Strength training has really come a long way in terms of the knowledge that is now available to the participant. Compare any on-line or hard copy strength training/training magazine now to say ten years ago and you will note an incredible difference in the level of information provided. There have been a number of influences but perhaps one of the most significant was the altering of the publishing market from one or two powerful magazines to a more open market. Things were never really the same after Bill Phillips took on the more established magazines with the entry of Muscle Media into the magazine arena. And then came the Internet, and no amount of politics or containment strategies prevents information dissemination via this medium!
But more information in itself does not necessarily lead to smarter training - in some cases it just leads to more confusion! There have been many 'training keys' promoted via the training media over the last ten year - this is how the Bulgarians train, this is a plant supplement grown only in the hills or Russia and so. But have the hard, time-tested generalized principles of training filtered into general strength and fitness training? I can only conclude not - because what I am going to share with you now has been a staple part of sports training for decades - yet you probably don't know about or use it! It may be one of the most powerful tools to keep you in training - yet few talk about it!
Ever felt you were losing interest in training? Well don't come down hard on yourself - this is a natural response to fatigue. Ever dropped out of a program - this is what will happen will you don't appropriately manage your training, when you ignore those early warning signs like decreased drive. You need to train smarter - by improving your awareness of just one thing.
Recovery. That's it! Sounds simple and yet it's so powerful. The key to the concept of recovery is this - the training adaptation you seek from training is only half produced by training itself. Without recovery, you only have fatigue, a disrupted homeostasis. Only when recovery from each training session is achieved do you see the peak of the training effect!
Assessing recovery from training can be simple - if you cannot exceed the load or reps on the same exercise performed in the same sequence as last time you did that workout (ie. all things being equal) - you haven't recovered. There are also more complex interpretations involving what I call cumulative fatigue, where out of the blue a few weeks later you may pay the price for over-doing it today, but I don't want to complicate the discussion with this.
Recovery in strength training covers three areas : 1) days between workouts; 2) recovery weeks between stages within a program; and 3) recovery weeks between programs.
Days between workouts: since the popularization of split routines many perceive that because they are working a different body part in subsequent days they will be okay, that they don't need a day off. This may work fine for about two days in a row for most, but for the average person, three days in a row is too much. Why is this so, despite training of totally different muscle groups?
The muscles groups may be unrelated, but the energy production is central to the whole body - so the central nervous system (whose importance in training is finally being recognized) supplies the whole body and can perhaps become depleted. The reproduction of fuel in the muscle cell is influenced in a central manner, not just by different muscle groups. And the immune system, the body's tool to combat the fatigue induced by training, is taxed centrally irrespective of which muscle group is being training.
Whilst frequency of training is influenced by volume, intensity, and individual recovery ability, I say very clearly - only those using low volume training or who possess superior recovery systems/circumstances should even contemplate training more than 3 days in a row! And remember - it is not a matter of what can be tolerated - but rather what is optimal, what gives the best results. More is rarely better in training - in fact my preferred motto in training is - if in doubt, don't do it.
These days between workouts are what I call recovery days. You can use them to rest up, or you can participate in activities aimed at accelerating recovery, including massage, stretching, contrast baths etc. One of the first questions I ask when I see most programs that I feel can be improved is- where are the recovery days!
Recovery weeks between stages within a program: realistically it can take a few months to see significant adaptations. Between workouts I still want to see incremental and continual changes, and it is these that add up to a greater difference over a few months. So do you train continuously for say three to four months? I bet you have tried to! And I know what probably happened! Within a certain number of weeks you seem to go backwards, or even drop out of your program. And then the three to four months of continuity required to see the bigger changes never happens. Sounds familiar? I certainly hear this all the time when performing trouble-shooting analysis of client's historical training patterns. So we are going to fix it here and now. You should never again suffer this fate!
