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One notion that many trainees fail to understand is the synergy between different parts of their lives and the impact of that on overall results.
Synergy is when two or more parts work together to produce a greater result than each individually. You’ve heard the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Unlike a barbell’s weight which does equal the sum of its parts synergistic ‘elements’ produce non-linear results.
How does all this relate to your training? Well the results you get are a product of your entire lifestyle, not just your training or diet. Working with clients, my job mostly consists of troubleshooting someone’s current lifestyle. To get results in the gym and in the mirror, I have to look at all different parts of their daily habits. Is the person eating enough, sleeping enough, what are they eating and when, how are they training and when. All these things have to be taken into account since all of these effect one another. Take someone with impeccable training and eating, yet who sleeps only 5 hours a night; you will quickly find this someone stagnating, overtraining and simply feeling like crap. I’ll show you some key things I look for to improve the end-result.
Results and progress occur primarily outside the gym. What does it mean that the time inside the gym battling the weight is not the time when your body is changing? The goal of training is to start a reaction, or simply, a signal for growth. That’s why it’s important to balance your serious training with serious recovery methods. You want to stress the muscle then back off and let it do its work. This concept is very similar to pruning a plant– a destructive or catabolic act spurs growth and rejuvenation.
In a strict sense it’s very difficult to overtrain just from exercise. Some athletes train for hours every single day. This is even true for some Powerlifters and Strongmen. It is, however, quite easy to overtrain if you aren’t sleeping or eating enough.
So sound routines aside some mistakes that lead people to overtrain:
Just stop it, checking your 1RM every week is a great way to see your max drop week after week, but other than that, it’s worthless. Stop trying to take the same test every day and instead focus on studying. As a beginner it is easy to fall into this trap since one is unable to cause enough muscle damage and CNS stress for over-training to occur. However, once the newbie gains level off, employing a proper periodization scheme becomes essential for progress.
Growth, conditioning and strength development happen outside the gym. Your arms will grow slower (if at all) if they are trained everyday. Smart training is about utilizing exercise as much as necessary in order to maximize results. That’s why an advanced lifter is going to max out once every 8 weeks, for example, or train a body part twice or sometimes just once a week. These guys would love to do bench 7 days a week if they would achieve progress from that, but the reality is proper rest is going to be key for maximum results.
Even though it’s not literally overtraining, wrong form is going to cause injury and fatigue. For example, benching with elbows flared will put strain on and even cause damage to the rotator cuffs. It may initially create a mirage of progress, but you will quickly find yourself unable to bench.
A lot of people dismiss form, a mistake I’ve made in the past. I couldn’t put my ego aside for a couple of sessions while I dropped the weight and worked on form. The only time I started working on form was when I got injured and was unable to lift for months. Had I wised up before the injury, I would have quickly realized how much better gains I would have made with proper form.
If you’re still not convinced look no further than Olympic lifters. Some of them are barely teens yet can clean and jerk over 240lbs. That’s more than what a lot of people can squat! Their strength comes from utilizing technique, maximizing leverage and engaging all their muscles. Technique is key.
Your body is really good at taking the garbage you put into it and turning it into useful tissue. Let’s get one thing out of the way, a high calorie diet is conducive to strength and muscle gain. At the end of the day calories are key, the more you eat the stronger you get, the faster you recover and the bigger you get. But straight “mass gain” is not what you want. You want to balance gains while staying lean, and prioritize lean muscle gain. Some, if not most of you want to lose fat at the same time! So we need to find a way to walk the razor edge.
Protein is your new favorite macro nutrient. It’s filling, used to create muscle tissue, and is made up of essential amino acids that your body needs. If you aren’t convinced that protein is going to stave off fat, then examine the phenomenon of Rabbit Starvation:
Rabbit starvation is the form of acute malnutrition caused by excess consumption of any lean meat (e.g. rabbit) coupled with a lack of other sources of nutrients usually in combination with other stressors, such as severe cold or dry environment.
Lean meat, being mostly protein, must be broken down into amino acids and then converted into glucose (via gluconeogenesis) to be used as an energy source. Although this process takes time, it can be done quickly enough to meet most of the energy requirements of an active person. However, sufficient calories cannot be consumed to meet the added requirements to generate body heat in a cold climate. After the body’s energy reserves (fat) are depleted, the energy requirements to sustain basic life processes are not met.
Obviously you are going to have a balanced diet but this shows that protein is very difficult to use as an ‘energy’ source which is going to work great when you are trying to preserve muscle and lose fat.
When trying to control bodyfat, carbs can be compared to the gas you use in your car. Imagine if your car started storing gas that sat unused for too long. Let’s say you filled up your car at night and in the morning, you notice the car has stored that gas and the tank is now empty. This is exactly what the body does with excess calories: either they are used or stored. Carb timing is like pouring in gas while the car is using it. In other words, you do not want this energy source to be sitting doing nothing for too long since that’s when it gets stored as fat.
On the other hand, I personally have had great success drinking a carb drink such as juice or Gatorade while training. I imagine it’s not only the immediate sugar from the drink that helps but it triggers a response from the body to give up its fuel, since it’s being replenished.
The body is very stubborn with its resources, so carb timing is going to be a great way to trick your body to power you through brutal training sessions then cut off the carbs and go into fat burning mode all throughout the day. It’s like having your protein bar and eating it too.
Sleep is one of those things that no one seems to talk about. Why is sleep so important? Well, consider this, not sleeping enough is going to affect these things (and more):
Tissue rejuvenation and wound healing: Obviously you’re not injured, but training causes trauma to the muscles, tendons and joints that need to heal. Muscle anabolism is in fact healing and growth.
Growth Hormone, Testosterone and other hormones are effected by how much you sleep. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, all those are going to drop. So optimal sleep is going to be equivalent to jumping on a steroid cycle.
“The metabolic phase during sleep is anabolic; anabolic hormones such as growth hormones (as mentioned above) are secreted preferentially during sleep.”
I recommend getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night. Make sure to consume a high protein/mid fat meal before sleeping. Insomnia and not sleeping enough are one of the main causes of overtraining. This is one of the easiest things to fix which in turn will yield some of the greatest results.
If you have trouble sleeping, I recommend taking Melatonin, 1-6mgs about an hour or two before your bed time. Anti-histamines such as Benadryl also work, I recommend a 50-75mg dose.
Training is not limited to the gym or the kitchen but rather a complicated relationship of all these things, and to maximize your results you must understand how to control them and make them work for you. At first it might seem like a daunting challenge but just as your results are stagnating because of bad synergists once you control them these same synergists will work for you, magnifying your results exponentially.