The Five Elements
A New Training Paradigm
by Charles Poliquin
Famed Olympic Coach Anatoly Bondarchuk believed that there were three types of athletes: one who responded best to volume, one who responded best to intensity, and one who responded to training variety.
It was a lesson that served me well for many years, but then I started to realize that perhaps the classifications were too limiting. For instance, I would give a high-volume program to one athlete and he would make excellent progress, but if I gave the same program to another athlete, he made almost no progress. Likewise, when I gave that same athlete an intensity program, he crashed almost immediately.
About the same time, I was studying Eastern medicine and herbology, and it suddenly occurred to me that these variations in training types correlate strongly with the five physical types described in Chinese medicine. These "elements," as they are known, are used to categorize distinct physical types who manifest very distinct personality traits.
The elements are Fire, Wood, Earth, Metal, and the fifth element, despite what you might have learned in the Bruce Willis movie of the same name, is not an orange-haired fashion model in Spandex; it is Water.
Amazingly, each of these ancient classifications predicts quite accurately how different strength athletes respond to different types of training. It also predicts quite accurately their personalities and even their weaknesses.
For years I have listened to people disparage this type of training or that type of training, saying that whatever they were doing did not work for them. Some said that the Westside style is no good, or that German Volume Training did not work for them. The simple truth is that they were likely doing the wrong type of training for their type, or element!
For instance, Fire types are the most gifted as far as weight training. They tend to do a high volume of high intensity work. I know, I know, a high volume of high intensity work would seem paradoxical to Mike Mentzer and H.I.T. types, but it is possible for Fire types. They can train heavy all the time without crashing—as long as you change the exercises. They have such a high concentration of high-twitch fibers that will become winded playing Nintendo.
Conversely, Earth types can stay on a set program for a long time. You have to first stress them with volume, and then stress them with intensity. Each phase is about 3 weeks. When they overtrain, their immune system will suffer and they’ll come down with a cold. They are also the ones that have the most trouble reducing carbohydrates in their diet, and it is much harder for them to get lean.
As far as the Fire, Wood and Earth types, none are necessarily disadvantaged when it comes to bodybuilding or strength sports, but it is important for them to train for their type. Obviously, pure types are not that common and most people fall somewhere in-between the five points of the continuum:
FIRE > WOOD > EARTH > METAL > WATER
You may have noticed that I have not paid much attention to the metal or water types. They are, unfortunately, guys who generally will never make much progress. They have bad nervous systems, the wrong muscle fibers, and poor endocrine systems. Usually, though, these guys end up being attracted to non-weightlifting activities like yoga, or stamp collecting.
Following are more complete descriptions of each of the types, including recommended training protocols. Afterwards, I will suggest ways you can determine your type.
THE FIRE TYPE
Fire types typically make the best strength/power athletes. They gravitate towards powerlifting, shot-put, hammer throwing, discus, sprinting, long jump and the triple jump.
Excitement is his middle name and they usually have a great deal of enthusiasm. They are the type that inspire people in the gym; the natural born salesman.
They are the most Yang of the elements, hence willpower, confidence and excitement describe them. They are the ones who will explode if they get angry. They are also genetically predisposed to heart disease.
Louie Simmons and shotputter Adam Nelson are the poster boys for the Fire type.
Louie Simmons is the prototypical Fire type.
The Fire type needs both high intensity and higher volume in terms of sets than the other elements. In other words, he would thrive on workouts that consisted of 10-12 sets of 1-3 R.M. What’s more, their work capacity curve is phenomenal in that they can do 10-12 sets with a given weight with very little drop-off in performance.
Any sets above 8 reps are a waste of time.
The amazing thing about Fire types is that you can beat them into the ground, as long as you change the program often. If a Fire type does workout X, he will need to switch to workout Y after five days because he will already have adapted.
Since they have a great capacity for training, variety in the program is essential to them. It is better to change the choice and order of exercise and the mode of contractions. Volume and intensities do not need to vary as much.
