The High-Low Method | Underground Strength Training for Athletes

The High-Low Method | Underground Strength Training

This method was shared with me from James “The Thinker” Smith.

Simply stated, this training program does not allow for the individual to perform two days in a row of high-intensity training methods, which can have a negative impact on the central nervous system.

This method can and should be incorporated into the sports practices as well. So, if you’re a Strength Coach implementing this method, you are coordinating and adjusting your training methods with the intensity of the sports practices of the Sport Coaches.

For example, in Wrestling, if Monday were an intense live wrestling day, this would be considered a high-intensity day which imposes greater demands on the body’s recuperative abilities. If the individual is planning to perform extra training in the gym that day, the training should also be high-intensity, but these two sessions should be spread apart a minimum of 4 hours.

Or, after the sports practice, the Strength Coach can implement a short, strength session after practice. I personally don’t want to do strength work immediately before a sports practice. This is often how injuries occur, especially in untrained athletes who are not prepared for sports practice after being fatigued.

After a hard wrestling and lifting session, the next day will be a day of lesser intensity activities. So, on the mat, this would be a day of technical/drilling only. The Strength Coach might implement a short calisthenics circuit and then mobility and soft tissue work/partner massage, etc. to aid recovery.

This will allow the body to tolerate the training stimuli without negative effects, such as overtraining, becoming weaker, etc.

This is where discipline plays a huge factor. Discipline is doing what must be done, not what you want to do. You may want to spar or go live and roll hard with your teammates. But, if you truly want to reap the rewards of a well-planned program, you will follow your high-intensity days with a rest day or a low-intensity day, thus, the high-low method.

The high-low method would work best in a setting where the Coaches ALL work together, Sports Coach, Strength Coach, etc. Otherwise, it is difficult to gauge the effort of an athlete if you didn’t see him in sports practice. Coach, I worked so hard at practice today, can we go lighter today? Then the next day you chat with the sports coach, and he tells you, Johnny dogged it during practice.

Don’t get caught up with one method, never being flexible; harder training is better or “optimal training” is better. And of course, don’t get caught up in making excuses to avoid the work, Oh I’m not feeling it today……

Listen, in life and sports, we’re not always 100% or always feeling it, so it’s crucial to get used to working hard! Lack of effort and excess excuses always catch up to you. Always.

The flaws behind the high-low system should be looked at as well. There is a need to psychologically have athletes push through the tough times, times when they feel tired, yet they MUST perform. In many sports, the end of season competition often involves competing for multiple days in a row. When we compete, we must attack at 100% multiple days in a row. High-Low would not properly prepare you for this in the physical or mental sense.

Many sports have tournaments that are 2 – 3 days in length, which means competing hard for those 2 – 3 days. When you compete, there is no high-low competing, it’s ALL out competing to WIN.

Looking at the high-low system, this would be a great method for the postseason and early offseason. As you near competition, you want to train up for it and then in season, you can look at practice and all-around training to dial in a more optimal approach. You will use auto-regulation in my opinion.

Model 6: The Simple Method

This will be the absolute simplest way of cycling your training if you do not understand the skill of “listening to your body.” For the first three weeks of each month, you will train intensely (a very vague term – push yourself or the athletes, each week ramping up intensity) and on the last week of the month train with moderate to high reps and lighter weights for recovery purposes.

Week 1 – Intro Week, establish baselines and technique
Week 2 – Better than week 1
Week 3 – Aim to break records and beat week two training
Week 4 – Deload, lighter weights, less overall volume and intensity

Train three days a week utilizing full body workouts or alternating between upper and lower body workouts. Use the concurrent method by incorporating strength, power, hypertrophy, and endurance methods within each workout.

After three weeks of solid training, you reduce the intensity and use higher reps (10-20 reps) on the last week. That 4th week might only be two training sessions instead of 3 sessions.

Give your body and mind added rest on week 4. Psychologically and Physically, you will want to get back to intense training again after this 4th week of lighter work. As someone who is intense and passionate, I remind myself that I am NOT training athletes who are like me. Even at the collegiate level, many of these athletes are NOT the biggest fans of training. I have to find ways to inspire them to work hard and teach them how to seek pleasure in the discipline.

Pushing to your limits every week, every workout without a reduction in volume/intensity will lead to burn out and overuse injuries. The “Simple System,” you will schedule yourself to lay low on the last week of every month. This works well for the rare athlete who is an overachiever and keeps thinking on outworking everyone else.

