When to be Flexible With Your Trainingby Chris and Eric Martinez on December 17, 2015
When to be Flexible With Your Training
By Chris & Eric Martinez
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all go back into a time machine and use all the knowledge we have now, and use it back when we were younger to avoid mistakes?
All joking aside, we remember following cookie cutter training programs out of muscle magazines, copying trainer’s workouts at gyms, following workouts out of books, basically doing whatever we could to grow and get strong.
Our effort and desire were great, but the main issues were we were too rigid with our training, didn’t focus on training quality, and weren’t 100% in-tuned with our bodies and thus realizing that environmental and lifestyle factors played a significant role in our daily training performance. We overlooked these important variables so much that they came back to bite us in the you know what. We want all of you to avoid the mistakes we made and really be aware of how important environmental and lifestyle factors are these days when it comes to training. Some common environmental factors are as follows: stress, sleep, environment, habits, distractions, time, priorities, kids, family, the list goes on.
To quote John Kiely (Kiely 2012):
“In addition, consider the influence exerted by environmental and lifestyle factors on biological responses. For example, a wide range of imposed stressors such as:
- Emotional, Academics, and Social
- Work and Travel
- Sleep and Stress
All of these stressors will affect training performance.
These all have been demonstrated to variously down regulate the immune system, dampen adaptive response, and negatively affect motor coordination, cognitive performance, mood, metabolism, and hormonal health (Rogers 2001; Aubert 2008; Stranahan 2006; Savtchouk 2011; Carl 2001), and these all consequently reduce performance (Paulus 2009) and elevate risk injury (Kelman 2000).”
And this is where mastering and being flexible within your training comes into play. We live in a very different world now a days and it is time to get into the game and play the game smart.
Treat Your Body Like a Garden
“When you think about your body as a Garden, it’s almost ludicrous to even consider the idea of forcing some type of adaptation (strength, power, muscle growth). All you can do is nurture it and provide it with the best conditions for growth. You fertilize it, tend the soil, uproot the weeds, water it, leave it in the sunlight, and give it the best conditions for growth. It will only grow as well as its circumstances allow.
That’s a much more accurate metaphor for how training works. A holistic view of training treats sleep, nutrition, stress management, and enjoyment and motivation as conditions just as necessary for growth as the actual training itself.” – Greg Nuckols
This aligns very well with what Kiely spoke about needing to focus on environmental and lifestyle factors within your training. In order to keep progressing in your training, there comes a time when you need to grow up, just like a plant does, and start being in tuned with your body and lifestyle surrounding it.
In order to make gains, one needs to get stronger. Your strength increases naturally at first, but then your gains over time become asymptotic (every individual has a genetic limit to the amount of muscle you can carry & strength you can form). To keep growth going, one needs to look at other variables such as:
- Increasing volume
- Increasing frequency
- Adding in tempo training
- Adding in intensity techniques (drop sets, supersets, etc.)
Going through the motions daily and not observing your training will lead to mediocre gains, and that’s okay if you want to remain looking the same and lifting the same weight year after year. But if you want to progress, get stronger, get bigger, have more quality workouts, and be more in tuned with your body then something you should consider trying is…
A More Useful Way to Scale Intensity During your Training
We’ve been experimenting with “informal note taking” during our training.
This is a great way to gage your effort during sets when not lifting to muscular failure, and could therefore help with the planning of your training, help reduce the tendency to train to failure on every set of every exercise, keep you healthy, have more quality workouts, and be more in tuned with your body, and have you increasing your training volume over time (which has been shown to be the most important training variable that increases strength and muscle mass). There’s some good data supporting this from the Journal of Sports Sciences (Hackette 2012) and the Journal of Strength and Conditioning (Zourdos 2015).
Try using informal note taking on the main lifts like this:
- Feelings like: “easy,” “medium,” or “hard”
- Use a 5 point scale where 1 was easy and 5 was hard
- Use the RIR scale (repetitions in reserve scale of 7-10) 7 being you had 3 reps left in the tank, 8 being you had 2 reps left in the tank, 9 being 1 rep left in the tank, and 10 being you had no reps left in the tank and it was maximum failure.
These informal notes help us look back at the main lifts and forces us to pay attention to them more, helps us assign and adjust load and volume depending on environmental and lifestyle factors like we listed above, helps us reflect on and honestly evaluate each set, and this will help keep our working sets dialed into that zone of quality. This approach will also potentially keep us healthier both physically and mentally, keep our training sessions more realistic, and most importantly more enjoyable.
Let’s say we had to do 3 sets x 6 reps on squats with an 8 RPE that means we would have to do 6 reps for each set leaving 2 reps in the tank and be disciplined not to go to failure. A good rule of thumb can be to pretend like you are choosing a weight where you can do 8 reps with but really you are going for 6 reps.
If it were a 9 RPE, then you would do 3 sets of 6 reps and stopping 1 rep short of failure. And you could somewhat translate the intensity to say 90% with a 9 RPE.
If it were a 10 RPE, then you would do 3 sets of 6 reps to failure, but the caveat to that is after your first set of 6 reps to failure, you’d have to reduce the load on sets 2 and 3 and you’d end up doing less volume. Intensity wise this would be translated to 100% all out.
