It happens to all of us: training is going great, we are getting stronger, looking better, life is good! We start to make projections: “if I continue at this rate I will be lifting XYZ in 2 months”, and it gets us super motivated… but all of a sudden progress stops. We aren’t doing anything different, haven’t suffered an injury or anything but it’s like training is not working anymore… what’s going on? How can we prevent that?
This is the topic I will address today.
This article is a bit more complex than simple training programs or methods and it deals with a lot of specific terminology. To make it easier to understand, here are some key terms and concepts:
Trainability: This represents the potential for improvement of a muscle, movement pattern or physical capacity. In simple words, the more trainability you have, the more you can progress. Having a higher trainability normally also means that you can progress at a faster rate. It can be affected by genetic elements (some people have more potential for muscle growth than others for example, so their muscle trainability is higher), testosterone and IGF-1 levels (the higher they are, naturally or not, the higher is your trainability), experience (the more you have trained and progressed in your life, the harder it is to progress because your trainability is lower), etc.
Accommodation: The process by which your body becomes more and more adapted to the training you are performing. The more accommodated you are, the lower your trainability is.
Overtraining: Wrongfully thought to simply be “training too much”. Overtraining is actually a physiological state (like a “burnout” or clinical depression). It is defined as such: “A physiological state caused by an excess accumulation of physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental, and chemical stress that leads to a sustained decrease in physical and mental performance, and that requires a relatively long recovery period”. If you feel some fatigue and you can recover by taking a few days of rest, it wasn’t overtraining. To reach an actual state of overtraining one would have to be under excessive stress (training stress being only one of the sources) for a sustained period and go through numerous stages to reach “overtaining”.
Acute fatigue: Normal level of fatigue following a very intense workout (or another strenuous activity). It doesn’t affect your capacity to train the next day unless you are planning on hitting the same muscle/movements hard a second day in a row, in which case there will be a decrease in performance.
Accumulated fatigue: A physiological state where the body is always functioning slightly below it’s normal capacity. Physical and mental performance are somewhat affected (to various degrees depending on the person) and mindset can start to be affected (loss of motivation, decreased drive, negativity). During a period of very hard training, it is possible to reach that state after 4-6 weeks of very intense work, especially if life stress is elevated as well. It is quickly reversible and can sometimes lead to a greater peak once you recover from it, which is why it is often used as part of a peaking strategy (3 hell weeks followed by a deloading week), but going through that process is very hard on the body and should not be the approach used for the entire training year.
NOTE: Typically, you should not reach the accumulated fatigue state. Properly planned training, which includes days that are higher in intensity and days that are lower in volume and/or intensity should help prevent reaching that stage. If you reach the early part of if, 2 days of rest or of a different, lower intensity physical activity followed by a few days of lower volume workouts should be enough to get you back on track.
Chronic fatigue: In this state, you wake up tired even if you slept well. You feel like a walking dead, you have no drive to train, and have aches and pains. Resting heart rate is elevated, and often body weight drops for no reason. This is what most people think is overtraining, which is understandable because the symptoms are the same. The main difference is how long it takes you to get out of it. True overtraining can take several months to recover from, while chronic fatigue normally requires a few days of rest followed by a deloading week/progressive return to training. To reach an actual overtraining state, one would have to train for a few months while being in a state of accumulated fatigue. We rarely see this because motivation drops to the point that it is too difficult to keep training hard.
Overreaching: This is short term overtraining. Note that many coaches wrongfully use “overreaching” to describe what is actually accumulated fatigue. Overreaching is the first phase of overtraining. It has the same symptoms and does require a fairly long time to recover from; 1-2 weeks of rest followed by a gradual return to training. If you keep training hard in an overreaching state, full onset overtraining could occur within a few weeks. However, very few individuals can actually reach an overreaching state.
Deloading: A voluntary decrease in training stress normally lasting between 5 and 10 days with the objective of either preventing or reversing accumulated fatigue (see graphic above).
Variability: A change in the content of training that is enough to alter the stimulus placed on the body. The less training experience you have, the less often you need to include variations. Less experienced trainees also don’t need large changes, as little details like changing sets and reps or rest intervals are often enough. With more advanced individuals, you need more drastic variations to restore trainability.
Hormone imbalance: While it can refer to any major hormone being out of whack (too low or too high compared to what is optimal, not just normal), when it comes to training we are more often talking about the level of cortisol vs. sex hormones (testosterone and estrogen primarily).
