A Demonstration of 7 Key Training Principles
At the end of 2019 I spent a lot of time researching the concepts used by successful athletes in all sports. My primary focus was ‘measurement-based’ sports, like weightlifting, swimming, sprinting, jumping, running, ETC… Just like freediving, there is no opponent, no team to rely on, and no ‘in game’ point-scoring. Success is literally measured with a stopwatch, measuring tape, or scale: Just like Freediving.
What I found was that across the board, there was a general consensus on the ‘principles’ that defined training for these kinds of sports. Of course, I came to the conclusion that if they were consistent and successful with other more established ‘measurement based’ sports, it’s extremely likely that they’d apply to freediving as well.
I just want to be clear about something. Principles are not “rules”. They are not black and white: “If this works in this case, it will work in all cases”.
Principles are a lens through which we can view training. They help us make decisions, and understand why some things work better than others, and where we should focus our energy on decision making about our training.
In my research, I’ve seen slightly different lists of principles, some longer – some shorter, and some different ways of describing them. However, I found that there was a general, agreeable, idea behind all training, and that this ‘single idea’ could be described in different ways using different principles. Some ways of describing the idea are easier to grasp than others.
In my opinion, the best set of principles and description of this idea, is the “Scientific Principles of Strength Training” book and video series by coach Chad Wesley Smith (top 10 powerlifter all time), Dr. Mike Israetel, and Dr. James Hoffmann. In their teachings, they view training through the lens of 7 distinct principles.
What’s great about their approach to teaching these principles is that they introduce them in order from most to least important. This ordered approach to the principles makes applying them much easier. Start with principle 1, then move to principle 2, and so on…
The 7 Scientific Principles of Training:
This list includes 7 principles, that when considered and applied to programming can generate a very comprehensive and useful training plan. Here they are;
Specificity: Training needs to mimic or recreate the conditions of what you’re training for. The better an exercise does this, the more specific it is, the better form of training it is.
Overload: Training needs to generate adequate fatigue, and become more challenging over time in order to drive adaptations. Training that’s not hard enough won’t tell your body and mind that they need to get better.
Fatigue Management: Too much overload can cause overtraining, so we need to strategically implement periods of non-overloading training to ensure that we fully recover and ‘decay’ or ‘get rid of’ fatigue that systematically accumulates over time.
Stimulus, Recovery, Adaptation – SRA curves: A great way to visualize and manage the above 3 principles, SRA helps us see how frequently we should be training. It also shows that fitness, or specific adaptations, are a product of both overloading-stimulus and recovery. In other words, fatigue management & recovery need to be taken just as seriously as the ‘actual’ training itself.
Variation: Our training needs to have a certain degree of variation built in to avoid adaptive-resistance. Do the exact same thing over and over, and your body & mind will get too used to it, and evnetually it will stop working as a training exercise. Variation also helps us maintain beneficial qualities of general health, strength, and endurance, which are potentially neglected by what ever more sport specific training we are doing.
Phase Potentiation: Periodization, training phases, strategic timing of training targeted at different “goals” within a training cycle: In simple words: Base-Training, Specific-Training, Peaking-Training.
Individual Differences: How can you fine-tune your training to be more specific to your individual needs. Things like skill level, strengths & weaknesses, genetics, work capacity, previous sporting experience, ETC… All come into play.
What’s great about this list is that it’s in order of most important, to least important. #2 is useless without #1. #7 is useless without #s; 6,5,4,3,2,& 1.
During the creation of a training plan, you need to make sure it meets the requirements of each principle, in order, before moving on to the next. If by the time you fine-tune to your ‘individual differences’, it’s no-longer specific to your goal.. The training plan is scrapped, and you need to find a way to better incorporate the preceding principles.
To find out more about the scientific principles of training, check out the Juggernaut – Training – Systems video series with coach Chad on their website with the link below:
How I Applied These Principles In My Training.
All good training starts and ends with a goal. Something that will help guide your use of ‘the 7 principles’, or any other list of principles that you choose to use in your training.
