Can you shuffle your training days around, and does your split matter?

I’m frequently asked by clients whether making alterations to their prescribed training structure is going to cost them gains. Obviously there’s a reason that I elected to write programs a certain way, and in the past I might have been inclined to call tweaks “not following the program”, but is that really the case?

How I look at clients who don’t follow their program

In 2015 Colquhorn published a thesis study and dissertation titled  “Comparison of Powerlifting Performance in Trained Males Using Traditional and Flexible Daily Undulating Periodisation”. 25 trained males (minimum squat = 1.25xbw, bench = bw, deadlift = 1/5xbw) completed a 9wk program, in which they either followed a “traditional” DUP approach, in which the workouts were ordered “Hypertrophy, Power, Strength” or a “flexible” approach in which participants could elect which workout that they completed on a given day, depending on their desire/readiness, provided all of the prescribed training was completed within the week.

There were no significant differences found in volume/intensity of exercise performed between the groups across the intervention, and results on 1RM, PL total and Wilks score were not significantly different, either, although in absolute terms there was a very small advantage to the traditional approach for squat, bench (approx 2.5kg each) and total (approx 3.5kg). Another study found a flexible training structure to produce better results in leg press strength over a 12wk period, albeit this time in total beginners, who were able to choose the order and distribution of all sessions across each 4wk block.  

As coaches we are inclined to structure training programs in a way that, on paper, is most facilitative of performance. In fact, in a study by Zourdos, in which two different DUP arrangements were examined (hypertrophy, power, strength as opposed to hypertrophy, strength, power), the former was superior. This can be attributed at least in part to the better fatigue management from having the lighter session, with more reps in reserve, in between the two more difficult loading sessions. Logically (an evidently per the above), training structure isn’t entirely unimportant, so what’s the give?

In both the Colquhorn and Macnamara papers, volume and intensity were matched between the groups. A reasonable working conclusion might be that provided that the same workloads are performed across the week, structure is less important. This is corroborated by recent meta analyses on the effects of frequency on strength and hypertrophy outcomes, in which where volume was equated, frequency did not appear to be of importance. In both instances, higher frequencies make higher productive volumes of training viable (something that I discuss in more detail here), giving some level of importance to the way in which we structure training. To sum up – the total workload package is of primary importance, and our training structures should conform to facilitate that.

There is plenty of evidence around the timecourse of our physiological responses to exercise. After a reasonably high volume bout of bench press performance suppression persists for a number of days, and the nature of the training stimulus can meaningfully impact the duration of performance impairment, with higher volumes causing more and lengthier suppression. That gives a strong theoretical rationale for plotting our sessions with deliberate spacing.

However, training occurs in the real world, and outside factors impacting recovery are not entirely predictable. Once of the great advantages of autoregulated training approaches is that they accommodate fluctuations in preparedness and outside stress that may influence your ability to perform a training bout. In the studies above, allowing selection of which workout to complete based off of self-perceived readiness and motivation to train essentially pairs training with the appropriate physiological state. Given that autoregulated training is increasingly in vogue, coaches should be aware that occasionally shifting planned sessions around such that those in which performance is intended to be best coincide with the state of greatest readiness is a similarly viable strategy to simply altering loading on a fixed day.

There are some limitations to how we interpret the research that prompted this article. In the Colquhorn study, all sessions were full body sessions. That means that on each occasion there was bound to be overlap between adjacent training sessions – each successive session involved training the same muscles.
In a split routine, overlap can be entirely ameliorated or greatly magnified. Consider that if you train 5x/wk with a 1x/wk frequency of each main muscle group (ie on a traditional “bro split”), whether you choose to follow chest day with back day or leg day might be entirely unimportant. However, if you train 4x/wk on an upper/lower schedule, doing both upper days in succession is likely to impact performance to a greater degree.

To spitball – choosing between two full-body sessions with the same exercises but differing levels of difficulty might take a global appraisal of fatigue, whereas choosing between two sessions that train different muscles with a similar level of difficulty involves an assessment of local fatigue of the muscles to be worked. In practice, most people on a split routine also find certain days more globally challenging than others, making the concepts not entirely dichotomous, but worthy of note. Substituting in easier/harder days might be different in concept to substituting which muscles you actually work.

Following the above concept, more moderate/submaximal training approaches might be most amenable to these types of changes, whereas training loads positioned at the extremes of difficulty may not. If all training is very easy, trainees are unlikely to feel underprepared to perform, whereas if all training is exceptionally difficult, trainees are less likely to elect to push a hard session ahead in light of feeling good.
Not reported in the results of Colquhorn was how differently each group actually followed the programs (ie, whether the flexible group actually frequently made changes to the training order). If not, that might be taken as evidence of a sound underlying program structure (as would the fact that traditional group completed all work and made the same rate of progress). However, it would also do less to answer the question of whether changes to the program structure actually mattered. The authors noted that despite the traditional DUP group having higher baseline strength in bench press, they made slightly greater gains in absolute terms, although not statistically significantly. Even making the same rate of progress from a higher baseline may be considered vindication of a given training structure.

The rate of progression week to week was autoregulated in the Colquhorn paper. Again, that the flexible and traditional group lifted the same intensities and volumes across the course of the study suggests that either the baseline training plan was sound, it was followed by both groups nearly identically, or that flexible training may not have actually facilitated harder work.
The progression was determined by the number of repetitions performed in the final set of the previous week’s workouts, and so if performance between groups on either schedule didn’t differ, it might give some support to the notion that with moderate training difficulties, how you feel going in is of lesser importance.

So what can we take away from this?

In practical terms, coaches should recognise that fluctuating readiness of their athletes is a reality. Allowing some flexibility in how training is completed/ordered, provided that the baseline work IS completed is probably just as good as insisting that training adheres to the planned schedule. I’d suggest that at certain timepoints, such as later in peaks where training is structured towards best performance at an upcoming date, more rigidity in scheduling would be favourable, whereas where training performance itself is primary (such as offseason/developmental blocks) flexibility would be more beneficial.

Although I cast some doubts on the actual superiority of flexible training schedules earlier, certainly recognising that training that conforms to athletes’ desire to train/motivation and fosters a sense of autonomy (they have say in their schedule/performance) rather than rigidity/entrapment (they “must” do xyz) is beneficial. If two training approaches yielded similar results, but you enjoyed one more and felt that you could do it for longer, which would you prefer?

Finally, it’s important to delineate between one-off changes and permanent structural changes. As I’ve mentioned, there IS reason to think that certain training distributions are superior to others as a baseline plan. However, we shouldn’t be afraid to make one-off changes in light of circumstances and indicators of the athlete’s readiness. On the flipside, where we can predictably say that outside factors will impact training, planning around that seems prudent. For instance, if your client works 14 hour days all week and relaxes all weekend, skewing harder training to Saturday and Sunday as a baseline plan is eminently sensible.

To conclude – the way in which we structure programs matters. However, we have to be willing to update training schedules in light of reality, and current evidence suggests that it’s probably not to your detriment to do so, provided on a chronic basis all of the prescribed work gets done.

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