Improving Life-Long Results: LTAD for Strength and Size
The role of long-term athletic development (LTAD) planning isn’t just for Russian children bound for the Olympics.
If you’re planning on exercising for more than the length of your new year’s resolution, you need a plan.
You either have a good plan or you have a bad plan. If you’ve not thought about it, you’re in the latter camp!
Today we’re discussing the role of long-term development without any of the frills or dull stats. It’s all actionable so you’ll know what to think about when you come out the other end of this article!
Long-Term Athletic Development: The Background
LTAD is just the long-term planning of exercise progression; not just what you’re doing next session, but how you progress through training programs. This is a quick overview of the year-to-year training you’re doing and how it’s going to impact your progress.
For example, in the Soviet weightlifting system, LTAD was the progression of a child from school-age all the way to international competition. It was a system that bred some of the best athletes of all time in the sport, setting world records, and chasing Olympic glory.
There’s even a model, taught to sports science students and used to frame the trajectory through life:
Bit complicated for your goals? Let’s look at what you can get from long-term planning: the principles that matter, rather than worrying about age and maturation…
LTAD Principles for Strength, Size, and Health
The point is that you can use this kind of planning to guide your training – and ensure the best results. We’re going to look at where you need to start, where you want to go with your workouts, and what kind of changes need to happen over the months and years.
This is what you’ve waited for: how do you use long-term planning for the best results as a fitness enthusiast?
If you’re not competing in a sport then you can use the principles, but you need to put together something more specific to you. This is a process of a few simple gradients to understand and implement.
1. General to Specific
The earlier you are into your training, the more general it should be. There’s value to being specific with your goals – it gives you something to aim at – but it’s not essential for a beginner. Your body needs to be developed across a wide variety of movements, ranges, and challenges.
If you look at the programs used in a beginner program for a sport in an LTAD nation, there’s a ton of variety. The preparation of muscles, joints, and motor control all play a significant role.
What does this mean for your training? Simple:
- You need to start your training with a wider range of exercises to develop general athletic characteristics
- You don’t need to train a thing exclusively to get better at it
- Your program should progress from a more-general t a more-specific structure over the months and years of your development
These are some general principles, but they already start to form the structure of the progressions we’re going to look at later on!
2. Simple to Complex
The exercises you’re performing should progress from simple to complex. You wouldn’t perform a snatch the first day in the gym – unless, of course, you were an idiot. Can never be sure.
Rather, you should build from simpler exercises like the lunge to the back squat, front squat, overhead squat, and then to the snatch. Introducing movement complexity over time ensures you’re not getting the components wrong.
This is one of the ways we reduce the risk of injury and improve the overall performance of complex movements. It’s easier to get the complex stuff right if your fundamentals are solid.
- Focus on adding range, control, and complexity to overload
- Improve your performance through progressions rather than just loading
- Be willing to step back and focus on simpler exercises during lighter days or in accessory work
3. Volume to Intensity
There’s no value slapping tons of weight on the bar if you’re not practised in the movement. The more advanced you become, the more reliable your movement and control, thus the better you perform with heavier weights.
Thus, the average approach for your workouts needs to begin with a lower average intensity and climb over time. You look at the program of a beginner and the % of 1RM tends to be in the 70% range.
Among Olympians, the average is closer to 77-80% depending on the individual. This is a clear progression over time, and you should consider what works best for you. Increasing intensity over time is only possible because of the high volume work in the earlier days.
- Rely on adding more reps and more sets before slapping weight on the bar
- Increase intensity slowly and focus on consolidating more often than rapidly pushing yourself to new maxes
- Focus on the progression of 3-6 rep maxes rather than singles
- Give serious time and intent to your accessory work – it’s important
4. Frequency Gains
The frequency of your workouts will probably increase over time. This isn’t always necessary, but it is a common piece of training progression that allows you to practice weights more often, especially as you improve and can tolerate more and more volume.
Elite athletes are training 10+ times a week. You don’t need to do that, but you can move up from a standard 3x/week training program to a 4-5 time. This is a pretty good process for varying up your training and including accessory work over time.
This is another slow process and you might only need to add another workout every 6-12 months. It depends on your personal progression and the way you like to train/recover.
