What the Heck is Cybernetic Training?

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When it comes to writing programs, and thus, preparing our athletes and clients for competion and/or everyday life, it’s not surprising to find out that many coaches and personal trainers often follow a set “scheme” or “system” to do so.

Some prefer to use more of a linear periodization approach where volume and intensity are closely monitored and specific “qualities” are blocked off in 2-8 week increments.  So, for example, when dealing with beginners, some coaches may elect to use an Accumulation Phase where intensity (as it relates to 1RM) is kept fairly low and the emphasis is more on technique and preparing the trainee for future (more intense) phases.

Likewise, as you can imagine, there are a million and one other periodization formats that can be utilized to get people from point A to point B.  Or, as Dave Tate prefers to say, take people from “shit” to “suck.”

Undulated Periodization

“Westside” Periodization

Russian Periodization

Concurrent Periodization

………And the list could go on forever; but honestly, I don’t want to bore you to tears, and there’s really only one system that I wanted to talk about exclusively today anyway.

Which is, of course, Cybernetic Training

Outside of sounding like something from one of those old 1980s Transformers cartoons (which were AWESOME by the way), cybernetic training actually gained popularity from Mel Siff when he first talked about this approach in his unparalled book, Supertraining.

Basically, in no uncertain terms (read:  this is my attempt at paraphrasing Mel Siff, this should be interesting), you can’t train like a rockstar everyday.  Kids are up sick all night, tests, boss keeps you late at work, traffic jams, girlfriend woes, tweaked shoulders, car won’t start, explosive diarrhea, you name it – life gets in the way.

When life happens, and you otherwise feel like you got run over by a mack truck, what good is it to head to the gym only to push through it?  Sometimes, rather than follow your program to a “t,” it’s more advantageous to just tone it down a bit, do some tweaking (that day), get in, get your work done, and get the hell out.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an athlete walk into the facility looking like death, only to feel defeated right off the bat knowing that the squat rack is staring right at him.  As admirable as it is that he still may want to plow through and do the squats anyways, what’s the likelihood that he’ll reap any benefits what-so-ever?

More often than not, he’s just going to walk away frustrated and/or injured.

Instead, in this scenario, I might just go a head and have him perform a couple sets of glute ham raises, maybe some light Prowler pushes as well, follow that up with a few sets hip thrusters and Pallof Presses, throw in a Goose and Maverick high five, and call it a day.

Here, while we didn’t follow tha actual plan as written, we still did some work, got some semblance of a training effect, and didn’t run this athlete into the ground.

We programmed on the fly and still made his session worthwhile.

Conversely, we can look at the opposite end of the spectrum, too.  Using a cybernetic approach isn’t just about holding back when someone feels like poop.  Just last week actually, during his deadlifts, I had a client who was feeling like Superman.  While his program called for 4×3, he was just smoking his weight, so we decided to go for broke and attempt a PR (personal record).  In the end, he beat his previous best pull by 20 lbs.  And it wasn’t even planned!

Don’t get me wrong, I write every program with a set goal in mind, and I try my best to plan a head – I’d be remiss to do otherwise.  But rarely, if ever, is a program followed 100% all the way through without some “tweaking” involved.

I’m good, but I’m not that good.

While I feel it’s VERY important to have a preferred system in place – whatever you choose to use – when it comes to programming for your clients, don’t be afraid to embrace a more cybernetic/freestyle approach from time to time.  You’re not Nostradamus, right?



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Comments for This Entry

  • R Smith

    Tony, I'm so glad you covered this. I kinda backed into "discovering" cybernetic periodization. I noticed that some months my weights consistently went up, and then others I could not get, say, my squat numbers to budge. At first I tried to push through, then realized they still would not budge. Upon reflection, I noticed that both sleep and eating were WAY off. Weirdly, I felt fine. At the other end of the spectrum, there have been days that I walk into the gym in a blah mood...then end up setting a PR. What I've surmised it the blah mood is more psychological while the other scenario is likely related to CNS fatigue. Either way, it's made me adopt the philosophy of "I don't care how I feel; It's what my body tells me once I start training that matters." This way, I never fall into the trap of "I don't feel like training. RS

    August 29, 2011 at 11:24 am | Reply to this comment

  • Yeeah

    "Train systematically, but also symptomatically" - Wise Man

    September 3, 2011 at 12:20 am | Reply to this comment

  • Steve Foulds

    I remember reading a similar themed article on T-Nation about a year ago, but Im pretty sure it wasnt called cybernetic training though... or can recall who wrote it. Maybe Tate or Wendler. (let the searching begin!) I had a similar experience last week, one of guys was heading towards the end of an 8 week block & was just ON. We ended up with 3 PRs of 10lbs+. Week later he tweaked his back helping on a farm & we just had to turn it into a deload week.

    September 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Smitty

    I typically call it "auto-regulation", but it is on point. Your program should flow around how the athlete is feeling for that day, not just plowing through what is written on the paper.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Troy

    Cybernetic - or just adapting to life. Either way I think it is key to making fitness a lifelong endeavor. I've seen too many people push hard, only to give up and go back to the couch.

    September 7, 2011 at 6:48 am | Reply to this comment

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