I love working with those aggressive athletes. However, you must find ways to keep them progressing in the long term and most of all, peaking when it’s the right time.

A very important part of avoiding plateaus is to keep changing your exercise selection, the number of sets, reps & rest in between sets. During the three weeks of higher intensity training, you can vary the loads within each workout.

It is not necessary to go heavy the entire workout or light the entire workout. An example of varying training loads (various physical focuses) in the same workout would be like this (after a thorough warm-up):

Rope climbing x max reps in 5 minutes (strength endurance focus)
Squatting, heavyweights, 3 – 6 reps per set, 6 – 8 total sets (including warm-ups) (strength focus)
DB Floor Press: light weights, high reps (20 – 30 reps), three total sets (muscular endurance & hypertrophy focus)
1 Arm Row using DB or KB, 4 x 8 reps (moderate weight) (strength endurance focus)
KB Swings 3 x 15 (moderate weight / power endurance focus)

As you can see, some exercises were heavy, then light, then moderate – constantly shocking the body, keeping it off guard. Switch your hand/foot positions, change the load, etc.

Not only will you increase progress, but you will keep each workout more fun than the last one. Doing the same thing repeatedly is never a good thing, regardless of the activity. The mind gets bored, and the body stops responding.

Which do I prefer? I prefer to use The Concurrent Method.

I like using this method because I attack heavier weights for strength, moderate weights for power, full body lifts for full body strength and power, plus a circuit at the end of each workout for improving strength endurance and muscular endurance. This approach is very practical for my athletes at The Underground Strength Gym because of the erratic schedule of the athletes.

It works great for the college athletes as well because once school is over, the college athletes have a four-month “optional training” time. This means a large number will not show up to train during those four months and if they do, it’s usually not for the 3x weekly training.

Unless I KNOW you’re training all year round; it’s tough to long-term plan one method over another. Consistency will trump intensity. Hard work during only some of the year will not benefit the athlete as much as consistently training year round. It’s hard to get better when you don’t show up. This is common sense.

Alternative Programming Idea: Although, if you own a gym, you CAN set it up where you lock down a training plan, and the athletes know exactly what is planned each day of the week, for example:

Monday + Wednesday: Strength & Conditioning
Tuesday + Thursday: Speed, Agility, Plyos
Friday: Open Gym
Saturday: Speed + Strength

The reason I like to give examples of all the varied methods is that variety AND knowledge are important. Any of these types of programs will work well for some athletes,
It all depends on where that athlete is in his / her timeline of development.

Many beginners and intermediates can make tremendous gains with linear periodization. Marty Gallagher used this method with some of the strongest men of all time, like Ed Coan and Kirk Karwoski. Look them up if you don’t know who they are!

My plan for the athletes is constantly changing because the athletes themselves are constantly changing. There are so many factors that impact an athlete’s energy levels, stress, nutrition, lifestyle, mindset and more. As complex as the human body is, the simplest training tends to elicit the best response. Fewer fads and Fewer gimmicks. Life nowadays is complicated enough.

Louie Simmons has often stated that if an athlete does the same workouts and same lifts repeatedly than he/she will begin to decrease their coordination and overall athleticism. This is where one movement come into play (SPP / specialized physical preparation) as well as a variety of workouts and exercise variations. I interviewed Dane Miller from Garage Strength for my STRONG Life Podcast, and he told me that when he went to a Throws camp to prep for The Olympic Trials, his throws Coach (Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk) had him throwing dumbbells the same way he would throw a shot put. That is SPP.

These special exercises will be similar to your sports skills & will address your weak areas coupled with sports technique. With wrestlers I have them lifting awkward objects such as water filled kegs, sandbags or heavy sand balls. We also throw these objects in various directions or load them onto platforms/boxes from various directions. For example, lift and rotate a heavy sand ball on top of a ploy box. Or clean & throw a heavy sand ball, toss a lighter medicine or sand ball for distance.

These movements resemble wrestling, lifting and throwing an opponent. This SPP is not only a physical benefit but also gives the athlete a mental edge because he/she believes they are doing something close to the sport they love. It creates a deeper and more meaningful connection for the athlete.

The intermediate and advanced athletes can implement general – specific training.

– A swimmer who swims the 100-meter might perform circuit work for the time that matches the time of their best 100-meter stroke.

