Is That All There Is To It?

Is That All There Is To It?

The Purpose of Goal-Specific Training

An Anvil Training Article by Marshall Officer

What I am going to write about in this article is nothing new. All of this information is easily accessible online, it comprises half of the most basic fitness certification courses, and is really just common knowledge - no matter how it is presented. However, the reason I believe it is important to  write about it is because it is worth more than lip service when it comes to how people train. I have been training for about 10 years in and out of the gym. I have trained alone, I have had training partners, and I have even trained in groups of up to 5. I have followed strict programs, and I have also trained for periods of time following nothing more than the Pirate’s Code - strolling into the gym with a general idea of what area of my body needed training that day, and hoping my heart would guide me to gains. And throughout this entire time, if you had asked me what I was training for - I would have had an answer. Size. Strength. Bigger Squat. Better 10km run time. Better conditioning. Bigger Bench. I always had a goal. And yet, if you had followed that up with another (probably even more important) question, “show me how your program will help you achieve that?”, or, “how will your workout today take you one step closer?”, I would have probably been a little stumped. Sure, I could tell you I wanted a bigger bench, and point to my Arnold 6 week program full of supersets and push-pull splits, and say, “well, if I do enough flat bench twice a week, surely my bench will go up?” Yeah, it might. But, is that all there is to it? And, why do I want a bigger bench? And, what if that isn’t actually working?

When I was in the Army, a certain basic level of fitness was mandatory. I have written before that physical training was how we started every single day, from 7.30 to 8.30 in the morning - usually in groups of 8 or as a whole platoon, a group of up to 40. The sessions ranged from resistance circuits, conditioning, high-intensity cardio training, long-distance runs, pack marching, or battle PT. The training was rarely structured, and we never really spent many weeks on barracks before going out in the field, so trying to squeeze a fitness program to fit into 3 weeks never seemed to work. What would be the point of any kind periodisation, if every 3 - 4 weeks you ran off into the bush behind your house and mainly ate awful tasting space food twice a day, only to come back looking like Gollum (desperately craving fast food), with  faint memories of what a gym even looks like, let alone what it is used for? 

The point is, our physical training had an overall goal - to maintain a base level of fitness required to conduct the duties required of a combat soldier when deployed to a field environment. Once again, at face value, we could have told you why we were sweating for an hour every morning as a part of our workday. But, if you had probed a little deeper and asked those same follow up questions, the answers would have been just as weak. “If I walk around with a heavy pack, do a couple of resistance circuits, and some kind of cardio, surely I’ll be fit enough to do my job when I have to?” Yeah, you might. But, I ask again - is that all there is to it? And, do you want to be “fit enough to do your job”, or do you want to be more? And, what if what you are currently doing isn’t actually working?

I think it is very fair to say that almost every single person who exercises regularly has a goal. Human nature almost demands that finding the motivation to do something that is generally uncomfortable - or even painful - must be psychologically linked to a greater purpose. I believe there tends to be  some misunderstanding around how using a goal can ensure your training is applicable, effective, efficient, and enjoyable. Before we go on, let’s break those terms down so we can understand why they are important.

Applicability: Your training program should apply directly to your overall goal. If my goal is to lose weight, my training program should clearly reflect the best way in which to do this. I should be spending a number of days a week doing some combination of high-intensity resistance circuits and anaerobic cardio - because these two activities burn the greatest amount of energy in the least amount of time. (Yes, we could argue all day about the perfect type of exercise to lose weight fast, however, a combination of these two types of exercise will promote fat loss and muscle gain, working together effectively). If my goal is to compete as a powerlifter, I should be doing a training program that builds my weak lifts and maintains my strong ones. If my goal is to pass special forces selection - my training should focus on muscular and cardiovascular endurance, as well as developing robustness around joints and weak points to prevent possible injury.

Effectiveness: A training program shouldn’t just be vaguely applicable to the end goal. Not only should you be able to draw direct and obvious comparisons between how you train, and the thing you are training for - it should also be effective at producing results. For example, if a bodybuilder is trying to increase their overall size and muscular definition, and remain in a caloric surplus, they need to ensure their program facilitates these results effectively. Sure, they could do F45 HIIT sessions twice a day and try to eat enough to compensate, and this might eventually give the results they are after. But to be truly effective, they should follow a program of lower intensity medium-high rep isolation sessions designed to stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (muscle size increase), while following a meal plan that ensures they are eating enough to fuel this growth.

