Written by Michael Nackoul
Over the course of my weightlifting career, I have heard just about everything imaginable when it comes to designing training plans.
“Overtraining is a myth.”
“It is better to be undertrained than overtrained.”
“It’s all about pushing yourself through the pain!”
“Less is more!”
Sound familiar? The interesting thing is that these are all direct quotes that I have personally heard from either accomplished athletes or accomplished coaches. Just to clarify, I am NOT taking away anything from these great people. What I am trying to say is that when it comes to program design, it is no surprise that a lot of people are highly confused. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me what program they should follow, I would be on a beach somewhere instead of freezing cold Pittsburgh.
So what is the right way to go? What should you avoid? What should you be asking yourself? Well, these questions are the point of this article. Hopefully by the end, you will have a different way to approach your training. Some of you reading this probably already know the answer.
Before I get started, I have a few disclaimers. One, this article will not give you a “magic formula.” In fact, no such thing exists. What this article will give you is a different way to think about your training from a broad perspective. Having a good understanding of the WHY will lead to a better implementation of the HOW. Second, I am not the best coach in the world nor am I the best lifter in the world. What I am writing about today comes from my experience over the past 10 years as a competitive weightlifter. So have fun and I hope you are able to take away something from this article!
VERY simplified Biology crash course
Before we can get started, we need to define a couple of terms. This will provide the groundwork for everything we discuss (biology friends, don’t hate on me too much for this). First, there is a fundamental property in nature called homeostasis. Wikipedia defines it as a “system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant.” Translation: Your body fights really hard to stay stable, and it is pretty dang good at it2. A good example is when you are really hot, you sweat to cool you down. Conversely, when you are really cold, you shiver to warm up. Your body is always fighting to maintain stability. Consequently, when you induce stress on yourself, your body does not like that. As a response, your body adapts to be able to handle the new stress. This is called adaptation and it is the basic principal of all strength and conditioning3. Interestingly, your body views psychological and physical stress almost the same way4. That is why lifting weights makes people strong (the body adapts to be strong enough to handle the stress), and why the BUD/S Navy Seal training makes those soldiers tough as nails (the psychological challenge of the program makes them super badass under pressure). Your mind and body are connected and do not act independently of one another.
In summary, all of training can be related to the managing of stress. For the purposes of this article, we are going to quantify the physical stress we put on ourselves as volume. Let’s define volume as this:
Volume = Sets + Reps + Exercises + Intensity
For our purposes, exercise selection is going to be included in our volume. Therefore, a “change in volume” could refer to the addition or subtraction of an exercise.
Do overtraining and undertraining exist?
When I was in college, I majored in engineering. Even though I was lost 90% of the time in class, it did teach me a great way to approach problems. In engineering, a good way to approach a problem is to max out one parameter and find the limit, then max out the other side and find the limit. Your answer will be somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
Follow me on these two thought experiments.
First, let’s tackle overtraining. My question is this: If overtraining didn’t exist, then why aren’t athletes training 24 hours a day? If performance was as simple as pushing yourself as much as possible for as long as possible, wouldn’t top athletes be training with max effort every waking moment? The answer, as you obviously have guessed by now, is no. Overtraining does exist1. We will get to the “where” later in the article, but for now we can safely conclude that there are limits to how much volume you can handle.
Next, let’s look at the easier example of undertraining. If it was always better to err on the side of undertraining, wouldn’t it be optimal to only work out when your body is 100 percent recovered? Shouldn’t it be best to wait until the body completely adapts to the stress? The answer again is no. I can tell you that there isn’t a top coach in America who has their athletes work out only once or twice a week. The level of stress to maintain and the level of stress to improve are drastically different3,5. Anyone who has ever done anything remotely competitive can tell you that there is a positive correlation between hard work and success.
Defining the Range
Now that we know the limits to our problem, we can begin to find an answer somewhere in the middle. To help, I would like to introduce a mathematics principal called an “inverted U curve.” An inverted U curve looks like this:
In this case, our relationship is change in performance versus volume. Notice how when volume initially increases, performance increases. As you approach the apex of the curve, you find the optimal range for volume selection. However, as you approach the right limit of the curve, performance decreases.
How can this happen? Simple. When too much stress is placed on the body too fast, your body is trying as hard as possible to maintain homeostasis but it starts failing due to an external load. It is like having a Tonka toy truck try to pull a 16-ton load. Common symptoms include constant injury, depression, loss of motivation, and increase in susceptibility to infections1. Your body is fighting to maintain stability, but the stress is too much to handle. Similarly, psychology also uses an identical model to explain performance for complex tasks (it’s called the Yerkes–Dodson law)9. It states that increased arousal initially leads to increased attention and interest, there is some optimal level, and then too much interest leads to “impaired performance because of strong anxiety.”
How the Curve Adjusts
So how should you go about finding your “optimal range?” The answer is, it depends. The body is constantly adapting, so the curve will inevitably shift over time. Therefore, the absolute biggest factor for volume selection is experience: How many years (or how much work) have you put in so far?
For beginners, your U-curve is going to look like this.
Simply put, people who are not as trained will make tremendous progress by doing more. It is very difficult for someone to succumb to an overtrained state if they are not putting much stress on their bodies relative to their size. The lack in technique, flexibility, and coordination will limit the athletes from putting a large external load (weight) on their bodies. Adaptation occurs quickly in this phase5. The optimal range for improvement is extremely wide and forgiving, and an athlete will almost always make performance gains with consistent programming.
