Posted January 26, 2020

“How Often Should I Do This?” How to Answer The Homework Question

Every client I train gets some form of homework to do on their own outside of our sessions, especially if we’re training only once a week or less. There’s a lot of hours in the week I’m not pointing to things and telling them how many times to move it or when their rest periods are over, so in order to get the results they’re looking for there needs to be some stuff they do without me gracing their presence.

The type of homework, volume of work to do, frequency of how often to do it, and goal outcomes of doing that homework is going to vary from person to person in relation to what they’re trying to do. If they’re recovering from surgery and have joint fibrosis, their homework will look a lot different from someone who is trying to get in more steps throughout the day, and very different from someone who is trying to get under a very heavy bar to move ungodly amounts of weight, so in todays post I wanted to break down some of the big key concepts in what the different types of homework drills I might give a client would be, what they’re trying to do, how often to do them, and what kind of loading they may need to make them most effective. It’s audacious for a single blog post, but that’s how I roll.


Types of Homework Drills

Most of the work I get clients to do will fall into a couple of broad categories:

  1. Structural adaptation, general mobility
  2. Caloric Expenditure
  3. Bracing, reactive tension
  4. Motor Control, Stabilization

Each of these have very different outcomes. For instance, structural adaptation leans towards improving joint mechanics, decreasing ligamental or capsular stiffness, or otherwise affecting the foundational components of movement, whereas something like caloric expenditure is just getting in time with an elevated heart rate, or training in specific work outputs or heart rates for set amounts of time.

It’s possible to work on multiple types of homework within a single client and goal set depending on what they’re training for, and the total amounts of each can vary too, which makes it always a challenge to outline exact amounts of each thing to give someone. It’s like saying “how many bananas should I eat in a week?”

So while this post won’t give specifics like “complete 20 sets of band pull aparts each week or your shoulders will spontaneously implode,” it’s going to give the basic outlines of what each approach is trying to do, timelines it takes to see results, plus or minus based on some individual differences and schedule availability, and a few drills of each that you can play with for yourself.

So let’s dive right into it.

Structural Adaptation and General Mobility

In order to produce long-term changes to joint shape, ligamental tension, or capsular mobility, it can take a lot of reps over a very long period of time, and as the individual ages it takes even longer. A 60 year old client trying to gain ankle mobility is a considerably taller challenge than a 14 year old doing the same thing because of alterations in collagen concentrations and types, thickening of cancellous bone and reduction of elastin content within connective tissues as we age. You can still see progress, but it’s slower and takes way more effort for the older clients.

Following injuries to something like an ACL, it can take a full year to get the tissues to knit together effectively to regain strength and power through the knee. Similarly with sprains, meniscal damage, etc, so it can be a long time to see ligamental and joint adaptations to force and strain. That’s not saying your homework is like rehabbing an ACL, it’s just giving you a relative timeline of how long things may take to see tangible improvements in structural adaptations.

For most homework that’s trying to alter structure, there’s not really a limit to how much you can do, and doing more is always the best option. Quit your job, and just do those drills, and you might still have a ways to go. As I talked about HERE, some forms of static stretching are done for more than half of the day, every day, for weeks on end, so 5 minutes of stretching won’t get you where you want to go, especially if it’s only done once the day before our next session. I see you.

These are drills that can be done daily, with little to no system stress, and as often as possible. Static holds, basic mobility drills like CARs, basic movements and patterns all fall into this category. It’s probably going to be all you’ll be able to do for the next 3-6 months, and then if you’ve made significant progress we can step back to just most of the time versus all the time for the next 3-6 months until you get to the place where you’re able to get all the benefits from the work you’ve done.

Here’s a few examples of daily work for different considerations, with no context or explanation of how or why they’d be given because I like a little mystery in my life.


Caloric Expenditure

This comes in for any clients looking to increase their physical activity, train for cardiac health improvements, increase work capacity or train for specific endurance activity performance, but can still be something everyone gets into at some point or another.

For my clients who have trouble getting in any level of physical activity or scheduling time for themselves, I set a basic outline of 20 minutes a day of something. Anything at all. Just try to carve out 20 minutes to do it, and then work up from there as they have the ability to add. Once they’re consistent with some form of daily activity, we can bump into dedicated cardio training sessions where we track metrics like distance covered, time, work output (watts or speed/incline on a treadmill), heart rate specific training zones, etc.

