What Does Variation Even Mean?

This has been a beast of a series, but in case you missed the following posts I encourage you to check them out before we delve into variation:

The Rocking Chair of Homeostais

Volume

Intensity

I do not know about you all, but I remember when I was a kid rainy days were the worst. I mean they started out awesome, but went downhill fast. After a while I just wanted to go outside, my video games, books, all that stuff just got boring. I mean this may sound preposterous but there is only so much Super Smash Bros a kid can play in one day. Inevitably boredom sets in and the all too popular complaint, "I'm bored". 

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Although, to be honest, I was a little frightened to use this phrase with my mom, because such a phrase meant I had no where to escape to from chores...

This "I'm bored" phrase tends to be prevalent in our society. However rather than blame it on the "microwave mindset" or the "instafit" mindset I think it is more important to see how this might relate to our body, our workouts, and the notion I have been talking about regarding the disruption of homeostasis. 

Quite frankly, our body, in order to adapt, does need variety in the workouts. We cannot do the same thing every single time all the time. Why? Because our body will stop feeling the need to adapt, and as a result our progress stalls. 

In previous posts I have talked about mixing up volume and intensity for variety, but we can also mix up the exercises we are doing, and that is the key point of today's post. Movement variation. 

Before I go any further I want to make one point clear. This does not mean do completely random workouts every single day. Such a strategy is as effective in the long term as trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon, good luck. Rather it means being smart about your programming (which I will get into in a future post) and giving your body enough time to adapt before changing things again. 

This is where movement patterns come into the discussion. (If only I got 67 cents every time I discussed movement patterns). Understanding movement patterns and creating variation within the movement patterns can go a long way in creating the type of movement variety that is not just effective but sustainable. 

Take a look at the 6 basic movement patterns, I will provide 3 exercises for each:

  1. Hinge (Deadlift, Hip Bridge, Hex Bar Deadlift)
  2. Squat (Front Squat, Back Squat, Goblet Squat)
  3. Single Leg (Split Squat, Reverse Lunge, Step-up)
  4. Upper Body Push (Push-up, Bench Press, Overhead Press)
  5. Upper Body Pull (Prone Row, Pull-up, TRX Row)
  6. Core (Bear Crawl, Farmer Carry, Plank)

As basic as this may seem these 18 exercises could allow for enough variety to keep your body adapting for probably a good couple years and then some.

We have now discussed volume, intensity, variety, all that remains is frequency and density. I hope you are prepared, because at the end of this I will show you how to use this information to create your own programs that will constantly keep you moving forward. 

- Dave

 

Intensity & Homeostasis: How Manipulating the Weight You Use Will Help You to Grow

In the very first post of this series, I discussed homeostasis and stress. Our body wants to keep everything in balance (homeostasis), but to grow, we must introduce something to disrupt the balance (stress). 

Think of it like Ancient China. The Chinese were constantly getting invaded by surrounding countries like Mongolia. China is our body, and the Mongolians are stress. Rather than let themselves be constantly invaded China built the Great Wall to keep invaders out. In other words, in response to the stress of invasion, China created stronger defenses. If China never had to worry about attacks, there's a good chance they would never have constructed the Great Wall. I may have watched Mulan recently...

Like all analogies, it does not quite do the justice of how our body responds to stress, but I hope it gets the point across. Stressors will help us get stronger, if we manipulate them, and utilize them correctly.

As mentioned in prior installments, five key strategies can help force our body to adapt. The last post I discussed volume, and today I will discuss intensity.

Intensity could also be redefined as difficulty, or how hard are you going? For weight, training intensity is often defined as the weight on the bar relative to your one repetition maximum. However, I just like to think of it as the poundage used, period. Compared to volume there is less to consider in regards to managing intensity. To manipulate intensity change the weight on the bar.

For those of you counting at home, that looks like some pretty high intensity. Also this is what I like to think I look like when I lift...

For those of you counting at home, that looks like some pretty high intensity. Also this is what I like to think I look like when I lift...

However, where it starts to get complicated is when we start to think of the relationship between volume and intensity. In many cases, as intensity increases volume decreases. There is usually a good chance that if you double the weight, you will not be able to do as many sets and reps with that weight.

For instance, let's say you rep out five sets of 10 reps at 100 pounds. Since volume is sets*reps*weight, this would equal 5,000. But if you did 150 pounds you might only be able to handle five reps. The weight has increased by 150%, but the volume has decreased to 3,750 pounds. To quote Hamlet, "Ay, there's the rub."

What do we do then? If volume can help disrupt homeostasis and incur growth, but intensity does the same, what do we manipulate and when? 

I know this may be getting a bit confusing but before you go Avril Lavigne on me allow me to answer your questions. Do not worry about when to manipulate the stressors, I'll explain this later. But in regards to what to manipulate, you can manipulate both. 

