Barbell Medicine - From Bench to Bedside

By Jordan Feigenbaum

This post was inspired by a recent Facebook post of another coach, Jacob Tsypkin, owner of TZ Strength when he mentioned the idea of optimal exercise programming resembling a “Funnel.” This triggered a previously stored memory where I read of Canova and Gigliotti, two very prominent international-level endurance coaches, in the book The Science of Running. As an aside, that book is an excellent read even if you don’t care about endurance sports at all. It’s very well written and both the coaching and physiology in there are world-class.

Now let’s get back to the funnel. In this model,  the “tip” of the funnel represents the specific event for which our athlete is peaking. This could be a meet for a powerlifter or weightlifter, a 5k or a marathon for a runner, or a CrossFit competition for a CrossFitter. It should be noted that these athletes are all intermediate or advanced trainees, not novices. We can further specify this tip by assigning it a certain total (PL and OL), time (runners), or score for a WOD if the event is known beforehand. The other side of the funnel, however, represents the vast array of non-specific training that is not very similar to the specific task we’re training (or coaching) towards. To use running as an example, let’s say we want our athlete to run a 51 second 400m at an event in 16 weeks. The tip is represented by the event, i.e., 400m run, and the pace, i.e., 51 seconds.  The funnel model of programming sets up the general training to occur further from the event, so the athlete will run pieces that are longer and slower such as 1 mile repeats, a tempo 5k or similar. He’ll also run pieces that are shorter and faster, such as 100s and 200s. Finally, he’ll also dedicate relatively more training resources (read: time and recovery) to other training modalities that are not specific to the event such as weightlifting and/or other endurance modalities. Still, he will be doing some 400m runs, but the specific training will represent a smaller percentage of his or her overall training the further he or she is away from the event. Similarly, as the event draws near, the previous work that was “longer and slower” or “shorter and faster” will become more and more similar to- though not exactly the same as- the event in length and pacing.

In short, the further out someone is from an event the less specific their training is with regards to modality (type), duration, and intensity. The general trend is to move towards expending fewer and fewer training resources, e.g. recovery, training time, motivation, etc. on training that does not resemble (relatively) the specific event we’re training for in the first place. I used the running example above because I think it is easy illustrates this concept there before forging ahead. Let’s apply a similar example to a powerlifter getting ready for a meet.

Say we have a lifter 16 weeks out from their next powerlifting meet. We already know the demands of the event: be really strong for 3 attempts in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Overall, the energy system requirements from an aerobic or glycolytic standpoint are relatively low compared to other sports, as the only running that occurs at a powerlifting meet is a lifter to the bathroom or something that happened on the way to the bathroom. The tip of the funnel then can be represented by the maximal weight that can be lifted successfully for a single repetition in the three lifts on a given day. So the modality (squat, bench, deadlift), duration (1 rep), intensity (near 100%), and energy requirements (PCR) are all known. Using the funnel model for programming tells us that as the meet draws near, most,if not all, of his training will revolve around the squat, bench, and deadlift, and the rep range will drop towards singles with the loading getting heavier and heavier. This is kind of a “duh” concept, especially when applied to these fundamental training variables. Let’s go a little further down this path and see if this model helps elucidate any more actionable programming themes.

Let’s consider exercise and conditioning selection for our powerlifter according to the funnel model. As we get closer and closer to the meet, exercise selection should more closely approximate the demands of the meet. In general, this will mean doing a squat with a belt (perhaps with knee wraps if the federation allows them), bench press with a pause, and a deadlift with a belt, but without chains, bands, or other “non competition” additions to the movement like a box, boards, slingshot, etc. So more of the exercises will be regular squats w/ belt, bench w/ pause, and deadlift w/ belt instead of anything else. Let’s consider a lifter who trains 4 days per week and who does 3 exercises per training session, which provides 12 total exercise “slots”. I think there is a very strong argument to incorporate training of competition lifts during the entire training cycle with varying degrees of emphasis depending on how close to the event we are getting, which takes up 3 slots in this template. The other 9 slots will be comprised of variations that can run the gamut from fairly general to fairly specific and heavier to lighter as seen in the graphic below for the bench press’ funnel:

Slide1

In this model, the more general exercises that are more different from a range of motion or loading perspective will represent more non specific training. For example, there is decreased ROM seen in board presses and increased ROM seen in close grip bench press. There is increased loading in a bench press with accommodating resistance, slingshot, or bench shirt, whereas there is decreased loading in something like a medicine ball throw, dips, or military press. Still, these are all “upper body development” exercises that have a place somewhere in the funnel. I should also state that in general, I am a fan of simple exercises over complex exercises. I think overload variations have their place as well as variations with increased ROM. That said, I don’t think bands, boards, chains, etc. are the end-all be all of training. To the degree they can favorably influence ROM or loading when appropriate OR if they can motivate a lifter a bit more than a more traditional variant or competition-style lift would, I think they can be useful. I don’t mean to suggest that I always use these tools or that everyone should use these tools because I absolutely do not and most people probably shouldn’t either. I am getting anxiety about the potential misapplication of this model of programming in populations who do not yet require this level of complexity. Don’t be the guy/gal doing “speed work” with 135 on the bar.