My goal: My goal for this training cycle was to achieve 85m CWT, with a maximum allowance of 90m. I like to work with goals, as they help me start setting up my training plan according to the first principle: specificity. It’s much easier to be specific to 85-90m CWT, than it is to be specific to “better in CWT”. A goal answers the questions; How much better? What needs to get better? When to stop my progression? It prepares you to be specific, which is the first step to setting up a principled training plan.
So my training would all be centred around 85m CWT, with an ‘allowed maximum’ of 90m.
Around 80% of my in-water training came from a relatively small bank of highly specific exercises. They would mimic, as closely as possible, the requirements of my goal.
In my case, 85-90m would require;
- A dive time of around 2:35-2:50
- Start Free-fall around 35m with 1.5kg weight and 3mm suit.
- Have to be very comfortable with EQ and water pressure below Residual Volume.
- Be able to descend to 85-90m without any urge to breath or contractions
- Be able to ascend for around 1:15, with good strong technique and psychological composure.
The bulk (80%) of in-water training exercises would meet these specific demands.
Depth Exercises: Each depth session consisted of doing 1 of these exercises.
- Reps of 45m, 50m, or 55m
Done with correct finning, freefall, and mouthfill procedures for 85-90m
- No-Contractions hangs at 45m
Allowed me to practice 85m+ freefall-times, without passing 45m: STA after normal descent into freefall, and repeatable up to 4 times way before I was ready to actually go to 85m.
- Empty-lungs Training (RV) up to 20m
Teaches all skills and adaptations to pressure for long and safe freefalls below RV (~40m)
- 1x target dive CWT (+60m) **Highest possible Specificity, Done only during Peaking**
Peaking-training, building up to my target depths
Pool Exercises: Each pool session consistent of 1 specific exercise and then the **Volume-exercise.
- CO2 table: 1 set = 60m + 4x30m (2-4 breaths recovery): For 3 sets.
The total time per set was about 3:00 & 2:00 were with elevated CO2. Increased swim speed on 4×30 allowed for similar muscular sensations as in CWT: Mild lactic acid build up.
- STA + DYN: 1:30 to 2:00 STA + 60m DYN
The total dive time on these semi-active dives was up to around 2:50: Repeatable, with no contractions or urge to breathe.
- Reps of 60m, 75m, or 90m DYN: **Volume-exercise
These dives simply allowed me to accumulate lots of meters with only very mild hypercapnia and/or hypoxia. Kind of like ‘freedive jogging’. This was my least ‘specific’ exercise that was done on a regular basis.
According to specificity, these simple exercises were tailored to my goal. They, in some way, prepared me for the dive-profile, conditions at depth, dive times, and sensations that I would experience on 85-90m. These ‘main’ or ‘core’ exercises prepared me specifically for my goal.
As a side note: In most cases I had a balance between pool and depth sessions, generally 1:1. Occasionally, if I felt I needed more practice with a skill or procedure in depth, I’d replace a pool session with a deep one.
If you’d like a little more detail on these specific exercises, check out my Facebook post on ‘Specificity’.
To ensure adequate overload in my training I used an RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) scale to monitor how hard I was training.
A very easy way to rate your training on RPE is to look at how many reps you could have done without failing the exercise or having a significant deterioration in dive quality, and then subtract that number from 10.
- If on the DYN CO2 table: 60m + 4x30m with 3 breaths recovery, I could have theoretically (prediction) done 60m + 6 x 30, that’s 2 reps “more” left in the tank. On the RPE scale that’s 10 – 2: RPE 8. With 2 breaths recovery I might have only had 1 rep left in the tank: RPE would increase to 9.
- During no-contractions hangs at 45m, if I did 2 dives and felt that I had 1 more dive in the tank before fatigue would start to increase the risk of hypoxia or early contractions.. Then this was 10 – 1: RPE 9.
In order to ensure adequate overload during my specific exercises, I mostly trained at an RPE of 7 to 9. RPE 6 wouldn’t have been enough overload to drive adaptations and increase my fitness. On the opposite side of the scale, RPE 10 is too stressful for consistent training, and would lead to psychological issues. Always leave a little in the tank.
So far this system has worked out for me in all cases. Even doing 2x55m CWT. I think I could have done 3-4 good quality reps without having noticeably worse quality dives, or risking DCS. I’ve never tried more than 2, but with my prediction of being able to do 3-4, that gives an RPE of 8-9, still within the proper overloading range.
