How hard should we train (Part 1)

This is the question on everybody’s lips, are we doing enough? Are we doing too little? Could we be doing better? In some ways the answer is simple, in others it gets a bit deeper & definitely takes some longer-term monitoring to figure out. Think of this as a complex thing to work out as it is multi-factorial, but not necessarily complicated when you know enough.


Learning outcomes: Understand conceptually how hard training should be for us to progress in an ideal/optimal manor (theoretically).


When we are asking the question of how ‘hard’ we need to train at any one time point to make appropriate progress (based on training age, genetics etc.), we need to consider two main points. These are: What is the current capacity/condition of the individual/tissue we are trying to influence at the time of applying stress/training? & how hard has training been historically (both near past & through our training career)?


Before I expand on this, I want to discuss what we mean by ‘hard’ when referring to training. Determining how hard training currently is can be done subjectively, it can be considered in terms of our perception of the amount of effort we are having to expend relative to the work being done. Perception of effort is a (one of many) good marker for how hard we are training (in part 2 we will discuss practically tracking how hard training should be). We can also objectively quantify how hard training is, which is of great importance when it comes to planning over time. We can objectively quantify this by the monitoring of training variables. Keep all else the same & increase any of the following & training will become harder:


·      Set numbers

·      Repetitions

·      Proximity to failure

·      Intensity

·      Range of motion

·      Time under tension (within a set)

·      Speed at which you proceed with your next set.


Increase any of the above & training becomes quantifiably (& subjectively if you’ve experienced these changes) harder. Imagine for a moment, that to get an objective grasp on how hard training is, we can take the effect/amount of each variable related to training (including all of the above) & combine them. As mentioned above, increasing or decreasing any of the above & we will see a change in how hard training is, so all training variables must be considered when trying to get a grasp of this.


Importantly, some of these variables will have more or less of an influence on your outcomes (volume seems more important when some minimum thresholds are met for muscle gain, intensities increasing over time should be your focus with strength training etc.) so we must make a calculated decision as to which ones we bias & which ones we de-emphasise a little. This is important (as we will discuss in more detail) because we can only train so hard at any one-time point, & when you increase any one of these variables without changing another you are increasing the amount of stress being imposed. We will revisit this point a little later.


Back to the point on ‘what is the current capacity/condition of the individual/tissue we are trying to influence at the time of applying stress/training? & how hard has training been in both recent history & prior?’


Why do we need to know this? Well, one of the two fundamental principles of training, the principle of overload, dictates that to improve in any physical quality, the specific stress/work we place on our bodies must both be overloading enough (of a high enough magnitude) to disrupt internal balance (homeostasis) but still within our recovery capabilities at that time point so that we don’t become overreached/trained to a point at which we can no longer present an overload.


How overloading our training should be (or hard in our terms) is dependent on the current condition of the individual we are applying said training to. This is because the condition of the individual dictates how hard training needs to be to exceed the overload threshold, & also the recovery limits of the same individual. This ‘condition’ can vary greatly between individuals (inter-individual) & will also vary between the same individual (intra-individual) at different time points..


Factors that determine differences between how hard we need to train to overload the system in a productive way (that doesn’t exceed our recovery capabilities) can include (but aren’t limited to):


·      Genetic factors (muscle fiber dominance, limb lengths, gender etc.)

·      Lifestyle factors (sleep, psychological stress, nutritional status etc.)

·      Training age (ability to perform good technique, history of how hard training has been etc.)


Factors that determine differences between how hard we need to/can train between time points within the same person can include (but aren’t limited to):


·      Training age

·      Recent training (our level of conditioning to a certain type of training i.e. we could be out of training for 8 weeks, so we could be deemed ‘de-conditioned’ in reference to previous conditions)

·      Lifestyle factors (sleep, psychological stress, nutritional status etc.)

·      Training variation (how long we have been doing the same thing etc.)


So, in the simplest terms, training needs to be hard enough to disrupt homeostasis (internal balance of the body & its systems) so that our physiology must make an effort to recover & adapt. This is a basic survival response & our bodies do so as to prepare & be more resilient against a repeated bout of this effect.


What is more nuanced is how high or low that threshold is, or as we are trying to fathom from this article, exactly how hard or easy out training should be to cause the necessary disruption (based on the above factors & more)

supercomp cycle.gif

As can be seen in the image above, the cycle of stimulus, recovery & adaptation (or super compensation) occurs sequentially, in that exact order every time. You will never adapt before you recover, which is an important point we will come to. You can also see that every time we adapt/super compensate to a higher level of fitness (marked by the arrow supercompensation), the training stimulus that would cause the same resultant cycle, is going to have to be more/harder. This is the principle of progressive overload in its most stripped back format. Overload & subsequent adaptations dictate that more must be done to get the same (or even diminishing in some cases) outcomes.


To convey this point, imagine that the X axis measures how hard training is, & Y remains as time. The horizontal dashed pink line is the line that signifies the overload threshold in relation to how hard training is. Anything underneath this line in terms of training, will result in not enough disruption to cause change. Anything at the line or above with cause a super compensation cycle to occur, & the size & length of this curve is dictate by how much we exceed our overload threshold (the more we exceed it, or the harder training is, the lower the curve will dip, the longer it takes to recover but potentially the more super compensation will occur).


Each time we go through one of these cycles, the overload threshold follows the height of the green line (as long as the green line reaches above the current overload threshold). In an ideal world, we would train, allow adequate recovery, then train again at that highest peak, so that we can overload with more zest as we have reached a new height of adaptation, & as a result of this adaptation, the body can now produce & handle this higher level of overload more readily. Within the same individual, the higher we can drive this overload threshold, the higher our abilities are in our given quality.