– A wrestler in college might perform a circuit of various exercises for 7 minutes to meet the time demands of a 7-minute match.

– An 800-meter Runner can perform a lower body circuit for his/her best time in the 800-meter race.

I know Louie Simmons has often mentioned marching on his belt squat (ATP/Athletic Training Platform) or power walking with ankles weights for the same time as his 400-meter Runners. That is GSP/General Specific Preparation.

Changing the exercise or the angle of the exercise allows you to improve consistently. Simply by doing something different, you can essentially set a new PR. Always benching? Go incline. Always using a straight bar? Use a Swiss bar.

Always squatting with a box? Take away the box or change the width of your feet.

Change the exercises before they stop working before the plateau comes. Change the reps. Sets of 5 for two weeks, sets of 3 for two weeks, etc.

If you are strong in one lift, the ego can often take over, and you want to do this exercise in the same position all the time to look good for others. That is a big mistake. That will lead to a plateau & overuse injuries.

Balancing Training Stimuli & Movements

Some workouts have major flaws, others have some flaws, but in the end, they ALL have flaws. There is no such thing as the perfect workout, period. Some workouts open up the floodgates for injury or exposing weak areas to become even weaker.

A few things to keep in mind when creating a balanced program is to attack weak areas regularly, but not so often that the area becomes overworked and in a constant state of fatigue. Also, balance the push / pull movements with a minimum of 1:1 ratio, if not slightly more. I prefer to do more posterior work than anterior work.

Baseball players tend to get more posterior work. Wrestlers who have that hunched over posture, get a much higher volume of pulling than pushing.

Every training session gets a minimum of 100 upper back / rear delt band exercises from face pulls and pull apart, all from various angles and different band tension.

For example, a 1:1 push/pull balance would like this:

1A) pushups 5 x 8 reps
1B) recline body rows 5 x 8 reps

Notice that the sets/reps are identical, and the movements are both in the horizontal plane. In a perfect world, your pull/push ratio should be identical. But, because pulling movements/motions (and the posterior chain) are commonplace for weak areas, I suggest performing extra work for the pulling movements. Through the years, I have met MANY athletes unable to do 1 push up. Things are just never perfect or “optimal.” It’s a fallacy. You always need to be thinking, learning, assessing every exercise that an athlete does and engineering a training plan to build up this athlete.

Example 2:

1A) weighted pull / chin ups 8 x 3 reps
1B) double kettlebell military press 8 x 3 reps

The above example is an identical pairing of sets/reps with vertical movements. When my athletes are pressing overhead or horizontal, even when paired with rowing or pulling motion, I often have them sneak in abs, and band face pulls/pull apart mid-way through all their sets and again after their sets.

You’ll see workouts outlined in this manual that are not “perfect,” or not paired through identical sets/reps of opposing movement patterns. During our warm-ups, we include movements to get some extra work done for our weaker areas. For example, the use of jump stretch bands for face pulls, rowing and band pull-aparts are commonly used during our warm-ups and as active rest between heavier lifting. This is something we do simply by reacting to what the body needs, not what is written down on paper.

You can look at your physique and see what needs work. A great Coach can assess the physique of an athlete as well as their performance in sport and craft training to improve their performance.

Big belly? Tighten up that nutrition. Add more lean muscle mass.
Slouching shoulders? More upper back work & consciously working on posture.
Big chest & small back? Add rowing exercises during upper AND lower body days.

Then you must learn to assess through movement.

Can’t push hips back during squats or trap bar deadlifts? Add extra back extension from 45 degree and horizontal angles. Banded leg curls, banded good mornings & strengthen those hammies!

Knees caving in when landing on jumps or lifting off the floor? Strengthen the hips through lateral sled drags or banded lateral walks/hip circle lateral walks.

The assessment is constant and ongoing. It never stops. The mind of a Coach never shuts off. If you’re an athlete reading this, look at why you’re struggling, when you lose and then learn how to strengthen those weak areas.

On paper, the pairing of identical sets and reps looks correct or optimal. But let me play devil’s advocate. There is no individual w/perfect balance, be it in life or physique, so, we almost always perform more pulling movements because that is where the weak areas tend to fall. And so, the ratio of 1:1 is always the minimum we use, most often we perform an extra minimum of 25% more volume for pulling motions.

For more information, you will want to review the Underground Strength Coach Certification.