What if I told you that by improving your training program, you could dramatically improve your recovery and your results?
In part one of this series Train Hard, Recover Harder, I explained that training was one of many stressors that your body has to deal with and that stress management is the key strategy to increasing your capacity to train hard and recover harder.
Most of us think of stress management as the way to deal with our grumpy boss, stroppy kids, empty bank account, or some other day-to-day worry. While using strategies to manage these kinds of stress is beneficial, I will focus on managing your training stress.
By focusing your attention on the input (training stress), you can increase the output (recovery and adaptation). Sadly, most of the people asking me for tips to improve recovery have gotten things backward.
They are desperately trying to out-recover poorly designed training programs filled with junk volume.
This thinking is like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s too late.
The Principles of Exercise Program Design
I believe in the importance of program design to reach your fitness goals. Your progress can go from good to great if you correctly understand the underpinning principles of program design.
I’ve seen this happen in my training and with countless clients as I have refined my programming approach.
I’ve learned programming principles that I genuinely believe will take your training to the next level during this time.
By focusing on delivering efficient training stress, you make recovering easier to achieve. Great recovery starts with great programming.
Intelligent Program Design = Fatigue Management
But first, let me explain how you and so many others, including my younger, dumber self, get ourselves into a position where our training makes a recovery an uphill battle.
A Workout Based on FOMO
Many a motivated, disciplined, and hard-training gym rat falls victim to training based on the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO).
This FOMO means we try to crowbar every conceivable exercise into our program without considering the toll it takes on our recovery. Days off from the gym become fewer and further between as we worry that a day without training is a day without progress.
Social media has a large role to play in this.
In the past, you only saw the lifts of other people who happened to be in the gym for the same 60-90 minutes as you. We now get to see a highlight reel of people’s PRs on social media. Instagram is awash with hundreds of weird, wacky, Frankensteinish exercises as people compete for attention.
Consequently, we can compare everything we do in the gym to millions of others.
- You see one of your favorite athletes doing one exercise.
- You see another athlete doing a different variation.
- You see a successful coach extolling the virtues of yet another exercise.
- You see a celebrity influencer doing a different one.
- That’s before you factor in the exercises you liked the look of in the latest article you read or a seminar you attended.
You feel compelled to include all of these exercises into your program FOMO on the benefits of each. Taken in isolation, all of these exercises might have value.
However, when randomly piled on top of each other, they become less than the sum of their parts.
Some are useful, and some are redundant, while others simply don’t match your requirements.
What they have in common is that they all eat into your recovery reserves.
Following a program with such a bloated list of exercises digs a huge recovery ditch, which even the most advanced recovery protocols won’t fix.
The other consequence of social media is the #NoDaysOff B.S. We have been led to believe we all need to be up at 5 am for meditation before embracing the grind and going full #beastmode in the gym and office.
Now I’m not knocking hard work. It’s essential, but brainlessly trying to push the limits 365 days a year is a recipe for burnout and failure.
You need to have some downtime to allow your body to recover and adapt.
Sadly, the rise and grind mindset has led many gym enthusiasts to follow training plans requiring them to set up their home in the gym. Training seven days a week probably isn’t a good idea even if it’s your job, and let’s be honest, nobody is paying you to train.
Rather than feeling guilty about having a few days a week out of the gym, realize that it is what you need. This mindset takes discipline.
If you’re like me, you enjoy the challenge of training. The gym is a part of your routine and doesn’t require motivation or discipline. However, taking a day off does require some discipline.
This more is better approach ends up with you training every day, doing too many different exercises with way more sets than you need.
Your training is full of junk volume.
I bet you’ve heard the saying, “You can’t out-train a bad diet?”
You’ve probably knowingly told a friend or colleague keen to lose a few pounds this and felt smug and self-satisfied while sharing your wisdom.
Have you ever considered:
- “You can’t out-recover a crappy training program filled with junk volume?”
- “That this might be exactly what you’ve been trying to do?”
- “This could be the exact reason you haven’t made any noticeable progress in living memory?”
Most people address this situation by continuing to keep banging away and focusing on ramping up their recovery. They invest in all manner of recovery modalities but never seem to fix the issue. That’s because they’ve got things backward.
Instead of dealing with the symptoms of poor recovery, they should aim for the root cause.
Train Smart to Maximize Recovery
Whatever your physical goals are, you need to train to achieve them, and you need to train hard. It would help if you also prepared smart.
Put another way, smart training is hard training, but hard training is not necessarily smart.
Training to build muscle is fatiguing in nature. Intelligently, planning your training means you can manage this fatigue from session to session to allow you to keep progressing.
