**4/19/13 edit–I will be reviewing the workouts as I go through the program. Scroll to the bottom for links to the individual workouts (new links will be added when each review posts).
STS is a weight-lifting/strength program. That’s the short description. But it is so much more complex than that and in so many ways. The program itself is complex. The preparation to begin the program is complex. And the creation of personal rotation calendars is complex. This overview will cover all of that and I will try to do it in that order. But first I will reminisce on how I first heard about STS and decided to give it a go.
STS is my first knowledge of Cathe Friedrick. I have been working out with home videos/DVDs for over 20 years (I started with Tamilee Webb’s Buns of Steel series–on VHS!). At first it was on and off, but then about 10 years ago I discovered The Firm and it became a ritual—no less than 5 days a week, often every single day. My DVD collection and fitness equipment collection slowly grew so that when we bought our current house, I needed an entire workout room to house it all. Using the living room to work out was no longer adequate. I was getting serious about lifting weights (going heavy that is—the heaviest weight I owned at the time was 20 pound dumbbells which I only used for back and lower body work) about the same time STS came out (it came out in 2009–but Cathe always “forecasts” her new/upcoming series and programs, so there was information online about it in 2008, which was when I first read about it). I was looking at P90X and ChaLean Extreme, too. They won out over STS for 2 reasons—they were both cheaper programs and they both required much less equipment. If you’ve read my reviews of almost all of Cathe’s other workouts, they are equipment heavy and STS is no different. Though I had been accumulating equipment I still didn’t own nearly the amount of equipment that STS requires. One other thing factored in that I have mentioned before—I knew how advanced Cathe workouts were and I was an intermediate exerciser at the time. I had heard from other Firmies that when you want to take your workouts to a higher level, go to Cathe. So, thinking I was ready to advance, I bought her Bootcamp/Muscle Endurance combo DVD and a step cardio DVD (which I ended up selling so I can’t remember which one it was). They were HARD—the strength ones were too advanced for me and the choreography of the step cardio was too complex. So I bought ChaLean Extreme and P90X (and have done both several times) and lots of Insanity. I had also bought myself a set of SelectTechs so I could lift heavier than simply 20 pounds. With the help of Tony Horton, Chalene Johnson and Shaun T I became an advanced exerciser. I was also serious about strength training and HIIT workouts. Though I had sold Cathe’s step cardio workout I still had Bootcamp/Muscle Endurance. So I pulled them out to see how I measured up now. They were not nearly as hard as I remembered! They were, in fact, at my level! They gave me excellent workouts. So the hoarding of Cathe workouts began. The more Cathe workouts I bought, the more equipment I also acquired so that I could get the best possible workout. The pinnacle was my Christmas gift this past year—a bench and squat rack. I was finally ready for STS.
STS Program Overview
STS is a strength training program that consists of 3 “mesocycles.” A mesocycle is a block of training designed to accomplish a specific goal. STS was created to be done as a 3 month, 5 month or 6 month program. It can be purchased in various ways: as 40 DVDs + users guide (all 3 mesocycles plus the lower body squat rack workouts in meso #3), as 36 DVDs + users guide (all 3 mesocycles minus the lower body squat rack workouts in meso #3), or each mesocycle (Meso #1, Meso #2, Meso #3) individually (each mesocycle is made up of 12 workouts). You can purchase the meso #3 lower body squat rack workouts separately and the user’s guide separately. There’s more! STS Ab Circuits DVD which contains 7 core workouts. And last, STS Total Body which has already been reviewed on this blog and is not included in any of the mesocycles. It’s actually separate from the program. It’s something she came out with after STS for people who wanted an STS level total body workout (and btw—I adore STS Total Body and it was another thing that prompted me to finally purchase the full STS program).
STS stands for Shock Training System. There are two ways you can view more information about STS; using the links above, or this very cool website Cathe created solely for the STS program. STS is a split series workout program, meaning you will be doing 3 strength training workouts a week, each working different muscle groups so that each muscle group is worked once per week. If you do the 3 month rotation you never repeat a strength workout. If you do the 6 month program you do each strength workout twice.
STS consists of 3 mesocycles, each done for 4-8 weeks (depending which the rotation you choose). Mesocycle #1 is muscle endurance in which you lift weights 60-70% of your 1RM (one rep max—more on that in a moment). Rep range is 15. Mesocycle #2 is hypertrophy (building muscle and definition). You lift weights 70-80% of your 1RM. Rep range is 8-12. Mesocycle #3 is strength. You lift weights 80-90% of your 1RM and your reps are 6-8.
STS is based on 4 training principles: periodization, muscle confusion, one rep max and progressive overload. Periodization is the organization of the workouts to get the best results. Muscle confusion is constantly changing your workouts to always keep your muscles guessing (that is why there are 36-40 different workouts—you are constantly doing something new). One Rep Max (1RM) is the maximum amount you can lift for any one exercise (more on this under the “prep” section). Progressive Overload is the gradual increase of intensity over a period of time. All of this combines to create something pretty spectacular by the end of the program: increased strength. In fact, that is the point of the 1RM—by the end you will be lifting 90% of your 1RM at day 1; but because during mesocycle #3 you will be lifting it for 6-8 reps, it will no longer be 90%; your strength will have increased and your new 1RM will be much more.
