When to Push and When to Back Off – Simple Stuff That’s Often Overlooked
For the past 24 weeks, I’ve been monitoring my HRV (heart rate variability) via Joel Jamieson’s Bioforce HRV. If you’ve ever considered keeping track of your HRV, and you’re serious about your training and recovery, I’d highly recommend you do so. I actually can’t believe I waited this long to actually use a real program like this. It’s definitely something that could have previously improved my training and recovery, but needless to say, I’m glad I’m using it now! Basically, what HRV does is monitor your autonomic nervous system and give you a measure of your trainability.
Even if you or your clients do not regularly keep track of your HRV, you still can monitor how you’re feeling and regulate your training approach therein. Here are some of the key things I’ve noticed with my HRV and some takeaway points for ensuring you and your clients do not overtrain. Some of these points we’ve talked about quite a bit, but nevertheless, these are points that will remain true in perpetuity!
Feeling good can be a state of mind: After three hard days of training, I’ve still felt “fine”. My HRV confirmed otherwise, as it should if you’re training with enough volume/loading. Many times athletes feel great and instead of taking an “active recovery” day on their 4th day of training, they push the envelope. What I will say is that if you’re using an efficient system of programming where volume and intensity are managed and dosed correctly, your 4th day in a row of training should be low-intensity and geared towards restoration, even if you feel like a champ. Of course, some people are more resilient, but for MOST people, the 4th day of training volume/intensity should be dropped considerably (30-40%). These are great days for steady-state aerobic work. One of my favorite active recovery sessions is as follows:
Done at a Zone 1 effort (heart-rate between 130-150 BPM).
Take Rest Days: Sounds simple right? What I’m talking about is taking days of complete rest. No training whatsoever. Spend the time doing something mentally restorative like reading or meditating, but no physical activity. If you’re feeling rundown, you may want to consider multiple rest days. After a hard week of training, you might be better served simply taking the entire weekend off. Don’t worry, you won’t go backwards! You’ll come back feeling better both mentally and physically. But please, don’t ignore the warning signs that your body will share with you.
Have a plan: This is another thing that may sound simple, but in a society where things are often done “last minute”, you’ll be better served to be able to have a plan for your week of hitting the gym or CrossFit classes. If you’ve been training for at least a year, I recommend 3 on 1 off, 2 on 1 off approach most of the time. Of course, take those opportunities for additional rest days when you need it. For those that train Monday-Friday, this approach can certainly work, assuming you are taking the entire weekend off and your programming allows for built-in recovery and lower-intensity days (it should).
Built-in rest in programming: High intensity/high volume work CANNOT be done every day. It’s that simple. Your highest intensity work should be separated by 48-72 hours. While high-intensity/high-volume is certainly vital to the adaptation process, most of us already have an inherent level of stress that needs to be managed, so applying too much stress, too often, can be a recipe for overtraining. If you go to a gym where they run you into the ground every day, it is time to find a new gym.
Push when things are “clicking”: Every so often there are opportunities that you may want to push the envelope and take advantage. Most of the time, going against a well-thought-out plan isn’t advised, but it could be as simple as hitting a new PR on a lift that was only intended to be a “heavy single”. Sometimes, things just click, and it’s okay to take advantage; just don’t take these opportunities every time.
Leave on a high note: It’s easy to get greedy when attempting new personal records. You’re much better off ending on a high note with a made lift. If it’s a PR, move on and be proud of your effort. If you’re improving by 5 lbs a month on your lifts, that’s 60 lbs a year. Hit your PR, high five your coach, and move on. Don’t be that guy/girl that attempts the same load 8x and misses all 8. Missing is okay, but limit yourself to three attempts only.
Learn to love the less-sexy work: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Accessory work (single-joint work), GPP Work (sleds + loaded carries), and low-intensity work are 100% non-negotiable if you want to still be training 20 years from now. It’s also non-negotiable if you want to keep improving. This work is MORE IMPORTANT than any other work we perform. It’s really that simple. You cannot build a house without a foundation, and this work allows us to perform the more-sexy-work (back squats/deadlifts/presses, Olympic lifts, higher-skill gymnastics) more efficiently with consistent improvement and significantly decreases the risk of injury. If you skip this work, you’re severely limiting yourself and setting yourself up for an injury.
De-load: There may come a time every 4-6 months when it’s time to take a week off. A lot of times, people simply go on vacation, which fits perfectly into giving them the rest they probably need if they’ve been training consistently for the last 4-6 months. These are great opportunities to recharge the battery, restore the body, and come back to training more motivated than before. I’d advise you do this even if you don’t have any vacation time planned. How do you know when to do it? Your body will usually tell you with fatigue, lack of motivation or desire to train, or maybe you have something going on your life that’s going to prevent from being in the gym much on a given week.
In short, life is generally stressful. We have jobs, families, and commitments, all of which may not align with our goals of becoming stronger, healthier, and looking better in our bathing suit. Compounding stress with stress will likely make things worse. Of course, stress needs to be applied appropriately and measures need to be taken to restore the body on a weekly basis. Overall, YOU MUST LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. Don’t avoid the signs just because there’s a workout you really want to do with your bros. More times than not, when people avoid the signs, they end up getting injured. Funny how that works. In the end, you’ll get closer to your goals while feeling great consistently if you tune into your body’s messages.
Jason has been involved with the fitness industry for close to 15 years working with athletes from all walks of life including soccer moms, professional athletes, and military personnel almost exclusively using the Conjugate Method as the basis of all his programming. After owning his own facility for six years, he started Box Programming, an online programming business that provides programming to CrossFit Affiliates and Strength and Conditioning facilities all over the world. In addition to having a BA in Psychology with honors, Jason is a CSCS, Westside Barbell Special Strength Coach, CrossFit Level 2 coach, and a Combat Veteran who is passionate about helping other coaches improve their programming as well as programming for the general population in a group setting.