The best workout you will ever do is the workout you never did. If that is the only thing you can take from this post, my goal has been achieved, which is to give you other options to help you out of a plateau you might be in or just give you alternatives for better workouts and gains.
The first principle you will encounter in training is Adaptation, meaning the adjustment of an organism to its environment and the main feature of living species. Adaptation is a motherbuilder and absolutely necessary if you want results. No one gets better after a workout and in fact, we become weaker. Improvement happens because the body adapts to the training load. Then comes accommodation often considered a general law of biology. Accommodation is the decrease in response of a biological object to a continued stimulus[i]. It can make you doubt, it can put you down, it will slow you down and make you comfortable if you stick to it long enough, and that’s not a good thing. From accommodation, you enter the comfort zone. The thing is that this zone will sneak in and you will like it. However, only a few will manage to get out of it and push the boundaries and change for the next phase. Accommodation is when some people will make the biggest mistake in strength and conditioning, keep going without changing, because it is a known terrain, they are comfortable where they are and with what they do.
If you passed the beginner stage of weight training, you know when you should change your programs. It is when you fail to see progress or feel strong in a workout. You seem to be doing the same thing over again and no change whatsoever on the bars, on paper or in the shape. No more adaptation, now it has become stagnation and soon procrastination.
One of the primary principles in strength training is Adaptation. We must continually challenge or muscles for growth and strength. So then, to counter adaptation, another more ‘’importanter’’ principle is to overload the muscle. It will improve neural pathways, help muscles produce more force to handle heavier weights. It also stimulates bone growth and strengthens ligaments. Your muscles will also absorb and synthesize more protein, while preventing catabolism, gaining muscle fibers to grow larger muscles.
You absolutely need adaptation and in fact, exercise was always and will always be an adaptive process. If you don’t adapt, there is no progress. The body reacts by increasing fitness, power, strength and/or hypertrophy to go beyond the demand of the given tasks. So basically, exercise is a stress, which the body responds to by increasing its physical abilities to adapt to this given stress. Not enough stress, no adaptation occurs nor improvement. If stress is too much, injuries or overtraining may occur. Careful planning and the use of principles timed correctly will bring you results as long as you don’t fall into the plateau trap for too long.
There are many tricks you can do to help you out of that freakin plateau and will force adaptation to bring you to new heights.
- Increase volume
Do more sets. Let’s say you usually do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps. Keep the reps the same and do 5-6 sets of 8-10 reps. The simple increase in volume will push over your boundaries and stimulate new growth and strength.
- Play with the reps
Use the same weight but manipulate the reps.
- Increase the resistance
- Play with intensity
More work in less time or work for a given time with less recovery.
Instead of the boring old 8-10 reps or 6-8 reps, Vince Gironda used a technique called 10-8-6-15. As you increase the reps for each sets, you finish up with a lighter set as what he used to explain as a pump set to drive blood into the muscle. We also know that the potentiation effect of the increasing weight of each sets will also help increase your 15 RM weight aka the pump set, meaning that you can potentially take 5-8% more weight on your 15 RM that you would normally do.
Now, playing with reps and sets will take some planning and careful attention on details since you can’t increase both at the same time, but not impossible unless it’s planned. Here is why you should have a plan, a big picture of what you want to accomplish over a given period of time.
Most who don’t abide by the periodization principle will tell you that it is impossible to plan ahead since no one can precisely predict what can happen over the course of 6 months and they are absolutely right. Nonetheless, you can always at least have a plan in general details, guidelines to follow. Most Olympic coaches and athletes have very detailed yearly plan but it is not necessary for most of us. Here is something very basic you can use with the previously mentioned intensity and volume variations.
|2-4 reps/6-8sets||4-6 reps/6-8 sets||6-8 reps/4-6 sets||1-2 reps/ 8-10 sets||4-6 reps /5-7 sets|
Very simple and this is only an example of how you can play around with months, weeks, sets and reps. For example, those who have a tendency to over train, may have to do less weeks on high volume and low intensity (Strength) phases.
Another way to force your body into new adaptation is to add energy system workouts, which are great to include in a yearly plan.
With the growing belief that cardio/energy system work will burn muscle, where many popular Fitness personalities claim that doing more than 20 minutes of cardio will make you lose hard earned muscle mass, it makes it easy to be scared of anything that will bring your heart rate up for long periods of time. Big guys be like I’m not bringing the groceries up a flight of stairs in fear of losing my pump in the upper pecs from Monday’s chest workout. What they can’t seem to get is the fact that it is way, way more complicated than that. In fact, cardiovascular training can help your gains in many ways.