After you finish each mesocycle you will have an active recovery week. As Cathe puts it—you’re taking a break, not a vacation. So you continue to exercise, but you need to give your muscles a break from strength training. That means cardio, yoga/stretch, metabolic weight training, and even high rep strength workouts if you choose—but no heavy lifting.
Another excellent users guide. This one is very comprehensive, but in a different way than other users manuals. You get the usual breakdown of the program and rotation calendar. You also get a breakdown of every workout! Well—not every. You get a break down of the 40 workouts. No Ab Circuits workout breakdowns. Still, that is pretty significant. At the end is a 1RM chart that lists every exercise that “requires” a 1RM test. Each exercise is assigned a star rating ranging from 1 to 5 stars; 5 stars meaning 1RM is very important and 1 star meaning 1RM negligible.
Prepping for the program
There is a lot of prep work that goes into getting ready to start this program. To begin with, you need to be sure you have all of the equipment. Dumbbells, barbell/plates, step with 5 risers, slide n glide disks (or paper plates), dynaband and stability ball. You need either a pull up bar or heavy resistance tubing that connects to a doorway (or somewhere where it can be secured above your head). Other optional equipment is a bench, a squat rack/bench press and weighted vest and gloves.
Next, you need to do your 1RM testing. This a very time-consuming process. There are 95 exercises you can 1RM test. They are listed in the user’s manual with stars ranging from 1 to 5 stars; 5 stars meaning 1RM is very important and 1 star meaning 1RM is negligible. For me, this corresponded into the exercises with 1RM of 4 and 5 stars being essential (44 exercise) and 3 stars being very important (21 exercises). 1 and 2 star exercises I will just use my best judgment when doing the workout. More on this in a moment.
The tools Cathe gives you to do your 1RM testing do simplify it, but at the same time, continue to make the process complex. On her website at the right hand top of the screen, you will see a black tab for Workout Manager. This is a free program with all kinds of neat things in it. One of those things is a 1RM testing calculator. You can do 1RM for all kinds of things, but most importantly for STS exercises. In fact, when you choose STS (from drop down tab) and the exercise you want to do 1RM for, you even get a little video so you can be certain you are doing the exact exercise you need to be doing to get the proper results. Say you are doing 1RM for standing bicep curls with dumbbells. Go as heavy as you think you can lift to do approx. 10 reps with good form and lift to failure—until form fails, that is! Only count reps done with good form. Then you input the weight and how many reps you did into the little calculator. It calculates your 1RM and this translates to “workout cards.” The workout cards are vital for getting the optimal results from STS. For example, before doing Workout #1, you print out the workout card. It will tell you the weight you need to use for every exercise in Workout #1. The weights listed are all derived from your 1RM testing. So in order to get the “progressive overload” this program delivers, you have to do it properly and that includes doing 1RM testing.
Because of the great users guide and the online workout manager, you can preview every exercise you will be doing. This made it easy for me to realize that most of the 1 and 2 star exercises didn’t need 1RM testing done. Quite a few are familiar from other Cathe workouts and are not the kind of exercises you lift heavy on anyway. For example, one leg deadlifts. Xtrain uses one leg deadlifts in several of the workouts and I use a different weight in each workout. It depends on a lot of things—how many reps are being done, the work that came before that exercise (how fatigued your muscles are) and whether it is a strength or metabolic weight training workout. Obviously STS workouts are strength workouts, so I would be going to the heavier end of the spectrum, but still—a lot depends on what comes before that exercise. This also applies to all of the exercises. After doing a bunch of my 1RM testing I took a look at some of the workout cards and was surprised and a little worried. It seems, according to STS, that I can lift heavier than I think I can. That is probably true, but I also wonder if that still applies in the middle of a workout (or at the end!) when I have already fatigued the muscle groups—will I still be able to lift that 1RM? I am assuming the workouts are structured with muscle fatigue in mind, but as I haven’t done a workout yet, I don’t know. This also leads to the decision of what type of rotation you want to do.
The workout manager has a calendar that you can track your workouts in. You can input any Cathe workout you want (including premixes!) into the calendar. Also, when Cathe creates a rotation, it shows up there as well. You choose the rotation you want and it automatically inputs the rotation into your calendar. There is a whole STS tab in the workout manager and it lists 4 different rotations: two 3.5 month rotations, one that uses the squat rack lower body workouts and one that doesn’t, and two 6.5 month rotations, one that uses the squat rack lower body workouts and one that doesn’t. There is also a “rotation” tab that has tons of rotations created by Cathe and other forum members. Cathe has even more STS rotations if you browse—but more on that in the next section.
