Bake or Cook? Make Training Your Own!


Are training programs more like baking or cooking?

I’ve heard it said that baking is a science, and cooking an art. Meaning, with baking, if you don’t add the right amounts of the right ingredients, and bake for the right amount of time, then your cake won’t rise, your cookies will suck, and so on. With cooking, though, it’s understood that you can take certain chances, play around with the recipe a bit, and still make something delicious. Too salty? Throw a potato in the pot! That kind of idea.

Exercise programs seem like they should be in the category of baking. They should be science, in other words. If they aren’t science, how can they provide a predictable training result? Answer:They don’t. Two people following the same program to the letter can get two different results. There is room for individual expression regardless of the program.

I grew up trying different exercise programs. Some were better than others. None of them were magic. For me, the most predictable program was Sheiko powerlifting templates. They deliver the claimed 1-2% increase on squat, bench and deadlift, every 13 weeks or so.

Following these programs to the letter was a point of pride with me. I wasn’t proud about the incredible amount of pain I was in, though. In particular the numbness in my hands and arms. That sensation is said to accompany nerve damage, and you should avoid it. But, like I said, I was proud of my stubborn efforts, so quitting or changing didn’t seem like a good idea.

I quit doing Sheiko programs that work because it was too painful. Diminished sleep went with the constant pain, and I couldn’t do it after a while. I tried other programs, and got less of a strength result, but was in less pain as well.

In the back of my mind, though, I knew those programs “worked”. And sure enough, years later, after spending a long time getting my posture, breathing, and joint health in order, I decided to try a 13 week Sheiko program again. I was sure that with better form I’d do just fine.

Just a few weeks in, the numbness had returned to my hands, and it became hard to sleep due to the pins and needles sensations in my hands and arms. Back in the same boat, despite trying to do better with form, despite learning more, and despite only a few weeks on the program.

I didn’t know what to do. And I’m very stubborn. I don’t like to quit, especially exercise. I feel it should be doable, because it’s science, right? Science is replicable. Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius every time, you know?

I attended a seminar with Brandon Lilly, and he asked the audience if they knew of Sheiko. My hand went up, but the vast majority of hands stayed down, and he told them they should be ashamed of themselves. I laughed in agreement, and spoke to him afterwards, saying that I do follow Sheiko programming, but that it crushes me. I didn’t go into particulars, but his immediate advice surprised me. He said, “make it your own”.

Deep down, I think a program should be science (like baking). Saying to “make it your own” sounds like cooking to me! The dang cake won’t rise if I “make it my own”!

But I was intrigued, and I decided to at least put some thought into it how to make Sheiko training my own. So I did some research on Sheiko training. What I immediately learned was that the numbered programs you find online were never intended to be used by anyone in particular. They are not a cookie-cutter lifting template for everyone. They are taken from Sheiko’s writing in Russian, where they were only meant as an intellectual exercise. And they’ve been translated “by any means necessary”, using translation software, so there’s a chance they aren’t even accurate to the original textbook program.

Then I learned that Boris Sheiko trains his athletes by writing individual programs, and checking in with them at the end of each training week, listening to their responses on how they feel, watching their videos for form deviations, and making adjustments accordingly.

Fuck me. If I’d really been doing Sheiko training, I would be training with the man himself, and I’ve got a pretty good idea he wouldn’t let his athletes hurt themselves while doing his program, like I did.

With this realization, I had to at last use my own good sense. I had to be my own scientist, and say to myself, “Hey, something ain’t right. You can’t walk around in pain all the time, with your fingers getting more and more numb.” Then I had to make a change.

The first thing I looked at was assistance work. I noticed Louie Simmons of Westside fame had once said of assistance work that you should just do the amount that feels right. This is almost shocking, since Louie is considered one of the few coaches who has applied science to his training programs, and doing “what feels right” doesn’t sound very scientific, right? Sounds pretty hippy-dippy, Louie!

But, consider that individual responses and weaknesses vary from person to person. A blanket prescription of “5×10 sets of back work, tricep work, and shoulder work for bench” is less scientific than to do what feels right, if that specific work doesn’t target their needs.

What do I need to do? Considering the shoulder pain and the numbness in the fingers that I mentioned, I definitely needed less volume of pushes. The programmed volume of assistance work (flies and dips) was actually in excess of the programmed bench press work (which was still a lot!).

What would happen if I just took the flies and dips out of the program?

Answer: my hands and shoulders gradually started feeling better. My right humeral head, in particular, stopped shifting forward and upward, to a degree, and felt less clunky. I slept better, and I stayed on point with the bulk of my training. I got a bit more confident, and started adding in assistance work that made sense for my injury history, and felt even better.

Now I’m in a new era in my training. It’s time to be my own scientist. The program is not holy or perfect. It’s not set in stone. It’s not science. How I interpret the data I get from my program is where the science comes in, and yet there’s still a certain art to making the changes. The process seems to be both art and science. Cooking and baking, if you know what I’m saying.

If you need help customising your own program, or need an objective pair of eyes on your exercise form, Iron Lion Training would love to help! We specialize in moving well, getting strong and having fun! A little cooking, a little baking, you might say!


Ron Dykstra
January 2, 2017

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