As I mentioned in my last powerlifting post (A problem to avoid in periodizations), listening to your own body may not be as straightforward as it sounds, even after many years under the bar. Whether in systems that rely on autoregulation or in those ones that prescribe a fixed number of sets and reps with a predefined percentage of a 1RM (or of a more attainable “every day max” or “training max”) as the weeks accumulate it is difficult not to get consistently closer to the limit of what our body can adapt to.
Another way of looking at it is that we make larger and larger withdrawals of our ability to recover, and in the end, sooner or later, we will completely deplete it (or even go into the red and incur a “recovery debt”). We would expect that to be the moment when progress stops, we start failing more and more reps, find it harder and harder to go to the gym and even start regressing, and finding each session that we end up moving less weight (or the same weight for a lesser amount of reps) than the previous one. Typically that dreaded “plateau” (or stagnation) is accompanied by a number of symptoms outside the gym that can make its identification easier: feeling overall tired most of the day, increased HRV (Heart Rate Variability), persistent pain in some “trouble spots” (IT band, hip sockets, knees, elbows or shoulders are the most typical ones) and even reduced sex drive (as you feel to friggin’ tired to really bother about bangin’). But even if you manage to keep the training stressors under control (and life, which as we all know has a disturbing tendency to be a bitch, doesn’t add stressors of its own) and keep a reasonable balance between how hard you push yourself in the gym and how well you manage to recover, most likely if you keep the principle of progressive overload (in its most essential form, trying to keep each microcycle more challenging than the previous one by judiciously or injudiciously increasing the load on the bar or the number of reps or their density) there will be a time when you end up spending above your income, or forcing yourself to go beyond your recovery capacity.
Now the consequences of that overdraw may be more or less severe depending on how long you keep it and how deep “into the red” you get. Injuries are a typical occurrence, as is temporary (or definitive) abandonment of the sport altogether (something that happens as much as a 25% of competitors in an Olympiad, that normally have to incur in such humungous recovery deficits just to qualify that after competition, regardless of result, just let it go completely). It stands to reason that the longer you can keep training without depleting (or even better, positively building) your recovery capacity, the further you will be able to progress and the healthier, fuller of energy you will feel. That’s when the concept of “leaving one rep in the tank” comes in. If your training methodology includes doing AMRAP (As Many Reps as Possible) sets at a certain weight, or just accumulating sets across as long as you can, or even pyramiding to a daily top set with the max weight you can handle that day, it makes an enormous difference to take that set strictly to failure (even “one set to failure” is many times subject to interpretation, as some people understand it to actually start a rep that they can not complete, and have to drop or ask a spotter for assistance, and other people understand it as completing the rep that feels so limit as not to be able to start another one ,knowing with full certainty that they won’t be able to complete it) and take it one or two reps short of that failure. Those one or two reps would be the ones “left in the tank”.
It has to be noted that there are times to really push it (the traditional balls to the wall attitude), as many times I’ve experienced the exhilaration of believing I was in my last ropes, really close to failure, and then eked out three or four reps more for new reps PRs that felt extra sweet because of the sheer exhaustion and mental drainage that accompanied them. Had I stopped leaving (apparently) one or two reps in the tank, I wouldn’t have find what I was really capable of. What I’m saying here is that you can not train that way for too long (I would dare to say that more than 2-3 weeks is more than enough for most, as the cost to the CNS is just too big) without burning out and loosing all desire to keep on pushing. I once read Christian Thibaudeau describe those nerve-wracking sessions where you get as close as possible to your limit (and then repeat, and repeat) as “training on the nerve”, and I think the expression nicely reflects a salient feature of that type of training: you constantly feel like you are in a torture rack, with your nerves being pulled at, subject to a tension that threatens to snap them and screaming in pain almost in every repetition, for hours on end, to the extent that you actually feel a pang of fear in your gut every time you think what you have planned for yourself for your next session.
There are times, to be sure, when you just have to man up and keep pushing through the pain, the uncertainty of the results, the apparent pointlessness and futility of it all, as it just is what it takes to keep improving beyond certain point. But, taking now a metaphor from Dan John, as there are times when training is like waiting the bus (bus bench training), there need to be times when it is like sitting in a park, feeling the tingle of the spring sun in your skin while watching the people stroll leisurely by (park bench training). So, next time you find yourself in a rough spot on your training, dreading the next session and afflicted by a thousand minor aches and pains (and by nagging doubts about the sanity of this whole lifting thing we do) you may want to consider how long you have been training on the nerve, in bus bench mode, and for how long do you intend to keep it until you lift the foot from the pedal and coast a little bit. There is nothing wrong with that every now and then…