Training breakthrough (I hope)
Christmas day, and I was thinking about lifting as I sit of my stationary bike. Actually, I was reading the latest issue of Ironman magazine and I finally came across what I think is a very good article. The article is in the February issue of Ironman and is titled E.R. (Extreme Recovery). It is written by Michael Gundill, and while I normally cringe at most of the stuff written in the bodybuilding mags, I think this article is pretty good stuff. As I was reading the article, a few points made about recovery made an idea, that I have been toying with recently, crystallize in my mind.
The article talks about recovery in phases. Recovery of energy stores, recovery of the endocrine system, contractile or muscular recovery, and recovery of the nervous system (in order of fastest to slowest to recover). Now, in the past I have argued that nervous system recovery is not a valid part of the equation, and I have decided that I was incorrect. Recovery of energy stores usually occurs within 48 hours with the time varying with the intensity and duration of the exercise performed. Return to a resting state for the endocrine system, assuming one is not overtraining, usually takes place within 24 hours. Recovery at the contractile level usually takes place within 48 hours, again varying with the intensity and volume of training. Now the interesting part, nervous system recovery. If any of you have ever checked out my training log, you will note that I had only trained a body part once every 17-20 days. Most of you probably think I am crazy, lazy, or both. As I have stated, my reasons for such prolonged rest periods were due to the fact that if I trained sooner I would not realize gains in strength. As of late, I have been questioning this prolonged rest period, as I felt that even though it was necessary to strength gains, it was too long for maximum progress. My only option, until recently, would have been to reduce volume in order to require less recovery time. Again, many of you will note that I already train in a very abbreviated fashion; there really was no room for a reduction in volume. I had tried 1 set to failure, but felt that the 1 set was insufficient to elicit maximum gains. So, I was in a quandary.
I have often wondered why recovery seemed to take so darn long for me. I attributed it to the fact that I am at a relatively advanced stage in my development, relative to my individual genetics. I also attributed it to the stresses in my life due to work and family (I have a job which is extremely stressful to me). Intuitively and empirically, I came to realize that the stresses in my life had caused my body to require greater periods to recover from intense training sessions.
I have not changed my mind with respect to what I just stated, but I have come up with a new solution to the problem. Back to the nervous system recovery issue. As I continued to read the article, it mentioned a study done by a German professor. In a nutshell, the study involved 2 groups. The first group performed 5 sets of 3 reps in the bench press. The "reps" only consisted of the concentric (lifting) phase of the movement. The second group had to perform the same 5 sets of 3 reps, but they performed complete reps (positive and negative, or raising and lowering the weight). Both groups were then monitored for recovery of strength. The first group experienced a decline in strength for the first 48 hours followed by an increase of 21.5% on day 3. As time progressed, so did strength gains. By day 7, strength in this group was up by 24%. 10 days after training, this group peaked at a 27% increase in strength. For group 2, similar results occurred, initially. The second group experienced a greater strength loss in the first 48 hours. On the 3rd day, strength was up 20% (vs. 21.5 in group 1). After 7 days, strength was up 24% (same as group 1). By 10 days, strength was up 27.5% (.5% greater than group 1). Unlike group 1, strength did not peak after 10 days, after 3 weeks (group 1 had regressed to baseline levels by this time), group 2 was up just over 29% in strength. It may have gone on longer, but the study stopped at this point.
Read the above paragraph again if you only skimmed it. This was what solidified my thinking. Ok, see if you can follow me here. Group 2 trained more intensely as the negative portion of a lift has proven to be the more stressful to the body, and they included the negative portion of the lift. This greater intensity lead to a greater initial decrease in strength, followed by greater and more prolonged gains. This backs up the theory behind Arthur Jones' teachings of brief/high intensity exercise. The higher the intensity of training, the greater the stimulus, and thus the greater the potential gains assuming one allows sufficient rest for recovery to occur. Now, as previously stated, it has been shown that contractile, energy, and hormonal recovery occurs within 72 hours in most cases. This means that the increased gains in strength by group 2 after 3 weeks were due to something else, nervous system recovery. Nervous system recovery, therefore, can take much longer to occur. Nervous system recovery time varies with intensity. Thus, the greater the intensity of the training session, the greater the amount of time that will be required for nervous recovery. This presents a problem in my opinion. Muscular strength is primarily due to 2 factors, neural efficiency and the size of the contractile fibers. Remember earlier in this post when I mentioned that contractile recovery usually occurs within 48 hours? So, your muscles are recovered in 48 hours, but your nervous system may not be optimally recovered for 3 weeks. How does one get around this problem?
In the past, I tried to get around the problem by waiting for neural recovery (unknowingly). Hence my 17-20 day periods between sessions for body parts (i.e., I had noted the same results as those in the study mentioned in my own training---I just hadn't put a name to it). As a side note, I want to reiterate that I feel that this problem being discussed becomes more pronounced as a trainee progresses towards their individual genetic potential. You may be thinking that you have made great gains by training a body part once, even twice per week. Well, you may have, but you were not optimizing your training. Group 2 made a 20% gain in strength after only 3 days of rest. Obviously, all recovery factors had occurred except for optimal neural recovery. So, one can gain without allowing for optimal neural recovery, but not optimally . Again, what do you do? Do you periodize your training? Well, that helps to a certain extent as sub-failure/lower percentage load training will not result in as much recovery time needed for the nervous system, so during phases of training, which are not geared towards maximum strength, a greater degree of relative neural recovery can occur. Traditional periodization will still not address the issue of optimizing your training because in maximum strength phases the nervous element is not being optimized as proper recovery time will not be allowed. Do you just train to failure with low sets and wait 2 weeks or more between sessions (as I did)? Again, no. During the extended rest period, the contractile portion of the strength equation will not be optimized. If the initial hypertrophy that training has stimulated does occur, then it will certainly start to regress before the nervous system has had a chance to fully recover. Remember, studies have shown that contractile recovery usually occurs within 48 hours. Let us stretch this out and say that it might take double that in an advanced trainee training with high intensity. Once the contractile fibers have grown, they will not stay large unless stimulated to do so. In the 2-3 week plus recovery period for the nervous system, if the lifter rests, the contractile fibers will very likely begin to atrophy and return to prior levels. It is important to note that the lifter may still be stronger in his next session due to neural factors, but he will not be as strong as he could have if he had maintained his contractile hypertrophy and realized the neural gains.
So, what is my solution to all of this? What I have decided to do, as a self-experiment, is to mix sub-maximal training days in between my standard sessions. In other words, by doing so, I hope to cause my body to maintain the contractile hypertrophy caused by my standard sessions (2-4 sets per body part taken to failure), and yet still allow my nervous system full recovery. I will utilize a version of the "active rest" theory. These sub-maximal sessions will be performed with weights in the 70-80% range of my loads used during my sessions to failure. I will perform 4-6 reps and theses sets will not be taken to anywhere near failure.
In theory, these sessions will not serve as great stressors to the nervous system (thus minimally impeding nervous system recovery), but they will provide sufficient stimulus to the contractile fibers to maintain any growth caused by my last intense session. If this works, it will be a superior method to both H.I.T and periodization training relative to size and strength produced. We shall see.....