If, however, every time you set foot in the gym, you go full #beastmode, train to annihilate a muscle, and half kill yourself, then fatigue will accumulate very quickly—too quickly. Your body won’t be able to recover and adapt. You’ll have dug a hole too deep.
The goal of your training is not merely to recover. It is to adapt!
Burying yourself in the gym might feel like the right thing to do. It might have a cathartic quality to it but, it will limit your results if you do it every time. Even with sleep, diet, and stress under control, you can only push so hard before you break.
By flipping your thinking about recovery to enhancing it by optimizing the training dose, you could dramatically improve it. This flip in thinking means better training, better recovery from exercise, lower injury risk, and better results.
To flip your thinking to maximize your recovery, I want you to understand four fundamental principles when designing your training program.
These principles will go a long way in helping you to build a program that creates the most significant potential for your high-quality training stimulus and optimal recovery capacity:
- Your personal weekly training volume landmarks
- Muscle-specific stimulus-recovery-adaptation curves
- The stimulus: fatigue ratio of different exercises
- Relative intensity
Minimum Effect Volume (MEV) and Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV)
Within reason, more hard training creates the potential for more progress so long as you don’t exceed your capacity to recover. Identifying your MRV is an instrumental piece of information to know when designing your program.
Your MRV has two components:
- Your systemic MRV
- A body part specific MRV
For example, from a systemic viewpoint, you might be able to handle five hard training sessions per week with 16 working sets per muscle group each week.
Note. That is just an example; please do not misconstrue it as an instruction to train five days a week with 16 weekly sets per body part.
Having a reasonable idea of your MRV is vital to developing a framework for building your training week.
Maximize Muscle Stimulation
Body part specific MRVs can change quite a lot. By digging into this:
- You can refine your program to elevate it from good to great.
- Some of your muscles might respond differently than others.
- Some muscles might tolerate higher training volumes, intensities, or frequencies.
- Other muscles may get the same training effect from a lower stimulus.
Understanding this allows you to program your workouts with an extreme level of accuracy and efficiency. You can minimize junk volume and maximize stimulation. This program facilitates better recovery than treating every muscle group the same.
- Your quads might only tolerate six sets done twice per week for a weekly MRV of 12 sets.
- At the other end of the spectrum, you might find your rear delts get an effective workout from six sets in a session but can recover just fine from 24 sets per week.
Meanwhile, your other muscle groups might fall at various points along the spectrum.
With this knowledge, you can adjust the weekly volumes and frequencies for each muscle to optimize your training split.
In doing so, you have also increased your capacity for recovery.
Establishing your systemic and muscle group volume tolerance takes time and attention to detail but is well worth it.
Once you have this information, you can go from following generic, cookie-cutter plans to genuinely individualized programming. Your results will improve as a consequence.
Stimulus Recovery Adaption
Recovery is a return to baseline, and adaptation is when your body exceeds its previous baseline to an improved performance level or increased muscular size.
You don’t want to just recover from training; you want to make adaptations.
Much like different muscle groups have different volume tolerance, they also have variety in their Stimulus Recovery Adaptation (SRA) curves. Multiple factors play a role in SRA curves.
The key points you need to consider are:
- The training frequency for each body part should depend on its SRA curve.
- Factors such as the size of the muscle, its structure, function, fiber type ratio, and the muscle damage caused by training influence the SRA timeframes
- Exercises that place a big stretch on a muscle tend to cause more damage. This damage extends the muscle’s SRA curve.
- Exercises with a greater ROM usually create more significant systemic fatigue, which slows SRA curves.
The SRA curve of a muscle is pertinent in determining your training frequency.
In an ideal world, you would structure your training to hit each muscle group again at the peak of its adaption curve. This structuring means your training program might not be symmetrical.
Training frequency is an important training variable, and it deserves the attention needed to optimize your results.
When considering training frequency, a good starting point is:
- Determining how many days per week you can train.
- Establishing how many tough training sessions per week is a good start to managing your training stress.
It is just a start, though. I challenge you to push yourself to a higher level by thinking about training frequency. Instead of being satisfied with answering:
“How many days per week should I train?” Also, answer, “How many days per week should I train each muscle group?”
Finding the answer to that will help you to create the ideal weekly training schedule for you.
Your decision-making on the frequency you use for each muscle group should be informed by the factors I outlined in the earlier bullet point list. Despite having multiple factors to consider, the difference in each muscle’s SRA curve is relatively small.
While small, this difference is significant.