What I want you to do is this - take a recovery week after every 3 or 4 weeks of training. I know - your internal psycho-babble (as US real estate guru John Burley calls it!) is having a fit! 'Take a recovery week off!!! No, I can't! I will lose it all!!' Well, let me say this - if you don't do this, most of you are going to lose it all anyway! Once you get over the emotional attachment issue of not training for a week, you will find the incredible benefits of doing what most athletes have done since Milo picked up the calf in the stadium in about 6th century BC - get incredible results!
If you want to get further into it, a recovery week between stages can be a 'full' or a 'half' recovery week. A full recovery week/microcycle would involve no specific training eg. no strength training, but may involve non-specific alternative activity provided it was light in volume and intensity eg. blading, cycling etc. A half recovery week or microcycle involves a significant reduction in training volume, spread out throughout the week/microcycle or condensed to one half, allowing a full recovery in the other half. Intensity may also be reduced in the half-recovery week.
Examples of these work/rest week/microcycle ratios appear in the table below. Ignoring this concept is a guarantee to overtraining and injury. If you feel your recovery levels are lower than ideal, use a shorter work period eg. 3:1, 4:1 etc. Then decide whether to use a full or half recovery week in the recovery week. I feel that most reading this would do themselves a significant benefit from trying out the first or second option in the table below.
Table 1 - A summary of the options with recovery weeks between stages. (King, I., 1999, Get Buffed, p. 131)
|Recommended as part of a 12 wk cycle ie. 3+1/3+1, using half recovery weeks in wk. 4 and 8 and a full recovery week in wk 12 or similar for those with less than optimal recovery situations can also use a full recovery week after each 3 weeks
|The first method above can be used here creating a 15 wk cycle the second method above can be used here also, using 1 x 4 wk block of training or dividing the 4 weeks up into 2 x 2 week programs
|If training for 6 weeks continuously, you have the choice of a half recovery week or full recovery week
|If training continuoulsy for 8 weeks, I would lean towards the use of a full recovery week; the work period could be 2 x 4 wk blocks or 4 x 2 wk blocks
|If training continuously for 9 weeks, I agian would lean towards the use of a full recovery week; this work period suits the use of 3 x 3 wk training blocks
|This is the longest period of continual training I would recommend and should only be used by those with superior recovery situations. Your work week training blocks, if not using any recovery weeks as in the first example above, may be 6x2 wks, 4x3 wks, or 3x4 wks; only a real beginner will benefit from 2x 6 wk blocks.
Recovery weeks between programs: when you plan a program (assuming there is a plan!) is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Do you have a predetermined range of number of weeks for the program? Well now you do - because I am going to say very clearly - for most people, twelve weeks of continuous training is all you should do. No more. If you achieve the continuity in training that is possible by application of the above principles, you will achieve an incredible amount in these 12 weeks. In fact, I can say with safety that if you have never used the above methods, the next 12 weeks could by your most productive ever!
Then what happens after this 12 or so weeks? You take a full recovery week. That's right - a full recovery week! Go away from the gym or whatever has been your dominant training mode - and use this time wisely. Catch up on other aspects of life that may have been on the back burner during the last 12 weeks. Or catch up on some other types of (non-structured!) training that you will benefit from being exposed to, even if only from an enjoyment perspective.
This strategy is aimed to negate the more complex cumulative fatigue I touched upon earlier. Going through the 12 week program you will be driven by the knowledge of the 'light at the end of the tunnel', the knowledge that after the 12 week program you will be getting a well earned rest. And during the recovery week you will experience a re-activation of that burning desire to get into training and make a difference in your life! The drive that may have dropped off in the last few weeks of the previous program.
So after reading this you are going to ask yourself the following questions :
And then you are going to take the following action:
Planned recovery days and weeks - not ones you take when you lose interest or get sick, that invariably turn into months with the subsequent loss of all you have trained for! Planned recovery days and weeks are aimed to prevent overtraining - to ensure that you achieve adherence to training and therefore experience continual gains. Isn't this after all the goal of your training - continual gains?
About the Author:
Ian King has established himself as a world leader in the field of athletic preparation. He has prepared athletes for every winter and summer Olympic Games since 1988. His articles have been published in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Ian also frequently lectures around the world on the topics of strength training and conditioning.