If though, we were to allow the curve to drop back down by delaying returning to train for too long, we would have lost the benefits of the previous overload, so now we would be in the same place as we started. Thus, we have an example of how & why how hard we need to train changes within the same individual.


A crucial variable that is not considered in this single variable model, is fatigue. Fatigue is a natural bi-product of overloading training, & by definition, if training does not produce a single measure of fatigue, chronic/acute or both, it is not overloading. What fatigue does, is impair our abilities to perform at our highest abilities, & thus overload in some cases, by masking our current fitness capabilities.


Imagine the following, when completely fresh & fatigueless, our preparedness, or ability to express our fitness is at 100%. Imagine at the start of a block of training, we only need to use 60% of this effort (just random numbers to express a point) to overload the system. Intuitively, we know this is pretty easy, & wouldn’t be too hard to do for most. With weeks of accumulated overload training, we slowly dwindle our abilities down to only be able to manifest 80% of our abilities, due to fatigue accumulation masking some of our potential. Concurrently, as a result of the need for progressive overload, we now also need to produce 80% of our best effort, to overload the system & produce the results we want. The result, is that we now need to give 100% of our current abilities (remember it’s actually only 80% of our best due to the fatigue we have accrued) to continue to overload the body, & continue to perform productively. What do we do though next week? We will enter next week with more fatigue, but also more need for overload. These two are incompatible at this time point & other measures must be taken. At this point we must allow sufficient recovery time (as in a deload), so that the fatigue reduces, as we cannot continue to produce productive overload training with the same training structure. Once we reduce fatigue, our preparedness returns to 100%, & if training has really been productive & we have fuelled out selves appropriately, super compensation may occur, to maybe 110% (again another random number to illustrate a point) & have thus improved.


Now, 110% of our old best, is now our new best (& thus 100% of our current best). So, now going into a new block our preparedness is now at (approximately depending on the circumstances, but for illustrative purposes) 100%. What is also important, keeping in mind that we still need to continually progressively overload, is that now we have improved, what was 80% of our best effort, will now be more like 65-70% of our best effort, so we can slide that back down the scale & restart the ascent again through the block. We have in theory ‘re-sensitized’ ourselves, meaning we have to work less hard than we did at the end of the last block, as a proportion of our best effort, for the same or similar progression.


You can notice though, that even though how hard we have to work is less than at the end of the previous block, it is harder than at the start of that same block. This is an example of the longer term effects of the need for progressive overload. We could extrapolate & confuse this further, but understand, that we need these reductions in fatigue to happen in the short, medium & long term to continue to keep the overload threshold within our abilities over time. As you can see below, we have included a visual representation of how overload & fatigue affect our preparedness.


Training variation is also an important variable/principle of training, as it seemingly lowers the overload threshold. Doing the same thing repeatedly seems to cause the overload threshold to rise faster than it normally would, & even after fatigue reduction occurs, the threshold remains higher than it would if variation was applied. The threshold of overload also seems not to bounce back quite as low as it would either (as per the example of starting a new block & the % of our effort lowering).


Seemingly, variation has this effect, because even though the response we are seeking is the same (muscle growth), the body is sensitive to changes in lots of different exercise variables (intensity of load, duration of sets, force vector, biasing of certain fibres during different exercises etc.). So, even if we make a relatively small change, our physiology seems to detect it quite readily, & it acts as a semi-novel stimulus, which will generally cause it to adapt more readily to any training input vs. a more ‘known’ input. The fact that it responds more readily in this way, means that we likely need a lower dose to get the same effect, & thus our conceptual overload threshold is lowered.


Training variation comes in the form of exercise changes, rep & intensity changes etc. This is how variation can be implemented (seemingly, but again this is just all conceptual) to bring that overload threshold back to a level that is achievable (it is also important to understand that the concept of momentum is important too, so too frequent variation can be detrimental, so there is a balancing act that goes on, but this is a topic for another article.



To wrap this all up, at a basic level, how hard we need to train is neither as hard as possible, or as easy as possible, the answer is always hard enough, based on many different variables as discussed above (to make this more confusing, sometimes hard enough, is as hard as possible in the case of super advanced individuals). I hope the above has helped you understand this on a bit more of a grand scale, vs. zooming in at minutia & getting caught up in lack lustre details. In the next article we will discuss some practical application of these concepts, but to give a bit of a taster, to find out where our overload threshold lies, we need to create a blank slate, find some population means, individualise the process as much as we can based on the person in question, implement a ‘test’ (luckily the test is also likely going to constitute hard training & will not necessarily be negative), review the outcome based on some crude data points (that when compiled can give a better picture) & adjust appropriately.


We do the above by keeping those super compensation curves at the fore front of our minds, & thinking “where on this curve am I right now” & adjusting based on this.


I want to leave you with a quote that was very impactful on my thinking, from somebody I look up to in this industry & try to learn from at every opportunity. That person is Brian Minor (@bdminor on Instagram) & the quote is as follows:


“Your ability to add weight to the bar is an adaptive outcome from prior overload, NOT a requirement for subsequent overload.” – Brian Minor


I thank you for reading this far, & as always, we would love any feedback on this article so we can continue to provide better content. If you are interested in more by us or working with us as a client to reach your goals, check out our Instagram @myonomics & click the link in our bio for all of our work.

Aaron Brown