Finally, another key part of overloading correctly is that training needs to become more challenging over time.
- Near the beginning of my cycle I might have been able to only do 2x50m CWT at RPE 9. At the end of the cycle when my specific fitness was at it’s best, 4x50m CWT was an RPE 9 exercise.
As my fitness increased over the course of the training cycle, I needed to make each exercise gradually more challenging by increasing volume and/or intensity, or decreasing recovery time in order to maintain the target RPE for the exercise. No changes over time would have caused an RPE 8 (good) exercise in month-1 to eventually become RPE 6 (not good) in month-3 and at that point I’d be wasting my time doing it.
Doing highly specific overloading training creates a lot of systematic fatigue. If you let this accumulate for too long then you will eventually become overtrained.
I used a concept called ‘de-load weeks’ on a monthly meso-cycle to manage my fatigue. I simply copy-pasted an extremely common strategy used in strength training programs. Regardless of the exercises I was doing, a month of training would generally look like this from the perspective of RPE;
- Week 1: RPE 7+
- Week 2: RPE 8
- Week 3: RPE 9+
- Week 4: RPE 6- (de-load)
The ‘deload’ week does exactly what it’s called. It “de-loads” fatigue. The way I achieved this was by either decreasing RPE by lowering volume and/or intensity, or increasing recovery times (the opposite of how I made them harder to overload).
- If on week 3 I did 4x50m CWT, I might only do 2x45m during the de-load week.
The point is that the most fatiguing week of the month is followed by the least fatiguing week of the month. This ‘break’ allows the body to decay systematic fatigue, and adapt to it in the process. Ideally, you start the next month (week 5) a little bit better overall than you were on week 1. This continues month after month and you become more and more fit in the process.
Done correctly, an RPE 8 exercise should become an RPE 7+ exercise after the deload if done in the same way (Volume, Intensity, Recovery time). An RPE 9 would go down to 8+, and so on. This noticeable decrease in RPE on identical exercises is evidence that you’re successfully adapting to your training thanks to overloading and de-loading, and is what allows you to make your training more challenging over time.
Stimulus, Recovery, Adaptation (SRA)
SRA is a great way to understand how often to train in order to make sure that you’re making small improvements between each session.
The idea is that immediately after a training session you’ll have generated short-term fatigue, and your fitness has been temporarily decreased. This recovers in a surplus over the next 1-3 days depending on how much fatigue you generated: Gains are made. After a while without training the adaptations you produced decay and eventually you settle back-to your original self: Gains are lost. Your goal is to avoid training before you’ve recovered, or after short-term adaptations have decayed. Aim to train again right as you make peak-recovery from your last session.
From experience, I know that I need about 1-2 days off to fully recover from my in-water training sessions (at my level). For this reason I planned on training every 2nd or 3rd day. During the 3rd (RPE 9+) week of the month, I also knew I would surpass my ability to fully recover between sessions, but this ‘functional overreaching’ would quickly be dealt with during the de-load week allowing for maximum adaptation. On average I was able to do 3 to 4 in-water sessions per week, on an every 2nd or 3rd day pattern.
I didn’t ‘plan’ on worrying about SRA more than that.
However, due to the challenges of diving during “corona times”, once I started peaking and doing dives deeper than 60m (which needed a boat/kayak, no-wind, and high-tide) it was impossible to dive every 3 days. More often than not, it was once every 5 to 7 days.
My skills-SRA was beyond the point of decay: Simply, I had too many days off and my EQ and freefall skills were getting worse and out of practice. To compensate for this, I’d add in an empty-lungs session 2-3 days before a deep dive if I had 5 days or more off in between: This happened 3 times. These ‘bonus’ empty-lungs sessions allowed me to avoid ‘under-training’ when needed, by re-stimulating certain key skills as they decayed from lack of practice.
Check out my facebook post(s) on this topic to find out more about how I ‘improvised’ a use for SRA during my peaking-training, and more in general about SRA-Curves. Link to the other post in the in one below:
Variation covers two things. It’s the way you adjust each individual specific-exercise, and it’s also the way you add in ‘accessory training’ and ‘cross training’ to supplement your specific exercises
In my case: RPE and month-to-month difficulty increases across my specific-exercises were handled by varying things like recovery time, number of reps, and intensity. As I got better at an exercise, I could make it harder by adjusting 1 or more of those 3 parameters. The same exercises were ‘varied’ to make them easier or harder as and when I needed.
