Sequencing and Scheduling
for Maximally Productive Workouts

Summary
Staying healthy is hard work! There's a lot to do, and it's easy to over do things and wear yourself out. This article identifies the kinds of activities you need, the best sequence for doing them, and different ways of scheduling them.

Eric Armstrong
TreeLight.com/Health

Table of Contents

Introduction

This article describes two important aspects of your training routine: sequencing and scheduling:

Sequencing Within a Workout

A workout can consist of a variety of activities. Ideally, the activities should occur in this sequence:

You probably won't be doing all of the activities in any given workout. Odds are, you'll only be doing one or two of the major activities (skills, power training, or cardio/endurance training). But every session should begin with a warm up, and it should either end with stretching or include stretching as part of the activity--or both.

The remainder of this section describes those activities and gives the reasons for that sequence.

Warm Up

The most flexible guy I ever saw ran marathons! And he never stretched before running. His secret? He did some light running before each race. That warmed up his muscles and prevented injuries during the race, without risking an injury from overstretching while cold. And he always did Yoga after the race -- at first working out the soreness and loosening muscles that tightened up during the run, but then taking advantage of the fact that his muscles were good and warm to maximize his stretching.

The point here, is that stretching doesn't need to be part of your warm up. It doesn't particularly hurt to do it before your other training, but it's most effective afterwards. On the other hand, it does hurt to stretch before you've warmed up. So always warm up first.

A warm up is any light exercise activity that makes the heart start beating faster. The warm up should exercise the muscles you'll be using in the activities that follow, of course. There's no point in warming up your legs before kayaking!

Warming up prepares your body for activity, so its ready to deliver maximum performance. It also prevents injury. (The physiological reasons for that fact are worth investigating. But so far, I haven't seen any explanations for why it's true.)

The increased blood flow brings more blood to the skin, which causes a feeling of greater warmth. Hence the name. I suspect that it also increases metabolic activity, which produces heat from within. The warmth you feel means that heart is working harder, so muscles are being fed the oxygen and "energy pills" (carbs and fatty acids) they need to function.

You know you're warmed up when you feel warmer. So do your warm up exercises until that happens.

Skills Training

In any sport or activity that requires learning a skill, skills training comes next. This is the part of the session in which you learn new skills, and in which you practice recently-learned skills in order to build them into your nero-muscular system. It's where those skills become part of you. Practicing skills to increase your endurance or strength, on the other hand, comes later in the session.

Skills training comes first so that you can tackle them with maximum mental focus and physical ability. When you go to school, you don't learn as much when you're tired. The same goes for learning a new skill. You need to be as alert and "fresh" as possible to make the adjustments you need to make to perform the action properly.

That's why it's "new". If it's using motor reflexes you already possess, you wouldn't need to learn it. But making those adjustments means that your normal movement tendencies have to be controlled by your brain. Your brain has to signal your body to stop doing the wrong things and start doing the right things. Later on, those moves will become "automatic", and your brain will hardly be involved at all.

At the point, the muscle coordination will have been "programmed" into neural reflexes that closer to the muscle, so they operate without conscious control. If you get them wrong, they'll have to be retrained later. That's one reason it's good to learn new skills while you're still fresh--so you can focus on getting them right.

Another reason is that as you make changes in your nero-muscular timing, mistakes will happen. For some skills (for example, gymnastics) the resulting short-circuit can lead to injury. Learning new skills when you're fresh helps to prevent the short circuits, and gives you a little extra ability to recover after one occurs.

Power Training

The next activity in the standard training sequence is power training. Here, you're working to maximize strength, building the muscle you need to perform your activities. Power training is an important part of any fitness regimen not only because we need the strength, but also because the process of building muscle burns a tremendous amount of fat, and because muscle that is just sitting there burns more fat in a day than it can burn in a hour's worth of cardiovascular exercise.

Muscle also keeps your bones from showing, and it does so in aesthetically appealing ways, unlike fat. So muscle is an all-around good thing. To build muscle, you need Power Training--strength training that focuses on explosive muscular activities.