As mentioned previously, the difference between the 3 month and the 6 month rotation is how many times you do each workout. For the 3 month rotation you do each workout once, for the 6 month rotation you do each workout twice. To break it down further, for both rotations, in week #1, you do workouts 1, 2 & 3. For the 3 month rotation, in week #2 you move on to workouts 4, 5 & 6; but for the 6 month rotation you repeat week #1 and do workouts 1, 2 & 3 again. Week #3 you move on to workouts 4, 5 & 6 (and then repeat week #3). I like this idea for several reasons. #1, Cathe prefers it! She actually created STS to be a 6 month program, but then assumed that most exercisers would be daunted by something that long and condensed it to 3 months. #2, you get some familiarity and the ability to tweak your 1RM. What if 1RM test just wasn’t right? Then fix it the next week. BTW—here are Cathe’s thoughts (scroll to the bottom) on doing 3 vs. 6 month rotation. She also talks about doing a 5 month rotation, which is what I have decided to do. There is a lot of fluctuation in the first 2 mesocycles, which is why she prefers you to be in them longer; however, she states that mesocycle 3 is more straight forward so there isn’t as much benefit in repeating it. On top of that, I am really pushing it to the limit in mesoccyle 3—more than she recommends, actually. For meso 3, you have the choice of plyo legs or squat rack legs. If you want to do both, she has actually recommended doing meso 3 twice—once with plyo legs and once with squat rack legs. Well, when Xtrain came out many people were comparing plyo legs to Cardio Leg Blast—which I ADORE; one of my all time favorite lower body workouts. However, I also got a squat rack for Christmas which I have every intention of using. Cathe’s Xtrain rotations have you working your lower body twice most weeks. She also has other lower body rotations that hit the lower body more than once a week, so I know it’s not a problem to do it. So for me, in month 5 meso 3 I will be doing both plyo legs and squat rack legs each week—another reason why one month of meso 3 will be sufficient for me!
Creating a rotation
As you can see, STS appears to be a pretty complex program. Part of your rotation is laid out clearly for you: your strength workouts. It is up to you to supplement with cardio workouts. About a year after STS came out Cathe released a series of cardio workouts called Shock Cardio and they were created to supplement STS. She has an official rotation in Workout Manager under the rotations tab. Select it and it will be created for you in the calendar. Or, have a look at it right here. She posted it on her forums and it has been “stickied” so it is always at the top. Though it is a great rotation, it is not exactly what I am looking for. Though I do love the workouts in the Shock Cardio Series, their intensity varies. I want consistent high intensity. Plus, there are so many other things that need to be crammed into a week—without overtraining! In addition to the STS strength workouts, I wanted to do a minimum of 3 cardio workouts. I also want to do one full body strength workout (so each muscle group gets worked twice a week), at least one of the Ab Circuits workouts, at least one HIIT workout and the STS extended stretch (I haven’t mentioned that yet, have I? More on that in a sec) done at least once. In addition, I would like to work my core/abs at least 2x a week. Oh—and I want to take a rest day. That is a lot to cram into a week!
At this point I have planned out my first 9 weeks—that is 8 weeks of STS + the active recovery week. I’ll give you an example of week #1:
Monday: STS Disk #1 Chest, Shoulders and Biceps
Tuesday: HIIT #1 + Ab Circuits Yoga Abs
Wednesday: STS Disk #3 Legs
Thursday: STS Disk #2 Back and Triceps
Friday: Cardio Core Circuit (cardio + core)
Saturday: Body Max #1 (cardio + full body strength + core)
Sunday: STS Extended Stretch
This week manages to cram everything I require into one week—and in fact work my core 3x. I hesitate to post my entire 9 week rotation because rotations are fluid. Things change. I have decided to post Mesocycle updates. When I complete a mesocycle, I will post about it and lay out my rotation for that previous 9 weeks. But for now, that is an example of how I am structuring my weeks. How will I post the workout reviews? I’m still not sure about that. 12 workouts in one post seems rather excessive. But maybe I will post them bi-weekly—then it will be 3 workouts in a post. Still debating.
I have actually started taking a rest day each week—Sundays. Which leads me to STS Extended Stretch. It is a 15 minute stretch that is a combination of yoga, pilates and athletic based stretches. The description of the extended stretch states that it is included at the end of every STS workout—but it is not. It is included on every workout DVD, but not as part of the workout. This disappointed me. I like a good stretch after a hard workout and many of these workouts are over an hour long. I only have an hour to work out in the morning. I can push it to 70 minutes (none of the STS workouts are that long, but a few are as long as 68 minutes), but an hour workout + a 15 minute stretch? I can’t fit that in and get adequate sleep. So I will do it on my rest day. A 15 minute stretch on my rest day is no big deal.
So that is the STS Overview and Prep. I start STS April 1—and finish my Xtrain rotation on March 31. So I may write a final Xtrain post between now and then.