An ideal workout for a fire type would include perhaps two lifts a day consisting of 10-12 sets of 1-3. He could superset two antagonistic body parts, for example bench and chins, and then perhaps do some remedial work at the end. He could easily do relative strength work followed by hypertrophy training in the same workout.
They could easily train twice a day, six days a week, as long as they changed the exercises.
Sample Fire Type Periodization for a Single Body Part:
Day 1: Workout X
Day 6: Workout Y
Day 11: Workout X
Day 16: Workout Y
Day 21: Workout X
Day 26: Workout Y
Day 31: Workout X
Day 36: Workout Y
Day 41: Workout T*
Day 46: Workout U*
*Workouts "T" and "U" might consist of a slightly higher volume and less intensity, e.g. 4-5 sets of 4-7 R.M.
How to Determine a Fire Type
A Fire type will invariably ask, "Are you sure this is enough work for me?" If he performed a German Volume Training program [essentially, 10 sets of 10 using the same weight], he would do fine on the first two sets of ten, but crash on the third. If you gave a Fire type an Earth type workout, his blood sugar would drop alarmingly. An alternate test would involve testing his max, letting him rest 10 minutes and then giving them 85% of max. Typically, he will only be able to pump out 1-3 reps.
THE WOOD TYPE
Chinese doctors best describe Wood types as pioneers. They are very good at devising plans and sticking to them. They love challenging themselves and pushing themselves to the limit. They bust their balls on every set.
They are bold and decisive and they have a tendency to overdo things. That is why you have to plan recovery phases within the cycle. In other words, you have to hold them back every third workout.
Wood types are the most likely to abuse stimulants and sedatives. One might pop 3 Spike capsules before a workout and eat a Valium sandwich before going to bed. They are most likely to complain of tendon injuries and they are genetically predisposed to liver problems.
Chris Hetherington of the Oakland Raiders exemplifies the wood type.
Wood Types can tend to overtrain very easily when volume is excessive. Likewise, they can only handle the same routine for roughly two weeks.
Typically, for days 1-15 of a program, they would thrive doing rep ranges of 6-10, but you would need to drop the number of sets by about 40% every third workout.
Furthermore, they need to maintain a one-to-one ratio between volume and intensity. That means that they would do best on a 2-week cycle employing high volume, followed by a 2-week cycle using increased intensity.
They would use rep brackets of 2-5 for days 16-30, making sure to drop the number of sets by about 60% every third workout.
Sample Wood Type Periodization for a Single Body Part:
Workout 1: 10 sets of 8 per bodypart
Workout 2: 8 sets of 7 per bodypart
Workout 3: 6 sets of 6 per bodypart
Workout 4: 10 sets of 8 per bodypart
Workout 5: 8 sets of 7 per bodypart
Workout 6: 6 sets of 6 per bodypart
*** change to higher intensity***
Workout 7: 12 sets of 4-5 per bodypart
Workout 8: 10 sets of 3-4 per bodypart
Workout 9: 6 sets of 2-3 per bodypart
Workout 10: 10 sets of 4-5 per bodypart
Workout 11: 8 sets of 3-4 per bodypart
Workout 12: 4 sets of 2-3 per bodypart
How to Determine a Wood Type
A Wood type will invariably ask, "Are you sure this is the most cutting edge methodology you’ve got?" If he performed a German Volume Training program [essentially, 10 sets of 10 using the same weight], he would complete the first workout, start to peter out on the second, and then only manage 4 sets of 10 on the third workout and go home. An alternate test would involve testing his max, letting him rest 10 minutes and then giving them 85% of max. Typically, he’ll only be able to pump out 4-5 reps.
THE EARTH TYPE
In Chinese medicine, the Earth types are in the middle of the elements. Therefore, serenity and stability are big issues with them. They are well-grounded individuals, as the name would suggest.
