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Why You Are Not Improving

Why design a program?

Does the following sound like you?

You buy a book, look up an article, or find an online program that promises to be “the answer”. You get excited and hit the gym hard for a few months. At first, the results are great. You’re getting stronger, leaner, bigger, or whatever the program is designed for, but soon the results start to taper off and you get frustrated. So what do you do? You go to the gym and hit it harder.

This goes on for another few weeks or maybe months and slowly but surely you get discouraged and start looking for the next program. Why does that happen? Why don’t you continue to get results? How do you know why something is or isn’t working?

Those are good questions, and they are difficult to answer. There are hundreds of possible reasons why you aren’t getting results, but today I’m going to focus on the most common reasons for a lack of progress. Before I get into that you first have to understand the fundamental process the body undergoes when you start training.

The Stress/Adaptation Response 

When you train consistently there is a fairly predictable stress response that occurs within the body that creates adaptation. This process is what eventually enables you to pick up heavier things, gain muscle, and move faster for longer.

It is known as Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome, or G.A.S.

Below I provide an outline and detail what occurs at each stage.

Stage 1 – Shock – Also known as the alarm stage, stage one is a healthy body’s response to a new stressor. During this stage:

    • HRV decreases
    • The body reacts with increased sympathetic tone
    • The first 1-2 weeks of a training program

Stage 2 – Overreaching – Known as the resistance stage in the G.A.S. Stage two occurs in response to an imbalance between training stress and recovery.

    • Sympathetic tone during stress (exercise) increases
    • Parasympathetic tone during recovery increases
    • HRV increases due to increased anti-inflammatory parasympathetic response
    • Week 3-4 in most training plans

Stage 3 – Chronic Stress – This is overtraining, or the G.A.S. exhaustion phase. Stage three occurs when the body continually fails to adapt to chronic stress.

    • CNS shuts down production of central stress hormones
    • Sympathetic response is impaired
    • HRV remains elevated due to chronically increased parasympathetic response
    • Psychological symptoms of “burnout”
    • Depressed immune function
    • Increased systemic inflammation
    • Week 5-6 and on. Hard to actually achieve, but a depressed version of this occurs resulting in sickness or injury after 6-8 weeks of continuous high intensity work.

Supercompensation or Recovery – This is the de-load phase. If you haven’t slipped into stage three overtraining, you should only need about a week for this. Heavy exhaustion can take months for full recovery.

    • HRV decreases back to baseline (Baseline likely increases if the training block focused on aerobic improvements)
    • CNS increases central stress hormone response to acute stressors
    • Inflammation is mitigated
    • Perfect program = post overreaching phase, usually week 4-5

adaptation

 

You don’t need or want to go through all three stages of the G.A.S. to attain neural supercompensation benefits. Ideally, you progress into stage two and then briefly deload before starting over. The graph above illustrates the process of stress accumulation and its effect on fitness.

 

What does this mean to you?

You need to know the process above so you can do a better job of selecting a program you know will work, and to help you manage yourself.

Below I outline the different categories that people tend to fall into when they come to me asking why their program isn’t working.

Category #1 – You’re doing a bad program

Sometimes there is a flaw in the program design. If your program doesn’t progressively get more difficult nce your body has become accustomed to it results halt.

Category #2 – You aren’t allowing yourself to recover

I cover this in more detail in this blog, but if constantly train hard you don’t ever allow your body to recover and improve from the training you are doing.

Category #3 – You aren’t training hard enough to get results

This is extremely similar to the situation I outlined above, with the difference being that you are capable of going harder (you are recovered), but your program doesn’t push you hard enough (unlikely) or you don’t know how to go hard enough (likely) to push yourself into overreaching.

How do you know which category you fall into?

  1. Read on to learn how to review your own program
  2. Start using HRV to understand if you are actually ever recovered or stressed

Monthly Outline

Now you know what the stress and adaptation response looks like as well as the common pitfalls, but what does that mean in terms of actual training? Below I outline a sample program and explain each phase and explain how you can check to see if your program fits the optimal model.

Example Program

Week

Phase

Power

Strength

Hypertrophy

Energy System

1

Introductory

4×3

4×5

3×8

30 min

2

Loading

6×3

6×4

4×8

40 min

3

Loading

7×3

8×3

5×8

50 min

4

Deload

5×2

5×2

2×6

30 min

There are hundreds of different variations of this outline but the basic rules of any good program are the same:

Introductory Phase – During the first part of the program it should be hard, but not so much that you can’t complete it. (phase 1 of GAS)
Middle or Loading Phase – Total load increases, pushing you into overreaching (phase 2 of GAS)
Deload or Recovery Phase – during this phase the total workload is decreased significantly and your body fully recovers from the previous weeks of training and you get stronger, bigger, faster, etc.

It’s that simple. So, how do you know if your program has these elements? Usually, it’s very straightforward. Over time load (total stress) changes in one of the ways listed below:

Frequency – how often you train
Intensity – how hard (% of max weight or heart rate) you are training
Volume – total work done. For conditioning volume = time. For lifting, volume = reps x sets x weight

Exercise Selection – some exercises are harder on the body than others. For example, if your program called for a change from box jumps to depth jumps but everything else stayed the same (sets, reps, # of times per week) your body would still be overloaded because the exercise is harder on the body.

Wrap Up

By now you should have a good understanding of the basic elements of a good program as well the importance of following through with a plan and listening to your body. If your program is set up properly and you still aren’t getting results you should probably look more into your recovery and nutrition.