With your highly specific exercises, variation doesn’t mean having lots of different exercises (I only had 6 outside of peaking). Variation is how they are adjusted to ‘target’ key areas, or achieve the appropriate RPE.
- To introduce new techniques into my diving, I’d do more reps of 45m. To test that the skill was automated, I’d do fewer reps of 55m. I varied the volume and intensity of my CWT reps depending on how I wanted to target my skills development.
The next use of variation dealt with other 20% of in-water training I did, which was made up of ‘accessory-exercises’. These accessory-exercises served the purpose of assisting directly with skills development, or as a way to prevent staleness/ boredom in my training. They were designed according to my weaknesses and skill-building needs. Most accessory work will be tailored to the individual.
- 35m FRC dives were useful when I was making adjustments to freefall position. They offer a much longer FF than RV dives (30m FF), and are repeatable, compared to a single dive to +65m.
- One day I really didn’t want to do the same old pool session I’d been doing for the previous few months.. To mix things up a little, and for a personal challenge, I maxed-out a 16 x 30m DYN in 8:10s at RPE 10.
- Dry STA was used, rarely, when I couldn’t find a buddy or had sore muscles from the gym, and couldn’t perform good quality in-water training.
- 30m DYNs at fast speed were perfect for making technical refinements in my finning.
Something to note is that ‘accessory work’ is only accessory. They supplement your more important specific exercises. This is why they only make up roughly 20% of the time I was in the water. You cannot live on just vitamins and protein powder. You need to eat real food too.
Another important thing to note is that my accessory exercises had there own dedicated in-water sessions. I wouldn’t do a specific exercise and then ‘add’ in accessory work at the end. I’d dedicate an entire session to accessory training when it was needed.
The last use of variation in freediving is ‘cross training’. This is the part of your training that isn’t freediving.
This can include;
- Visualization / Meditation
- Weight training
These ‘cross-training’ modalities should be used to help maintain your health, strength, endurance, and offer a way to compensate for anything that may be lacking because of freediving.
- Freediving doesn’t build strength or endurance. For my health and wellbeing, I would do basic strength and conditioning sessions quite regularly. Things like 5×5 squat, pull-ups, deadlift, tuskish-get ups. Or a very light, recovery pace, 3-5km run to maintain cardiovascular health.
- I’d also use finswimming in the sea as a way to supplement my technique training, as it offers the easiest way to cover up to 1km in a monofin while focusing purely on technical adjustments.
- I don’t personally find regular stretching to be a very useful way to spend my time, as I don’t struggle with aches, pains, or lack of mobility in my joints. However I did incorporate it when I was sick (Typhoid fever from very unlucky food poisoning). I was too ill to dive for 2 weeks, but I could spend 20 mins stretching 1-2x per day to maintain my chest flexibility, and keep my muscles from seizing up. This allowed me to start back very close to where I left off.
Something to take note of is that ‘cross-training’ is primarily used to keep you healthy and fit. There is no ‘special’ or ‘game-changing’ cross-training exercises that are magically going to be responsible for any significant proportion of your results in freediving: Your specific exercises and accessory exercises are almost 100% responsible for that. Cross-training simply keeps you healthy, fit, and well balanced enough to do your specific and accessory training.
In my training, I feel that I used variation to a correct degree.
This principle tells us how and when to apply more or less variation in our training. Near the beginning of a training cycle we can use a lot more variation: Accessory and cross training. Near the end, we want to keep variation to the bare minimum.
My training cycle can be broken into 4 distinct phases;
Between October 2019 and February 2020 I was in the ‘off-season’ (back in Canada & U.K). This included almost no specific apnea training at all. Without going into endless detail, I basically did 4-5 gym sessions per week working on general strength and endurance to prepare my body for deep diving in 2020. I also did 1-2 pool sessions where I mostly focused on having fun, finding good sensations, and making technical improvements across the board. This phase was ‘100% variation’ compared to what I’d do to train for 85-90m CWT. I wasn’t even thinking about CWT at this point.
