Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Westside Barbell...and Distance Running?

Westside Barbell and distance running…two things most people would never think of associating with each other!  Nevertheless, when we move beyond the superficial differences, the running world can find many valuable lessons and similarities to the Westside approach.  If nothing else, we should realize that sound training fundamentals are not specific to any single discipline, but instead are principles of the body. 

Honor the central nervous system (CNS)– Yes, hypertrophy, weight, sets, and reps are all important for lifting, just as aerobic measures of VO2 max and lactate threshold are critical performance benchmarks in running.  However, blind adherence to numbers to the detriment of the body’s overall adaptive state can lead to excess loading.  While the Westside approach included discrete planning (it wasn’t just “let’s see how much we can lift today”) Louie Simmons also owned a keen intuition guided by the principles of central nervous system development.  A similar intuition is helpful in coaching runners; always consider the neurological and endocrine status of runners and not simply aerobic and anaerobic performance.    

Quality speedWestide cares not just about how much weight is going up, but also has fast it is going.  Bar speed is to lifting as quickness is to running.   Athletes in both environments frequently abuse speed.  Higher reps with moderate loads in the gym can overwhelm the CNS, just as middle distance VO2 max reps on the track can fry runners when used excessively.  Short reps, higher speed, and longer rest are more frequently the most appropriate prescription for speed development with long distance runners.     

Maximum power development– The emphasis on 1 rep max is not unique to the Westside approach, but it is an important component.  The theory is that the greater one’s maximum power output, the easier anything under that weight will be.  This concept can get tricky in distance running, but not impossible to reconcile.  Clearly, if max sprint speed was critical in distance running, top distance runners would all be former 100m-200m runners, which obviously isn’t the case. 

One application is through short hill charges of eight to twenty seconds at a near max effort.  What’s most important is not raising max power in an absolute sense, but instead within one’s own range of performance.  While a distance runner might not benefit directly from improving 40yard dash speed, the muscle recruitment and coordination that takes place in hill charges can transfer to leg efficiency in distance running.  The key with hill repeats is that in measured doses, we can effectively raise power output without detracting from other training elements.   

Train according to current max; not competition max– The Westside approach recognized that competition is different than training.  Adrenaline, competition gear, and a taper can raise one to far greater heights than in training.  Likewise in running, our race-day capacity is typically greater than normal training day capacity.  When setting our training paces as a percentage of maximum capacity, our effective maximum capacity is what we can do on that day; not what we could do tapered, in racing flats, and with the adrenaline of competition fueling us.    

A defined hierarchy of prioritization– Not every hard workout is treated equally.  Much in line with point #1 (honor the CNS), you can do multiple hard workouts per week, but only one or two can take priority.  Prioritize workouts in terms primary, secondary, tertiary, and even quarternary importance.  Don’t “go to the well” too frequently.

Spacing workoutsWestside commonly had two key days in the training week, often with one a devoted bench day and other devoted to the squat and deadlift.  My running mentor, Tom “Tinman” Schwartz, often prescribes a two "big workout" system roughly analogous to this approach.  The theory is that less frequent but “bigger” hard days are more effective at providing a hearty stimulus, but also to offer ample time for recovery. 

For example, a traditional running week may include Tuesday tempo work, Thursday intervals, and long run and/or race on the weekend.  The runner is always within one or two days from the previous hard session.  An alternative is to load up two heftier workouts.  There’s no right or wrong approach, but consolidating stress into fewer key days with more recovery days in between often embeds a margin of safety and allows for more volume in harder workouts.  This approach can be particularly beneficial for older runners who can only devote one day mid-week to a longer run.     

Undulating periodization– This was one of Westside’s most profound contributions to American weightlifting, much in line with the approach followed by the Eastern Bloc nations.  Address all elements of training all year round, but modify the amount of the inputs according to the priorities of the current phase.   Marathoners never neglect speed and middle distance specialists should never neglect stamina.  Further, runners who lose touch with one aspect of training can later find themselves injured if the training stimulus changes too abruptly.  Each phase should contain elements that prepare the runner for the next phase.

Make adjustments when needed– Westside lifters were given the freedom to adjust workout loads based on their present day condition.  Rather than grind through a workout with reduced bar speed and/or poor technique (which can go hand-in-hand with bar speed), it is more effective to make slight adjustments that preserve the goals of the workout without creating too much residual CNS fatigue into subsequent workouts.  The workout plan is a guide, not a bible.  In running, if the workout calls for 5 x mile repeats at 5:00 per mile, there’s no shame in dropping to four reps or running at 5:10 pace if that’s what is appropriate for the body on that particular day.   

Year round consistency– Although hard training need not and should not occur all year round, continually staying in touch with baseline fitness is critical over the long term.  Unless specifically called for, lengthy breaks are to be avoided.  The brain and body crave consistency, not the confusion that comes from taking off big chunks of time (again, we get back to point #1, Honor the CNS).  Reasons outside of training may necessitate a long break from training, but consistent training demands a year round commitment.      

Manage Weaknesses– Perhaps one of Westside’s greatest hallmarks, and one of Simmons’ own personal strengths, was the ability to troubleshoot weaknesses.  Nearly as important as the main lifts was the value Westside placed on supplementary exercises to shore up weak points.  In running, many runners at all levels are tempted to focus only on what’s fun (usually intervals to stroke the ego on the track), when the biggest gains will come via mundane work in weaker areas such as technique, mobility, strength, nutrition, or simply being more consistent with overall weekly mileage.       



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