Power training stimulates your body's fast twitch fiber. Fast twitch muscle fiber is the "white fiber" responsible for anaerobic (zero-oxygen) muscle contractions. (It's white, because it's not filled with blood. Red fiber, on the other hand, carries out aerobic contractions. It's filled with blood, because the blood is carrying the oxygen it uses.)

Power training becomes even more important as we age. Fast twitch fiber tends to decline rapidly, compared with slow twitch fiber. That's why really old folks can still move along slowly, long after their running days are older. Power training acts to stem that decline. In effect, it acts to keep you young.

There are two basic kinds of power training exercises:

Coordination exercises include sports-related drills and coordinated weight-lifting moves like the snatch and power clean. Since they involve neuromuscular coordination, as well as strength, coordination exercises are similar to skill drills. For that reason, they come before pure strength training.

With coordination exercises, you generally stop well short of fatigue, because the weakest muscle in the chain will reach its limit before the others are fully exercised. In addition, your mental focus will begin to waver long before your physical ability gives out. So you'll tend to stop well short of maximum muscular effort.

With strength training, on the other hand, you focus on an individual muscle and pound it into submission. It will scream and complain, but in the end it will thank you, because it will be so much stronger. Once the coordination exercises are out of the way, you can focus on strength training.

Finally, I've found it useful to break down power training into two additional categories:

Combining that breakdown with the coordination/strength breakdown produces a matrix of exercises:

General Strength Training Core Strength Training
Coordination exercises Coordination exercises
Strength exercises Strength exercises

The division of power training exercises into general strength and core strength categories comes will come in handy when we're scheduling exercise sessions. (You'll find see the details in A Basic Schedule, below.)

Note:
When doing power training for the core, you work against heavy resistance. Your goal at that point is to build muscle, and the only way to do that is to work in the low-repetition range.

Additional information:

Cardio/Endurance Training

Unlike power training, cardiovascular and endurance training works the body's slow twitch fibers--the ones that use oxygen as they burn fuel. It's purpose is to builds cardiovascular capacity (heart and lungs) and endurance (resistance to fatigue).

Note:
Cardiovascular and endurance training can (should) include core abdominal training, with light resistance (for example,body weight crunches or a standing twist with a medicine ball). Your goal here is to exercise the abs in a way that reminds them to stay firm and tight, but which does not replicate the stress of power training. You'll see how these two kinds of core training combine in the section on scheduling.

Cardiovascular and endurance trainingcomes after power training, rather than before, so muscle fatigue doesn't interfere with power training capacity for strength exercises and the neuromuscular coordination needed for coordination exercises. But it turns out to have a very beneficial effect on the strength training process, as well.

Doing cardio/endurance training immediately after power training helps to improve stamina (generally known these days as recovery capacity)--the body's ability to deal with lactic acid and the other metabolic by-products of intense muscular effort. In effect, the body's "emergency response" team gets stronger, so it can clear the traffic jams and rebuild the roads faster.

The increased blood flow also happens to promote healing and speed your recovery from your power training sessions--even if it occurs a day or two later. So doing cardiovascular/endurance training within a couple of days of your power training session helps you grow stronger.

When power training and cardio/endurance training are combined, the result is a trim, muscular physique. I first observed that phenomenon when I saw an overweight, flabby guy transform himself into a stallion in a matter of months. He had done by weight training one day and running the next, and staying on that schedule 6 days a week.

It was highly effective, but that's a lot of training! When I tried it, I went into overtraining overload in no time flat. In a moment, you'll find out about a training schedule that uses the same principle, but is a lot easier on the body, because it gives you more time for your body to recover between sessions. (A Basic Schedule, below.)

Flexibility Training (Stretching)

Now that the muscles are warmed up and fully worked out, it's time to stretch them. Stretching at this time is important for a variety of reasons:

Of course, if you're so sore that you can barely get back to your original range of motion, the theoretical capacity to maximize your stretch isn't going to be of much practical value. But in that case, you really need the stretching to help you recover. Either way, you win by stretching at the end of your workout. So be sure that stretching finishes off every training session.