- Base Training
For the first month back in Dahab: February, I mostly worked on regaining my confidence in depth, building back up to 55m, and really working on my skills and techniques. During this month I spent a little over 50% of my time training in ‘variation’. I did strength and conditioning around 3 days per week, and used lots of in-water accessory exercises to quickly improve my freediving skills before automating everything with highly specific exercises.
- Specific Training
From March to the end of May, most of my in-water time was dedicated to the ‘specific exercises’, really only varying these exercises RPE level according to my fatigue management strategy. ‘Accessory’ work in the water was done very rarely, on an ‘as needed’ basis, and gym/run workouts got cut down to around only 2 days per week. This 3 month phase allowed me to really build ‘specific fitness’ for my goal.
- Peaking Training
At the end of May, I started to increase my depth. Nearly all of my training was dedicated to doing 1x target dives deeper than 60m. In this phase, variation was kept to a bare-minimum. Strength and run workouts were done only at the ‘maintenance level’ so that I didn’t become weak or unhealthy. As I mentioned in the SRA section, I would do occasional RV sessions to recharge my EQ and freefall skills if I had a ridiculous amount of time off between deep dives. I also did some visualization before deep dives, but all of this was only a tiny amount of variation compared to phase 1 & 2, and still significantly less than in phase 3. Most of my training: 1-rep targets, was maximally specific, with almost no variation, to 1-rep max diving. All that varied was where the line was set to.
Due to corona and cancelled competitions I needed to stay pretty flexible with my use of phase potentiation. I actually added 6 weeks into my specific training phase since I had the time. That being said, the concepts used remain pretty much the same for anyone, no matter their goal(s), time frame, or experience level.
The simple rule of thumb:
- As training progresses, it needs to become less varied and more specific to your goal(s).
Also, it’s important to note that ‘off seasons’ are not necessary. Your base-training can be modified to be longer and allow for more cross-training to compensate for no ‘off season’ training. This year, I simply had to work for a few months in Canada and was forced to take an ‘off season’. My next cycle won’t have an off season. I just may take 6 weeks of base-training instead of 4 to allow extra time to rebuild my non-freediving fitness.
Depending on your level, or schedule it’s possible to adjust the phase-length of each of these 3-4 phases. However, it’s important that they are kept separate, and in order. It’s very unwise to peak, go back to base-training, and then attempt to peak again without a 2nd specific-training phase.
It’s also unwise (and very common) to mix phases together. You shouldn’t be working on your strength and conditioning, doing lots of specific exercises, and attempting PBs all at the same time. There should be a clear distinction between Base, Specific, and Peaking training.
This principle looks at how I’m different from everyone else. It takes into consideration things like strengths and weaknesses, previous experience, genetics.. ETC.
The first 6 principles can be used to create a generic training program for anyone. Of course, we start with a goal, select specific exercises, overload, manage fatigue, SRA, variation, phases.. Then at the individual level we can make small changes to the plan to suit our needs.
In my case, I really needed to work on my finning technique. I don’t have a lot of experience with the monofin, and I also got a new one this year. To work on this personal weakness, I tailored a lot of my accessory training to working on finning and did long finswims in the sea to get the practice in.
I’m also aware that I’m not gifted with the genetics of someone with a particularly high work-capacity. I know that I need to take rest and recovery a little more seriously than some other divers that I know. To compensate for this, I always started my month with an RPE 7 week, where some people could do week 1 & 2 at RPE 8. During the RPE 9 weeks, I’d also completely cut out any cross-training to really ensure proper recovery was possible during the de-load week.
Individual differences doesn’t mean that we all need completely different training with completely different approaches. It looks at how a specific program can be tailored, by using variation and fatigue management strategies, to best target each individual athlete.
To compensate for my differences;
- Variation mostly targeted finning techniques and positions: my personal weakness at the time.
- My fatigue management strategy was tailored around my tendency to reach overtraining after only 3 weeks of ‘hard’ training. I allowed for a minimum-overload week (RPE 7) on top of the de-load week.
- Cross training was built on my personal preferences and needs. I prefer barbell and kettlebell training over bodyweight exercises to work my muscles. I don’t struggle with muscle tightness or mobility issues, so I almost never stretch.
