Charlie Francis: The High/Low Method

 

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I have been coaching for over 15 years now.  I did not get into powerlifting until about 5 years ago.  The majority of my coaching career was coaching high school and college aged athletes.  Early on in my career I was introduced to Charlie Francis’ stuff.

 

His coaching information really resonated with me.  It was so simple, but so complex at the same time.  He understood that the athlete’s needed more than a program to reach the highest levels.  He learned how to do massage himself, he would go into their apartments and check their cabinets for food.

 

I remember reading one story where he did this and saw one of the sprinters only had boxes of cereal. Francis then went out and bought food for this athlete.  Francis knew how important nutrition was for recovery and performance.  He was a big proponent of regenerative methods too.  He knew sleep was important and massage was a huge part of his recovery methods.

 

He had access to the Eastern Bloc coaches that others did not have access to at this time.  I am not even sure where that connection came from.  Francis was a national level sprinter and coached some of the best sprinters on the planet at this time.  The most famous/infamous one being Ben Johnson.

 

The things that I really liked about Francis were, for one, his focus on fundamentals.  Technique mattered and it was practiced frequently.  Francis also had a focus on the quality of repetitions over the quantity of repetitions.

 

He would very often watch a sprinter hit a high performance run in training and end the sprinter’s training there.  His reasoning would be that the sprinter had an exceptional individual performance and they were very unlikely to repeat that effort again.  He had a mantra of “Don’t be afraid to walk away.”

 

Performing at that high of a level is a very strong stimulus to the athlete.  Sometimes more is not better as the recovery cost becomes greater.  The sprinter was unlikely to improve upon that performance on that day and anymore could even result in an increased injury risk.

 

I have read in articles that he would also shut down training days when the athletes just did not look right.  He was very good at walking that line of training hard, but also recovering just as hard.

 

In an article written by Derek Hanen, who worked closely with Francis, he explains how Francis was able to create training to fit circumstances.  In Canada it is cold, and they are forced indoors for a chunk of the year.  During this time his sprinters would work on their acceleration.  This is the short in the short to long sprint training he is famous for.  In this same article the author explains that he has seen Francis use long to short with some individuals because it worked better for them.  He was always willing to find what works for each athlete.

 

I haven’t thought about Charlie Francis in years.  Once I got into powerlifting, I was constantly looking at powerlifting specific stuff.  I heard his name mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and a light bulb went off.  I am literally applying a similar model with my lifters.

 

We start the week with high intensity singles and lighter rep work is performed later in the week to work on technique and allow recovery. I want these days to register lower than an RPE 8.   If an athlete seems like they need more recovery, we replace the max effort work with sets and reps.

 

Francis would avoid the middle zones of intensity as they do not really make you faster and they come with a higher recovery cost than what they are worth.  This is why he would send sprinters home instead of just lowering the intensity for the day.  I choose to lower the intensity instead on these days.

 

If a lifter’s schedule leads to them needing to cram a day 4 later in the week, they are instructed to just skip that day.  That is our walking away.  Just because it is on the paper doesn’t mean we follow it blindly.  I want the lifter recovered enough to hit those high intensity days.

 

If they are struggling to find time to get a training day in it most likely means they have increased stress outside of the gym.  This means less stress in the gym is probably most important.

 

I feel the middle ranges in powerlifting have a place, but not as the most important part of training.  The majority of programs out there focus primarily on the middle zones.  Coaches just throw a ton of volume in there to get enough of a stimulus to drive adaptation.

 

This often leads to lifters feeling rundown or getting injured.  In my experiences the lifter does not develop the confidence under heavier weights to truly exceed in this sport.  You can’t develop explosiveness and strength for 100% efforts while only training at 75%.

 

People get stronger while utilizing those middle intensities, so I am not ready to throw them out completely.  It is why I utilize them in place of max effort lifts.  On these days I view them as the next best thing.  They are heavy enough weights to generate adequate force to help the lifter get better.  This is as long as they are putting their max effort into each repetition.  With that said, the middle zones make up a very miniscule amount of our actual volumes.

 

What is pretty crazy is, even though I have not thought about Charlie Francis in years, what I learned from his stuff had stuck with me and I ended up finding myself using a similar approach as I did when I was a younger coach of field and court athletes.  The information I learned definitely stuck with me.

 

Francis wanted attempts on the high intensity days to be 95-100% of the sprinter’s capabilities.  He used very few exercises to achieve this as well.  This is where powerlifting differs from sprinting in my opinion.

 

Effort is effort.  From a neuromuscular perspective, as long as the athlete is attempting to produce the greatest force necessary, they will develop the ability to produce maximal force.  Changing angles within the lifts can help build up weaknesses as well.  If our weaker angles get stronger, typically our stronger angles get stronger.  While still changing angles we are still squatting, benching, and deadlifting.  Can’t really do that with sprinting.

 

I think the efforts of the Francis system is what really piques my interest.  It is definitely inline with what I have seen in the gym.  I am going to go back through and reread those books that I read over 10 years ago and see how my newfound perspectives can make sense of the information now.

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