Training Bias: What is it? Do you need it?

By | 2017-04-22T21:24:08+00:00 April 12th, 2017|

Training Bias: What is it? Do you need it?

In February of 2009, an article titled “CrossFit Strength Bias” was published in the CrossFit Journal. This was, as far as I can remember, the first attempt at a codified program designed to emphasize specific areas of training, in the context of the development of all-around fitness as required and developed by CrossFit. My recollection of the details of the program is hazy, but that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I want to talk about the concept of “biased” programs in general – what a biased program is, what it should look like, and how you can tell if you need a bias in your training.

What is Training Bias?

When a program is designed for any given sport, it is presumably created with a specific end-state in mind (the state of the athlete attaining the highest level of sport specific fitness, at the right time). That end-state is made up of a mix of different elements. In the case of fitness sports, such as CrossFit and Grid, the elements include (but are not limited to) cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, strength, power, speed, etc.

Training bias is a fairly simple concept. A program is biased when certain elements of the desired end state are emphasized more than others – sometimes even at the expense of others – in the interest of maximizing the athlete’s end state performance. Creating bias in a program effectively is more nuanced. An effectively biased program is designed in such a way as to bear in mind that the goal of the bias is to enhance the end-state (of maximal sport specific fitness), rather than to maximize the qualities being emphasized by the bias. A well written biased program should meet the following criteria:

(1) Improves the qualities being emphasized, while also…
(2) At least maintaining, if not marginally improving, the other qualities necessary for maximizing the desired end-state, and…
(3) Becomes less biased over time as the athlete’s development allows.

If a biased program feels to meet (1), the problem is obvious to any objective observer. But failures of (2) and (3) can be hard to spot until it’s too late. This is mostly a problem of perspective, and it’s why the understanding elucidated upon above is crucial. The coach and the athlete must enter the biased state of training with the understanding that the purpose is in the end-state, not in the bias itself. The bias is a means to an end, and must be viewed as such.

What Should Training Bias Look Like?

Armed with a theoretical understanding of the purpose of training bias, we are led to ask what it looks like in practice. There will be three main features of a biased program:

(1) Increased volume and/or frequency in the areas of emphasis
(2) Decreased volume and/or frequency in areas of interference
(3) Schedule changes to accommodate the stress differences caused by (1) and (2)

As an example, let’s envision modifications to squat training in a strength-biased program. (1) can take the form of more volume and/or frequency in the primary means of strength development, more volume/frequency of accessory exercises, or both. For example, program may have squats three times per week rather than once or twice, or it may include leg strength accessories after heavy squatting (such as unilateral work or another, lighter squat variation).

(2) would result in a reduction of volume in non-strength building movements and modalities which stress the legs, e.g. long runs may be made shorter, reps or weights of squatting movements in metcons may be reduced, etc.

(3) would, for me, result in greater consolidation of stressors than I may implement in less biased programs, i.e. the program would end up having more of a body part split feel, wherein the hardest squat days also include the most volume on the legs in non-strength building modalities, and other days leave the legs alone completely for more recovery between sessions (you can read more about consolidation of stressors in Chad Smith’s great articles on the topic: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

To see this in application, you can take a look at a week of TZ Strength Base Programming as it compares to the same week (2018 Season – Macrocycle 1 – Mesocycle 1 – Week 1 of TZ Strength Strength & Power Biased Programming.

Should Your Program Be Biased?

The short answer: probably not.

Most athletes who contact me for programming are under the impression that they need a biased program. It certainly is the case that some athletes will benefit from biased training, but for many, the bias needs to be smaller than they think. It should be noted that putting in a little extra work on your weaknesses – something nearly everyone needs  is not sufficient to constitute training bias, as it does not impact the core design of the program. So how can you tell if your program does need significant bias? There are two main areas to asses:

(1) Level of Development
(2) Absolute Performance

(1) references your level of development relative to your own genetic potential. It is entirely possible to have an athlete at a low level of relative performance (that is to say, they do not perform well against their peers in competition), but still be at a high level of personal development (that is to say, they have trained hard and intelligently for an extended period, and are no longer novice trainees.) True novice trainees almost never need a biased program. They just need balance and consistency. So if you qualify as a novice trainee, this is usually an immediate disqualification from needing a biased program.

(2) is about your actual performances, and must take into account not only your times/scores, but also your individual limiting factors. Two athletes may have the same absolute score on a workout, but the factors which prevented them from having a better score may be totally different. For example, take this workout from the 2016 CrossFit Games Regionals:

3 Rounds For Time:
400m Run (TrueForm)
40 GHD Sit-Ups
7 Deadlifts, 405#/275#

There is a wide array of potential limiting factors here, including, but not limited to: maximal strength, strength endurance, muscular endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance. Each of these may be subdivided into more categories (by muscle group, movement pattern, format, combination, etc). If, over the assessment of a large battery of disparate events, an athlete is consistently limited by the same fitness characteristic (or subtypes thereof), that athlete may be a good candidate for a biased program.

The needs of every athlete are, by nature, individual. But individual needs do not necessarily call for a biased program. If, on assessment, it seems that an athlete does in fact need some type of training bias, it is crucial that the program continues to look at long term development, takes into account the nature of emergent properties, and stays focused on the ultimate goal of developing the desired end-state of maximal sport specific fitness.

If you’re interested in learning about TZ Strength’s program offerings, which include both biased and unbiased programs, check out the Competitors Programming page and get in touch!

