I had totally planned to cut my Bulgarian/frequent-lifting experiment this week, after eight full weeks. I had no real reason other than to break up the monotony. I’m not hurt; I actually feel better than I have in years as far as joints and connective tissues. I don’t feel burned out, not even close. In fact, I hit a front squat PR on Friday which was 15kg above my regular training weight. Every other lift is cruising along just fine.
A note about that: when I say PRs in this context I’m talking what would best be termed local maxima. These aren’t all-time bests, but rather the best I’ve done within the last three years. As you may or may not know, I’ve had a string of pretty crippling injuries that started back in late 2006 and limited what I could do with heavy bone-crushing weights. So right now, PR means best I’ve done since that fiasco started.
Even so, a quick look at the numbers is illuminating. I started out working with 110kg on front squats for a daily top set. Friday, I hit 120, 125, and 130 for moderately psyched, moderately ugly reps. Push press has gone from working in the low 70s to consistently hitting 85kg. Squatting has netted me my best weight since my quad tear back in October (160kg), I’ve stiff-legged 185kg x5 off a 3″ plate and easily deadlifted 220×2 (no belt/no straps on either). Even benching has improved to the point that I can hit 115-120kg, pain free, on any given day. Bear in mind that I weigh all of 89kg/195 lbs right now.
Given that, I took my usual weekend off along with Monday to think about it. And honestly, I just couldn’t see a reason to change. Progress is still humming along, I’m not hurt or beat up, and I can even say I like these workouts. So why change?
I could labcoat up a good argument, sure. Variation in stimulus is itself a stimulus. Concentration of loading is one of those old Russian concepts we always see batted around, and this is it to a T: spend 6-8 weeks doing crazy high volume with moderate intensity until you push into overreaching, then cut it and shift gears into a low-volume/high-intensity program.
Which is the reason I wrote up my last two posts about linear periodization and APRE — I was going to shift into that kind of system to intensify after the block of accumulation (or concentrated loading).
But I had to stop myself. That sounds like a lot of rationalization for program-hopping, jumping around from program to program “just because”. Granted I have reasonable premises to draw on, but I don’t see that this is substantially different.
Secondly, I’m clearly not overtrained (or overreached, pedants) if I’m still pushing out PRs and not feeling the lifting flu. This is what we discussed over on Glenn’s forum, where contrary to popular wisdom, lifters do seem to adapt if they stick it out – and even feeling crappy isn’t an indicator that your actual performance (functional capability lol) is diminished. Only diminished performance is an indicator of diminished performance.
Thirdly, even the concentrated loading system is supposed to wear you down to a measurable degree. I’m not looking at the book but I’m pretty sure Verkhoshansky said you needed to shoot for a performance decrement of around 20%, or to a point that the athlete is struggling with 80% of his/her bests. This jives pretty squarely with what Glenn said, so figure that if you’re so beat to hell that ~80% is consistently a struggle (note consistently), then you’re overworked and it’s time to rest.
All that said, I don’t think I have much of a case. “I’m bored” isn’t sufficient reason to jump to another program, so I’m riding it out for now.
Taking Rest Days
Earlier this week, I had a bad workout. I came in Tuesday morning after three days off, and I just had no juice. Sometimes that happens and the power switches on after a few warmups, but it never happened. I felt slow, almost achy and generally too beat up to be there. It wasn’t just a matter of not being able to switch it on; even my muscles felt weak and not-quite-achy.
The 80% rule was in effect that day. I hit about those numbers, spent 20 minutes foam rolling and stretching, then came home and started popping ibuprofen.
This was the first bad workout I’ve had since I started this mess. I won’t lie, it messes with your head and turns the second-guessing dial up to 12.
What did I do? I took off the next day, popped more anti-inflams, and came back this morning to resume the normal program. And I had a totally great day. Front squats hit over 90% of Friday’s PR with plenty in the tank, push press hit my daily best, and both of them ended up feeling nice and springy with the back-off sets.
The moral of the story: a bad workout is a bad workout. I’m taking a page from Anthony Ditillo here: if you have a bad day, write it off, take the next day off, handle your recovery, and come back when you’re ready.
I think being able to program in rest days on the fly is another understated strength of this system. If you’re having good days, keep lifting. If you’re having a legit bad day, then take the next day off. If you get to a point where you’re totally beat to crap, take 2-3 days off and see what happens. The idea behind autoregulation is to stop being a slave to “must do”. There are no “must do” rules in this approach.
This includes not only what you do within a session, but when sessions happen. Gauge everything according to what you can do right now. If you need rest, take it.
There’s Volume, and then there’s HOLYCRAPVOLUME
Some other things have occurred to me when looking at this protocol and wondering why it’s not overworking us.
