As I mentioned in a previous post (My latest program), I’ve been doing a distinctly low intensity training, staying in the 65-75% range of my 1RM mainly for reasons that had nothing to do with my condition or my health goals. I just had too many things on my plate, so moving weights to become stronger had to take a back seat. Also some of the things I had to devote most attention to (studies and job) demanded a lot of mental focus, so I was finding more and more difficult to psych myself up enough to go every day in the gym and either lift more kilograms or do more reps than the day before.
But that doesn’t mean I have foresworn making any progress for some time. I’m more and more of the opinion that there is tons of improvement you can extract from working at those low intensities, and this is going to be a great time to test it. Nothing new or revolutionary here, it is well aligned with what Paul Carter has been preaching for ages (see here: LRB - progress with lower intensities). However, I’ve been engaged in all sort of discussions in forums in this last year about how going above 80% is almost compulsory if you want some improvement in maximal strength, and even that any training that doesn’t reach at least 90% is basically a waste of time, so I’ll argue in this post in favor of having some programmed periods well below those percentages, and explain my rationale.
First, I’d like to comment a bit about the experience of some brothers in the iron with whom I’ve been discussing these issues, that have been advocating the kind of “as heavy as possible all the time” that I’m moving away from. These are comparatively strong dudes (I’m thinking now of a guy roughly my age, may be 10 kg heavier and with a total around 20 kg better than mine, and another one that albeit younger is roughly my weight and lifts a powerlifting total about 70 kg better than mine) that go every day they step on the gym to a daily max, and then follow it with back off sets. Lots of them. So they purportedly train “instinctively” (and tend to be quite dismissive of anybody that follows a program based on hitting a predefined number of sets and reps moving a certain percentage of their effective 1RM) but the one common thread is that they go as heavy as possible as frequently as possible (at least once a week for each one of the major lifts, and sometimes up to three times per week per lift). This sits well with certain tendency that was quite talked about last year, shaped around using the infamous (and normally very poorly understood) “Bulgarian system” developed by the likes of Ivan Abadjiev to train their Olympic lifters and apply it to powerlifting programs, the defining feature of such system being that they went to a daily max almost daily, and that they used almost no assistance exercises, so the training consisted almost exclusively in performing the competition lifts to a max, that was sometimes attempted multiple times, sometimes even multiple times per day. Well, the two guys I’m talking about (both of whom I respect enormously, as they have balls like a Buick and show enormous commitment and determination both on the platform and off) haven’t seen much progress for the last year, or even for the year before that.
Now I don’t want to convey the impression that such lack of progress should be construed as an argument against ever training truly hard. Going balls to the wall is a proven strategy for improving, and sometimes the pedal really needs to be put to the metal, and you have to get as close as possible to your max in training to really push that max to a new level. What I would argue is that those periods can not be of a long duration (you can not train above 90% for more than 2-3 weeks, unless you are a rank newbie), and anybody that maintains the opposite is either a) extremely experienced, so is very finely attuned to his or her own body and knows how much he can push before breaking down or b) can devote many hours to training, and has achieved a level that requires endless sessions adequately ramping up, then down, then actively recovering from such punishment or finally c) has freakish genetics (or free access to magic juice) so he can defy the laws of physiology without fear of breaking down. For all the rest that do not satisfy those conditions, it is more productive (and safe) to train at lower percentages most of the time, and ramp up the intensity only in a very controlled manner, during limited periods.
If we resort to Selye’s model of physical adaptation (a model I used in an entirely different context in my series about the General Theory of the Organization, by the way: Theory of Organization with Selye's GAM) we may see why such training ends up being counterproductive, and how such negative effects become more apparent as you grow more experienced:
As we can see, a novice trainee doesn’t have the physical capability to exert himself too much. He simply is not strong enough, so the negative impact of each training session is minimal (he could typically lift almost a 90% of what he lifted in a very punishing –for him- session with very limited time to recover, as his 1Rm is not that challenging) and the duration of that adverse effect is also minimal. In Rippetoe’s terminology, he is a beginner, and the most productive way for him to train is to repeat the same training than the previous day after 48 hours, only with a little bit more weight, as he will be then in supercompensation mode, and thus be capable of what for months will still be a 5-10% improvement over his previous best lift. Now after a few months of such linear progression he will have become able to dig deeper in his recovery reserves. Each session cuts more thoroughly into what he can recover from, so his loss of performance immediately after training is more marked (he can lift a smaller percentage of his 1RM, something around 80% already can be quite challenging right after a tough, demanding WO), and such loss of performance lasts longer, so now he can not recover in 48 hours and attempt bigger weights with a reasonable expectation of success. In Rippetoe’s schema, it is time to move the trainee to a weekly periodization, alternating between more intensity oriented days and more volume oriented ones (Texas method). Finally, an experienced lifter can seriously challenge his organism when going to near limit weights, which cause a much steeper immediate loss of performance (ask an elite level powerlifter to attempt even a 60% deadlift right after a competition and you may know what I’m talking about). Such a loss also requires much longer time to recover from, so the window to actually be able to push heavier weights becomes smaller and smaller, as most of the times is spent with a degraded capability (something I myself have experienced, when getting close to PR territory most of the week feels miserable, with constantly sore muscles and achy joints). At this level, lifters have to plan their cycles with blocks of many weeks (macrocycles), even many months, in which they go through different combinations of volume and intensity to be able to “peak” just once every few (or not so few) months.