If they’re training for a specific endurance activity, I’m less concerned about their caloric expenditure and moreso about their performance and volume management, plus making sure they don’t work themselves into the ground and have adequate recovery time.

The biggest challenge with cardio recommendations are just meeting people where they’re at in terms of what they can do, access, and have availability to complete in terms of schedules, etc. Some of my clients have full bike and computerized trainer set ups, heart rate monitors, and 15-20 hours a week of dedicated training time. Others have zero training time carved out, work and kid requirements, and no equipment in their house or condo, and may have difficulty walking outside when it’s -30 and snowy in the winters or finding time to get to and from a gym. It’s still important to do, and to find ways for success where possible, so getting the homework to them in a way that’s meaningful, doable, and manageable with their lifestyle and training status makes a big difference in the results they see, especially if it’s something they can actually do with a high degree of consistency.


Bracing & Reactive Tension

A client wanting to get stronger, or recover from injury, improve core strength, whatever they may be after, would benefit a lot from drills focused on getting automatic with bracing and resisting movement, or channelling movement into only specific joints like the hips and shoulders versus the spine. Because these drills typically have a higher threshold of activity within the muscles and nerves, they aren’t an all the time thing, but could easily be done once or twice a day without much issue.

Just like a fine motor skill in a sport, like shooting a basketball or throwing a football, these are skills that need to be rehearsed regularly to get the biggest benefits from them, so even when they’re done perfectly, the goal is to always do them perfectly, not just the one time.

These can also be used for higher threshold mobility drills, like contractions in end ranges of motion (PAILs and RAILs in FRC speak), in order to push mobility further than the structural long holds done earlier. In this instance, these drills are done with a near max or at least higher than comfortable level of effort. The total time in these may be 5-10 minutes a day, or between 10-50 reps, or breath cycles depending on whether it’s done as a static hold or for concentric/eccentric motion.

Here’s a few fun ways to work these drills.


Motor Control/Stabilization

These drills work really well to learn skills that will be useful for the goals the client may have coming up. Essentially, if someone wants to be awesome at squatting, some of their homework should be stuff that helps get them into better positions for squats. These can also be used as sort of a hybrid of the other homework considerations, but a big key to these is how they relate to neuromuscular control, learning complex skills in pieces easier to complete, and positional stability or task completion. Whereas bracing is about preventing movement from some joints, this is about completing movement with the desired joints, or maintaining positioning during movement.

Again the relative stress here is a bit higher, so the volume and frequency can be reduced. Typically every day, or at the very least once or twice a week would suffice for most people.  The total volume would be anywhere from 10-50 reps depending on how much time they have to do these, recovery, and training status, plus how likely they will be to complete the work. Something simple is easier to get into than something daunting.

Here’s a few fun drills for motor control and stabilization.


To review some of the big keys from this post:

  1. structural adaptations – daily/all the time, as many reps or time as possible, low threshold easy to work in. Ideally multiple hours per week
  2. Caloric expenditure – build up time with activities they have access to, then work into specific workloads, heart rates and training zones. Goal is at least 20 minutes a day for most people, sport specific for athletes.
  3. Bracing/Reactive Tension – daily or at least a few times a week, 5-10 minutes minimum, or 10-50 reps, depending on training history and relative intensity
  4. Motor Control/Stabilization – minimum 1-2 times a week, 10-50 reps per movement, depending on training history and relative intensity

This post isn’t even talking about the actual training program an individual may be going through in a gym setting or as part of their athletic preparation, it’s just the homework. When we add the stress and time of the training on top of this, it can add up pretty quickly.

Because of this, there has to be a determination made as to where the big rocks of the individuals program will lie and what to spend the most time focusing on, and what can take a back seat. A client who comes in once a week and doesn’t do any gym time outside of our session will get a lot of homework comparatively, whereas someone who shows up 4 times a week will get comparatively little as they have more time in their gym sessions to accomplish their training and push for their goals.

An early stage rehab program may likely involve nothing but structural adaptation drills, and progress into motor control/stabilization drills, whereas a young powerlifter may only ever do motor control and bracing drills, walk past the cardio equipment, and do the occasional tissue work for recovery, so it’s always individual specific.

Hopefully this helps give some quick guidelines on how much and what types of homework to do when working on any general training goals. It’s tough to get every possible situation into a single post, but this 2000 word beaut should help give some directions.