Whether you are an endurance athlete, weekend warrior, or novice exerciser, everyone should change their workout plans periodically. The only true way to physically progress is to test the boundaries of our fitness. By no means am I suggesting a novice exerciser complete a 10k road race after their first month in the gym. Testing your body by varying sets, reps, and modality is a great way to see if you are improving. In the first part of this article, I highlighted the training principles specificity and overload. It is essential that we vary our training plans so our bodies do not get accustomed to doing only one kind of workout. It is also equally important to overload our bodies by varying our intensity, sets, or reps. Overload allows us to break through plateaus by overreaching our current fitness level only to fall back to a higher training level. In this article, I will highlight the adaptation principle and the importance of unloading.
When we think of adaptation, I am sure strength is the first thing that comes to mind. This however is NOT the case. There are so many factors that have to adapt before actual strength gains occur. In addition, don’t think of just the muscle as the sole adapting thing in the body. When it comes to adaption, our central nervous system, joints, tendons, ligaments, bones, and joints themselves must adapt before our strength adapts.
One cool fact that I still remember from college is that it takes approximately 8 weeks for strength gains to actually happen. During that 8 weeks, our central nervous system get more efficient at recruiting the muscle fibers to do the required activities. In addition, the bones, tendons, ligaments, and joints get more efficient at handling the shear stress and load placed on them.
During this initial period, most clients also see mobility and flexibility adaptions. If the joint is more flexible and mobile then it simply works better. If the joint works better, then more neuromuscular and musculoskeletal adaptations can occur.
I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten a befuddled look when I explain the infamous “unload week.” Most clients don’t understand why they should take it easy for a week because it seems counterintuitive to progress. Well, if you drive your honda civic like a race car driver, you can expect the engine, transmission, and brakes to fail. The same goes for our bodies, too much initiative does not always match our performance.
Unloading does not mean that you can completely slack off for an entire week and ditch the gym. A good unload program should decrease exercise volume, frequency, and definitely intensity. I usually have clients cut their sets in half and drop their weights to 50% of their one repetition maximum. Also during an unload week, I suggest clients concentrate on getting enough sleep, hydrating properly, and fine tuning their nutrition. During an unload week, I always stress flexibility and mobility exercises as well. I commonly refer to an unload week as a “work out the kinks” week.
Lastly, I suggest giving the mind as well as the body a break from the typical exercise routine. I recommend that clients participate in alternative activities or in things they greatly enjoy. This could include taking a few yoga or martial arts classes, and swimming can be a welcomed break from marathon training. Although these activities won’t specifically improve performance, they will allow the body to recover while the mind relaxes.
In these last two articles, I hope I have driven the point home on why everyone should periodically change their workout plans. The body needs overloading and unloading in order to adapt to new physical stresses. In addition, varying your workout plan will allow for a great overall fitness level therefore avoiding the dreaded plateau.