From a conditioning standpoint, while we understand that the powerlifter’s energy system requirements are low at the meet, it should be noted that a certain base of conditioning does appear to help in work capacity and recoverability, i.e., how much volume and tonnage the lifter can handle in a session/given time frame and how well they can recover from it. The funnel model suggests that the lifter should do things that are much different than the meet’s demands conditioning-wise, as he will still be lifting during training and that will fulfill any “specific” conditioning needs he has. As far as how to optimize work capacity and recoverability from a conditioning standpoint* the funnel model suggests that the lifter would likely benefit from some traditional steady state cardio. Again, they are already doing very short conditioning efforts each time they train with a barbell, so the only “different” thing they can do conditioning-wise is to do some steady state work.

Weeks out Reps of Competition Lifts Reps of Supplemental Lifts % of Training Competition Lifts % of Training Supplemental Lifts Conditioning Volume Exercise Variations
16-12 5-8. 2-3 30 min+ steady state sessions 25% 75% High bands, boards, chains, blocks, Partials, Alt. exercises (e.g. lunges, dips)
12-8. 4-6. 2- 30 min steady state sessions 50% 50% Moderate to High bands, boards, chains, blocks, pauses
8-4. 3-5. 1-2 30 min steady state sessions 75% 25% Moderate chains, blocks, pauses
4-1. 1-3. 1 30 min steady state sessions 100% 0% Minimal None

*Work capacity and recoverability from barbell training can be improved by simply doing more barbell training. For instance, doing more squats makes you better at recovering from squatting. This is known as the repeated bout effect (RBE). So one way to improve recoverability from strength training is to gradually expose yourself to more strength training 🙂 

Now the title of this article is “The Double Funnel of Programming” and I think it’s time to introduce the other funnel. In the beginning I made the caveat that the athletes we are discussing are not novices, i.e., all have been training for some time and require more complex programming to generate improvements in performance. If we consider the novice trainee, however, this is where the second funnel comes in. I propose that there are now two funnels with their wide openings facing each other and their tips are on the outside, represented by the picture below.

Slide1

A new lifter is at the “tip” of the first funnel and there should likely be minimal variation at this time from the desired goal, which should be strength. A new powerlifter, Olympic lifter, or CrossFitter needs to be strong, really strong, actually. Taking time during the initial development of any non-endurance athlete to build a base of strength sets them up for future success and grants them the capacity to pursue other endeavors more fruitfully, more efficiently. I think there is a case to be made that when a person walks through a CrossFit gym on day 1 for the “fundamentals” or “elements” class that the main focus should be on teaching the squat, the press, and the deadlift. Day 2 should revisit the squat, teach the bench press, and revisit the deadlift. Day 3 should again revisit the squat and the press, and consider teaching the power clean now that the novice can pull from the floor with a flat, rigid back. Notice I didn’t say there should be a WOD anywhere in there, as this is much different than the specific goal (represented by the tip of the funnel) of strength. Not only does the implementation of the WOD hurt pure strength progress by competing for scarce recovery resources, the intensity that can be generated by a relatively weak new lifter is very low. Sure they can burn some extra calories with a WOD, but using exercise for weight loss has repeatedly yielded poor outcomes, especially if the intensity and volume that the person can create or handle is low. By making them strong first with a dedicated 3 month strength program, all subsequent general training will likely be more fruitful. What I’m suggesting is likely to produce a 315 back squat (totally average outcome when done correctly) in 3 months of training provided there are no distractions from the strength “tip.” Then layering in complexity with conditioning, gymnastics skills, etc. on top of that strength base becomes more productive rather than try to train it all concurrently. Yes, concurrent training works well for trained athletes who already have a base, but just as endurance sports have a “pre-requisite” of aerobic development before doing speed work, strength sports have a “pre-requisite” of strength development before doing anything else.

Thus, my addition to the funnel model of programming is to add another funnel, a novice funnel if you will. If you have never done a formal strength training program with some semblance of linear progression (adding weight to the bar every time) without any distractions, e.g. endurance training, gymnastics, WODs, etc., then take the time to build your pre-requisite of strength for 3 months and then go back to the concurrent training. The only people who should NOT take that advice are those who are getting paid to be athletes in sports requiring a high level of development in things like endurance, gymnastics, etc., e.g. a marathoner. This person will still benefit from some strength training, but must continue to keep their endurance (in this example) developed to a high level in order to make a living.

So, what do you think of the funnel model? Leave your thoughts in the comments 🙂

-Jordan

About Jordan Feigenbaum

Jordan Feigenbaum, owner of Barbell Medicine, has an academic background including a Bachelor of Science in Biology, Master of Science in Anatomy and Physiology, and Doctor of Medicine. Jordan also holds accreditations from many professional training organizations including the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, CrossFit, and is a former Starting Strength coach and staff member. He’s been coaching folks from all over the world  for over a decade through Barbell Medicine. As a competitive powerlifter, Jordan has competition best lifts of a 640lb squat, 430lb bench press, 275lb overhead press, and 725lb deadlift as a 198lb raw lifter.

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