Cortisol: It’s a hormone that helps you respond to stress. The more stress you face, the more cortisol you release. It helps mobilize stored energy (frees up stored glycogen and fat), but can also breakdown muscle tissue to make fuel. It also regulates many metabolic and immune actions. If your training (and nutrition, and recovery strategies) are not good, you run the risk of causing an imbalance mostly by elevating cortisol too much. The result will be a difficulty in building muscle, loss of sex drive, increase in fat gain, increase in blood pressure, mood swings and water retention. Note that cortisol and testosterone/estrogen are fabricated from the same mother hormone, “pregnenolone”. So the more cortisol you have to make the less testosterone and/or estrogen you can make (which explains the lower muscle gain and loss of sex drive).
Accommodation, Overtraining And Deloading
Accommodation is what happens when your body is pretty much fully adapted to a certain type of training; you are adapted to the “means” (exercises, special tools like bands/chains, barbells vs. dumbbells vs. pulley, etc.) to the “methods” (how you are performing the exercises) and the “strategies” (intensity level, order of exercises, workout density, etc.).
Accommodation is normal and is something we should work towards. Understand that when you are training, your goal is to stimulate changes in your body (adaptations). When your body is “accommodated”, it means that you did an amazing job at stimulating an adaptation. So if you never work toward accommodation, you aren’t going to stimulate any gains.
The problem is that the closer you get to being accommodated, the less trainability you have. Trainability is how much adaptation or progress you can stimulate. The more trainability you have (or a muscle/group of muscles have), the less room for progress there is and the slower that progress will be. Once you are accommodated it is almost impossible to stimulate further gains. In fact, if you have been in an accommodated state for a fairly long time you will start to lose some capacities, increase the risk of injuries and lose motivation.
I honestly believe that overtraining is overrated. It doesn’t happen as often as people think. Remember that “overtraining” is not training too much. Overtraining is a physiological state, kind of like a burnout or a clinical depression. Your hormones, neurotransmitters and immune system are out of whack or exhausted and your body can’t cope with stress anymore, resulting in a decrease in performance. But to reach true overtraining it takes a very long period of excessive stress imposed on your body.
I have worked with athletes from 29 different sports, from kids to pros and Olympians. Some of them were training as much as 8 hours per day and 30-35 hours a week, and out of all these people I only saw two real cases of “overtraining”!
So unless you are working a physical job or getting about 4 hours of sleep per night, you aren’t likely to reach an overtraining state by lifting weights 4-6 hours per week.
But people do get stuck. Their performance does drop despite training hard, they do start to get injuries out of nowhere and see their motivation drop. It sounds like overtraining but most of the time it is accommodation. Their trainability is super low, so they stop progressing. They lose some coordination by overdoing the same thing over and over (for those who played golf a lot you know about being “overgolfed”: losing your swing because you played and practiced too much) and that can actually lead to a drop in performance and to injuries. Their motivation drops, but mostly because of the frustration from the lack of progress due to the accommodation.
These people will deload and see the situation improve briefly. Why would a deload work, though, if they were not overtraining? Because a deload represents a change in the conditions of execution of the workout (most of the time changes in volume, number of exercises, type of exercises or intensity). Even in one week, the body can lose some of its accommodation and as a result gain a little more trainability (capacity to adapt and get gains). You are also lowering accumulated fatigue, allowing you to perform better for a brief period of time.
So deloading works, of course, but not really for the reason most people think. And often times a deload at a precise time interval (every 4th week for example) will have you deloading before you have accumulated enough fatigue to justify it. In this case you are actually losing one week of potentially harder training. This is why I don’t like deloading at fixed intervals but prefer to use it for a specific reason (to peak performance at a specific date), to fit a life event (going on a vacation or having a very stressful period in your life) or if you really need it (lots of accumulated fatigue).
When you are not suffering from accumulated fatigue, you do not need a deload. If progress stalls it is likely that you are getting accommodated, not chronically fatigued. So why waste a week of “easy training” when you can continue to train hard, simply by changing how you do it?
The Variability Conundrum
Those who know my work are aware that I do not like to use excessive exercise variation in my programs. To be fair, this applies mostly to the big lifts, as I do vary the assistance work frequently. I believe that people change their main lifts too often and as a result never get any significant improvements from them or don’t become really efficient at them, at least not enough to reach a very high level of performance.
“But the Westside guys rotate their main lift every week”. Sure, and it works for them because they are very advanced powerlifters with extremely solid technique. They are accommodated to their competition lifts because they’ve been doing them for years (most people who switch to Westside already have years of training on the three powerlifts). In their case, rotating their main lift while staying in a similar movement pattern makes sense if they want to continue progressing. However, most people are not at this level.
To get back on topic, the law of accommodation implies that we need to change training often to avoid accommodation (though not too often; remember that working toward accommodation is a good thing) but we also need to keep the big basic lifts in our program long enough to become really efficient at them.