Now we can analyze the effect of training with an increasing intensity (closer and closer to our 1RM, for now and for simplicity’s sake we will ignore the effect of other confounding variables like volume or exercise variance):
As we can see, the higher the intensity, the deeper the immediate loss of performance associated with it, and the longer it takes to recover (also, as a side note, the more fleeting the gain, as indeed the more extreme gains tend to be more short lived, and fade away faster).
So with that knowledge it is pretty fast to see how a well planned progression should look like, each workout building on the previous one and pushing what we are able to do ever higher:
Note how the duration of the period in which we are rested enough to make gains, but not so much as to have lost the gains of the previous session, becomes vanishingly small, as indeed it becomes more and more difficult to balance recovery and a challenging enough frequency to keep improving. It rings true that a seasoned lifter spends most of his days aching and sore, performing just the right amount of additional training that his body can take to force it to adapt. Now it is easy to overstep, and knowing that each session (and afterwards) is going to hurt no matter what and that to keep improving you need to keep increasing the volume, end up just in the following dynamic:
Now the effect is just the opposite, instead of progressing you are regressing! Of course any lifter worth his salt knows that getting to a point where you are physically weaker every workout is damn difficult, you have to be quite deaf to your body not to realize it is happening, and typically some sort of self-regulation would be kicking in before that and making each training session slightly less grueling, so what you would have is what you see most frequently: people not advancing at all in the main lifts for months, even years, but always finding some rationalization of why it hasn’t anything to do with “overtraining”, which is something that a) doesn’t exist and b) only total wusses complain about anyway. That overtraining would be that most elusive of beasts, so elusive indeed that many practitioners of the iron arts deny its existence entirely. I would readily agree that many instances of alleged overtraining are just laziness, or plain old being a pussy, but I would as readily maintain that mental satiation comes much sooner than what most hardcore lifters are willing to admit (and keep in mid Tommy Kono’s injunction, this sport is 80% mental), and that whilst the body may be physically capable of keeping on adapting, the mind gives up much sooner and starts finding ways to derail such course.
Now with all this I didn’t want to give the impression that training is a super complex science that requires a PhD and that if you are not able to plan every little variable with the utmost precision you will end up either stagnant or injured. Another way to look at it, again taken from the playbook of good ol’ Mark is to consider the difference between training and exercising (Rippetoe throws down). In his terminology, training consists in the methodical accumulation of the increased stress you want your body to adapt to, so it becomes more proficient at expressing a certain quality (obviously, being a legendary strength coach, being able to show maximal strength in short bouts, as in just one attempt at each of a powerlifting competition lifts, is the most desirable quality a human can pursue according to him, with which I basically agree). Exercising, on the other hand, is just performing some activity for the fun of it, focusing instead in the individual workout (which stops being a “training session”, as no methodical training is happening in it). So the trap that the two friends I mentioned at the beginning seem to have fallen into is that they have stopped training, and inadvertently started exercising. Each workout is indeed extremely challenging, and they go to very heavy loads once and again, but those loads fail to consistently increase as the months go by, because they are not able to hit the sweet balance between applying a stimulus the body can adapt to and letting that same body recover so it is able to deal with a bigger stimulus the next day. Although they are well aware of Selye’s theory, and how supercompensation is the name of the game, they consider that such effect (supercompensation) is to be called for only on the eve of a competition, so they would only lower their training intensity the week before competing (by the way, of the two examples I’m giving only one truly competes, but this methodological error applies to both of them) hoping all the previous supercompensations that didn’t occur in previous cycles (for lack of time to truly recover) would miraculously materialize, and with just one week rest (and a partial one at that) they will show up at contest day able to lift 10-20% than what they were lifting in the gym. So far hasn’t happened, and I’m still skeptical it will ever happen. Because during the cycle in which you fail to sufficiently recover and go heavy again while still in a status of degraded performance your body fails to fully adapt, and that missed “window of adaptation” is lost forever. The weight felt awfully heavy, and the next time they are attempted they feel exactly as heavy (I’ll allow for a little variance in how they feel because of non physiological variables like amount of previous sleep, state of psychological arousal, etc., and even for some not duly planned physiological ones, like hormone level), as the body has not grown systemically stronger to deal with them, and that situation can go on for years without the trainee knowing how to get out of it.
But, counterintuitive as it may sound (to grow stronger, lift less weight) the only way out is to check the ego at the door, and start basing the training around a lower percentage of the 1RM. Typically, in a higher range of repetitions for an increased total volume, so the muscle can grow both in size (one of the most surefire ways of making it capable of applying more force) and in efficiency (number of motor units, degree of innervations and capacity of fire simultaneously). And to ensure that I do what I preach, I’ll stay with my current training plan (organized around submaximal lifts in the range of 65-75% of my previous 1RM, and in a higher rep range than what I was used to) and confirm that Selye’s theory (and much more important, Rippetoe application of it) are as valid as ever (or rather, ar sufficiently valid for me, at my current level of experience).