As such, they like identical blocks of training and they don’t need variations within the macrocycle. They can stay on a set program for a long time (6 weeks), but you have to stress them with volume for the first 3 weeks, followed by 3 weeks of intensity.
While they don’t have the ability to tap into a lot of high-threshold muscle fibers, i.e. they don’t do well with a lot of heavy training, they have a greater capacity to hypertrophy than the average person.
If you overtrain an Earth person, they’ll come down with a cold. They are generally very particular about the quality and quantity of their sleep. They are the ones who will piss and moan during a squat workout about missing an hour of sleep.
Of all the types, they have the hardest time getting lean because they have a problem with reducing carbohydrate intake.
Earth types often make good wrestlers or 400-800 meter runners. Prototypical Earth types include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Milos Sarcev.
Arnold best represents the Earth Type
Volume and intensity have to be balanced equally as they have as much Yin as Yang. They respond best to longer cycles, typically 3-weeks to a month. They don’t do very well on classical maximal strength programs, as they will burn out rapidly.
They would do well to do routines of 2-3 exercises per body part for the first month (volume or accumulation phase), with 3-4 sets per exercise and 9-15 reps.
The next month, they should do 2-3 exercises for 3-4 sets, but do sets of 5-8 reps (the intensification phase).
Sample Earth Type Periodization for a Single Body Part:
Day 1: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 done over 2-3 exercises
Day 6: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 done over 2-3 exercises
Day 11: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 done over 2-3 exercises
Day 16: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 done over 2-3 exercises
Day 21: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 done over 2-3 exercises
Day 26: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 done over 2-3 exercises
Day 31: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps, done over 2 exercises
Day 36: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps, done over 2 exercises
Day 41: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps, done over 2 exercises
Day 46: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps, done over 2 exercises
Day 51: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps, done over 2 exercises
Day 56: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps, done over 2 exercises
How to Determine an Earth Type
If a Wood Type performed a German Volume Training program [essentially, 10 sets of 10 using the same weight], he would do very well and still make progress after the third workout. If, however, he did 10 sets of 3, he would be completely baked after the fourth set. Likewise, if an Earth type performed the 1-6 method, he would burn out after only one workout. An alternate test would involve testing his max, letting him rest 10 minutes and then giving them 85% of max. Typically, he’ll be able to pump out 7-10 reps.
THE METAL TYPE
Metal types are the pain in the ass of the weight training World. They spend more time talking and philosophizing about training than doing it. Dogma is their middle name. They thrive on discussing discipline, structure and love to ponder over the definition of terms. They are the iconoclasts of the weight-training world. Most of their calorie expenditure comes from talking. I do not train them.
As strength athletes or bodybuilders, they are not genetically gifted.
Many of the pro H.I.T. guys fall into this category. They are always complaining about overtraining. As such, those that do train gravitate towards H.I.T. Mike Mentzer is the prototypical Metal type, but he is a statistical oddity. (Keep in mind that ergogens—stimulants, steroids, etc.—can mask a lifter’s true type and help him overcome the obstacles presented by his type.)
Mike Mentzer: a Metal type, but a statistical oddity.
THE WATER TYPE
The Water type is the most Ying of all the elements. They are the least physical or outward of the types. An accumulation phase for a Water type would consist of licking a dried prune10 times.
I do not deal with water types, either, and I usually direct them to the nearest Yoga studio. Their genetic pool needs a hefty dose of chlorine.
Luckily, most Metal and Water types don’t gravitate towards weight training.
The prototypical Water type.
Perhaps the best barometer of what type you are, or what blend of types you are, is whether you enjoy a particular type of training. Fire types can do 10 sets of the same exercise without losing focus, but the same routine would have an Earth type bored to tears.
Trainees should just ignore the way their hero trains and just be honest with themselves.
If you have not made any progress since the first Bush administration, then it is possible that you have not been training true to your type. The Chinese ask, "How can you expect to find ivory in a dog's mouth?" Likewise, how can you find success using programs that are not suitable for your physiology?
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