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Philosophical Considerations for Programming

Length: »2600 Words

Reading Time: »8-10 Minutes

Target Audience: » Athletes & Coaches

Author: » Kedric Kwan & David Nolan

If you’re looking for “the one trick to put 50kg to your squat” or “ancient Chinese secrets to getting abs” you’re in the wrong place. In fact, the purpose of this article is not to provide methods that can be added to someone’s training repertoire but to present training philosophies that helped shape our thought process both as coaches and athletes.

We’d like to look at training philosophy, the boundary that encapsulates methods used. A lack of boundaries can consequentially lead to sporadic utilisation of random and novel methods as the absence of philosophical grounding makes it difficult for one to be truly objective. Hence, the quote by Harrington Emerson which states “the man who grasps principles can successfully handle his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble” resonates strongly with us when it comes to resistance training.

While we can expound on the numerous thoughts on training that we have, here are some of the three philosophies which appears to be of higher importance as formulation of our core philosophies when it comes to resistance training.

1. Multiplicative vs additive systems:

Despite our inadequate ability in mathematics, it is mind boggling to see that the concept of mathematics exists in almost every area of life. Dating back to Plato, platonic mathematics state that there are mathematical objects whose existence are independent of us and our language, thought, and practices. In fact, Karl Popper, regarded as the greatest 20th century philosopher of science posits 3 worlds to explain reality.:

World 1: Physical world or physical states which includes objects and events.

World 2: Mental world that includes mental processes such as thought, ideas and perception.

World 3: Abstract world that includes abstract objects such objective knowledge, scientific laws, mathematics and art.

In addition, Eugene Wigner, a Nobel prize winner for physics wrote an article in 1960 titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” on how the language of mathematics is deeply ingrained in everyday life.

The scope of what I’m writing isn’t to go down the rabbit hole of math, but this tangent is used to emphasize how mathematical thought can play a role in training philosophy. This is when we can view the training process through two different systems: multiplicative and additive systems.

A multiplicative system can be illustrated through this simple equation;

Solve: 158303238420 x 29129120 x 7.65 x 0?

We hope that you didn’t bust out your calculator or order SIRI to solve it, because the answer is a simple zero. Any number that comes before a zero in a multiplicative formula results in a zero. Whereas, if we changed the multiplication sign to an addition sign in the equation, the answer would be very different, this time requiring a calculator to compute. This is known as an additive system where each component adds to one another to create a final outcome, a contrast from a multiplicative system.

We can relate this to the training process by firstly identifying which system governs training adaptation. Here’s a simple illustration outlining different training scenarios with an arbitrary point assigned to it based on how well the session went:

Day 1: Had a great squat session, prescribed load resulted in a lower rate of perceived exertion. (5 points)

Day 2: Bench was good, hit a nice volume personal best. Deadlift was smooth as we focused on technical cues. (7 points)

Day 3: Squat was trash, slept only 3 hours and didn’t eat before our training. Failed on our second set and had to drop the load by 20% and did not bench. (0 point)

Now let’s compute the points with the two different systems mentioned above:

Multiplicative system: 5 x 7 x 0 = 0

Additive system: 5 + 7 + 0 = 12

If the training adaptation adhere to the rules of a multiplicative system, this will infer that at the end of the week, no progress or adaptations were made. However, an additive system will still yield a score larger than zero, which shows that some form of adaptation did take place. Hence we would argue, that in most cases, the training process and it’s resulting adaptation succumbs to an additive system rather than a multiplicative one. There are different cases where an injury takes place that might set someone back, but even in such situations we wouldn’t conclude that it will result in a zero sum as muscle memory does allow someone to regain their muscle and strength gains quicker than beginning from scratch. We are well aware of the applicability of the multiplicative system in covering multiple aspects that could affect training adaptation such as training, sleep, nutrition etc. However, for the sake of explanation, we are restricting this system to the basis of adaptation that happens from session to session. This philosophy allows us to be objective whenever a good or bad session occurs. With good sessions, we’ll accumulate a higher score and if a bad one happens, it doesn’t really result in a complete reset of progress (unlike those annoying video games that resets everything when you die) but merely serves as a session to improve on, adding to the total final score.

