In the weight training world there is a lot of discussion about volume, periodization, recovery, frequency, autoregulation and all the variables needed to maximize the effect of our efforts in the gym. With this knowledge and manipulating these variables, coaches and athletes are killing it more than ever. We have the many humble and educated experts in the evidence-based training industry to thank for these “gainz.” We are lucky to have them; however, those experts are the first to admit that while we’ve made tremendous strides in maximizing outcomes, there is still much to learn and even more work to do.
To improve the effect of our efforts, we have to maximize our training performance more frequently. Imagine what our strength would be and what our physiques would look like if every one of our training sessions was one of those “amazing workouts” where we killed it and walked out of the gym feeling indestructible. Those sessions where our strength and energy were so high, we could have done AMRAP sets on everything with PR loads. We all know those sessions, but how often do we have them? After all, we know that effective training hurts in a good way, but it still hurts, and we can’t always push through. There are many obstacles that get in the way: Soreness, injury, complacency, mental weakness, staleness, time management, equipment gym deficiencies, stress, lack of sleep, illness, a list which goes on and on. With all those obstacles, if we can increase training performance to the point where just 20% of those “average sessions” become amazing; now we are talking progress.
To make this “amazing session” vs “average session” differentiation more understandable, think of a racing engine. When that engine is finely tuned, hitting on all cylinders with perfect timing, and all the parts are fresh and new; the engine can really perform. That’s the true potential of that particular engine. That’s an “amazing session.” Now when that engine is just slightly off its timing, has a weak part, or simply has low octane fuel in it, that engine can still perform, but not at it’s true potential. These are “average” sessions. Furthermore, those obstacles that get in the way of us performing at our best are the weak parts, poor fuel, and slightly off timing that make sessions average.
To have as many “amazing sessions” as we can, we want as much of our training at the level of our true potential as possible. However, it’s not reasonable to expect to hit PRs on everything, every session, every week. We have to settle for “average sessions” most of the time, for any of the above reasons on any given day. If we only stepped into the gym when everything was optimal and accepted nothing less, we often wouldn’t train; and that is not the answer. However, like I said in the above paragraph, if we can get even 20% more of our sessions to be amazing sessions…look out! So, in service of helping you achieve the goal of making even a small number of your average sessions amazing, I’ve listed my top 3 lifting “game changers” in reverse order:
#3 – More Frequent Deloads and Intros
Deloads are the most effective way to manage fatigue levels. If you need to do some homework on how fatigue decreases training performance and how deloads are a tool to keep performance high, you can visit my series of blogs for all you need to know.
While deloads and intros (a preparatory microcycle to prepare you for the coming mesocycle in a stepwise manner) are becoming more widely used to keep performance high and mitigate fatigue, the exact best way to use them is still elusive. In a perfect world where we train in a vacuum, it’s always best to be proactive and plan for deloads before one needs them. However, if (and that’s a big IF) you can train to your true potential more often, fatigue may sneak up on you without warning. If our goal is to train with maximal performance more often, then the question begs to be asked: If a perfect world does not exist, then how can we plan deloads for maximum effectiveness? Before we can answer that, we must ask ourselves what is considered a deload? We know that deloads are times in training where volume (most of the time) purposely comes down. During this time, we know that fatigue drops very fast in comparison to performance. But we don’t train in a perfect world. Thus, we can expand our definition of deloads beyond simply viewing them as deload weeks and consider other time frames. If you stay on top of your fatigue management and not let it mask performance, a few deload sessions, or even just some extra days off, instead of a full week-long deload may suffice and keep more days going at high performance. I will touch on this a bit more, and answer the above question, during the #1 strategy section of this blog titled auto-regulation. But first, let’s just consider taking the constraints off of deloads and using shorter periods as a potential strategy.
Likewise, intros can be planned as you transition to a new block of training and can act not only as an intro but also as a deload at the end of the prior block. I usually program these as reduced sets, but at the intensities and RPEs that are programmed in the next block. So, while these are deloads on paper, training performance can often times be really high due to a reduction of the obstacles that I mentioned in the opening of this blog. When you have an intro where training performance is really high with good quality reps, the result is a week/microcycle of training that can be the best of the entire block. So once again, if keeping training performance very close to our true potential is the goal, you can use intros regularly for each block to ensure more time is spent with all cylinders firing.
#2 – Hyper Focused Reps
Athletes walk into the gym with a plan and are motivated to execute their session. We want all of our athletes to have this mindset, but the motivation to complete all the work can overshadow the real “meat” of the training session. We must remember that every rep is an individual performance. Staying hyper focused on every rep ensures not only that they are of superior quality, but also makes it easier to gauge RPE.
Consistency here is key. Every rep needs to not only be high quality, but more importantly, consistently performed like all the other repetitions in the set. If there is a little bit of cheat on a curl or lateral, I’m okay with it as long as every rep has that same amount of body English, speed, and range of motion for that set, and on all sets. Heck, even squats that are a little high (so long as we aren’t prepping for a meet) do not bother me as long as they are all to the same depth. In order for this kind of consistency to happen, the only rep that exists in your mind must be the rep that you are currently doing. The previous reps are in the books, the future reps, are to come, but this rep, right here, right now, must be executed with focus and consistency. Once that rep is complete, quickly evaluate if that rep was consistent with the others and if it met the RPE prescribed (if you are doing an open-ended number of reps and stopping at a target RPE). If that rep wasn’t consistent or met the RPE prescribed, then call it, and move on to the next set. However, if that rep was consistent and the prescribed RPE was not met, then focus on the next one and dive in. Even if it’s a high rep set and your lungs and body parts are burning, you must have intense focus on only that rep and persist with consistent execution until your goal, RPE or rep target is met. Give each rep this kind of focus and treat them all like individual performances and you will find out what a high performance session feels like. If you can string together multiple sessions like this, that’s fantastic, but you’ll also carry fatigue and will need to consider how you incorporate deloads. Please refer back to strategy number 3. You will also find that this kind of focus is exhausting in and of itself and you will probably want to evaluate the number of sets you can really afford to give this kind of quality to. That’s a subject for another blog all together though.