Additional information:

Scheduling Your Workouts

Now that you're aware of the kind of variety you need in your fitness regimen, the next question is how to include them all into an intelligent training plan that makes sense for you. That's the subject of this section.

Goals of a Training Schedule

The schedule you adopt must, above all, achieve two goals:

That's it! But it's a lot easier said, than done. Maximizing growth is pretty much the point of training in the first place. But doing it without overtraining can be difficult.

Overtraining is a bear because it sneaks up on you slowly. First, you're feeling a little tired. Then a little run down. Then you're not so enthusiastic. If you force yourself to continue, after while you're not looking forward to your workouts, you don't feel capable of doing much in your regular life, much less in a vigorous workout. All in all, you can get pretty darn depressed!

So the avoidance of overtraining is a key component in any training schedule. What that means, basically, is giving your body the time it needs to recover from your training activities before you pile on more work. That way, you stay motivated. The goal is to stay charged up, to stay hungry, even when you're training like a maniac.

General Scheduling Philosophies

There are several different scheduling philosophies that people use to choose their activities and the training load (the amount of work they do) in each. Those philosophies are:

I tend to use fixed scheduling, myself. Since I know it best, that's the plan I'll cover that plan in detail in the remainder of this article.

A Basic Schedule

I used to try to fit all of my training routines into a single one week. The ideal schedule, I thought, would include something like 3 runs, 1 core training session, 1 strength training session, a couple of skill-training sessions, and 2 or three stretching sessions. That's a full week! I wound up training morning and evening, and went into severe overtraining in a matter of weeks.

I've been in and out of overtraining for most of my adult life, in fact. It's an occupational hazard when you're trying to maximize your sports potential while holding a full time job and engaging in social activities, as well. I've created a lot of programs I thought would work. Sooner or later, they all lead to overtraining. When it happens, you've simply got to be aware of it, cut yourself some slack, and take some time off so you can come back with full force later on.

But I recently found a schedule that works a lot better than any other I've tried. It's spread over two weeks, so it includes all of the activities you need, and it alternates power training sessions with cardio/endurance sessions, to maximize fat burning and muscle building. But most importantly, it allows for a kind of recovery time you need to prevent overtraining.

Here's the schedule:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun   Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun

Skills
Power
Flex

  Cardio
/Enduro
Flex
    Skills
Power
Flex
    Cardio
/Enduro
Flex
    Skills
Power
Flex
  {Cardio
/Enduro}
Flex
 

Notes:
1. Thanks to Ed Tischler at New Horizons Golf for getting me thinking about this schedule in a serious way.
2. The third cardio/endurance session is optional, so it's shown in curly braces: {...}

That schedule won't work for everyone. But when it does, it's pretty close to ideal. In the next section, you'll see how to customize it for the kinds of activities you do. In this section, you'll see why it works so well.

A Two-Way Split for Power Training Sessions

The first thing to understand about this schedule is that you alternate between two kinds of power training sessions. If you do session one at your first power training session, you do session two at the next. Then you go back to session one, and so on.

The first half of each session is discussed fully in Power Training. One covers the legs and chest. The other covers the back and shoulders. They look like this:

Session One Session Two
  • Legs and Chest
    • Power Clean
    • Squat
    • Bench Press
  • Back and Shoulders
    • Snatch
    • Deadlift
    • Shoulder Shrug

The other half of the session consists of the general strength or core training exercises mentioned earlier in this article. Putting them together produces a power training plan that looks like this:

Session One Session Two
  • Legs and Chest
    • Power Clean
    • Squat
    • Bench Press
  • Back and Shoulders
    • Snatch
    • Deadlift
    • Shoulder Shrug
  • General Strength
  • Overhead press
  • Core Strength (Abdominals)

General strength training includes exercises for the lats (pulling down), deltoids (shoulders), calves, arms, and forearms. [Future Link: Article on General Strength Conditioning]

Core strength training includes work for the lats (twisting), abdominals, and back. That day also includes the overhead dumbbell press, military press, and any other general strength exercises you do for the upper trapezius (neck), because that area is worked so forcefully by the shoulder shrug that including it in the general strength day tends to induce overtraining of that muscle.