Another aspect of individual differences that I considered is experience level and performance level.
A deeper diver generates more fatigue per training dive that a shallower diver. They also take longer to peak up into “top shape” ready for their last deep dives. These chronological differences in career experience also play a role in deciding how a plan can be slightly adjusted for each diver.
- At the depths I’m diving to now, I can train with 1-2 days off between in-water sessions.
- When I was a shallower diver (training for 50-60) I could dive 2 days on, 1 day off.
This was because my training for 85+ generated more fatigue per session, than training for 50-60m did. This is just the nature of progressing as an athlete: Improvements become harder and more fatiguing to make.
Once my general plan was formulated based on the first 6 principles, I looked at my individual differences to make sure that I wouldn’t do anything that would compromise the effectiveness or quality of my training plan according to my specific needs.
My 85m Dive
On Tuesday July 7th, I achieved my goal of reaching 85m. I’m extremely pleased to say that I did the dive easily, confidently, and with the quality that I was striving to achieve.
All in all, the training cycle went amazingly. I finished without feeling tired, burnt-out, or overtrained. I made loads of corrections and improvements across the board. I essentially removed hypoxia from the picture. I also overcame my occasional struggle with trachea-squeeze in the mid-60s. This cycle, I had zero symptomatic or asymptomatic trachea squeezes.
One of the things I’m most proud of was my consistency during the peaking phase, after finishing my specific training up to 55m.
These were the peaking dives that I did;
- 3x71m (Pre-planned repetitions at around 80% of my goal to fine-tune my nervous system for 1-rep max, 3m less then my PB of 74m).
After building up to 5 new PBs and achieving my goal, I had no early turns during any PB attempt. Not once did a dive feel like it was too difficult or needed to be repeated before moving on.
For me, this consistency throughout the peaking phase was very strong evidence that my training plan and use of the principles was correct. I was fully prepared for 85m, and all I needed to do during peaking-training was ‘unlock’ that preparedness by just doing the depths between 55m and 85m.
In my opinion. The need for multiple repetitions of each new PB depth is a sign that the specific-training phase wasn’t done correctly. If you are trained specifically for your goal, there should be no need to mess around during peaking-training, and each new dive should be done with the best quality possible, on the 1st attempt. If not, and you’re repeating target depths that went poorly, you’re using peaking-training to do the job of specific-training, which isn’t optimal and increases your risk of injury, BO, or early turns.
85m Wasn’t the Limit
Upon reaching 85m I made the decision, partly intuitively, that I was going to stop my progress for this training cycle and leave 90m for another day. Here’s why.
85m was already going to be +11m on my PB this cycle. In freediving, at these depths, 11m is a lot. Considering all the work I put in to get rid of hypoxia, overcome squeeze, and to develop my confidence, I really wanted to end this training cycle on a high note.
I finished with a dive that I know I could do again tomorrow. I finished with a dive that had only positive sensations, air on the bottom to EQ with, and plenty of O2 in the tank at the surface.. I could have continued towards 90m in the coming days, but this depth just intuitively felt like the perfect place to stop, leaving my mind fresh and hungry for more on the next training cycle.
The 2nd reason was more tactical. I’m not playing the short-game of just setting a PB now. My next serious-goal in freediving is the +105m Canadian CWT NR. I believe that the fastest way to get there is to end each training cycle between now and then with the hunger to do more. After having 85m go so perfectly, I didn’t want to take the risk that 90m went badly, leaving me demotivated.
Right now, as I write this I’m already itching to start my next training cycle and I’m hungry for more depth. This is the perfect way to end a cycle, as this motivation will help me put in the time and the work for the next training cycle goal: 95m+. Yes, it’s taking everything I have not to just go and do 88 & 90 this week, but I want that hunger.
I want that motivation to put towards my next cycle. I want that motivation when I’m doing reps of shallow CWT, practicing my mouthfill, doing hard CO2 training, and when I’m squatting 100kg and running 5k in 35+ degrees dry desert heat to rebuild my strength and endurance. That hunger is going to fuel the training that gets me to 105+ sooner and safer than doing 90m tomorrow would.
Now it’s just onwards (downwards) into the next training cycle!!