#1 – Autoregulation
Periodization was a game changer in and of itself and seemed to propel natural athletes to new levels of strength and development. However, we now know that a problem with periodization is we don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict performance levels on a given day or given week in the future. This is where autoregulation comes in handy. We must be able to adjust training to our performance capacity on any given day in our imperfect world in order to get more “amazing sessions.”
Assessing performance is the hard part here. So often, how we walk into the gym in not necessarily representative of how we’ll perform. We see this all the time. We had little sleep, we are stressed, or we just didn’t feel like training and it seems by some divine intervention we killed it and set new PRs. Likewise, sometimes we walk into the gym motivated and ready to crush it and like a sucker punch, we just can’t seem to get it together. Simply pushing through with the plan when these sucker punches happen usually leads to a downward spiral of bad performance for multiple days to come. You simply can’t train to your true potential all the time and pushing through makes it worse. Doesn’t it make sense then to train to a level less-than our desired potential on that day? So, back to the original question, how do we assess performance? It’s easy to assess performance when you are already training and have a few more exercises or sets to complete. You can use what’s been done to adjust as needed. However, if the goal is to perform to our true potential on everything, then we need to assess and adjust right from the start. There are tons of high-tech systems used for just that. Just to name a few, tracking velocity of lifts and using force plates to assess performance prior to the session. However, if you’re not in a high-performance sports lab, simply doing tester sets or heavy primary sets are the easiest way to get an assessment without high tech equipment. From that tester set you can assess and adjust the plan accordingly. You can adjust the loads so that you can get the target sets or reps or RPE in an effort to keep at your prescribed levels. You can also adjust the reps and sets in order to meet your prescribed loads. Then as you continue through your training day, moving on to assistance work that is easier to perform with focus that doesn’t have to be as intense, you can then adjust those exercises using the above criteria as well.
If autoregulating individual sessions is best to keep training performance high, then why not also autoregulate weeks and blocks of training as well? After all it’s weeks, months and years of training that cumulatively result in increased muscle and strength. To do so, let’s take the time constraints off of microcycles of training. Having to make sure that all sessions are done in a specific prescribed order and in a certain time frame can lead to stress, training when under recovered, complacency, and a lack of focus; all of which are the bane to keeping performance as high as possible. Our bodies don’t know that 7 days is a week, and allowing microcycles to be completed in more days when needed, keeps training performance up and more than makes up for a slight drop in frequency. If you absolutely have to get all your training done in a 7 day period, like preparing for powerlifting competition where week by week planning is better for organization, then adjust volume so that all of the lifts can be done with maximum performance without the obstacles I mention above. Doing less while being able to perform better is more beneficial than doing more when you can’t perform at your best, especially in the short term before a meet. This does NOT mean that there shouldn’t be some reasonable limit for how long it takes to complete a microcycle. Optimal frequency is still a foundational principle and training every 5th or 6th day in an effort to keep performance maximized in each one of those sessions in of itself is doing the opposite. There is a loss of co-ordination and skill (and potentially even muscle mass) which are required to train to our true potential. The adaptations from a single session will nearly dissipate with such a low frequency and every session will induce soreness that will further perpetuate the necessity for a low frequency. It’s just not reasonable to skip multiple days repeatedly in an effort to step in the gym only when you’re able to maximally perform, especially given the now common knowledge that very low frequency training is suboptimal. Once again, remember that our goal here is simply have more sessions where we perform at a high level.
Finally, deloads are another variable that can and should be autoregulated for maximal performance. I don’t want to re-hash what I presented with my previous strategy, but we still have to answer the above question, right? How can we plan deloads for maximum effectiveness when we train in an imperfect world? Deloads need to take place; however, the time frames don’t need to be rigid. We know that after many months of athletes pushing themselves to the absolute brink can lead to fatigue levels so high that they can’t even sleep, much less perform well in training. The resolution to such an extreme scenario is either time off from training and/or greatly reduced volume for a long time. Deloads keep this scenario from happening in the first place, but the opposite can be true as well. If there are 5 consecutive sessions where performance, focus, and motivation were all really high, then a deload session or just an additional day off may be required in order to keep that trend going. Using these tools, anecdotally I’ve found I’ve had 5 out of 7 sessions where the planets line up, and then I’m begging for a deload. Not because I physically need one or am over trained; instead, I want to be able to sustain that frequency of high-performance sessions, and I need to get a bit more rest to repeat the process. Alternatively, I can program an “easier” session with an off day on either side to mimic a deload. Essentially, I’ve found I can bridge two fantastic microcycles with a 3-day deload; two days being off from training on either side of a single training session where mostly isolation movements or purposely lower RPEs are performed.
I know I have probably beat a dead horse with my constant re-iteration of “maximizing performance,” “training close to our true potential” and “high performance while training.” Heck, as I proofread this, I can see those words written dozens of times. However, just like periodization, I truly feel the next level of unlocking our potential is simply having more great days in the gym than average. I know it’s not reasonable to expect every day to be amazing, but just getting a few more sessions per mesocycle to be great can really add up over time. Hopefully, these three strategies will help you accomplish just that.