Making Excuses versus Acknowledging Circumstances: When Mental Toughness Works Against You

By | 2017-04-22T21:24:28+00:00 April 4th, 2017|

Making Excuses versus Acknowledging Circumstances: When Mental Toughness Works Against You

Can an athlete be too tough?

Reaching one’s potential in any sport requires a certain degree of grit. An athlete must be willing and able to tolerate varying kinds and degrees of discomfort, both physical and psychological, and keep coming back for more of the same for years on end. But I hasten to answer my own question: like just about any characteristic, there is a point where an athlete can be too tough for their own good.

My experience with athletes – particularly athletes who are already fairly experienced, and have been training hard for an extensive period – is that they are more likely to have too much toughness than too little. Much as it can be difficult to get an athlete to train less rather than piling on needless volume, many athletes will be prone to tough their way through circumstances which, by their very nature, will not yield to mental fortitude.

Recently, a frequent topic of discussion between myself and many of my athletes has been the distinction between making excuses and acknowledging circumstances. For the sake of clarity, I will here define the way I am using these terms:

An excuse is a reason, proposed by the athlete, which, if true, bears at least partial responsibility for the athlete’s inability to execute the task at hand. Excuses will often be amorphous (the athlete may change the nature of the reason based on the context in which it is being offered), centered around factors tangentially within the athlete’s immediate control (tangentially is key – the athlete will be able to make a case for why they are not in his or her control, even if they could be), and the athlete will seek external validation for their excuses (on some level the athlete knows that they could be in control of these factors, and will often look to people who confirm the athlete’s preferred belief that the reasons they cite for their failure are valid.)

A circumstance is a reason, external to the athlete, which, if true, bears at least partial responsibility for the athlete’s inability to execute the task at hand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, circumstances are in many ways the inverse of excuses. They will be unchanging regardless of the context in which they are offered, they will center around factors mostly or entirely outside of the athlete’s immediate control, and they require no external validation – they are obvious to any reasonable onlooker.

Although there certainly are athletes who are prone to making excuses, I think that most serious athletes – at least those I am fortunate enough to work with – lean hard in the other direction. It is crucial to be able to distinguish between excuses and circumstances, because when the athlete conflates the two, they will treat a problem which should be treated analytically emotionally instead. When a circumstance is keeping an athlete from training as effectively as possible, the athlete and coach should scrutinize the problem, determine a strategy to work around it, and execute the new plan. If the athlete instead chooses to try to deal with the problem internally – as one would deal with an excuse – and simply tough it out, their success will be limited, because no amount of mental toughness is sufficient to eliminate external conditions.

Do you work 60 hours a week at a high stress job? Do you have a newborn who doesn’t sleep well, keeping you up at night? Are you dealing with emotionally challenging personal trials? These are circumstances, not excuses. Acknowledge them, analyze them, and make a plan which takes them into account. The hammer of mental toughness is an important tool, but cannot replace the careful measuring of critical analysis and strategy.

Variety Is Specificity: Fitness Sport and the Nature of Emergent Properties

By | 2017-04-22T21:25:11+00:00 March 27th, 2017|

Variety Is Specificity: Fitness Sport and the Nature of Emergent Properties

A long time ago, in a galaxy before the CrossFit Games, my first coach and training partner, the now infamous Russ Greene, told me about one of the tactics he used to keep his pace up during hard running workouts: “I just keep telling myself that at least I’m not doing high rep squat cleans.”

Russ had made two important observations about his training. First, that high rep squat cleans are truly miserable. Second, that high rep squat cleans had a bigger impact on Russ’ ability to maintain his running speed than virtually any amount of running did. More interesting was that even as Russ increased his squat clean maximum, and got better at high rep squat cleans, and became a faster runner, his ability to run when coupled with squat cleans improved only marginally, nowhere near the rate of the components themselves.

At the time, we didn’t give it much thought – or at least I didn’t. It was CrossFit, that was just how CrossFit was. But with a decade of experience and learning, I have finally come to see what it was that Russ had identified with that comment. He was identifying the emergent properties of fitness sport.

Emergent properties are properties which can be observed in a complex system, but not within the individual components of that system. A classic example can be drawn from chemistry: although table salt is made up of sodium and chlorine, those two elements do not necessarily taste “salty”. The flavor profile of table salt is an emergent property of the compound NaCl.

Emergence is the reason that the NFL combine isn’t strongly predictive of success in the league. It’s the reason that leg pressing and deadlifting isn’t sufficient to maximize your squatting strength. And it’s the reason that improvements in running, max squat cleans, and high rep squat cleans in isolation were insufficient to create the same rate of improvement in Russ’ ability to perform workouts which coupled the two movements.

In better understanding emergent properties, there are at least three major implications for training.

First, the need for variety is made more clear than ever. If the events the athlete will face in competition will require the athlete be able to exhibit and withstand hard-to-predict emergent properties, then the athlete’s training should expose them to a wide variety of formats and combinations of movements, so that the odds of the athlete being prepared for any particular event are improved.

Second, we must learn to be selective in our repetition. Consistency is required for improvement in any given skill or capacity, but in order to get the most out of that consistency – and to avoid making our training so repetitive that we fail to include sufficient variety – it’s important to determine which elements (be they specific movements, formats, or combinations of movements) are likely to produce the best carryover to the most things.

Third, and perhaps most important, our training must be sport specific. It is easy to fall into a trap of reductionism – breaking down the sport into its constitutive components, and training each of those components for maximal development in isolation. To some extent, this type of training is necessary. Depending on the athlete and the time of year, it may even take primacy. However, we must always keep our focus on the long game of developing the highest level of sport specific fitness – and that requires regular and year round exposure to sport specific training elements.

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