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The training X-factor

A powerful ally when going from great to excellent

Today's program called for high rep back extensions with quite a bit of additional weight. 'Fuck, this sucks' echoed through my mind as I was sitting on the floor after completing the third set, while waiting for my blood pressure to settle. Unfortunately I had already scribbled down a fourth set in my log, so there was no turning back. Time for another 50 reps. Of course this killed me even further, and hit me right in the why am I even here feels. Later on I started to think about why I was willing to do that last gruesome set, and why this matters. I like to call this willingness the training X-factor, for its ability to give your results just that little bit of extra punch.

photo by @wearebru

Back when I was still competing I lived for the training X-factor. Any set that didn't feel like it shaved a few years off of my life expectancy was considered 'easy’. Aches were irrelevant. So was being too worn down after training to go on a date, or cutting out another starvation-inducing 500 calories in order to get just a bit leaner. It was standard practice, and the results were fantastic.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and things have changed quite a bit. Even though I now make a living off training, it has taken a much more secondary role in my life. Training has lost its place on the pedestal and now has to share attention with other pastimes, a social life, and a business. I don't compete anymore. I am however still training hard, and my programming is smarter than it used to be back in the day. However, in spite of this, I am ‘stuck’ at about 90% of my competitive top level. And no matter how cleverly I feel my latest training cycle is put together, 90% is where it's at. Most of the time, at least.

"Any set that didn't feel like it shaved a few years off of my life expectancy was considered 'easy'."

Throughout this last decade I have always trained consistently, but I clearly go through periods of 'maintenance' during which improvement is less on my mind. The focus then is more on enjoyment, health and making sure that I walk the walk as a fitness professional. As a result, I am still in the gym a lot, and able to lift heavy-ass weights, but many sessions will feel like I'm just going through the motions. Then every other year or so, I find a new training partner and dig a little deeper. The flame rekindles.

When this happens, I find that last 10 percent of strength returning to my body - even though the programming is the same. Hell, my training is probably more stupid because I will be taking larger risks to get what I want. Also I’m eating the same things, and it honestly feels like I'm giving the same effort. But during these phases I notice that this old familiar frustration is back. That desire to exceed whatever arbitrary amount of weight that I managed to lift last week. The willingness to get a little more nauseas or risk a pulled hamstring just to be better than before.The training X-factor is back.

This shows me how important intent is, and that all these seemingly small gestures do in fact add up to a better performance. An extra set here, a skipped night at the bar there. Being willing to submit anything else to this one priority. But it also teaches me the importance of letting it go when 90% is enough and my passion is required elsewhere.

"All these seemingly small gestures do in fact add up to a better performance."

I have written before about how I think unconditionally destroying yourself through training can be detrimental to overall quality of life, to the point of plain toxicity. But if you want to truly discover your limits, then there’s no hiding from it. Your program will only work as hard as you do, and all these seemingly negligible details do eventually add to the greater picture. The deeper you dig and the more you are willing to sacrifice, the more you will get in return. Keep in mind, however, that the training X-factor is a powerful ally that will happily throw under the bus anything that gets in its way.

The choice is yours.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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