Myths and old ways for cardiovascular training are often thrown around by physique competitors, with the notion that in order to lose fat, you abso’frekin’lutely need to do 30 minutes of cardio with an empty stomach in the morning to be on your way to contest shape. Well, there are many roads that lead to Rome.
Enter interval training. I will save you the details since there are so many great articles on the subjects. All you need to know is that you need to work for a given time followed by rest periods, and do a given number of sets. Doesn’t it sound like weight lifting? Interval training has been proven to be more effective in burning fat and improvin
g cardiovascular capacities.
We have been thought for many years that the exercise specificity is primordial and should be as close as possible to the outcome (specific exercise task or performance criteria). A study[ii] from burgomaster et al. (2007) makes us rethink the long held belief of training adaptation and specificity and also, a reminder that for some people, intense training will be more time-efficient and have the same effect and as potent as the submaximal endurance type workouts. This study reported that 6 weeks of low-volume, high-intensity sprint training induced similar changes in selected whole-body and skeletal muscle adaptations as traditional high-volume, low-intensity endurance workouts undertaken for the same intervention period.
Specifically, they revealed that 4-6x 30 sec sprints separated by 4–5 min of passive recovery 3 days/week resulted in comparable increases in markers of skeletal muscle carbohydrate metabolism, lipid oxidation and mitochondrial biogenesis as when subjects undertook 40–60 min of continuous submaximal cycling a day for 5 days/week. Particularly impressive given that weekly training volume was ∼90% lower in the sprint-trained group resulting in a total cumulative training time of ∼1.5 compared to 4.5 h per week.
So circuit training and HIIT are the best choices to get the most benefits in less time. Studies have also stated a diminution in total cholesterol levels while levels of HDL-cholesterol, increased with circuit style training. Through regular circuit training routines, individuals can increase their oxygen utilization capabilities. Capillaries supply blood and oxygen and remove wastes, as these actions are obviously necessary. Due to the demands placed on different parts of your body during exercise, the ability of your capillaries to respond to your body’s needs plays an important role in fatigue and endurance and this is why you should also include in your workouts some type of cardiovascular training throughout the year.
While there is plenty of research that proves cardiovascular training has benefits, people tend to forget that there are not only the treadmill or mile long runs to help increase your cardio capabilities. My personal favorite is the modified strongman type training. In any workout, the goal is to put the first few exercises with the most bangs for your buck effect, meaning that you need big compound exercises. So for strongman training, grab 2-3 exercises and alternate them in supersets for a given amount of time. Let’s have a 1 to 1 ratio, meaning you rest as much as you work. So for a working time of 3 minutes, you rest 3 minutes.
A1 Barbell deadlift x5
A2 Prowler push for 120 feet
A3 Standing log press x 5
Stop when needed but as little as possible. The goal is to repeat the circuit as many time as possible in 3 minutes. Do 5 sets and call it a day.
Let’s get back to muscle pumpin’ sleeve bustin’ lift things up and put them down principles.
Another way I use to declare war on muscle is the ‘’Multi principle’’ principle…I combine two principles into one workout. For example:
Mechanical advantage + drop sets
A1 Frenchpress high pulley x12, no rest
A2 Rope pushdown x8-10 + 2 x drop set -5% each, rest 60 seconds
A3 Preacher curl x 12, no rest
A4 standing curl x8-10 +2x drop sets-5% each, rest 120 seconds
You may have to take out 8-10% of the weight at every set. Triceps and Biceps are started with isolation exercises to bring the most out of them from the get go followed by the easiest exercises since technique will be the first thing to go, especially with the drop sets. So for the Mechanical advantage principle, start with the toughest and finish with the easiest technically speaking.
I’m sure you are thinking many other strategies you would love to try or that might have been in your training bucket list for a while. My best advice would be to do it NOW! Don’t wait, it will most probably throw you into new growth or on a new path.
Don’t wait until adaptation becomes accommodation and enjoy your workouts !
[i] Science and practice of strength training. Vladimir Zatsiorsky and william Kraemer.
[ii] Hawley JA. Specificity of training adaptation: time for a rethink? The Journal of Physiology. 2008;586(Pt 1):1-2. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2007.147397.