Note:
To work the abdominals properly, you need breathing exercises, and you need to do your strength-building exercises with exceptionally good form. Otherwise your abdominal work will tend to fall somewhere between ineffective and counter-productive. (The difficulty of doing it well enough to get the results you want is attested to by the endless stream of late-night infomercial products, each of which shows how hard and useless the others are, and how easy and effective theirs is.) [Future Links: Article on Core Training, Article on Breathing Exercises]

Power Training Recovery Intervals

One vital component in this schedule is the recovery time you get between power training sessions. If you're a young, fit, athlete, you can get away with training more frequently. But the older you get, the more important it is to give your body the recovery time it needs. Otherwise, overtraining sets in right away.

When you seriously work a muscle in a way that stimulates growth, the way you do when you're working in the 3 to 5 rep range, it takes 2 to 3 days before the muscle fully recovers from that effort. If you work the muscle hard before then, you're tearing it down more than you're building it up.

After that, the muscle overbuilds for another 3 or 4 days. That's when the growth happens. If you work it that hard before the overbuilding is complete you don't lose anything, but you cut short your gains. After all, the muscle isn't going to grow any faster. So you're simply tearing it down and starting over, without having achieve all of the growth you had a right to expect after your last training session.

After that, the muscle is at peak strength for 2 to 3 days before it starts to (very gradually) atrophy. But that pretty much assumes that you don't use the muscle at all. Using it just a little prevents the muscle loss, so strength you've gained from power training is like money in the bank. Other than an extremely slow decline that comes with age, it pretty much stays there until you need it.

The bottom line is that a muscle has a 7 to 10 window of peak strength after a strenuous training session. That's the ideal time to work it again to achieve maximum growth. (Any time after 7 days will achieve pretty much the same amount of growth, but delays beyond 10 days are effectively "wasted" with respect to muscle growth.)

To prevent specific overtraining of a muscle, then, the ideal time to work it again is 7 to 10 days after a strenuous power training session. The basic schedule does that by ensuring that don't return to the same power training session for 9 to 10 days.

But there is also general overtraining to consider. During the time that the muscle is busy recovering, the body is essentially in "emergency" mode. Repairing things that are broken is important work, so your body prioritizes to do that.

Meanwhile, the 4 to 5 days between sessions prevents general, systemic overtraining. It gives your body time to complete its high-priority repair missions before other things break. It's kind of like running around after a two-year old. While you're picking up one broken thing, they're breaking something else. That's stressful for you. In the same way, it's stressful for your body when things are breaking down all the time--and make no mistake about it, training with heavy weights in the 3 to 5 rep range definitely tears down your muscle. You need to corral the child to stop the stress. In the same way, you need to constrain your training efforts to give your body time to adapt. The 4 to 5 day interval lets your body completely finish its repairs and do much of its overbuilding before it has any new stresses to worry about.

The 4 to 5 day interval gives your body's general recovery system plenty of time to overcome the stress of intense training. That prevents general, systemic overtraining, where you're using different muscle groups, but stressing yourself so continually that your body can't adapt. And you have 9 to 10 days before you come back to the same muscle group, so it can fully recover and complete its strength-adaptation before you target it again. That prevents specific overtraining, where a muscle can't complete its recovery and growth process.

Cardiovascular/Endurance Sessions

The cardiovascular/endurance sessions in this program include any kind of activity you find activity--running, cycling, rowing, or basketball, for example. Those are the traditional programs that focus on the lower body.