- Add frequency to your program when you struggle to progress, but as far from the PR-setting days as possible
- Focus on adding frequency by splitting workouts up, allowing you to focus on other movements and habits
5. PBs to Processes
The frequency with which you hit personal bests is going to diminish over time. This isn’t something you get to choose: you are less capable of improvements over time, so you need to sihft your focus.
Early on, you can progress session-to-session. After time, it becomes a weekly process and a bigger deal. Eventually, this becomes fortnightly and eventually monthly. As an experienced/intermediate trainee, this could take more than a month at a time to hit new numbers.
This is why we recommend shifting your focus from the next PR to the process of training. The best training comes from putting together effort and a ‘body of work’ you’re proud of. It’s not easy but it’s the most sustainable and effective way to train.
When the PRs stop, you need to focus on the quality of work you’re doing first and foremost. It’ll make everything else simple and POSSIBLE, crucially.
- Build sustainably, rather than with intensity and haste
- Use singlechoices, day to day, to improve habit formation and thus training results
- Implement slow and steady progress in training and out-of-training factors
- Over-do everything but the training: 110% of necessary effort in your diet, recovery, mobility, sleep, and other factors
- Focus on the process and treat every rep as an individual opportunity to move and perform better!
Progressing Programs: A Simple Sketch
The progression of your programs should proceed through these steps – but it can be hard to design it for yourself. It’s not an easy process but it is an important one. So we’re going to discuss the basics of a few exemplar programs and why the progression is important.
We’re going to look at strength and size programs, because they make more sense and don’t require much explanation.
Beginner Example: Sheiko Novice
You could never ask for a better introduction to strength and size than the beginner program of famous Russian powerlifting coach, Boris Sheiko. This is a perfect example of the preparation and strength-development that we expect to see in a good beginner program on these principles.
There’s plenty of variety, there’s a variety of simpler movements, and the overall focus is on the gentle progression of exercise towards the more complex movements. Exercise selection is general but highly-effective:
Whatever your goals in the gym, these exercises are going to be perfect for building basic strength and size. The weights are just whatever you can do comfortably for the reps and sets: stay near failure, but never at failure!
Novice Example: GreySkull LP
The next step is a program that takes advantage of the base you’re building. Greyskull is a linear progression program which allows you to increase weights session by session and, with the patient approach to the Sheiko program, this is a really sustainable approach to get strong fast.
Make the most of your beginner gains with the combination of big exercises and relevant accessory work:
Your overload schedule is session-to-session, and the results are going to be sustainable for a while, though not perpetually. You’ll need to switch it up at some point…
Intermediate: Examples and Making Choices!
At this point, whatever your goals, you’re going to need to commit to a more specific training program. This is often when the choice between size and strength is made, but it doesn’t always need to be. The two are connected, it’s just about shifting the slider on your priorities.
At this point, once Greyskull LP stops working, you’re probably going to be 6 months or so into your training – or maybe even further. This is a good time to add a layer of specificity – and it’s when a split or a dedicated strength program become relevant!
A split is a progression towards increased specificity for bodybuilding and aesthetics. It’s not great for strength but can offer some gains here, too. At this level, it has to be quite a general split – either upper/lower or push/pull.
There are a ton of options in this direction, but the general point is that they ought to focus on increased volume in specific movements/muscle groups. At this level, a body-part split still isn’t a good idea for most trainees.
Intermediate Strength Gains
The alternative, a well-accessorised strength program like the following (from here):
This is a quality strength program and has more accessory work than the Greyskull due to the increased time between overloads and the need for more volume in total. These add up to a well-balanced strength and size program.
Full-body training with adjustments as you progress will always work. Splits aren’t always necessary – and often aren’t optimal. The only exception being the developing bodybuilder, where specific size-gains are important for developing a well-rounded and competitive physique.
The Next Step: Advanced Programming Options and Individual Needs
Once you’ve exhausted this kind of beginner and ‘advanced novice’ programming, the approach has to change. It’s not a matter of building up daily or weekly, but introducing more complex programming.
When novice status ends, periodisation begins. When this comes around, you’re going to need to think about your goals and training more seriously. We’ll discuss this in another article on periodisation and training for the intermediate, and advanced, athlete!
If you get this far – or you’re already there – then you’re dealing with better problems…
About The Author
Professional sport/fitness writer, Weightlifter, high-performance enthusiast. Liam wears many hats, but they’re unified by a love for competition, performance, and engaging writing. You can get in touch (or hurl abuse) over at ApexContent.Org.