This sounds counterintuitive. So, which one is it; a lot of variability or not?
Remember what I said earlier: “… you are adapted to the “means” (exercises, special tools like bands/chains, barbells vs. dumbbells vs. pulley, etc.), to the “methods” (how you are performing the exercises) and the “strategies” (intensity level, order of exercises, workout density, etc.”).
So, there are in fact several ways to both include variability to avoid accommodation and keep doing the basic strength lifts (as your main exercises) for a long time.
– You can change the means: adding chains, bands, weight releasers, switching to a fat bar, to a cambered bar, etc.
– You can change the methods: slow eccentric, explosive concentric, 1 ½ reps, super slow reps, pauses during the concentric, pauses during the eccentric, etc.
– You can make small exercise modifications: widening stance or grip just a smudge for example
– You can change loading schemes: going for low reps to medium or high reps or vice versa
– You can change where you do your big lift: beginning of the workout, middle of the workout, end of the workout
– You can sharply increase or decrease the rest intervals
– You can change the frequency at which you do each main lift: once a week, twice a week, three times a week, more, etc.
All of these change what is going on in your body when doing an exercise and in most cases will be enough to avoid accommodation on the big lifts.
Is It The Same Thing With Assistance Work?
Assistance or targeted work is geared towards a certain muscle or group of muscles. It typically has a much lower skill and technical component than the big lifts which means that 1) you don’t have to practice it as much, and 2) you can become accommodated faster. This is why I like to vary my assistance work much more frequently, in fact, I sometimes change it every week.
I see the big lifts as “movement training”, which needs more practice to master and become really efficient at, whereas I see targeted/assistance work as “muscle training”. As long as I feel maximum fatigue in the targeted muscle, it will work. In reality, any assistance exercise where you really feel the target muscle contracting and getting pumped will work, so you don’t have the obligation to stick to the same one week in and week out.
Including more variation in the assistance work is a great way to prevent accommodation without having to stop practicing your main lifts. Thus, it can be an important component in maintaining a high training motivation and rate of progress.
This is why I have a large bank of special exercises and isolation ones. These are rotated very often (every 1-2 weeks for myself but with some people I can stick with them up to 4 weeks).
Variation is important if you want continuous training progression, especially if you are natural (since steroids and other drugs increases trainability artificially). The more advanced you are, the more frequently you need to introduce changes in your program. Advanced individuals are better adapted to training and get accommodated to a program much more easily.
Variation doesn’t have to come from changing the exercises and program completely. I prefer to introduce variation in the big lifts through changes in the means, methods and strategies of the program rather than changing the exercises themselves. However, when it comes to assistance and isolation work, exercises can be changed more frequently.
On the big basic lifts, I prefer to keep using the same ones for at least 12 weeks and change means, methods or strategies every 2-4 weeks (every 2 weeks for advanced individuals, 3 weeks for intermediate and 4 weeks for beginners).
For the isolation and assistance work, I like to change at around the same rate but by rotating the exercises themselves (I can also use different methods). With very advanced individuals I often change the isolation or even assistance exercises every week, especially if the person is dopamine dominant (extroverted, risk-taker, loves excitement, very competitive, likes to be the center of attention, etc.).
Remember that variation is good but you need to vary the right things or you will never let your body work towards accommodation and this will stall your progress.
Strategies For Continuous Progress
- The first strategy to use is to include more stressful and less stressful sessions during the week. In most cases, I prefer less stressful sessions to rest days because “easier” workouts still teach your body how to handle physical stress and over time will improve your capacity to recover. An easier session could be training something minor like arms, abs or calves; doing light technical work; doing isolation work to fix a specific weakness.
- When there are signs of accumulated fatigue, I really like to use neural charge training for a few days. 20-25 minutes workout utilizing only explosive movements (jumps, throws, hitting/striking) going nowhere near fatigue. At no point during the workout should your breathing be more labored. In fact, after the 20-25 minutes you should feel better than when you walked in. Another strategy is to take 3 days where you only do light technique work, really focusing on perfecting lifting form.
- To prevent stagnation through accommodation follow the guidelines presented above when it comes to including changes in your training.
- I rarely use planned deloads because I plan the workouts intelligently enough that they aren’t really needed. To be honest most people don’t train hard enough to justify a true deload. While doing a deload when you don’t really need it will not do you any harm, it can stall your progress. I personally use planned deloads for specific purposes: when there is a need to peak at a certain time or for an upcoming vacation, for example. In both cases, I will precede the deload by 2 or 3 weeks of more demanding training and then will drastically reduce volume for 5-10 days. If a client shows signs of high accumulated fatigue, then yes, we will use a deload. However, knowing when to use a deload is more of an art than science.
Hope this helps!