination have reached sufficient levels such that there is nothing much inhibiting the speed of your exertion. This is the point in the handstand push up where you feel about as confident as performing the inverted pressing as you do your normal face-the-ground push ups. You will be able to go fast without fear, knowing that you are in control all the way. This is akin to the part in a strength-intensive drill where you attain a quick and easy rhythm.

Comparing The Two

If we were to compare the rep speeds in the strength-intensive and skill-intensive drills, I’d say that when these drills are performed in a single maximal set, the rep speed patterns should appear as that described for the strength-intensive drills. However, this only holds when the comparative skill-intensive drill has been practised and refined to a point where it has become no more than another strength-builder to the practitioner. Indeed, even the strength-intensive drills start out as being skill-intensive to the new learner – it’s just that the level of control and coordination that is required for these exercises can be achieved with relative ease.

The rep speed pattern that is evidenced during the course of practice and pursuit of a skill-intensive drill will appear in the reverse order of that which is exhibited in a single maximal set of strength-intensive drill. The fast and uncontrolled jerking will come first in the skill as it does at the end of a maximal training set, before settling into a smooth and steady rhythm after some practice, as in the middle of a training set. Finally the rep speed will become fast and controlled, much like the “bounce” that is often experienced at the start of a strength-training set.

Do note that for skill-intensive drills there may come a point in time when you are able to execute every rep quickly and smoothly, but when you are as-yet unable to link them all together in a similarly swift and steady rhythm. This represents the penultimate step to true mastery, which is the control over both the rhythm of the reps, as well as the rep speed.

So what can I do with this knowledge?

Nothing much for skills training, cos in that specific arena your rep speed is determined by your level of control and coordination, which is, ironically, beyond your control at each individual time-point analysis, until such time as you have mastered the skill to the extent that it becomes just another strength move.

On the other hand, when you are doing multi-set training for a strength exercise, use the rep speed as it is meant to be used – as an indicator. Be able to identify the different stages of rep speed within a single set, and you can record down the rep ranges that fall into these stages, which can be of help in measuring your training progress and for setting your training goals.

For instance, if you are aiming to do more pull ups in the future than you are currently capable of, push every training set to the point where your rep speed and rhythm start to slow. Carry on in this manner until your range of motion starts to decrease as well. Now here comes the important part – DO NOT jerk your body to retain the original range of motion. Instead, keeping your reps as smooth as you can, continue performing half-reps, going up only as high as your strength will allow. This will prevent unnecessary exposure to the risk of injury, while stressing the body’s adaptive  mechanisms into giving you more strength, more quickly.

When you are fresh in a set the reps will start off smoothly, and towards the end of the set you may feel something like a time-lapse delay before your body kick-starts every rep. This is actually what causes the rhythm to slow as your strength gets increasingly taxed. As you push the boundaries (safely!) during your training you will find that the smooth and steady rhythm at or near the start of your set gets extended over a greater rep range. This is a sure sign that you are experiencing improvements in terms of strength endurance – you are able to exert strength at the same level over a greater number of repetitions, of a given exercise, in a single set.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, unless you are already a master in the exercise, you can’t really influence your rep speed and rhythm in a skill-intensive drill.

Fortunately, you can influence your rep speed and rhythm to some extent on exercises that are strength-intensive.

For strength training (or more accurately strength endurance training), attempt to keep your rep speed constant. When you feel as if your body is “grinding” through the rep, it’s time to call it quits for that set in particular. While stressing the adaptive mechanism is good, we don’t want to stress it to the point of breakdown.

So unless you have supreme confidence in the strength and tenacity of your muscles and joints, and paramount faith in your healing and recovery abilities, please do not keep your body to the grindstone. Cut the set when you are “grinding” out the reps, and can your training for the day when you start a new set with the same “grinding”.

Similarly, do not kip or jerk unnecessarily to attain a range of motion that is swiftly getting out of the reach of your strength. Drop to half- or even quarter-reps, and keep stressing your body. Safely.

Remember, rep speed and rhythm for strength-intensive drills are first and foremost, among other things, indicators of your prevailing strength levels. Play if safe and keep everything strength-led – do not employ unnecessary momentum in your movement that may strain the muscles and joints beyond their current capacity. Use your rep speed and rhythm as a training guide, sort of like a speedometer when you’re driving a car.

So treat your training like driving. Unless you’re a lunatic, you’ll want to drive fast, but drive safely. Which means keeping everything under control. Stick to this philosophy, and your body (and your car, if you have one) will thank you for it. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~