These days, there also aerobics classes and the like that focus on the upper body, as well as the lower body. They're good for all-around fitness. Another way to add an upper-body component to your cardiovascular training is to use light weight dumbbells, kettlebells or clubbells. They can be a very effective addition to your training program. [Future Link: Article on Kettlebell and Clubbell Training]

These days I do kettlebell/clubbell training on my cardio/enduro days, following them with light weight abdominal exercises and stretching. I'm finding that I'm most motivated to run (my favorite cardiovascular exercise) after my power training sessions. So my training schedule is starting to look something like this:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun   Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun

Skills
Power
{Run}
Flex

  Cardio
(general/core)
Flex
   

Skills
Power
Run
Flex

    Cardio
(general/core)
Flex
    Skills
Power
{Run}
Flex
  Cardio
(general/core)
Flex
 

(I almost always follow the weekend power training sessions with a run, and I'm beginning to run after my midweek sessions, as well.)

In effect, I've divided my cardiovascular/endurance training into 3 categories: Light weight general training, light weight core training, and the traditional cardiovascular exercises like running, cycling, or rowing. I'm starting to do standard cardio work after my power training sessions, and the other kinds of lightweight training on my regular cardio/endurance days. (At some point, I may do traditional cardio training then, as well. It depends on how fit I get.)

For most people, though, cardiovascular work means running or cycling, or possibly aerobics. Still, remember to include light weight abdominal training as part of your cardiovascular/endurance training, and be sure to finish with flexibility training.

Customizing a Schedule to Meet Your Needs

For me, "skills" training means my martial arts training. For you, it will mean whatever sport or activity you engage in regularly. I can choose the days I do my martial arts training, so this schedule works well for me. Suppose, though, that you are in school and you are doing basketball workouts every day, five days a week. In that case, "skills training" would be any extra skill-related drills you do on your own. Similarly, cardio training might be some extra running.

An adult, on the other hand, will tend to be engaged in activities that run on a fixed, weekly schedule. Once a week is typical, for example, for continuing education classes in a variety of sports. Let's say you take badminton on Tuesdays. Badminton is a fast-paced game plenty of jumping that requires a lot of stamina. So it qualifies as cardiovascular/endurance day. The trick is make sure that your Power Training days give you sufficient recovery time before you're back on the badminton court, while still leaving 4 to 5 days between sessions.

Suppose you can't do your strength training at the badminton facility, so you have to it another day. Here's a schedule that can work:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun   Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun

 

Badm.
Flex
Skills
Power
Flex
  Cardio
/Enduro
Flex
  Skills
Power
Flex
    Badm.
Flex
    Skills
Power
Flex
  {Cardio
/Enduro}
Flex

To make this schedule, I started by filling in the badminton days (Tuesdays), and add flexibility training on those days. The next step was to add Power Training on the day after (Wednesday). I then tried the 5-day interval, which put the next power training day on Monday, the day before badminton. No good. So I use the 4-day interval, instead. That gives a day of recovery time, at least--and a good day and a half (nearly two days) if you do your power training early Sunday morning. (If you were headed into a tournament or an official game, you would want at least 4 or 5 days recovery. But for a regular training session, it's fine.) The next power training session is 5 days later, on Friday. The only remaining step was to fill slots for extra cardiovascular/endurance work, and make one of them optional.

Ideally, though, you'll be able to your power training immediately after your badminton workout. In that case, you could use a schedule like this:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun   Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun

 

Badm.
Power
Flex

Cardio
/Enduro
Flex
    Skills
Power
Flex
    Badm.
Flex
  Skills
Power
Flex
  {Cardio
/Enduro}
Flex
 

The only change in this schedule is that a Power Training workout now follows your first badminton workouts, and the optional cardiovascular/endurance workout has moved to Saturday. (It would also work on Sunday, which gives you more flexibility that weekend.)

Summary

Good sequencing and scheduling helps you get the most out of your training program, and helps you avoid overtraining. The ideal sequence is: warm up, skills training, power training (coordination), power training (strength), cardiovascular/endurance, flexibility/stretching. The ideal schedule allows 4 to 5 days between power training sessions, and includes cardiovascular/endurance sessions to promote recovery and build stamina.

Resources

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Copyright © 2004 by Eric Armstrong. All rights reserved.
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