Efficiency: Many people can follow steps one and two, and figure out how to train in a way that is applicable to their goal in a relatively effective way. The very nature of having a goal means a person can figure out what is and isn’t working for them to see success or failure (given enough time). The reality is - time is a luxury that a lot of people don’t have when it comes to training. Just like in my previous example from the army, we didn’t have the luxury of spending months or years figuring out what does or doesn’t work. We had a few weeks at a time to train as best we knew how, and then we were back in the field putting it to the test (or, in my case, losing any size and strength I’d managed to scrape together). Efficiency is the third key step in Goal Specific Training, because it is the difference between a good program and a great program. Efficiency is the ability to create the best possible results in the shortest amount of time, by being as smart as possible with the time you have to train, as well as maximising your recovery.  An efficient training program shouldn’t take the ‘long way round’, it should maximise the effectiveness you worked so hard to achieve in step 2.

Enjoyablity: Finally, a training program needs to be enjoyable. Maybe not every single session, but in general - if you don’t enjoy the way you are training, you probably won’t be doing it for very long. Enjoyable training is the kind of training you look forward to, or the kind of training you are willing to go out of your way to do, even when you know the session is going to f*ck you up - because you believe that it will bring results that for which you are working hard. Anyone who says your program shouldn’t be enjoyable, is either a sadist, or has incredibly unrealistic expectations about the psychology of motivation. And even if you are a sadist, and you are sitting there reading this thinking, “all good training sessions should be so difficult, or so painful, you shouldn’t have time to enjoy yourself!” by definition that means you find enjoyment in painful or uncomfortable training sessions, so my point still stands, you sick f*cks.

So, now we know the factors that should come together to create a great program, and the importance of integrating your overall goal with  those factors in order to create overall success. This is why a goal isn’t the only answer to the question, “why do you train?” Your training goal should be the reason you chose a certain style of training over all others. It should be the reason you train however many days a week (and spend other days recovering). It should be the reason you do a conjugate type program, or linear periodisation. It should be the reason you choose an upper/lower/core split, rather than a push/pull split. Your overall goal should be the reason you choose one exercise, for a certain amount of reps and sets, over another exercise. Why? Because at the end of the day, you only have a certain amount of useful training time in a week. And the reason I am writing about this now, is because it is something I didn’t completely comprehend when I was in the army, but now recognise as crucial.

Towards the end of my career, when I was in the best shape I had been throughout my entire time in the army, I was training too much. As it is with many things - much easier for me to recognise in hindsight. However, at the time, I firmly believed more was better. That greater quantity was actually a contributing factor to overall quality. I also thought that the only way for me to be in the best possible physical condition to perform my job was to lift as much weight as possible, and gain as much weight as possible, whilst still being able to scrape through any cardio/running related fitness tests. I left the army at 96kg, with fairly respectable numbers on the squat, bench, and deadlift, and a cruising time of 10 minutes and 30 seconds for a 2.4km run (I am not fast). And considering I trained twice a day, at least 6 days a week, clocking over an hour every time I went to the weights room - it was a big eye-opener for me when I ended up leaving the army, training once a day, losing weight overall, but beating all my numbers on my lifts, and accidentally running 10km in under 52 minutes on a recovery day one Sunday. These changes were possible because after I left the army - I learned how to program Goal-Specific Training. I started training smarter, balancing an efficient training program & recovery - and because I learnt that through spending more time recovering, I was also able to train harder.

I will wrap this article up with a very basic example program that any infantry soldier can follow to be more effective at their job (whilst not spending 6 days a week in the gym). I built this program through following  the principles I mentioned above. This is something I would recommend doing with any training program you build for yourself - because it will help you understand both the ‘why’ of your program, as well as the ‘how’.

Firstly, we need to define the goal: Extreme Effectiveness and Capability as a Combat Soldier

Secondly, we have to decide what that goal looks like in physical training terms

  1. High levels of muscular strength, endurance, and durability to prevent injury. 
  2. The lowest possible level of overall body mass, whilst safely maintaining maximum muscle mass and energy stores for long periods of physical activity. 

Finally, we should quickly look at the “Why” behind these key principles: High muscle strength, endurance, and durability allows a soldier to carry heavy loads for long distances, operate for long periods of time in protective equipment, and maintain accuracy with weapon systems (even when fatigued). Lower overall body mass allows a soldier to run faster, sustain themselves with less food, and have the mobility to climb or quickly adopt unusual firing positions with minimal strain or muscular interference.

