You are weaker when you leave the gym than when you walked in. Those of us who work out often can easily fall into the idea that our workouts make us stronger. As a direct cause and effect, this could not be further from the truth. There are some intermediate steps that need just as much dedication as your workout.
When you leave the gym you have broken down and damaged your muscles, taxed your central nervous system, and pushed your cardiovascular system to work to the limits of its capabilities. All of these are extreme stresses to your body. The workout alone is damaging to your body. You become stronger through the resulting cycle of adaptation.
Working out makes your body bigger, faster, stronger through a process called hormesis, whereby the body grows in response to brief and/or low dose exposure to detrimental elements or environments. Classic examples of this process include people through out history frequently giving themselves low doses of poison to inoculate themselves from assassination attempts, or the crazy individuals who take frequent “Polar Bear Plunges” and develop seemingly superhuman thermo-regulatory systems. Tough workouts, from heavy strength training sessions to intense hill runs, incite a similar hormetic response. The workout causes an acute stress to the body. Your body sees this stress and grows stronger, faster, etc to be more capable to handle a similar high level stress in the future. By continually pushing to or near the peak of our abilities we can ask our bodies to grow ever better.
Understand that your workout alone does not make your stronger. Your workout is the catalyst to a cycle of adaptation and growth. You become stronger by allowing the cycle to happen and making a concerted effort to aid in the process.
If we were to plot your body’s physical abilities on a graph over time we would see an initial dip after your workout followed by a steady rise, eventually to a level slightly above you abilities pre-workout. If you begin the cycle before allowing yourself to fully recover and become stronger you create a greater deficit that your body must recover from. Make a habit of this practice and you will dig yourself so deep into a hole and your body will let you know how seriously it would like a rest. This message usually comes in the form of injury or illness.
Before you walk into the gym next, ask yourself, “I’m I feeling stronger than last time I worked out?” If you are not at least 1% stronger than the last time you began a workout, you have no business working out again. If you still feel weak or tired, do something else and allow your body to rebuild.
I have come to lets a simple principle dictate my workout schedule:
Earn Your Next Workout
My cross-country and track coach in high school imparted this simple maxim on me. During an interval workout on the track he would make each of us take our own pulse. We could not begin our next interval until we had lowered our heart rate beneath a certain threshold. We had to earn our next interval. He was not only teaching us that we could actively lower our heart rate through breathing and calming exercises, but also demonstrating an important concept about our training. I learned that I could not only exercise some control over my heart rate but also that I would perform better and reap greater benefit from each individual interval if I allowed my body a full (or nearly full) recovery between cycles.
Further along in my personal athletic and coaching journey, I now understand this concept to not only apply at an individual interval level, but on a macroscopic level to my overall training methodology.
Like you, I love to workout. Many believe that more is better. It is incredibly easy to push ourselves to get to the gym far too often. I agree that more is better but not in the way that you probably think about it. More adaptation, not more workouts. Allow your body to receive the full benefit of your gym effort before inciting the next adaptation cycle.
I no longer let myself enter into an extreme session until I feel I have earned it. Apply the dedication and commitment you give your workout to activities that aid in the adaptation phase. Focus on your sleep, nutrition, myofascial release, mobility, and active recovery.
While I endorse the importance of earning your next gym session I also feel that there is benefit to be found from extended bouts of pushing yourself while under recovered. I view structured strength cycles, 2x per day workouts, and periods of working out everyday as vital elements to push to new levels. While a rigid strength cycle should allow for recovery between sessions the entire cycle should be seen collectively as a single stressor. As we seek to craft our functional training practices to functional, potentially real-life, ancestral demands we can find possible scenarios where one might need to persist in completely beaten-down state: several day/week hunting expeditions, long group migrations carrying children and belongings, running from or fighting off predators, or working day and night to free a loved one trapped under a landslide (I know, silly, but these and many more extreme examples have occurred through out human history). Viewing your lifting cycle as a single, extreme stressor will help you understand that your schedule within that cycle is not a sustainable model. Seen collectively as one large catalyst, you must then allow and facilitate an equivalent period of recovery and regrowth.
This simple principle of earning each workout will bring a much deeper satisfaction to your training. You will feel more vibrant and excited each time you enter the gym and be able to fully push to the peak of your abilities within each session. You will also have more energy and won’t feel broken down and sore for everyday life. You will probably find yourself doing fewer session per week yet see your progress accelerate.
Think of your work as only the first step. Apply your dedication and commitment to every step of the process.
Earn Your Next Workout.