by Dave Sears
Editor of Muscles in Minutes
We've been hearing for years about stress management. And how keeping our stress in check can prevent all kinds of unwanted things, including: acts of "road rage," heart attacks, strokes, and strain on relationships. It has even been found that many (if not most) illnesses are related to unrelieved stress.
However, have you ever considered stress management when it comes to thinking about your training? Rest assured, every training session is a stress - it has to be in order to be productive. But stress is not always a bad thing - it can and does add excitement to life. In fact, we all thrive on a certain amount of stress (even "negative" stresses such as deadlines, competitions, frustration or sorrow add depth and enrichment to our lives). Our goal, therefore, should not be to eliminate stress, but to learn how to manage it and how to use it to help us achieve our desired result.
Insufficient or lackluster stress can actually act as a depressant and may leave us feeling bored or unfulfilled. I clearly remember reading one of Mike's articles in the late 1970's about staying motivated. He was completely on the mark when he said that a high-intensity workout (all out effort) immediately eliminated depression. Excessive stress, on the other hand, can cause a host of other problems: physical, mental, and emotional. What we need to do is find the optimal level of stress to motivate and stimulate - but not overwhelm.
What is Optimal Stress?
We all have a unique tolerance to stress. While some can recuperate from a 6-set workout with only 2 days of rest, many find that quite impossible, requiring less volume or more rest. For this reason, we have to be keenly aware of what our bodies are telling us. While we know the founding tenets of Heavy Duty are quite sound, that doesn't mean we don't have to take personal responsibility for our stress management. Mike left that open-ended for a reason. While he could prescribe the best training method, he couldn't look into your eyes and see your ongoing, changing requirements for rest. That becomes highly personal and requires trial and error.
He became acutely aware of this while discovering just how brief training really could be (as outlined in Heavy Duty II - if you haven't read the entire explanation about his discovery process, I'd strongly suggest you buy the book). In short, Mike learned that a trainee's physiological response (specifically recuperation) to exercise varied over a spectrum - much like the spectrum of individuals having light to dark skin.
Stress adaptation - and the amount that we can tolerate - changes as we age. Lower levels of testosterone and human growth hormone are in steady decline after thirty, and prevent our body from recuperating as it did in our late teens. In effect, stress management is always a moving target; as we age, as we grow stronger and larger, as other circumstances in life change, so does our ability to recuperate from stress. Optimal stress is therefore stress that stimulates change without causing any more negative effects than necessary (for the moment, we'll call any recuperation negative). This is exactly the same as Mike saying: "Do only what is precisely required to stimulate muscle growth and then get the hell out of the gym!"
How is Stress Managed?
Recognizing that you are not recovering from training stress (and being aware of its effect on your body) is the first step. Your lack of progress (because of less than full recovery) may be the cumulative result of several workouts, or it may be only from your very last training session. What's the best way to figure this out?
1. Be aware of what your body is telling you.
Pay critical attention to your progress - or lack thereof. Don't ignore it and hope it goes away the next workout or the one after that. Remember, 0+0+0+0 does not equal 1. The sum of several workouts showing no progress still equals no progress. Determine how your body is recovering (or not) from certain workouts, certain exercises, or certain protocols. Again, be critical! Do not chock up a lack of progress to having an "off day" (unless it really is an off day). Your body should show progress each and every workout (or you need to reevaluate your stress management).
2. Analyze what you can change.
Can you improve your performance by cutting down on volume? How about increasing rest days? Or making sure you have enough food to compensate for the increased stress? Should you spread out your sets over days instead of minutes (as I did in "How Brief is Brief Enough?")? Should you shorten your exposure to stress (shorter tuls, lower-rep sets)? Do you need to get more sleep? Be clear on what factors may be influencing your lack of progress - and have a clear plan on how to check their validity.
3. Make a plan - and stick to it.
The worst thing you can do is test 15 variables at the same time. A better plan is to take just 1 (or 2 if you insist) variable - say caloric intake - and test that for a period of 2 to 6 weeks. If nothing has changed (improved) in that period of time, you should go back to where you were before and pick another variable. I did this systematically for a period of almost 2 years. The result was a greater education and understanding of what my body is capable of - and what my potential may be. Some of what I learned wasn't inspiring (the potential part), but other lessons were eye opening. This has encouraged me to make this a life-long quest - a never-ending journey for truth, justice, and the American way (wait, wasn't that what the actor George Reeves proclaimed in his Superman TV show from the 1960's?). Well, anyway, you get the point.
4. Be critical about what you observe.
Keep records, take notes, take measurements. Don't be afraid of what the tape measure, scale, mirror, or your strength records tell you. You cannot truly progress if you bury your head in the sand. Truth is enlightening, ignorance is inexcusable!
Ultimately, any and all types of training cause / are stress. It's the stress management - using the tools Mike gave us - that allows the growth and positive adaptation. If you decide to do 20-rep, SuperSlow sets, along with supersets, followed by forced reps, static contractions, and negatives, you will HAVE TO accommodate that insanity by allowing for more rest. If you choose to do (1) total 30-second set of Super-Consolidation training every 5 days, you will probably recover easily even if you get a few nights lousy sleep, miss a meal or two, or were a bit more casual about your recuperation. Once you alter the overall "program" - by either changing rep speed, rep count, rep distance, time under load, overall intensity, set extension (forced reps, negatives), you MUST alter your rest / recuperation regime. It's stress management at its best!