I’ve been training since my mid-teens, and spent many years making every session as hard as I possibly could while wondering why I didn’t always get the results I felt I should.
Nearly 35 years later (how did that happen?!), I now have a much deeper understanding of programming and know exactly where I went wrong.
Unfortunately, I still see almost everyone making the same mistake I did.
Failure to structure the training week correctly means they sometimes get in better shape and see improvements in strength and fitness; but at other times, nothing changes. Or worse, things go backwards or they get injured.
To understand why we don’t always see progress, we need to look deeper into how training makes us fitter.
How do we get fitter?
According to conditioning expert Joel Jamieson, the route to building fitness can be summarised in four phases.
Training -> Sending the signal to adapt -> Flipping the genetic switch -> Increased fitness
This process creates a stress-recovery curve, and an adaptation often referred to as supercompensation. In simple terms, you stress the body by asking it to do something which challenges its current capacity, and it bounces back fitter or stronger.
In an ideal world, every workout would lead to a small improvement in fitness. Over time, these small improvements would add up to big changes.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that in practice, and it’s down to something Jamieson describes as the ‘stress threshold’.
The stress threshold is the amount of training stress required to trigger the body to improve.
If you cross the stress threshold and then ensure adequate recovery, your fitness will improve.
If you don’t reach this threshold, you don’t flip the body’s genetic switches and nothing changes.
As you get fitter, the stress threshold moves higher and you need more volume and intensity to force your body to improve.
And the more stress you apply through training, the more recovery your body needs.
This is where things start to go wrong.
When we stop seeing results from our training, we often assume we’re not training hard enough and try to work even harder.
This is at least an admirable attempt to keep progressing. After all, many people just give up at that stage.
It works for a while, because we’re able to cross the stress threshold again to trigger improvement. But, at some point, we just can’t recover from the amount of training we’re doing.
Remember, the more stress you put your body under, the more recovery it needs. If you’re constantly ramping up training stress without also increasing recovery, you’re going to hit the wall sooner or later.
The Stress-Recovery Cycle
Regardless of the type of training you’re doing, every training programme must take account of the body’s natural stress-recovery cycle.
Here’s an example of what this looks like from my own training.
This shows how volume and intensity are distributed across the week. Volume is simply the total time for each training session. Intensity is shown by the coloured heart rate zones: blue for low intensity, green for moderate intensity, and red for high intensity.
You can see there’s a wave pattern to it, where some days are longer, some are shorter, some have more time in the red zone, and others are almost completely in the blue zone.
Each training week should be built around this cycle of stress and recovery. You can layer any type of training you want on top of it, but training is about more than how many sets and reps you do, which exercises you choose, and how hard you work.
The aim is to achieve sufficient training stress each week to keep improving, but also enough active or passive rest to ensure recovery before applying more stress.
The beauty of this approach is that you can use it for almost any fitness goal. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to boost your performance in an event or sport, or if you’re simply trying to improve how you look and feel. It works for everyone from top-level athletes to stressed parents and people with busy lives.
If you’d like to follow a programme based on this stress-recovery model to get in great shape and take your conditioning to another level, email me on [email protected]