Structural Versus Randomized Training Concepts
By Charles Staley, B.Sc, MSS
Director, Staley Training Systems
Recently, through the work of popular fitness movements such as CrossFit and its many imitators, the previously unexplored concept of randomized training has received a significant amount of popularity throughout the fitness community. This popularity is not without reason- randomized workouts have significant benefits, but like all approaches, random training also has its drawbacks.
In this article, I'll compare and contrast random versus structured approaches to training, and then I'll summarize by offering a few approaches that (I think) provide the benefits of both while simultaneously minimizing the drawbacks.
Benefits of Randomized Approaches
"Crossfitters" enjoy random workouts, and I think you will too- here's why:
1) That new car smell:
To borrow a great phrase from my client Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, there's a palpable sense of renewal at the prospect of a new workout program that you plan to start on Monday (by the way, no one ever starts a new program or diet on any other day of the week, unless it happens to be New Year's Day.) In a sense, randomized training gives you that "new car smell" every single workout. If you're suffering from ADD or are otherwise under-motivated, this can be a great boost to your morale and can make you more consistent than you'd otherwise be. And needless to say, if you're consistent, you'll make more progress than your inconsistent peers, even if what they're doing is "better" or "smarter" or "more scientific" than what you're doing.
2) Specificity to random and/or varied professional or athletic needs:
Some professions, avocations, and sport disciplines (an perhaps people seeking "general" fitness, whatever than means) require or desire a generalized, highly varied, almost random set of physical attributes and motor qualities. Firefighters, police, military and para-military job descriptions come to mind, as do many fighting sports, most notably mixed martial arts (MMA).
Drawbacks of Randomized Approaches
Despite the significant benefits I've just described, random training (like any approach) also has its drawbacks. The most significant of these shortcomings are as follows:
1) Constant soreness:
If you squat anywhere between one and thrice a week, the soreness that you initially experience during your first handful of workouts soon becomes all but a distant memory as your body's adaptive systems and resources solve this particular Rubik's Cube. In fact, once the puzzle's been solved, it'll be nearly impossible to invoke soreness, no matter how hard you push yourself. On the other hand, the more random your training is, the more often you'll be sore- the random nature of the physical challenges you experience makes it far more difficult for you to habituate.
If you're an in-season athlete, or belong to a highly physical profession that presents randomized challenges, you don't really want to be sore all the time. This means that although you need enough variety to keep your nervous system somewhat off-guard, you don't want the variety to be so significant that you're basically starting from scratch each and every workout.
2) Poor learning curve:
In order to learn challenging and complex motor tasks (such as the Olympic lifts for example), it'd be to your advantage to do them often. Learning requires frequent repetition, and motor learning is no exception to this rule. If your training is completely random, you'll never have enough repetition to sustain the learning curve.
3) Limited specificity:
This third point somewhat overlaps with the previous two points, but to put a sharper edge on it, powerlifters need to do their 3 competitive lifts, swimmers need to swim, and climbers need to climb. If you want to be great at pull-ups, you need to work them hard- a lot. And obviously, a completely randomized approach doesn't accommodate this need.
Reconciling Structure And Non-Structure
I've often said that there's no such thing as a perfect program, because even if you could find it, you'll quickly habituate to it and progress will slow to a halt. That being said, there are principles that help us to identify "better" approaches, and one of these principles is that specificity ("structure" in the scope of this conversation) and variety ("randomness" for our purposes here) must be balanced and integrated within the overall scope of training. Here then, are a few suggestions for doing just that:
Use A Structured Exercise List With Random Loading Parameters
If you've determined that a particular exercise tends to move you closer toward your goals, you should probably do that exercise on a regular and relatively frequent basis. One possible drawback (as discussed earlier) of regular frequency is neural habituation and slowed progress as your nervous system "figures out" how to deal with that particular form of stress. The solution to this, which was discovered eons ago by athletes in a wide number of sports, is to randomize the character and/or specific attributes of that exercise stress. In our case, that means providing variety through constantly changing loading parameters (E.g., set/rep brackets, intensity, tempo, and rest intervals.
Simply create 6 different loading protocols, such as:
-5x5/80%/3 minutes rest between sets
-6x2/90%/5 minutes rest between sets
-3x10/70%/2 minutes rest between sets
-10x3/85%/4 minutes rest between sets
-2x20/60%/2.5 minutes rest between sets
Next, assign a number to each option, and roll a dye. Whatever comes up determines your loading parameters for that exercise.
Use A Semi-Structured Exercise List With Structured Loading Parameters
If Monday is defined as "squat day," you can randomize what type of squat you'll do by selecting from 6 options: back squats, front squats, overhead squats, box squats, Zercher squats, and dumbbell squats. If you'd like to substitute your own favorites for some of mine, go ahead. Once your list of 6 choices is completed, number each choice from 1 to 6. Prior to squat day, roll a dye and whatever number comes up determines what type of squat you'll do that day. From there, you apply whatever loading parameters you've appropriated for the current cycle you're on, and you're ready to go.
Worth noting here is that only the most useful exercises can be plugged into this option, which is one of it's greatest attributes. You're not likely to come up with 6 variations of tricep kickbacks, leg extensions, or pec deck, but you can easily devise a half-dozen options for vertical pressing, horizontal pressing, unilateral leg drills, snatches, cleans, and deadlifts. This is simply an extrapolation of the "same but different" approach that I've written about in previous articles.
Use A Semi-Structured Exercise List With Random Loading Parameters
This is an amalgam of the previous two suggestions. Both exercises and loading parameters are "semi-structured." On Monday, you know you're doing some type of squat, but you don't know which one until you roll the dye. Then, a second roll gives you your loading parameters. Obviously, this is the most random of the three approaches, but it still provides structure.
What About Periodization?
To further maximize the benefit/drawback profile when attempting to reconcile structure with non-structure, you can employ a cycling concept where you (for example) employ the first option for 4 weeks, followed by the second option for a month, and finally, the last option for the remainder of a 12-week cycle. If your needs require a variation on this theme, go ahead and apply your creative elbow grease to the situation.
Now Go And Make It Yours!
The suggestions I've presented here are for the purposes of illustration and to inspire your own creative thinking. If, during this article, you're struck by alternative applications of my ideas, then I've been successful.