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Program longevity

No more beating dead horses

In order to get better at something we need to practice. It’s how we develop as kids, and it still holds true when building our bodies some decades later. Practice is the backbone of any successful training program. However, as I’ve written before, there is a turning point where continuously doing the same thing stops working. So how do you know where the tipping point is? The answer is simple: when it stops working. While tracking your performance should make this an easy task in theory, some confounding factors are unfortunately at play. In this article I will discuss three of them: level of expertise, relative intensity, and fatigue, and follow them up with strategies to make them work in your favor.

photo by @wearebru

Let me start by stating that you should be tracking your workouts. Scribble down the sets and reps somewhere, use an app, memorize them. Whatever works. Without the numbers, you have no idea where you are and where you are going. As long as your body is adapting to your training, those numbers should be going up. And in my opinion, any absence of progress for more than two weeks is a sign that your current training is no longer working. Assuming that your programming is sound and your documentation game on fleek, we can now discuss three major factors that are influencing your results.

1 - Level of expertise

Many of the #gains you're making in training are not because of growing muscles, but because your brain is learning how to more efficiently use those muscles. This process consists of expensive sounding processes like improved synchronization of muscle fiber contraction, but in the end it boils down to a simple concept: improved coordination. If you're new to the iron game, your efficiency is by definition low, and you will be able to run any type of program much longer due to the yet untapped neurological/coordinative adaptations. Unfortunately there is no real guideline that I can provide you with here, but it's an important factor to be aware of nonetheless.

2 - Relative intensity

As a rule of thumb, the higher the intensity (aka: the closer you are to lifting your one rep max), the quicker your body adapts to the stimulus, and therefore the sooner it requires change. For instance, lifting a true one rep max can usually only been done for about one or two consecutive weeks before performance stalls. On the other end, lower intensity work (like sets of 15 reps) lasts much longer, with improvements of up until six weeks not being uncommon. While this may sound a bit daunting at first, it will eventually help predict how long your program is likely to work. Important to take away though, is the fact that heavier parts of your program might require more frequent updates.

3 - Fatigue

An often quoted maxim in training literature is 'fatigue masks fitness', which basically states that at any moment you may be too tired to express your true level of performance. Whether it's poor sleep, last night's session still being 'in your legs', or the cumulative fatigue of a high volume training block: fatigue clouds performance and may give the illusion of ineffective programming. For true level of fitness to be expressed, you therefore need to understand and manage fatigue - exactly the reason why professional athletes will taper down and deload just before a competition. A good strategy to manage this, is to grade how you are feeling pre-training, in order to become aware of how much fatigue might distort today's results.

4 - (Pleasure)

A bonus! I felt that this one deserved a place among the ranks. Because, let's face it, we can concoct the most advanced and deliberate programs out there, but the program will only work as hard as you do. And for this, you need a healthy dose of enthusiasm. Especially if you're just a weekend warrior who has other things going on in life beside pumping iron. I am then, by definition, inclined to discard any program that doesn't make you want to train. No matter how often the latest research says you should be training to hit optimal muscle protein synthesis.

Putting it together

The idea is that you measure your workouts, estimate how long the combination of exercises and intensities are likely to work, and understand that some days fatigue will cloud your fitness. And all that, with the ultimate goal of learning to timely sound the alarm when progress halts. If you pay close attention, then over time you will get to know yourself so well that you'll learn to smell out the golden hour of program renewal before it even happens. Good luck!

Bryan Wolters

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

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