This also isn’t to polarize and conclude that a particular system is better, hence training should follow the rules of the winning system. It’s a thought process that’s grounded in mathematical concepts to illustrate how someone can frame aspects of training to develop philosophies pertaining to training and adaptation.

2. Regression to the mean:

A large part of the coaching process is based on observation and resulting adjustments to the training approach. A concept we found useful that helps us make better decisions from our observations is something called regression to the mean. This concept was worked out by Sir Francis Galton and it posits, in any series with complex phenomena that are dependent on many variables, where chance is involved, extreme outcomes tend to be followed by more moderate ones. In the context of training and performance, this simply means that when it comes to sports performance, the majority will be good (neutral), some will be excellent (great) and others will be poor(bad). This is due to the complex nature of performance and the many variables that could affect it such as sleep, nutrition, stress, hydration and not to mention factors that are beyond our control.

To put it into context, we’ll use powerlifting as an example. Every training session that follows after your best meet performance will be worse in comparison. If we plot a bell curve “great” will fall on one end and worst the other, while the middle would generally be classified as good and uneventful. Hence, if your perfect day at the meet falls into the great end of the bell curve, every normal session will be relatively worst to it. This simply is the natural order of things and even if you look at it on a micro level of training and strength performance, daily fluctuations in 1 rep max strength could change up to 18%! This indicates that on days you will feel like superman and on others you’ll feel like superman after he is shot with kryptonite.

Our multiple observations as coaches allow us to understand that bad sessions are inevitable and when that happens, our role is to communicate to our athlete on the reason behind it and how we can move forward. As an athlete, understanding regression to mean helps us manage our expectations better and employ some form on auto-regulation. Merging this philosophy with the one above, provides a framework to managing training expectations to help create realistic and sustainable training progression.

3. Managing expectations through understanding individual progress and adaptation to training:

When we first begin training, we tend to see significant, and linear progress. We get stronger every session. Our 1RM becomes a warm-up weight after a few weeks of training. But this consistent increase in strength does not last forever. It is the cruel paradoxical reality of physical development that the better we become, the harder we must work for smaller returns.

Progress is clear in the infant stages of training, but as we journey through adolescence and eventually into adulthood of our training age, progress is not so easy to identify. We may spend months, or years chasing marginal increases in our strength. But we would posit that what we define as progress should change and mature as we advance in our lifting career. Ask yourself the question; why do we lift? In the beginning it was probably to get a bit stronger and look a bit better. These are very extrinsic motivations. If you find yourself now as a seasoned member of the iron game, you likely have matured in your motivations and have shifted to more intrinsic drivers. We cannot get stronger forever and if the love of the process is absent, you will struggle to be a life-long lifter. Progression can be viewed very objectively as your 1RM, but that is simply strength progression. We also must view the much more nuanced concept of progressing as a lifter i.e. how does the individual progress in terms of their lifting attitude and maturity. Progress as we grow older can be as simple as finding time to train consistently when life events take over; you get married, you have your first child etc.

Progress as a lifter does not have to be mean improvement. Simply maintaining strength at certain times constitutes progress. You do not always have to push further into uncharted waters of strength. If we take the example of your first child. It is usually a time of great excitement, but also great stress. To force positive adaptations in strength we have to apply a stress (training). There is a maximal adaptive capacity to stressors we can positively respond to. A baby certainly eats into that capacity. You likely wouldn’t have the time to train as much as you like and may not be able to handle the volumes and intensities you need to increase your 1RM. If you managed to train at your minimal effective dose and maintained your strength levels for a year, after which you are in a position to return to full training, would you view this as a progression in your ability as a lifter? You did not get any worse objectively as a lifter, but you adapted to a new stressor, maintaining your abilities as a lifter while doing so. We would define this as progression.

We cannot forget that progress in a powerlifting context is certainly about the long game. To obtain elite levels of strength, we must possess patience. A strong argument can be made that in powerlifting, it is not that complex to get to the highest levels of the sport. You simply need to have half decent genetics coupled with a solid training approach. Then apply it consistently and intelligently, avoiding injury for at least a decade. Do that and you’ll likely be knocking on the door of world class strength performances.

