Strength and conditioning is an ever-evolving field, with new techniques, technologies, and research emerging every year. Despite this, certain principles remain timeless and fundamental to the success of any athlete or fitness enthusiast. In this guide, we take a deep dive into the training lifecycle, exploring the key stages and critical considerations for anyone looking to achieve their strength and conditioning goals based on my nearly 40 years of training myself and 30 years of working with clients.
Understanding the Training Lifecycle
The training lifecycle refers to the sequential stages of development that an athlete must progress through in order to achieve their desired performance outcomes. This cycle is divided into four key stages: preparation, competition, transition, and regeneration. While many reading this won't be interested in competition, the same strategies should be used for recreational athletes - what I like to call practical athletes. That is, the person who just wants to be able to join in on any activity and know they'll be in shape to do it, whether that is mowing the lawn or hiking up a mountain.
In an athletic year, the preparation and competition phases will take up the longest parts of the year. While most would benefit from a longer transition and regeneration period, the reality of most sports now is that seasons are longer than ever. This is one problem for a pro athlete, but for an age group triathlete who is now able to race year round it leaves them zero space to allow their body to recover for even harder racing the next year. As a result, injury and stagnation occur, ultimately leading to frustration and the athlete leaving the sport.
Preparation is the stage in which an athlete lays the foundation for future success. This stage involves building a strong base of strength, endurance, and skill through the implementation of well-structured training programs. The focus during this stage is on developing muscular imbalances, improving mobility, and reducing the risk of injury.
For most people, the preparation stage should be at least three months long. In the case of someone entering an activity for the first time - like say a novice runner wishing to complete their first marathon - this stage might be better extended to six months or more. My novice marathon clients typically train for a year before their first long race, as an example, but because of the lengthy preparatory phase have none of the injury issues typically associated with novice runners.
Competition is the stage in which an athlete puts their training to the test. This stage is characterised by intense and specific training programs, designed to peak the athlete's physical and mental performance for competition. The focus during this stage is on developing power, speed, and endurance, as well as fine-tuning technique and tactics.
In the case of a practical athlete this could be your trek to Everest Base Camp or it could be a Masters Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament you want to do well in.
It's possible to have multiple competition phases during the year - multiple peak events - but that also means you need multiple preparatory, transition, and regeneration phases too. As an example, I recently trained up to go mountain climbing in New Zealand. That preparation phase was four months. My competition phase was one week. I then entered a short transition/ regeneration phase, before building again in a second preparatory phase to get me ready to go trek in Nepal. That competition phase will be ten days. When I return home I will take a longer regeneration phase for 2-3 weeks before starting a transition phase.
Transition is the stage in which an athlete takes a break from intense competition and focuses on recovery and regeneration. This stage is critical to ensuring long-term success, as it allows the body and mind to recover from the demands of competition and prepare for the next cycle of preparation. The focus during this stage is on active recovery, reducing stress, and restoring balance.
Typically in the transition phase an athlete will do something different to their sport. A cross country skier may mountain bike through the summer while spending more time in the gym. For me, my transition phase this year will be spent on bodybuilding style training instead of my normal functional fitness work. This change will allow my joints to recover, add back any muscle lost from the high volume fitness work done, and allow me to mentally recover with less daunting workouts.
Regeneration is the stage in which an athlete spends time getting their body right. In team sports the regeneration or off-season phase is usually when players will go get surgery so they can be ready again for the pre-season or preparatory phase again.
I see practical athletes ignore this stage until they no longer can. This could be the guy who has always been overweight but trains hard so has ignored it. But suddenly he's sat in front of a doctor facing a quadruple bypass and suddenly realises he has to lose weight to get his body healthy. Or it could be the running enthusiast who has limped along with a sore knee or foot for months and then wonders why they aren't getting better.
You must allow the body to rest and recover from all the hard work you've done. If you've worked so hard that you have outdone any tolerance your body has, then you need to rest longer than you'd like to come back to the pain free baseline.
This is also applicable to those who have lost normal ranges of motion as they've gotten older. Sooner or later you'll be forced to address the injuries that trying to train through those limitations will bring. It's up to you if that break is voluntary and short or involuntary and done after surgery.
Key Considerations for Success
In order to achieve success in strength and conditioning, there are several key considerations that must be taken into account. These include:
Individualized program design: It is important to design a training program that is tailored to the individual needs and goals of each athlete. This includes considering factors such as age, experience, injury history, and current fitness levels. I don't see many programs that are well though for over 40 year olds. In fact, the reason I started focusing on this over a decade ago was I realised at 38 that no one had any great experience in this field.
Progressive overload: The principle of progressive overload states that in order to continue making progress, the body must be challenged with increasing levels of difficulty. This can be achieved through a variety of means, including increasing weight, volume, or density.
Proper nutrition: Proper nutrition is a critical component of strength and conditioning, as it provides the body with the energy and nutrients necessary to support optimal performance and recovery. This is perhaps the most neglected element of fitness and training for everyone, but especially for those over 40. I cannot stress enough how important having optimal levels of bodyfat are. Ditch the junk food and eat appropriately for your level of activity.
Adequate rest and recovery: Rest and recovery are just as important as training itself, as they allow the body to repair and regenerate from the demands of training. This includes both active recovery, such as stretching and foam rolling, as well as adequate sleep and rest. It also includes deliberate periods of rest and recovery after hard work building up during both the preparatory and competition phases.
Achieving Your Strength and Conditioning Goals
By following the training lifecycle and considering the key considerations for success, anyone can achieve their strength and conditioning goals. Whether you're a competitive athlete or simply looking to improve your overall fitness as you age, the principles outlined in this guide will provide a solid foundation for success.
Begin with the end goal in mind and then start creating a preparatory plan to build the base strength and fitness you'll need. As a rule of thumb, it will take you double the length of time you think it will. For example, while I achieve great results with people in relatively short periods of 12 weeks, it takes another one to two years to get those people to a state of high performance. It takes about four years to get someone to the first genuine peak of their abilities. So that's at least 16 cycles of training - 4 each of preparation, competition, transition, and regeneration - performed over 4 years to reach your peak.
"Stoked that Andrew was running a program and took me in. And also thankful that he’s helping me on new goals I hadn’t thought possible. I’m at 14.5% body fat and 24 BMI. I can run again, I feel strong(er), and am more alert through the day. New habits (for me and with my family) actually enhance my day, not detract. And I’m still learning and thinking about next goals. It’s a journey/path I intend to stay on
For newer crowd here, don’t wait to start.
Commit to YOURSELF and YOUR HEALTH, splash in some discipline and effort to do some not-so-complicated things: sleep, drink water, make good food choices, move.
A trainer (clearly I’m a fan of Andrew) can both inspire you and refine those things (how much and kinds of food, what exercises, etc). Be prepared for some harsh truths about yourself that you may have overlooked/ignored. And yes, you can prioritize yourself and still meet other goals like time with kids, or work socials, or travel." Dick Palmieri, 57 years old.