By Charles Staley Breaking Muscle
Note: Charles is here on a weekly basis to help you cut through the B.S. and get some real perspective regarding health and training. Please post feedback or questions to Charles directly in the comments below this article.
Longevity in Training
If you’ve been training a long time like I have, it becomes difficult to make further improvement. This is primarily because novelty is a key stimulus for continued adaptation, and if you’ve been training for decades, there’s not much your body hasn’t already experienced.
Think of it this way – if you’re brand new to the gym, any exercise you do is a new experience for your body. This new challenge you’re subjecting yourself to is viewed as a threat by your homeostatic systems. As a defensive response to this threat, your body makes itself bigger and stronger.
Use efficient fatigue management strategies.
If we now move perhaps five years down the road, your body has presumably experienced lots of threats in the form of exercises and training methods, and is presumably bigger and stronger as a result. The problem though, is that with each passing year of training, the challenges you’re subjecting yourself to aren’t really all that threatening anymore, and as you might guess, your body reacts less and less as time goes on. Four years ago, a 400lb squat might have sent your body into an absolute panic. Now however, it’s pretty much a big yawn. So you need to use bigger and bigger weights for smaller and smaller gains.
Get Stronger: The Only 3 Methods of Improvement
If you want to get stronger, there are really only three ways to improve:
- You can train for bigger muscles. All else being equal, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. This is best done with multiple sets of 8-12 reps, with careful attention to progressive overload from session to session.
- You can improve your nervous system’s ability to generate more force (skill) with your muscles. This is best achieved with high tension training methods – typically, weights that are so heavy that they won’t allow for more than perhaps five reps per set.
- You can better exploit the fitness/fatigue curve through quality programming to unmask hidden strength reserves that normally cannot express themselves.
For anyone seeking further progress, the key is to identify which of these three avenues has been least exploited thus far.
Factor in Fatigue Management
For me at least, until recently, programming was my least-exploited path to continued progress. There are a lot of facets to this concept, but one key consideration is the idea of fatigue management. In modern training theory, the process of adaptation is usually thought of as a three-factor mechanism. Those factors are fitness, fatigue, and preparedness.
“That’s why, right after a heavy workout, you’re potentially stronger (fitness), but you can’t express it yet (preparedness) since your body is squelched (fatigue).”
When you train, you’re triggering the stimulus needed for fitness, but you’re also creating fatigue. That’s why, right after a heavy workout, you’re potentially stronger (fitness), but you can’t express it yet (preparedness) since your body is squelched (fatigue). In other words, you’re now fitter but your strength is masked by fatigue. Rest for a few days, however, and your fatigue dissipates. Now you’re able to express your true strength capacity.
There are different ways to exploit the unmasking effects of fatigue management, and even though this aspect of programming plays a relatively small role in the overall training process, the longer you’ve been training, the more important it becomes.
Weigh Up the Cost Versus Benefit Profile
I’m fond of reminding my online clients that, “Every time you touch a weight, there will certainly be a cost. Whether or not there is a benefit is quite another matter.”
By this statement, I’m simply reminding my client that everything he or she does has a cost, and a big part of that cost is to recovery processes. Given that you’re paying a price for your efforts, it seems prudent to ensure that you’re also reaping the greatest possible rewards.
Use efficient fatigue management strategies.
The highest payoff exercises are those that conform to the specificity principle, relative to your goals. If you’re an Olympic weightlifter, how big a role should the bench press play in your training? If you’re a bodybuilder, how big a role will low (1-3) reps play in your preparation? If you have arthritic knees, how beneficial are leg extensions for you?
Some drills may have high payoff, others less. What strategies/principles/drills have the biggest impact on your training, and which ones might you consider deleting? Consider the 80/20 rule when attempting to answer these questions.
One example of this applies to nutrition for optimal body composition: your caloric intake is hugely impactful toward your overall result, whereas meal frequency is much less so. Direct your efforts towards the highest payoff activities, and relax about everything else.
Understand the Recovery Profile of Exercises
If you deadlift 495lb and bench press 315lb, and you’re training both exercises with the same frequency, you’re either overtraining the former and/or undertraining the latter. That’s because, even if a 315 bench press is just as hard as a 495 pull, it still doesn’t take as much out of you as that five plate deadlift. Similarly, squatting 365 won’t tax your recovery as much as a 445 squat.
“As a general rule of thumb, you should take approximately one day of recovery per 100lb of 1RM on any exercise.”
All of which means the frequency and spacing of your exercises has a big effect on your day-to-day recovery rates. This is why a seasoned lifter wouldn’t squat the day after a heavy deadlift session.
As a general rule of thumb, you should take approximately one day of recovery per 100lb of 1RM on any exercise. So for example, if your best (bench press, deadlift, front squat, whatever) is 100lb, you could train that exercise every other day. If your max is 200lb, use two rest days between repeats. If you’re much stronger and your 1RM is say, 500lb, rest five days between repeats.
Use Regular Deloads
Deloads are (usually) one-week microcycles where intensity is kept relatively high to maintain fitness, and volume markedly lowered to dissipate fatigue. The result is that your true fitness level is potentiated.
A good general rule of thumb is to deload every fourth week, but this suggestion assumes that you trained very hard on weeks 1-3. If, after 3-4 weeks of training, you don’t feel the need to back off, you’re probably not training hard enough.
Train Hard And Smart!
If asked the intractable question “What’s more important, training hard, or training smart?” I’d be forced to concede that training hard gets the nod. However, if you’re already working hard, your fastest path to more progress is working smarter. And perhaps the most important aspect of training smart is efficient fatigue-management strategies. Use these three suggestions in your training from here on out, and I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results you’ll experience.