Our body’s natural anti-inflammatory mechanisms apparently take the night off, which is why we awake stiff and filled with aches and pains that make one wonder if we’d be better off staying in bed.¹ After learning this, I stopped taking a couple of naproxen or ibuprofen with my morning caffeine and instead wait patiently for my 53-year old organism to get itself organized for the day’s events. Six days out of every week, those events begin with a trip to the gym.
I knew today’s session had none of the powerlifts planned, so I went in unafraid about the rather unmotivated state I found myself in. I think the long day ahead, filled with drudgery like making a living, having clean underwear, and obtaining food to eat were weighing me down. However, using a linear progression plan as I am these days, whether I’m doing a competition lift or not, I’m lifting heavy. I didn’t put up a lot of reps today, but I moved some weight.
I use Fitnotes to track my workouts. I’ve tried lots of apps and online trackers, and Fitnotes is the best I’ve found. Easy to use with plenty of data without being cumbersome. It tracks my PR’s for me and even though my reps were low, I got new PR flags. This brings up an interesting point that I think is worthy of some discussion. Progressive overload is the cornerstone of any resistance training program regardless of one’s goals. Without it, the body adapts to the work it’s given and progress, whether it be gains in strength or muscle size, ceases. It can be argued that trying to add more reps with a given weight is increasing the workload and thereby, overloading the system and forcing progress. I have not found this to be the case.
Placing a new stressor on the body is what creates adaptation. Faced with this new physical challenge to our safety, the body creates neural networks, strengthens connective tissue and repairs damaged muscle fibers to better handle this new threat to our homeostasis. This adaptation is an energy intensive process which your body is not willingly doing. Your body has evolved to stay alive, not to get jacked and tan. The deep, ancient evolutionary traits we all walk around with–the indelible stamp of our lowly origins, as Darwin so poetically put it–are actually detrimental to our fitness goals. Our brains will signal us to stop the activity we’re doing when it fears we’re about to get hurt. We won’t attempt one more rep when that rep is in doubt because our brain didn’t want us to. That’s what put the doubt there in the first place. The fear of injury that gnaws at us as we approach a heavily loaded barbell is our brain’s way of saying it’d be better if we didn’t make the attempt at all. So progressive overload, while the only real way to make continued progress, will eventually find itself up against a formidable foe: us.
Adding more weight than the last time an exercise was done is presenting that new stressor to the body again, where doing one more rep than last time is really just fatigue management. If one’s body is accustomed to doing pushups for example, at the current bodyweight, on any given day one may be able to do one or two more pushups than last time. There are various factors at work including the energy cycle, state of mind and tolerance for discomfort. But you’re still doing work your body has already adapted to: pushups with your own bodyweight. The muscular system, connective tissue and neural connections required to do this work have been challenged, they’ve adapted, and can now perform this task. But put a 10-lb plate on your back and start doing pushups, well hell, this isn’t what we’re prepared for. I am convinced, based on years of physical experimentation and poring over all the available research that adding more weight to the movement is the path to progress and noticeable gains in strength and muscular development, not trying to get 11 reps instead of 10 with the same weight.
This brings me to today’s challenge to my body’s desire to not get hurt.
- 192.5 x 3 (PR flag popped up on my tracker)
Now my true 1 RM in the front squat is 245. I’ve done that lift a few times in the recent past so I feel confident about that number. 192.5 is less than 80% of my 1 RM so I should have been banging out reps like nobody’s business, but it just wasn’t going to happen today. My brain sent up all manner of red flags against further efforts, even though the weight didn’t feel heavy. I mean last week, I did 7 reps with 190! But, regardless, I had never done 3 reps with this weight before, so a personal record was obtained. Whether it was enough to ignite any progress is impossible to know, but I moved more weight than last time, and ultimately, that is what matters to me.
- 192.5 x 3, 3, 2, 1
At a bodyweight of 178.5 this morning, I put 40 lbs on my belt for a grand total of 218.5 lbs and commenced with the dipping. I got 5 deep, strong and solid dips on set #1 and again, a PR flag popped on my tracker. Motivation may have been hard to find today, but the data doesn’t lie. Progress is happening.
- 218.5 x 5, 4, 4, 3
I am very pleased with how things are going and am already looking forward to waking up stiff and achy in the morning to do this all again.