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Swapping Sessions – Flexibility Can Help Your Gains And I’m Not Talking About Stretching

Quite often a client will ask if they can switch the training session they are due to do that day for another. Or if they can reorganise their training days for the week.


In my earlier days, I’d have probably felt that their requests meant they weren’t following the program. That they would reduce their gains. In fact, it was my lack of empathy and flexibility that was ruining their gains!


You see, as a twenty-something with no responsibilities, training was one of my top priorities. I tried to make this the same for my clients. I expected a lot of them! For some, this worked great. A black or white, all or nothing approach, fitted their psychology and, just as importantly, meshed with their lifestyle/schedule.


For some other clients, it was far less successful. These people had demanding jobs, families, busy social lives, and a host of other commitments and responsibilities that meant their training could not be priority number 1. It wasn’t even number 2, or 3 on their list!


For them, I needed to find a way for training to improve their life as it wasn’t possible for it to rule their life as it did for some others.


When I Finally Learnt The Lesson


Sadly, it took me longer than it should have done to realise this. The key learning experience for me was getting married and having kids. All of a sudden I realised that the needs of others had to come first a lot of the time. I couldn’t selfishly train whenever I felt like it. I needed to fit it in around the chaos of family life.

This is the situation most of my clients are in. Even if they don’t have a family they have jobs, partners, friends, other hobbies that they want to invest time into. I now understand the importance of finding a way to help them to be as effective as possible with their training whilst juggling all the other factors in their life.


So, when I’m asked if switches can be made to programs now, I’m much more receptive and flexible. I can see the bid picture.


A training plan is only as good as your ability to adhere to it. Next up is your motivation to execute it with sufficient effort and energy. Finding ways to tick those two boxes is vital to anyone’s success.


An imperfect plan followed with relentless effort is MUCH better than a scientifically optimal plan that is not followed!


Note.Even better is a scientifically sound plan that they are ready, willing, and able to attack with enthusiasm.

Often a program that has some solid foundational structures/principles in place but allows for some flexibility on scheduling is the perfect mix.


On that subject, some studies have started to investigate the effects of “flexible” approaches to training.


Note.This “flexibility” doesn’t mean people just get to do whatever they feel like. Instead there are some parameters in place which give the whole plan a structure. These adhere to the key scientific principles of training and match the individual’s goals, but after that there is a large amount of freedom to determine how a training week is set out.


One example, is the use of a daily undulating periodisation (DUP) training plan made up of strength, hypertrophy, and power days (for more info on DUP training go here). The sets & rep schemes and intensity (load used as a % of 1 rep max) alter from day to day. With these three different styles of session an individual was given the opportunity to choose which session they completed on a given day.


Over a 12-week period this produced superior results compared to having to adhere strictly to a pre-determined structure.


Note.Across the 12 weeks an even distribution of the three training days was needed, but participants could decide which order those sessions were performed in week to week. So, they all did the same number of strength, hypertrophy, and power sessions over 12-weeks, but the order in which each session occurred changed from person to person.


Based on the few studies which have examined this subject it seems that, so long as the overall training plan follows the basic training principles, having the freedom to choose a session based on preference day to day results in better results.


When it comes to recreational lifters looking to build muscle, develop strength, and drop body I can certainly believe this. For elite level athletes, the difference between a gold medal and coming last might require a more rigid training structure to maximise race day performance.

Motivation to train is a KEY factor in success and having the ability to decide what you want to do when you set foot in the gym appears to boost motivation and, therefore, results.


So, with that bit of research available to back up the fact that a plan can be effective if adjusted day to day and the acceptance that motivation to train is key (even more so in recreational lifters than athletes) then, it seems to suggest the exact structure of a training week is not critical and need not be set in stone.


With this knowledge, it can be used to your advantage to maximise your results.


It takes some skill and integrity though. This article is not designed to give you an excuse to skip leg day and train chest and biceps every time you go to the gym!


To avoid that mistake and to maximise the benefits of program flexibility use the following guidelines to set-up a training plan that delivers results and provides you with some freedom to change sessions based on your motivation and/or schedule.


  • Establish a weekly training frequency (e.g. how many sessions per week will you do)
  • Establish a weekly training frequency per muscle group (e.g. each muscle gets trained 2 x week)
  • Divide this frequency into a “split” (e.g. upper/lower, push/pull, chest & back, legs & abs, shoulders & arms etc.)
  • Select the exercises used to train each muscle group
  • Select the target rep range(s) you will be using
  • Create an “ideal” week training schedule as your baseline
  • Try to ensure that all sessions in the ideal week are performed even if the exact sequence needs to be changed
  • When changes to the schedule are needed avoid training a muscle that is not recovered from its last session (e.g. don’t train major muscle groups on back to back days)
  • At the end of a week (or at least at the end of this block of training) all planned sessions should have been completed regardless of if the order had to be changed


Taking The Theory To Practice


In practical terms, you should acknowledge and accept that your motivation to train will fluctuate. As will your recovery from training. Likewise, time constraints, family emergencies, and work deadlines will impact upon your ability to get to the gym. The good news is that, allowing some flexibility in how your training is sequenced (assuming that the fundamental components of the program are eventually completed) seems to be just as good (if not better) than sticking rigidly to a pre-planned schedule.


Another point to consider here is that if two training programs produce almost identical results, which would you prefer? Following this one will almost certainly end up producing superior results because of the increased motivation and effort you will put in.

It is important to understand the difference between small changes that fit within a training structure and taking a scattergun approach – just to reiterate…none of this article is designed to make you think winging your training or skipping certain sessions is ok. You still need to do the work required to reach your goals. This work can just be re-scheduled from time to time.


Small changes that become permanent changes might also compromise the overall effectiveness of a plan. Occasionally switching a day where you were due to perform sets of 5 for a session with sets of 15 is ok. Doing it indefinitely, however, is likely to change the outcomes you see. At that point, you have fundamentally changed your training program.


The same goes for training times. Normally train in the evening but, got a Friday off work and want to train at noon that day? All good! Want to put your hardest session of the week on that day since all you have to do is chill out the rest of the day? Smart choice! Want to make training your hardest session of the week on a Friday a regular occurrence? Possibly not so smart since you are usually tired and time-pressured from your work week and impending deadlines.


Take Home Message


In conclusion, having a training plan that adheres to the scientific principles of training matters. Designing programs that have an overarching goal and structure also improves results, but being tied to this structure can present real difficulties for the typical trainee. Having the ability to update training schedules in light of real-world commitments can allow you to get the gym work you need done and to achieve your goals, while juggling all the other elements you have in your hectic schedule.


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