Some times, when you just want to go hard and go all out, (these should be few and far between), you can push both volume and intensity up. Your body will hate you for it, but it can be effective every so often. I reiterate though; these should be few and far between.

However, one strategy I like to utilize can be called intensity cycling. Let's say you're doing a three-week program. Well, it may look something like this.

  • Week 1: High Volume, Low Intensity
  • Week 2: Moderate Volume, Moderate Intensity
  • Week 3: Low Volume, High Intensity

By now you should have gotten the hint to read my volume post. If you haven't already, please go back do that. However, if you have, the question may become, "Why is intensity necessary? Couldn't you just keep increasing volume?"

Well, there lies the difficulty. Remember if our body adapts to a stimulus eventually the stimulus is going to cease to be effective. So this is one reason why having another stimulus involved can help with getting stronger.

Along these same lines, each stimulus will cause slightly different adaptations. For instance, volume, more times than not, will help improve muscular endurance, mental toughness, and muscle size. While increasing intensity may help with these as well, it will increase your bodies ability to recruit muscles more than anything. Or as nerds such as myself like to call say, the intensity will help improve your motor unit recruitment. 

Regardless of the vernacular, the better your body can use its muscles the stronger you will become, the stronger you become the higher volume you will be able to endure, the higher volume you can take the bigger or denser your muscles become, the larger more dense your muscles become, the more potential you have to become stronger. And this is the house that Jack built...

Alright, you made it. How are you feeling so far? Take a deep breath.

There is a lot of info in just this little post, but I hope you are starting to get a better grasp of how to make sure you are constantly growing, getting stronger, or getting the physique you've always wanted. Regardless of your goals, forcing your body to have to build more solid walls is the key. 

However, volume and intensity cannot be the only two variables we use. Otherwise, we will eventually cease to keep adapting. This is why in the next post I will discuss exercise variation. But for now, take some time to absorb what you've just read.

- Dave

 

Understanding Training Volume: One of the Most Important Variables for Making Progress

In my last post, I discussed the bodies desire for homeostasis. I began to touch upon the importance of disrupting homeostasis briefly and yet at the same time encouraging it. In this post we are going to focus even more on the disruption of homeostasis by discussing the idea of training volume, or as I will often refer to it as simply volume. 
 


Volume is the measure of total work performed during a training session and one of the most important things to monitor as it pertains to any training. 
 
The first thing I want to touch upon is how to find the volume. In regards to strength training the equation for volume is V = S*R*W or Volume = (Sets)*(Repetitions per Set)*(Weight). If two of these variables stay the same and one of them increases then the overall volume increases. However, sometimes there might be trade-offs. Say for instance you use heavier weight but must then perform lower reps. Well as a result volume may decrease or stay the same. 
 
To get stronger, you must always consider how to manipulate your workouts so that volume gradually increases not just from session to session, but over the week as a whole. Sometimes this means doing more workouts that week or increasing one of the three variables of the equation. However, at the same time volume will not always increase linearly. Due to this wave-like effect of progress, this is why the workouts have been broken into phases. 
 
At HPI we typically structure our programs into components of different phases, about four weeks at a time. By the fourth week of a phase, many of our clients should have the attained their highest volume accumulated over the phase. Then once we start a new phase, you may find the weight increases, the reps drop, and as a result, the volume drops. This drop in volume is by design. Manipulating volume in such a way will ensure steady progress as well as continue to promote recovery so that you do not burn out. The ultimate idea is two steps forward one step backward, but know you are still progressing.
 
With this being said, I would now like to address the endurance oriented readers. Calculation of total volume for the endurance athletes is a tad easier. It comes down to your total mileage for the week. It is also important to take into account heart rate and duration of these workouts. You do not want to have a high volume/intense session of endurance training preceded by high volume/intense lifting session. Such recklessness in the schedule may end up causing overtraining and leave your system fried. 
 
If you know you may have two high volume sessions coming up, I would encourage you to give yourself a minimum of 2 days between these two sessions. This does not mean you cannot run or lift during these two days; it does mean you should monitor your volume as well as your perceived exertion, not letting yourself go over a 6/10. This means you should feel like you are challenging your system but if you sweat it should be more of a glisten instead of a drench.
 
By monitoring volume, and making sure that over time it is gradually creeping upwards, you should find yourself progressing towards your goals volumes. 
 
As mentioned volume is one way, we manipulate homeostasis to do our bidding. I hope you have a better understanding of why it is so important to monitor. Stay tuned for other posts that explore the other methods we utilize to optimize progress. 

- Dave Howington

The Rocking Chair of Homeostasis: The Key to Training Progress

The human body is remarkable. One aspect that does not cease to amaze me is the body's ability to adapt. Think about the smell, for instance; we've all experienced those rank odors that just are not appealing to the nose. After a while, whether we want it to or not we grow used to the smell. 