Recently Glenn was over at the weightlifting championships in Bulgaria and he was making regular updates about how some of the other teams were lifting. Read the whole thread, because it’s very interesting. What stuck out to me in particular were his comments on how the Chinese lifters trained.
He talks about one guy that spent (at least) an hour doing snatches, then snatch pulls, and then power snatches. The guy moved through at a quick pace, with very brief rests, and worked up to a smooth max on each before resetting the weight and starting over with the next version. It’s not hard to imagine these guys doing that several hours a day, 6-7 days a week.
Now compare that to what I’m doing. I spend at most one hour a day, five days a week, in the gym. I alternate sets of a squat with a press and then finish up with a back exercise. At most it takes me 8-10 sets to reach a max weight, since I’m intentionally trying to do lots of small jumps and short-ish rests (basically just long enough to catch my breath again between sets, so figure 90 seconds, two minutes or so). After that, I might end up with 3-5 backoff sets. All told, that means the main squat and press will get at most 15 sets in a session.
I did a calculation on the tonnage I rack up on squats in a week, using my average weights and NL for three back squat and two front squat sessions, and it was something around 8000kg or around 17500 lbs per week of just squatting. Over a month, that’s over 70,000 lbs lifted. That’s a lot, but it’s not super-crazy requires steroids to recover from level. Bill Starr suggested once that a modest increase of 10% per month was the advisable route, and looking back at what I’ve been doing, that’s been about the case.
That Chinese guy, that’s crazy steroid volume. What I’m doing? Not so much. It’s easy to argue that I’m recovering better for this particular workload and intensity level spread out over multiple sessions, instead of collected into just two or even three workouts.
Regarding steroid use: it’s often suggested that you need Dr. Zeigler’s Happy Recovery Tonic to thrive on frequency, but I would suggest that it’s exactly the opposite. Which is to say, those thriving on intensity-based workouts (which is to say, lots of RAAAAAAGGHH grinders and regular focus on throwing more weight on the bar, in contrast to this philosophy of “widening the base”) are more likely to benefit from steroids.
Frequency/volume based training could certainly benefit from restorative help at extreme levels (i.e., what the Chinese lifters are doing), and I’m not saying otherwise. For those of us using more moderate programming and incremental increases in weight and weekly tonnage, I’m no longer convinced it’s a requirement.
Elastic vs. Static Lifts
One meme that I’m seeing repeated regarding this kind of training is an old classic. You can train the snatch and C&J regularly because they don’t have an eccentric component. The powerlifts are slow, more static lifts with a large eccentric component, and thus you can’t train them as often.
A few things on this. Old-timers didn’t have bumper plates and tended to lower their weights under control to the floor. They still trained regularly, with what current orthodoxy would call excessive frequency. Beyond that, old timers still used the slow lifts in the same way. That alone is enough to convince me, but if you need more, read on.
It’s fallacious to call the powerlifts inherently slow and grindy. I’m not sure if I’ve ever made this apparent, but I train explosively more often than not. You may refer to this as training more elastically, training fast, making my lifts springy, whatever. But if you watch my videos, what you’ll notice is that even my heavy lifts still move pretty fast to the eye, even if I’m struggling like hell and it feels like a max set. Very rarely do you see me truly grind on anything.
Does this make me fast-twitch dominant or whatever? Have you seen a picture of me? I’m not exactly a natural athlete mesomorph type. On the other hand I have been making it a point to “train fast” for about a decade now. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
You can, and I would submit that you probably should, train the powerlifts in a way that’s elastic and explosive, versus loading them up and Valsalva-ing your way through them with a red face.
“But how will I learn to strain against heavy weights if I never do it?” you ask.
That’s why we have peaking phases. Spend most of your time training with the fast/springy movements to develop strength and general tolerance for weights (energy systems, connective tissues, all that blah blah). When you need to peak for whatever reason, spend 3-4 weeks training to hit One Big Set with a basic linear program. You’ll be disappointed at first, I’m sure. After spending a month training yourself to grind and strain again, you’ll develop the ability to “express that strength” (lol HIT).
My final point is that if you’re autoregulating these things as you should be, the eccentric overload won’t matter. You’ll develop a tolerance to the stimulus, eccentric or no. Compare my workloads to what even a national-level OLer will pull off and you see I’m still handling chump change. The difference between PL and OL volume is relative, not absolute.
I also want to point out that finding productive exercises that use lighter absolute weights may be of benefit here. I mentioned that I started this program with front squats and only later rotated in back squats. I think that this helped me to adapt to the frequency, just because I wasn’t routinely handling heavy weights in the absolute sense. Toying with the exercise selection in that way may be a good approach to consider as far as what’s sufficient and what’s too much for you.
Just let the training guide itself (and don’t be a moron about it). If you let it, it will handle itself.