We like fast progress. All of us do. I like it. When poundages aren’t going up on the regular, I start second guessing. I wonder where I’m screwing it up. I need that regular feedback. I know it doesn’t work that way. I know in the sense that I’m aware of the facts. As we realize now, knowing is only part of the issue.
I know that muscle tissue can only synthesize so fast and there are limits to how much can be added on a given body without chemical intervention. I know that neural factors adapt on an asymptotal curve, increasing strength rapidly before leveling off in a new plateau as neurons rewire themselves. I know these things, and yet, it’s the psychological rush, the hit of mesolimbic pleasure-reward, of hitting new levels and new PRs that motivates most of us.
Without that quick feedback of success, the signpost on the road to tell us we’re heading in the right direction, it’s easy to start second guessing. Once that happens, you’ve lost.
Staleness, known to gym-culture as ‘overtraining’ [sic], happens when you spend too much time doing the same things. Your body’s adaptive systems accustom themselves to your workout routine — the exercises, the weights, the sets and reps — and it becomes nearly impossible to squeeze out further improvement.
Introducing a change can trigger new progress. Change means switching your volume and intensity. Find a set and rep scheme different from what you’ve been doing and hammer that instead. This will earn you another 4-8 weeks of steady progress before the next plateau.
Discovering a pool of 2-4 set/rep progression schemes, each involving different extremes and different kinds of challenge, and rotating between them is the most basic — and most effective — kind of periodization there is. Yet even there, we feel the need to rapidly escalate our working weights. The plateau, and the resulting change to a different program, feel inevitable.
Our troubles are three: how do we prevent staleness, create the right kind of variety, and feed our psychological need to see rapid progress?
There was a time when I’d have pushed the hardass approach. You know what works, so shut up and go do it. No more. The problems of staleness, of training ADD, and plain old boredom are problems of management and circumstance. A well-crafted program and guidelines for a larger meta-program (a program for your programs) creates an environment where staleness and boredom can’t happen. Variety is good because variety keeps you interested. Variety keeps you fresh.
Brian Wansinck talks about the influence of situation on behavior in Mindless Eating. Our environments shape our behaviors more than we realize. Our gym, our training partner(s), our beliefs and philosophies on training, and the programs we follow all influence our behaviors and our results. Like the people who eat more out of a large popcorn bucket, our workout situation can influence our motivation and our results.
People with a consistent training crew and a motivating gym can hammer away at the same program for months and years, thriving on specificity. Those who go out of their way to mill through training articles and all the new programs released on a weekly basis surround themselves with information — and the sheer volume of choice forces them into paralysis. They can’t decide, so they jump between them all. The interminable flux of the internet may not be the best for a productive training mindset.
Let’s talk about patience. Let’s talk about changing the entire outlook towards Getting Stronger. There is something to be said for restraint in our training weights. All of us get caught up in the need for weekly progress. We like the feedback of a PR. We like knowing that we’re stronger.
Adding weight, each week, each workout, without fail, is not the only way to measure improvement in strength. The best programs don’t focus on relentless progressive overload. The best programs fluctuate volume and intensity over repeating cycles. The best programs shift the focus from daily and weekly progress. They focus on incremental and steady improvement over time.
Sheiko’s powerlifting routines use regular, weekly variations in volume and intensity. The 5/3/1 system uses four-week cycles. The Bulgarian-inspired system I love uses informal, autoregulated cycles, varying the loading with limited pre-planning. There’s variety in linear cycles as they move from a base-building volume phase toward a specific peaking phase.
Restraint. Patience. Move slowly and with intent. Read the Doug Hepburn progressions again if you haven’t lately. Consider the benefit of letting a weight mature as you handle it across repeated sessions. Strength is not only measured by your best. It can be measured by speed and confidence with a weight. It can mean getting familiar with a weight.
Incremental progress is still progress. Incremental progress adds up over weeks and months. You lose the rush of the instant PR in exchange for slow-cooked gains built on consistency. You trade instant gratification for mastery.
It’s easy to be seduced by the lure of constant improvement. Another 5kg. Another rep. Progress happens linearly for the beginner. The addiction is subliminal.
Your patience must increase with your strength. Gradual gains. Building a foundation. Mastering a weight. These are the goals of productive training.