In short, a soldier should be more marathon runner than body-builder, but with a high muscular strength that will support the heavy load requirements of the role. The training program should reflect this.

As  described earlier, the Australian infantry does physical training every morning. So it is safe to say that the average soldier is already doing 5 PT sessions a week, and these will most likely be some combination of pack marching, battle PT, cardio, and resistance circuits. If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now - I wouldn’t add 5-6 more weights sessions a week to this training regime. Instead, to promote maximum recovery and myofibrillar hypertrophy (muscle strength, as opposed to muscle size) - 3 days a week would be far more effective and efficient (remember, these are the factors we want to guide our program development)

So, what would these days look like? Well, below I have laid out some basic suggestions - but if you follow the process, you can build your own sessions quite easily.

Day 1:

Maximal Strength: Push Press 8 sets, 2 reps, working up to 85% 1RM (Finish this exercise by dropping 10% of the weight, and doing an As Many Reps As Possible [AMRAP] set)

Dynamic Power: Bent Over Row 5 sets, 5 reps, 75% 1RM (The weight for this isn’t as important as the speed. Every rep should be a highly explosive concentric, alongside  a controlled eccentric. Use a weight where no matter how hard you pull, the weight moves slowly).

Circuit - 6 rounds:

Front Squat 12 reps, 65% 1RM

Good Morning 12 reps, 65% 1RM

Overhead Lunge 12 reps, 50% 1RM

(These last 3 exercises should be conducted as a circuit, using a weight that is easy to control through the full rep. Rest for at least 1 minute between rounds).

Day 2:

Maximal Strength: Front Squat 8 sets, 2 reps, working up to 85% 1RM (Finish this exercise by dropping 10% of the weight, and doing an AMRAP set)

Dynamic Power: Hang Clean 5 sets, 5 reps, 75% 1RM (The weight for this isn’t as important as the speed. Every rep should be a highly explosive concentric. Use a weight where no matter how hard you pull, the weight moves slowly)

Circuit - 6 rounds:

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 6 sets, 12 reps, 65% 1RM

Bent Over Dumbbell Row 6 Sets, 12 reps, 65% 1RM

Ab Wheel 6 sets, 12 reps, BW

(These last 3 exercises should be conducted as a circuit, using a weight that is easy to control through the full rep. Rest for at least 1 minute between rounds).

Day 3:

Maximal Strength: Bent Over Row 8 sets, 2 reps, working up to 85% 1RM (Finish this exercise by dropping 10% of the weight, and doing an AMRAP set)

Dynamic Power: Barbell Back Squat 5 sets, 5 reps, 75% 1RM (The weight for this isn’t as important as the speed. Every rep should be a highly explosive concentric, followed by a controlled eccentric. Use a weight where no matter how hard you pull, the weight moves slowly)

Circuit - 6 rounds:

Good Morning 6 sets, 12 reps, 65% 1RM

Lat Pulldown 6 Sets, 12 reps, 65% 1RM

Leg Raises 6 sets, 12 reps, BW

(These last 3 exercises should be conducted as a circuit, using a weight that is easy to control through the full rep. Rest for at least 1 minute between rounds).

As you can see, for each training day - this program has an exercise to promote myofibrillar hypertrophy (muscular strength), followed by an exercise designed to develop overall explosive power. The workout always finishes with a high set, high rep circuit that maximises recovery between the exercises themselves, but promotes full body engagement, and some sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (muscular size), but still at a weight that is manageable - helping to  build tendon strength and overall mobility. Doing three sessions a week will allow for maximum recovery, as well as minimise overloading the body from the mandatory army training every morning. As an added bonus - each session shouldn’t take longer than an hour.

This is just one example of how to write a program that reflects the overall goal of the person being trained, right down to the very sets and reps of each exercise chosen. Not only do I want to provide you with an example of how you can build a program for yourself that is focused on a goal, but emphasise the importance of integrating necessary factors into your training program in order to make this goal possible. So I encourage you: Assess how you are training now. Is it applicable, effective, efficient, and enjoyable? Ask yourself if it ticks those four boxes (each and all of them), in a way that will help you see the most amount of success in your own personal goals. And last but not least - if your program  doesn’t tick these boxes, put a plan in place to help you change the way you train, and by extension, crush your goals harder and smarter than ever! 

Which is why at Anvil, we live by the words: Train Smart. Train Hard.

About Us

Anvil Training and Development is a group of Australian veterans who care about the physical and mental health of veterans and emergency service workers. We’re passionate about ongoing education and working with others to implement positive change.

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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)

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