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Things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to be
Over the past decade, we’ve worked with many former competitive athletes. One thing they’ve all shared is a clear image of how they used to perform. This can create a lot of frustration and anxiety. Former athletes think back to when they were at the peak of their athletic prowess and compare that picture to their current status. A decade or two can change a lot. In those moments, they wonder if there’s any point in even trying.
I know of one former Division I scholarship athlete who tried getting back on track by pulling out his old university workouts. Let’s call him Tim. Tim often felt too tired to follow the plan, however, and would frequently opt-out instead of doing a half-workout. When he did train, he would feel excessively sore or find himself dealing with flare-ups of old injuries. You can imagine how frustrated he felt.
Here’s the thing: Tim forgot to take into account what was going on behind the scenes. To compare his current self with his former self, you have to know more about his old situation. He used to get his food purchased and cooked for him. His university’s goal was to completely minimize any stress or demands so that every bit of his energy could go into training and playing. The rest of his time was spent recovering, playing X-Box and attending the occasional class. If you’ve ever spent time around collegiate athletics in the United States, you know the staggering amount of money, care and rule-bending that go into cultivating their top players.
Contrast the above to Tim’s current situation—he’s a junior partner in a law firm, has two active kids and a hectic schedule. His sleep has dropped from 9-10 hours per night to 6-7 and both exercise and nutrition have fallen by the wayside. To sum up, he’s at a lower level of physical ability, he’s older, he has far more lifestyle stress, poorer nutrition and less sleep and overall recovery. Is it reasonable for Tim to think he could follow the same plan and get the same results? Of course not.
Your Adaptive Reserve
The adaptive reserve describes your body’s buffer zone for adapting (positively) to a training stress. More reading on that here. Stress itself is not a dirty word. But some stressors trigger positive adaptations—like greater strength or changes in body composition—and some stresses just suck the joy out of your life. Those stresses don’t have to be physical either. Work demands, relationship issues, anxiety, etc. can all gobble up your adaptive reserve.
With a limited adaptive reserve, you have to be particularly strategic about what kind of stresses you take on.
Tim’s problem was the stress load from his training program exceeded his adaptive reserve. You know that expression, “Your ego’s writing cheques your body can’t cash?” Yeah, that was Tim.
If you think of your adaptive reserve as a bank account, you can put money back into it with recovery, nutrition, and stress management. Professional demands, relationship demands, and any ongoing pain or injury come out of the account first. After that, you are left with your discretionary income. How you spend that limited reserve is extremely important if you care about making progress.
The definition of insanity
You’ve heard about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What happens when you are doing a lesser version of the same thing? If you are less fit than you used to be—and with greater stress demands—you will need a different approach That’s why Tim was stuck. He only got unstuck after he reached out to me and we engineered a far more strategic game plan. Once he’d accepted that New Tim and Old Tim were not the same guy, was he able to leave Old Tim’s training program behind and focus on things that would provide maximum benefit for New Tim.
How you can be strategic about your training stresses
The first thing you need to know is how to maximize your return on investment for exercise. You can do that with the following guidelines:
Have an organized training plan
I don’t know if people still believe that they have to confuse their muscles, etc. but exercise progress is generally based on learning a gradual overload of an exercise. Sudden spikes in volume (like a 5K runner suddenly running 20K or a moderately-active person abruptly jumping into a week of intense, daily exercise) will greatly exceed your adaptive reserve. They’re highly disruptive but don’t offer much in return. So, a 10% bump in training volume (compared to your current baseline) might provide you with positive adaptation but a 50% bump will greatly increase your risk of feeling beat-up but probably not offer any additional benefit.
By focusing on training loads that provide the greatest results for the least stress, you’ll be able to maximize your progress. It’s that simple.
Calories come and go. Body composition can change. Lifestyle demands can fluctuate wildly. But procedural memory is the truly sticky stuff. Investing in learning great technique will ensure that—whatever your physical status—you’ll be able to move forward in a safe way.
Skill is also required to expand your options. Being able to swing a kettlebell, squat a barbell, or hold an advanced gymnastic position are powerful tools. However, this isn’t stuff that you can learn here and there. These skills take years to master and generally require great coaching.
Don’t make everything a contest
Any contest has rules and any rules can be bent to achieve victory. But when you compromise your own technique to “win” you trade long-term results for short-term pride. Competition is healthy and positive but most training sessions need to be about deliberate practice, not who did more or worked harder.
Fatigue is a lousy metric
Now that we’ve gone over the idea of your adaptive reserve, you can see how fatigue or soreness is not how you should be evaluating your workouts. Yes, effort is essential. But feeling smoked or beat up is not. Don’t get tricked into thinking that the more you sweat or the more exhausted you feel, the better.
Invest in strength
I described the importance of movement skill above. If movement is the most enduring quality, then strength is easily #2. Building strength (which is related to building muscle but not always the same thing) takes the longest of all physical qualities because it’s part skill and part structure. The sooner you begin developing strength, the better.
But what if strength is not your goal? Strength doesn’t have to dominate your training landscape but it will make everything you do more effective. If you’re a distance runner, strength will give you another gear. If your goal is fat-loss, then strength will allow you to rev higher during any kind of physical activity. If your goal is to jump higher, climb further, or dig deeper, strength is an incredible asset. Applied intelligently, it will also injury-proof you against whatever your sport or hobby might throw at you.
Why gratitude is so important
There is more right with you than there is wrong with you. When you compare your current self to your past self, you pull yourself out of the moment and compromise your results. Embracing and appreciating what you’re doing well will help you be present and get the most out of what you’re doing. Don’t be in two places at once!
New: The Bang Fitness Barbell Club and Anti-gravity Society
We founded the Anti-gravity Society to give the good people of Toronto an opportunity to build strength, skill, and get the greatest results possible. These small-group strength classes are a fun, social way to build strength, technique, and lifelong skill. You’ll sweat, you’ll laugh, you’ll lift some heavy sh*t.=
We’ll be launching our inaugural classes in the new year. In addition to these incredible classes, our inaugural group will receive unlimited access to all of our small-group classes and save $50/month on their Anti-gravity Society Membership. That means$̶2̶7̶5̶$200 for 3 classes a week. ONGOING! If you love the classes and stay, we’ll keep your rate the same.
We’re capping our first classes at 8 people!
If you know us, you know that coaching comes first. That’s why we’re starting these classes off small. If you want in and want that amazing inaugural rate, then click here.