Train To Fight Another Day

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We’ve all heard the catch phrases before: “No pain, no gain!”, “Go hard or go home!” Or my personal favorite, “Sweat is just fat crying.” And it’s not just the catch phrases and memes and Instagram videos that bombard us everyday: the whole fitness industry has moved towards high-intensity, get-your-results-as-fast-as-possible classes and training. Everyone knows that going hard in the gym is the only way to get results, right? Here’s the only problem with that: it doesn’t actually work.

Let me explain.

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

Our bodies are constantly adapting to everything we do (and don’t do). This is all in an attempt to maintain homeostasis – i.e. keep everything in the body in working order, not too far out of the norm. Think of the body like a really ridiculously smart and adaptable thermostat. If we have our thermostat set to 75 degrees, but then changing conditions (like an intense workout, constantly gnawing work stress, lack of sleep, malnutrition, etc.) drive the temperature up, the body will do everything it can to bring it back down to baseline.

There are 3 stages to how the body responds to ANY and ALL stressors- 1) Alarm, 2) Resistance, 3) Recovery/Exhaustion.

Let’s zoom in on workouts since this is our topic for the day. Any workout we do that is outside of the body’s norm will be seen as a stressor and actually make you WEAKER in the initial phase after the workout. We all know this intuitively. If we do a challenging workout, you are LESS ready to do another challenging workout right after. Your performance will be worse.

As we continue to train over time, however, our bodies develop resistance to these stresses (workouts). We get stronger, become more adaptable and ready to handle this type of situation.

But what happens when we keep trying to push our workouts – to not let the body rest and recover. To GO HARD OR GO HOME, every time we workout?

Then we reach the Exhaustion phase, otherwise known as overtraining. The results you fought so hard for plummet as your body’s resources are completed depleted. Without recovery, there is no getting stronger.

So how do we get ourselves to the point of exhaustion? The two main areas related to training specifically. Doing workouts that create such a huge stressor that the body can’t adequately recover from it (high to max stressor), or doing moderately-high stress workouts so often there is no recovery time from that either.

Hopefully y’all are still with me so far, because there’s a couple more things I want to touch on.

What is “high-intensity”?

High intensity is a term that’s gotten bandied around with wild abandon recently, so much so that I don’t think we really even know what it means anymore. In the strength and conditioning world, we refer to something as high intensity if it is done with near maximal strength or power. For example, your one rep max on a deadlift is super high intensity. Your best effort at a 50m sprint is high intensity.

Where does that put workouts where you are doing lots of reps of lots of different things, and totally gassed at the end? Those workouts are high volume workouts. They are still “high-stress” to the body, but in a very different way. High volume workouts are actually easy to implement. Oh, 100 squats didn’t make your legs feel like jello yet? Do 1000 then, and do it with no rest.  

Coach Wil has a saying,“The easiest thing in the world is to make a workout hard – instead, coaches need to make the workout effective.” Simply subbing intensity (which WILL help you build strength and new skills) for volume by adding reps and cutting out rest is a surefire way to make you tired, but not necessarily make you better.  

We’ve seen this play out in long-term studies as well. Here’s a graph showing performance over time with three different training groups. One given a very high intensity program, one given a moderate intensity program, and one given a low intensity program. (The low intensity group is the line that isn’t labeled.)

Here’s what we learned:

  • The high-intensity group did indeed see gains really quickly, but then quickly fell off the map as they couldn’t sustain that effort and started breaking down.
  • The moderate-intensity group took longer to reach their peak, but then essentially plateaued and couldn’t make further progress.
  • The low-intensity group took the longest, but seem to not have a true “ceiling” to their potential progress.

Now, as with anything, this isn’t black and white.  Volume training absolutely has it’s place, as we will see later.  However, as an industry we have gone way too far in one direction and it’s to the detriment of our clients.  We need to swing the pendulum back to the middle.  We need to find the right balance of intensity/volume so that our training is effective and helping us move towards our goals and not further away from them.

So how should we train?

There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” model here, but here are a couple of things to consider when training to achieve your full potential.

  1. Our bodies are built for a natural ebb and flow of intensities. Most of the time, we should be operating at a lower intensity (65-85%) when we are training while building volume SLOWLY over time, or at high intensities (90%+ of effort), but lower volumes. This is referred to as HIGH-LOW training.
  2. Pay close attention to recovery between sessions and over the course of weeks. Make sure your workouts are working for YOU, and not just beating you up.
  3. Fill up your gas tank – eat food that sustains you, prioritize sleep and stress management, and get low level movement in throughout your entire day, not just the one hour at the gym.
  4. Start with as little as necessary to see improvement, THEN progress. I’ve trained plenty of people who only needed two days of training/week in the gym to start. One person who only needed one day/week, and any more than that she would see her progress slip away. Others do six days/week. But the ones who are doing six days/week now didn’t start off at six right off the bat. They progressed up to that over time.
  5. Build your base. Spend lots of time doing things you love OUTSIDE of the gym. All that time spent on the floor with your kids, or taking an evening walk with a loved one? That all counts, and the more you find stuff you LOVE doing, the more likely you’ll do it, and the less you’ll need to be in the gym to make up for your lack of movement throughout the week.

Here enters a new mantra for all to take up in the gym. Train to fight another day.  Train hard, but leave a little bit in the tank. Challenge yourself, but just enough. Know when to back off. Build your base FIRST before you worry about maxing everything out. And find something you enjoy, that fills you up, that makes being active less of a chore and more fun – something that you WANT to be able to come back to without feeling beat up. Find many of those things, and many people to share those things with, because isn’t that what this is all about in the end?

In Health,

Coach Matt

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