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This ability to adapt is both a good and bad aspect in regards to training. To some extent we want the adaptation to occur because, well this is how we improve. However, this adaptation is something we must also battle against because if our body stops adapting due to lack of appropriate stimuli, then we will not improve or grow. This adaptation is called homeostasis, and because of it, if we want to see results we have to treat our body as if we are in a dating relationship with it. Hear me out. 

Good relationships are like a rocking chair. Have you ever sat in a rocking chair? What happens when you rock too far back? If you have tried this, there is always the feeling that the rocking chair may slip right out from under you. Have you ever leaned too far forward? You are no longer comfortable and may even feel some cramping take the place of said comfort. If you've ever been in a dating relationship where you rocked too far back you find your significant other may not be all too pleased and start writing you off. If you push too far forward and do not give any space, you may find your significant other acting aloof feeling overcrowded. With this in mind let's explore what homeostasis is and what it does. 

 

Homeostasis is the bodies desire to keep everything balanced and is the primary driver as to why adaptation occurs. Stress of any kind disrupts homeostasis by presenting a stimulus that forces the body to respond by bolstering itself up making sure that next time the stressor hits it will not be caught off guard. The body's desire for homeostasis and its response to when homeostasis is disrupted is how we grow. 

However, if we continually do the same thing all the time eventually the body no longer perceives what we are doing as a stressor, and the adaptation either slows down substantially or in some cases stops occurring. 

We want homeostasis to occur, and at the same time, we want to disrupt homeostasis. As a result, different strategies have to be employed. We must understand the functions of the autonomic nervous system as well as periodization. In all honesty, understanding how the balance of disrupting and encouraging homeostasis is the foundation of fitness. Fitness professionals, myself included, are continually trying to figure out how to go about manipulating homeostasis for best results. I will do my best in this post to help give you the framework for the disruption strategy.

There are 5 key strategies to employ to disrupt stress. In this post I will highlight a couple, but throughout the series I will go more in depth regarding each. These strategies are:

  1. Volume - The total amount work performed
  2. Intensity - The heaviness of the weight used.
  3. Variation - Different, but similar exercises used.
  4. Density - How much work you do in the time allotted.
  5. Frequency - How often you work.

Without going too far down the rabbit trail each of these are interrelated, however, they can only be manipulated their own way, which I will talk about in coming posts.

So these are strategies to disrupt homeostasis, however, recovery must be taken into account. During moments of recovery, this is where our body adapts the most. However, we mustn't recover all the time. Otherwise, this ends up being pointless. Although to give recovery the respect it deserves requires it's own post, which I will talk about later. 

I hope you are starting to see how our bodies must be treated with the thought of balance. Just like the rocking chair of relationships so also must we treat homeostasis as a rocking chair. Push too far with training and our body may become overtrained, but pull too far back and we will not present enough stimulus for our body to adapt. 

 

So where is the balance? How do we stay comfortable in the rocking chair known as training and our body's response? These are subjects I will discuss in coming posts.
 

Do Athletes Really Need 10,000 Hours?

In his book “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell discusses the 10,000-hour rule. Essentially stating, it takes 10,000 hours and a decade of dedication to become an expert in your chosen endeavor. With such a revelation, many people pursue this lofty goal to achieve “expert” status. As a result, in youth athletics, the idea of long-term athletic development, has become synonymous with the 10,000-hour rule. Suddenly, the specialization of youth sports is on the rise, because the assumption has become that the younger an athlete is when they reach these 10,000 hours, the more chance they have of becoming successful.

Unfortunately, literature has shown that while this 10,000-hour rule may be right for musicians and chess grandmasters, it does not apply to athletes. In fact, long-term athletic development was never originally supposed to be modeled by the 10,000-hour rule. Instead what long term athletic development points out is that each athlete goes through a maturation process and during this maturation process “windows of opportunity” open up. The theory is that these windows of opportunity are the moments of the athlete's physiological age where certain qualities will be optimally trained. For instance, according to this model strength training will be most beneficial for male athletes around the age of 16 (Ford et al., 2011). 

However, such a model falls short because quite frankly not everyone’s body matures the same. Take, for instance, NBA legend Scottie Pippen; he was 6’1” when he was 19 and the next thing you know he turns 20 and is 6’8”. Suffice to say, his window of opportunity for various qualities happened a little bit later in life. 

Bottom line, regardless of what you subscribe to, 10,000 hours or long term athletic development, it is important to heed the adage “you cannot fit a square peg in a round hole.” Each athlete is different, both in their physical maturation but also in their personality. Research has shown that a majority of athletes are best developed when exposed to a variety of stimulations such as sports, training qualities, etc. Exposing an athlete to these qualities is what we like to call in the business general physical preparation, the foundation of long-term athletic development. 

References

Ford, P., Croix, M. D. S., Lloyd, R., Meyers, R., Mousavi, M., Oliver, J., . . .  Williams, C. (2011). The long-term athlete development model: Physiological evidence and application. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(4), 389-402.