2 years ago I wrote about the lessons learned in 2017 when it comes to the training/fitness world. There were 8 of them then and now I want to share just ONE.
There are so many overnight success gurus and business coaches screaming about simplification and one singular entity being responsible for all your success. Regardless of the validity of their theory, I find myself with much less to say this year when it comes to sharing wisdom. So maybe less is more after all?
I have one lesson and it’s a lesson I believe has really cost me in terms of slower than ideal progress and niggling injuries. Had I respected this law I would’ve definitely made better progress this year!
And the lesson is: Sub-Maximal training is CRUCIAL.
To any experienced coaches reading this, you’ll scratch your heads and wonder how I didn’t know this………I did know it, but I didn’t truly know it.
This is the classic battle of theoretical knowing vs practical knowing. Something can make incredible sense in your head and completely add up but until you’ve experienced it, you don’t fully appreciate it. It’s like thinking you have the blueprint for how to survive your girl leaving you, then it happening and you being totally crushed. No amount of strategising preps you like real world experience, sorry kids.
What is ‘sub-maximal’ training?
It sounds simple but there’s some finer details worth noting, otherwise I’ll have people thinking I’m endorsing ‘training like a pussy’. I’m not. Sub-maximal training means operating below your max capacity. In other words: if your true 5RM is 200 lbs on a given exercise, you would either use less than 200 lbs for 5 reps or you would do 3-4 reps with 200 lbs.
‘Maximal training’ can be defined as taking movements/lifts to technical failure. This means you physically cannot achieve another rep within the realms of safe and effective technique.
So maximal training is wrong?
Maximal training is fine as long as it’s used sparingly and cleverly structured. Going full potato every workout isn’t only dangerous but it’s also impossible – especially when you go beyond the beginner level. Maxing out is best used as a test of progress every so often – possibly every 6 weeks or so.
More frequent than that can leave you in a state of constant under-recovery. Obviously there are some other factors at play here:
- Your training age
- Your training frequency
- Your overall strength
- The type of training you do (heavy barbell lifts vs lighter isolated moves)
- The total stress load you’re under across all compartments of life
- The quality of your sleep (tied into the above somewhat)
- The quality of your nutrition (again, tied into the overall stress load equation)
If you’re new to training, you can get away with maximal lifting more often than an intermediate/advanced trainee. Simply because you’re ‘weaker’. That’s not an insult, it’s a fact; you can’t generate as much force as a stronger person and therefore your lifts aren’t as fatiguing to the system, overall.
Building upon this, the type of training is important too. Some moves are higher up in the exercise kingdom than others. A back squat would be first in line to the throne and a tricep extension would be the cleaner in the palace. Compound lifts are more taxing simply thanks to the multitude of muscles at play. From there the next factors are whether or not the spine is loaded……..if the spine IS loaded then the movement goes further up the pecking order.
Moving on even further we have spinally loaded compound moves involving a dead stop or dead weight. These are even more taxing and stressful on the system.
So as some examples for the powerlifting fans out there, a bench press would be an example of a non-spinally loaded compound, whereas a squat or deadlift would be a spinally loaded compound. And a PAUSED squat or conventional deadlift (where the weight is DEAD on the floor) would be a dead weight/dead stop compound; basically very high up on the food chain of neurologically/stressful moves to the system.
(thibarmy.com) – a general overview of a movement hierarchy in terms of complexity/overall systemic demand.
Going to failure on a deadlift will drain you waaayyyy more than going to failure on a set of bicep curls or pec flyes. Sounds simple, often misunderstood!
But I’m hardcore and can handle it!
I thought that and got away with it for a long time. You can ride your luck for a while. But trust me, there will come a time where you either cannot add weight or reps to the bar anymore for quite some time. OR, you’ll get injuries or niggling pains. These are all part and parcel of a body with a drained fuel tank unable to replenish.
We’re taught over and over how important it is to progressively overload. Heck, I’ve touted it for years along with many others far beyond my status and wisdom. But not much is written about realistic expectations over time as one nears their ceiling of natural potential – just how strong/advanced does your genetics/DNA allow?
The law of diminishing returns governs us all and it dictates: beyond a certain level we must work harder and harder for less and less gain. Progress comes slower and you must be smarter in order to keep gaining.
A better approach
‘Auto-regulation’ is your best friend here. Some days you go hard, others you go soft. I’m still talking about training guys! Experienced powerlifters and coaches already know this but when do you reach this unstated level where this concept applies to you all of a sudden? There’s no magic test or real way of knowing exactly but a good sign is when you can’t add reps or weight each workout or even every second workout.
You’ll have days where you did very well last session so this session you are sub-par. Essentially your body is playing catch up. That’s OK. No need to go mad this time. Just accept ‘decent’ and don’t try and force something that’s not there. Otherwise you impede the recovery/super-compensation effect from last time. And this is where we really start to hit the nail on the head……..
You’re looking at your performance overall across a wider timescale than from just workout to workout. Therein lies the difference.
Your ego feels entitled to continuous stroking in the form of never ending improvement. It’s too fragile to handle reality and with reality comes variation. I’ve had a real hard time this year accepting less is more. What makes it more stupendous is I’d always preach this to any clientele and many of them could justify this! But for me, the hunger was insatiable. The pressure was on and the desire to deliver was fierce. And while I’m immensely grateful of the progress I’ve made, there were plenty of avoidable setbacks.
Excessive handstand practice caused me a wrist injury, forcing the front splits gave me a torn glute, trying to add reps all the time actually made me go backwards as well. The penny is finally starting to drop……..
(Front Split comparison photos – left = first time ever getting flat & resulting in torn hamstring/glute. Right = 2 months later achieving it with no damage or even soreness after!)
Take each day as it comes. Leave linear behind – especially for those of you who have been at this for more than a year or 2, CONSISTENTLY. Your body will thank you and you’ll avoid 3 month, 6 month or even longer setbacks!
Oh and for those of you who like a video, I shot a little YouTube chat about this very topic. Check it out below!
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.