For elite athletes with more experience, this is not the case. Their U-curve looks like this:
Anyone who has been around strength training for a while can tell you that progress is not linear. The higher the level of an athlete, the harder it is to make progress5. The limiting factors in this state are the actual strength capacity of the body. This is also consistent from a biological viewpoint. Once your body has adapted to a very high level of stress, it becomes exponentially harder to adapt to anything higher. The amount of stress required to induce change is so great that the window for optimal volume becomes very small.
Putting it all together
There is a golden equation when it comes to gains, and it looks something like this.
Time + Consistency = Stable gains
Without time and consistency, you will not make progress6. Decrease one or the other, and your progress will suffer. The best possible way to make long-term progress is to do something consistent for a long period of time.
Combining this equation and our knowledge of stress, we can now finally take the best approach to creating a training plan. And it all starts by asking:
How can I train as hard as possible without sacrificing training time or consistency?
The first step is to figure out the range of your curve! Start by analyzing all the factors of stress in your life. Have you been training for a while? Do you have a stressful job? Are you healthy? Do you sleep? You need to be brutally honest with yourself. If you are in a high stress environment, such as an investment banker or a student in finals week, then your body is already working hard to overcome the stress. Your curve is going to be a little bit narrower and you should be cautious of big volume changes.
Next, you need to figure out your adaptive state. If you are a beginner, this will be easy. You already know your curve will be wider. A wider curve means that it won’t take much volume to induce a change, so the optimal load will be less than that of an elite athlete7. Also make sure to focus on technique at this stage, because injury can easily occur from an improper movement. Start by doing something you can do consistently and then keep adding more volume every 3-4 weeks. Don’t kill yourself, train your ass off, and have fun!
For the more advanced lifter, this process becomes a little trickier. Remember, your curve is going to be narrower. You have already put in the work and your body is creeping up on its maximum potential5,8. Start by analyzing your performance. Ask yourself, “Am I getting better over time?” A reasonable time frame for this question is 2-4 months. If the answer is yes, and you are injury free, then you probably are in the correct zone. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that improving faster is always the answer! Stable gains. Progress is progress, keep going and you will get where you need to be. If you are not getting better, then it is time to re-evaluate.
Plateaus happen for one of only two reasons: not enough, or too much stress. If you are feeling healthy, training consistently, and you are not getting any better, then maybe it’s time to do more. You are to the left of your optimal zone, so it’s time to add some volume. Your body is constantly adapting (homeostasis again), so if you repeat identical volume over time your “curve” will be continuously shifting right and you will eventually lag behind3.
Conversely, if you are beat up, injured, and tired all time, while not getting better, then you are to the right of the curve. Too much stress over time results in overtraining1. Overtraining affects both time and consistency, which in turn affects gains. Therefore the only way to make progress in this case is cut back on the volume.
By this point, most of you are probably asking, “What is the best way to induce change while staying optimal? Doing what consistently will get me the best results?” My friends, you have now stumbled upon the correct questions! This is how to approach a training plan from a high-level perspective. Remember, volume change can only come from one of three places: change in reps/intensity, change in exercise, or the addition of an outside factor (nutrition, life stress, psychological stress, etc.). Choose wisely. It is time for me to leave you so you can figure out the answers on your own! This is the sole reason why excellent websites and seminars like Juggernaut exist – to get you to figure out what YOU respond to. Don’t be afraid to experiment, learn from mistakes, and train your butt off! As my coach Zygmunt Smalcerz always says, “step by step guy.”
Addressing the Bulgarian counterargument
It seems like every time I read something online, there is always someone that immediately refutes the article by trying to cite something the Bulgarians did. I am not going to go into great detail (perhaps an article for another day), but I did want to write a few sentences about it.
In the summer of 2012, I stayed with my friend Ian Wilson in California. While I was there, I had the unbelievable opportunity of training with Ivan Abadjiev for a week. I am not claiming to be an expert on their methods by any means, but I did have many VERY long conversations with him. Three things came across very clear to me: 1) The man was highly intelligent, 2) He had a phenomenal understanding of the human body, and 3) He was very aware of the limitations of his athletes. If you think the system was only about “max weight every day,” you are dead wrong. His system was very complex and it evolved over time. At the peak of his success, Abadjiev was able to take one of the poorest countries in Europe and spank the rest of the traditional powerhouses. He was able to determine his athlete’s curves and determine optimal volume by having a fantastic understanding of stress adaptation (which is what this article was all about). I have tremendous respect for that man.
Mike Nackoul is an 85 kg weightlifter and a member of the 2013 World team that competed in Wrocław, Poland. Mike has won national championships in the youth, junior, and university categories as well as national medals at the senior level. Mike has also competed on multiple junior and University teams that features a 7th place finish at the Junior World Championships in Penang, Malaysia. He has spent much time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, training under Zygmunt Smalcerz.
Mike is a Pittsburgh native and also graduated from MIT in 2014 with a Mechanical Engineering degree. He is currently training at his home club of Pittsburgh Barbell With Regis Becker.
Follow him on Instagram.
1 Kreher, J. B., and J. B. Schwartz. “Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide.”Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach 4.2 (2012): 128-38. Web.
2“Homeostasis.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.
3Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M., and William J. Kraemer. “Adaptation as a Main Law of Training.” Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006. 3-5. Print.
4Jamieson, Joel. The Ultimate Guide to HRV Training. N.p.: n.p., 2012. Print.
5McArdle, William D., Frank I. Katch, and Victor L. Katch. “Muscular Strength: Training to Become Stronger.” Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 500-41. Print.
6Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M., and William J. Kraemer. “Continuous Training Is a Must.” Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006. 105-07. Print.
7Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M., and William J. Kraemer. “Exercise Selection for Beginning Athletes.” Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006. 110-12. Print.
8Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M., and William J. Kraemer. “Intramuscular Coordination.” Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006. 74-75. Print.
9“Yerkes–Dodson Law.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.