How Not Training Can Help You Make Progress

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Q:  I’ve noticed in my own training that rest seems to smash PB’s (Personal Bests) for me more than being in the weights room every other day, or that is how it seems.

Let me give you an example.

Three weeks ago I hit a PB on deadlift of 160kg (352lbs, ish) for 1 rep, then I went away on holiday to my dad’s place on a small island off the coast of Wales, then took part in a combine in London nine days after departing. I was away for 13 days total, and the only real training I did was the combine tests and a set of hill sprints. Nothing resistance based aside from the bench press.

Upon returning home, I decided to hit deadlifts as my first session and I was feeling quite energised so I thought I’d try and beat my PB. I managed to get up to 172.5kg (380lbs)! A 50lbs gain to me is phenomenal in a time which  I thought I would have potentially dematerialized.

Do you know why this comes about, and how? I’ve noticed it with Bench Press and Squats as well, but on the flip side, I’ve noticed if i do too much of either of those, the numbers go substantially down.

If you could shed any light on this it would be awesome!

A:  First off, congrats on the new personal best, and I hope for many more in the future for you.  Secondly, if your Dad is ever looking to invite some random person he doesn’t know – say, a certain strength coach who’s blog you’re reading – to come and use his place for a week, I may have someone in mind.  Just throwing it out there.

Thirdly, to answer your question: much of what you described can be explained by discussing the Fitness Fatigue Model.

Vladimir Zatsiorsky summarized the fitness-fatigue theory (or two factor theory) by stating, “The immediate effect after a workout is considered a combination of (a) fitness gain prompted by the workout and (b) fatigue. The summation of positive and negative changes determines the final outcome.”

Fatigue will always mask your “true” fitness level. Many trainees (myself included) make the mistake of constantly pounding away each and every week, adding more and more volume.  Or, in some cases, just never taking a break. Inevitably, you feel like you’ve gotten run over by a mack truck, performance drops, and whole lot of frustration follows.

The best analogy I’ve heard describing this phenomenon is something Eric Cressey has used on several occasions.  Lets say we figure out your 1RM deadlift.  After a few high fives, I then tell you to go out and run ten miles.  Have fun with that.

Upon returning, I have to retest your deadlift. what are the odds you’ll even sniff that original number?  Chances are, if you tried, you’d only break something, and we’d have to spend valuable time fixing it.  Your ego or back.  Pick one.

In general, just learning how to fluctuate your training volume on a weekly basis will go a long way to help prevent fatigue from deterring your progress in the future.  While there are definitely exceptions to rule, we tend to use the following format when writing monthly programs for our clients at Cressey Performance:

Week 1:  High Volume
Week 2: Medium Volume
Week 3: Very High Volume (you basically hate life)
Week 4:  Low Volume (deload)

There are a multitude of factors that can be tweaked that will dictate training volume – total sets/reps, time under tension, rest periods, or even what exercise is performed – but the important thing to note is that fluctuating training stress is kind of a big deal, and an often overlooked component of program design.

You can’t expect to set personal records each and every week, and if you’re one of the many who feel that in order to make progress you need to 1) regurgitate your pancreas every training session, 2) constantly add more and more volume each and every week, or 3) never take a day off……you’re really shooting yourself in the foot.

Again, fatigue will always mask fitness. The fact that you took a good 1-2 weeks and just allowed your body to recover, chill, and at the expense of using big words and sounding like a complete nerd – supercompensate – undoubtedly helps explain why you were able to crush your deadlift PB upon returning, even without doing much (if any) “real” training.

Hope that helps!

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Comments for This Entry

  • Dana

    At what point do you think the rest stops being helpful and actually sets you back? I hit a big squat PR in November, didn't squat for a few days, took a 17 day trip overseas, rested two days when I got back, and didn't have squats in my program for the first few days back to training. It totaled a month without squatting, and I gotta say, weights that used to be warm-ups feel heavy now. I'm hopeful that I'll work quickly back to where I was and be even stronger, but then again a month off is a LONG time.

    December 14, 2011 at 10:55 am | Reply to this comment

  • Brad

    Great Post Tony! Glad to see other coaches out there that understand that rest and recovery is as important as the actual training itself.

    December 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Juliet

    This makes me feel better about the few weeks of training I'm taking off for winning the Darwin award.

    December 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Franco

    Rest is a key factor in order to make gains....

    December 14, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Reply to this comment

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  • Rich

    This post is spot on but the problem is (and I fall victim myself) it is too easy to use it as a crutch to not train so hard/take time off too frequently and fall into the 'one step forward, one step back' trap that I think so many people are constantly in (and an answer for 'training' for years without making progress). I've personally found that actual layoffs do me no good (e.g 1 week or more without training) but that using the CP variation of stress from week-to-week and taking the week where I drop back from 5 sessions in a week to 3 or something. I've found that extra energy can be got for example on a Monday after not training Fri/Sat/Sun and stretching instead.

    December 14, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Anonymous

      Spot on Rich! There are a million and one different ways to deload the body. It might just be not performing any axial loading on the spine for a week. So, instead of heavy squats and deadlifts, just perform single leg work for a week. It could be cutting back from a 4-day - upper/lower body split - to a 3 day, full-body split. Maybe a deload for one person entails doing nothing but heading to the gym to perform low-grade activation/mobility circuits. It really comes down to finding what best suits your needs and finding out what works for YOU!

      December 16, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Michael Ward

    A question for you Tony, on week 4, what resistance is appropriate? In all other weeks I presume you are trying to lift as much as possible with good form but if week 4 is a deload should you back off a bit? or keep the same weight and let the reduced reps reduce the volume?

    December 15, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Anonymous

      It depends. As I noted in a previous response (see above), there are numerous ways to approach a deload week. In terms of your question, in my experience people tend to respond better with decreased volume (rather than intensity - as a % of 1RM) when it comes to deloading. For instance, if week 4 calls for something like 3x5 for front squats. You can still ramp up the intensity, but because you're doing 2-3 LESS sets (compared to previous weeks), it will count as a "deload." I hope that makes sense? The important thing to keep in mind is that everyone is different. What works for someone else, may be a complete disaster for you.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Reply to this comment

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