There is no magic number of sets when using this scale. It really depends how much overall volume you are currently doing within your training.
Flexibility in Resistance Training
“In light of the converging evidence, I suggest that periodization dictates are understood as hypothetical tradition-driven assumptions rather than, as commonly presented, evidence-led constructs. This does not imply that plans are unimportant but that our perception of what constitutes effective planning should be reevaluated. Similarly, the presented rationale should not be interpreted as suggesting a false dichotomy, an either/or choice between performed periodized structures and more emergent information-driven training systems. Ultimately there is a dynamic tension to be negotiated between structural rigidity and responsive adaptability, the need for ‘flexibility,” necessary deviation from the chosen path is often noted in the periodization literature but is not discussed in any depth.” –John Kiely 2012
We agree 100% here with what John Kiely is saying. The fact that some trainers, coaches, or fitness professionals imply such rigidity within their training programs to their clients or athletes is just not realistic. Flexibility and being aware of your environmental factors and lifestyle are what really set the tone for each day you go and train. Can you have an amazing program written up for each day in terms of volume? Yes, you can, but does that mean you are having the best day to perform that routine? No, of course not because each day we feel different and a new environmental factor may throw a curve ball at us and all we can do is adapt and try our best to execute each training session. Many people may not like to hear it, but it is the cold hard truth and you cannot control every variable in life.
Stress and Sleep Affecting Training
Ever heard of the Mind Body Connection?
A quote that really sticks with us is by John himself, he said “where your mind goes, your body will follow.” If you’re inherently negative and constantly think negative outcomes, then you’re most likely going to face negative results. Same thing goes for being inherently positive. There are hundreds of studies showing again and again that decrements to health due to the mind body connection are real problems. Mental stress is related to an increase in various potentially harmful chemicals substances such as: cortisol which degrades proteins, including white blood cells, antibodies, resulting in a decrease in immune function, and consequently, elevated rates of sickness. This also leads to cerebration (thoughts), which is one reason why people that are stressed often have sleeping disorders and it’s because they’re up worrying all night.
Which brings us to our next important environmental factor, which is sleep and the quality of it, this can also be classified as REM. “Our body runs through 90-minute cycles of alertness during the day – and 90-minute cycles of different levels of sleep during the night. Each 90-minute sleep cycle starts in a light state of sleep, goes into a progressively deeper state of sleep, and then ends in REM. REM is a state of rapid eye movement, where most dreams occur. Then the cycle repeats again. You’ll experience more deep sleep early in the night and more REM later in the night. Deep sleep is important for mental processing and regeneration of the body. REM sleep is more important for emotional health. So, both are important.” –Dr. Jo Lichten
Steps to improve sleep quality can be as follows:
- Make sleep a priority
- Eat a well-balanced diet and exercise frequently. Everyone’s goals and lifestyles will be different here. There is no one universal way to do this but we suggest finding a nutrition program that you can adhere to and turn into a lifestyle, think long term sustainability. With exercise try and at least get some daily activity for 30 minutes and move around, if you are resistance training, 3 days per week to start is perfectly fine anywhere from 30-60 minutes.
- Take 20-30 minute naps to reboot your brain and body
- Minimize Caffeine intake after a certain hour. These hours can range and really depends on each person’s tolerance for caffeine. We suggest minimizing caffeine before 6pm.
- Reduce time spent on the computer or on your phone before bed. Anywhere from 2-3 hours prior to be should be sufficient.
- Make sure you are in a cool and dim environment
So as you can see both stress and sleep are both very important environmental factors. You cannot train at a high level if both these factors are not being addressed. Think about the small things that matter first when it comes to overall health, then look at the bigger picture going forward. There is never any shame in going back to the basic fundamentals of health; these are what set all great athletes and lifters up for success and longevity within their respected sports.
- Be aware of your Environmental Factors (sleep, stress, habits, behaviors, work)
- Treat your body like a Garden
- Try using the RIR scale. By using this scale, it forces us to pay attention to the main lifts more, helps us assign and adjust load and volume depending on environmental and lifestyle factors like we listed above, helps us reflect on and honestly evaluate each set, and this will help keep our working sets dialed into that zone of quality. This approach will also potentially keep us healthier both physically and mentally, keep our training sessions more realistic, and most importantly more enjoyable.
- Incorporate Flexibility into your training programs. You can incorporate flexibility by using proper periodization concepts such as (Block, DUP, Linear, Non-Linear) or implement the RIR Scale we suggest. Just make sure your training makes sense and will lead you to progress overtime.
- Try and control stress levels to the best of your ability
- Improve your sleep quality to minimize health risks and before better each day
As we stated earlier in the article, this is where mastering and being flexible within your training comes into play. We live in a very different world now a days and it is time to get into the game and play the game smart.
McKenzie R. Treat Your Own Back. New Zealand: Spinal Publications New Zealand Ltd. 2011.
Kingma I. et al. Can Low Back Loading During Lifting Be Reduced by Placing One Leg Beside the Object to Be Lifted? Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association. 2006; 86:1091-1105.
McGill, S. Low Back Disorders: 2nd ed. CAN: Human Kinetics. 2007.