Sounds easy right?

But we must also remember that elite, by definition, is a small sub-section of the total population in any sport. That’s why it is misguided to compare yourself to the elite. They are the minority. We must strive to compare ourselves to our former selves. If only a small percentage will ever reach elite, by default that means that most lifters will always be sub-elite or lower. So why do so many fail to progress from intermediate to elite? Why are so many happy to remain as intermediates and don’t possess the hunger to progress to elite?

It is because life has taken over and other priorities exploit the resources they would need to devote to training to progress into the elite ranks. It is because they have matured as a lifter to a stage where training progress is not only measured by the load on the bar, but by the level of fulfillment and enjoyment they get from the process and the positives they obtain from the social elements of the sport.

If we are to become life-long lifters we must allow ourselves to mature as students of the iron game. It is okay for our goals and motivations to change over time, in fact, we would argue that they must. Shifting to an intrinsically motivated mindset facilitates us to have a long and fulfilling lifting career, and can allow us to enjoy the objective increases in strength even more when we do break PR’s.

4. The map is not the territory:

A very important concept to grasp that pertains to almost all areas of life, but in this context training, is the concept of the map is not the territory. To illustrate it, here are a few premises:

A.) A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory.

B.) Two similar structures have similar ‘logical’ characteristics. Thus, in a correct map, Dresden is given as between Paris and Warsaw, a similar relation is found in the actual territory.

C.) A map is not the actual territory.

D.) An ideal map would contain the map of the map, the map of the map of the map, etc., endlessly…

Using the above premises, we can never find an ideal map that represents the territory perfectly. This concept was posited by mathematician Alfred Korzybski to illustrate that a model isn’t perfectly reflective of reality, and an abstraction is not the abstracted and because it’s not a complete representation of the territory, to an extent a map is flawed. Understanding the degree of the error in a series of maps would allow us to select which map represents reality the best. Despite it having its flaws, maps are vital for information processing and helping us make sense of the complexities we face.

So, when it comes to training, periodization models that attempts to produces a specific outcome is a form of a map that attempts to capture the complex reality of the biological adaptations that takes place before, during and after training. However, no matter how well selected the exercises are, how accurate the loads are prescribed, it fails to account for every single biological, mental, and social factor that could potentially influence the outcome. Hence thinking one form of periodization model is superior to another without a specific context or circumstance could potentially be delusional and chasing something as “the best training program” is illusory.

This is because the periodization models (the map) are by necessity a reduction of the actual thing, which by default causes some information to be omitted. As coaches, our job is to understand the limitations of the model and find ways to improve the map that is currently being used. Just because a map does not display a ravine, we will not renounce the reality that a huge valley lies in front of me and walk to straight to our demise.

We must understand that the utility of any model, theory or concept is only as useful as how the user decides to use it. The sooner we can break free from the mental attachment and necessity that a map is perfect, the easier it would be for us to be adaptable to the circumstance that lies before and beyond us.

We conclude with a word of caution. What is written here isn’t meant to serve the purpose of being your sole compass when you approach training. After all, these philosophical thoughts are nothing but a map we’ve drafted to illustrate a small reality of the complexities one might go through when thinking about training. We will leave you to ponder the words of statistician George Box “ All models are wrong, some are useful.”


About the authors:

Kedric Kwan MSc, PG. Dip, CISSN is a Coach at The Strength Guys Inc.

Kedric holds his Masters degree and Post Graduate diploma in Sports & Exercise Nutrition and is currently completing his PhD. in applied sports sciences under the supervision of Dr. Eric Helms.

David Nolan is the founder and head of coaching & education at Synapse Performance. He is an experienced sports scientist and S&C coach. David is the current head of performance at Rugby Academy Ireland. David is also an experienced researcher and is currently completing his PhD in applied sports science at DCU under the supervision of Dr. Brendan Egan.

David offers individualized coaching to athletes and consultation / public speaking services to teams and coaches. If you are interested in more information please contact us via email at:


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