Intuitively, you know this. You can narrow it down to a matter of days. For bodybuilding training, this is usually around 24-72 hours.
Research indicates that training a muscle 2-4 times per week is best when your goal is muscle growth. Identifying where each muscle fits into this range will allow you to unlock your growth potential by training each muscle at the perfect frequency.
Some muscles will do best with two sessions per week, while others will not respond unless you push 3, 4, or even 5 x per week.
I have established the following guidelines from years of experience working with countless clients to provide you with a starting point:
- 2 x per week: Quads, hamstrings, glutes, chest, anterior delts
- 3 x per week: Back, triceps
- 4 x per week: Biceps, calves, and rear and lateral delts
Note. These are just averages based on my experience; you will need to experiment a little to find your optimal training frequency.
Stimulus Fatigue Ratio (SFR) Explained
I want you to consider the final concept from a program design standpoint is the Stimulus Fatigue Ratio (SFR).
SFR is the amount of muscle-building adaptations an exercise can give you relative to the fatigue it generates and what it requires you to recover. Some popular exercises have a poor SFR when it comes to hypertrophy.
The ideal exercise creates a high stimulus for a low fatigue ratio.
Selecting exercises that place tension through the target muscle and suit your structure is a great starting point to managing your fatigue ratio.
When assessing a potential new client’s program, I often see conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, and rack pulls in their plans. These are good exercises if developing deadlift strength is the primary goal.
However, these exercises do not rank high if hypertrophy is the goal when you consider SFR.
They all have created substantial fatigue with little muscle-building stimulus:
- They use lots of weight.
- Necessitate that you spend a lot of energy psyching up
- Require long warm-ups
- Drain your body’s resources quickly while providing a negative return on hypertrophy.
Conventional deadlifts involve little eccentric loading, sumo deadlifts are just a way to move the most weight with the least mechanical work, and rack pulls are usually just an ego trip.
Long story short, they aren’t great choices to stimulate muscle gain, and they will fatigue you so much you won’t be able to do much else in your workout.
If you picked exercises with a better SFR, you could build more muscle more efficiently.
How to Evaluate SFR
Exercises that have a larger ROM place a big stretch on a muscle, require a high degree of skill, coordination, and stability, and it’s more challenging to recover.
As a rule of thumb, it is harder to recover from barbell work than dumbbell work.
Dumbbell movements are usually harder to recover from equivalents done with cables or fixed machines.
Perfect Does Not Exist
It’s important to understand nothing is perfect. There isn’t an exercise out that creates a muscle-building stimulus with zero fatigue.
- To get results from training, you have to work hard.
- Hard work guarantees fatigue.
- You can’t eradicate fatigue, but you should try to maximize the stimulus for every unit of fatigue created.
Looking back at the exercises I identified as commonly included in a prospective client’s programs often means choosing Romanian deadlifts over conventional deadlifts and sumo deadlifts. And choosing rack pulls as superior for hamstring growth.
Too Much of a Good Thing
We have been brainwashed into thinking the best exercises are compound barbell ones. At the same time, these are excellent exercises. They are not necessarily the best choice all of the time.
The best exercise is the one that best achieves the desired stimulation.
It must also take into account your physical capabilities at that moment. If you perform four exercises for quads in a leg workout, doing back squats, front squats, hack squats, and leg presses, it is brutal.
These are all undoubtedly great exercises that create high stimulus levels, but they also produce high fatigue levels.
After back squats, front squats, and hack squats, your legs will probably feel like jelly. Consequently, your performance on leg presses would probably be pathetic.
This fatigue negates their theoretical high stimulus value.
Being so drained from the three previous exercises means you wouldn’t be able to summon the required psychological willpower and effort level to create a meaningful stimulus on the leg press.
At this point, they are an exercise in generating fatigue for minimal stimulus.
Even if you could hype yourself up to give a decent effort on the leg press, there is a risk that you would drive fatigue levels so high that you’d blow right past your quads MRV.
You would dig yourself a massive recovery ditch that you would need to climb out of before your next leg session. That makes the sets of leg presses junk volume.
When you exceed a muscle group’s MRV, you have, by definition, exceeded its capacity to recover. The stimulus might be high, but fatigue is even higher.
That’s a crappy SFR ratio.
This fatigue will slow down your SRA curve and mean your legs probably will not recover for their next session. Picking those four compound lifts seems big and clever, but it is not. You would be exerting massive amounts of effort for diminished results.
A smarter choice in this example would be:
These exercises still create an adequate stimulus, but the fatigue generated is lower. You also transition from complex, multi-joint exercises, requiring high internal stability, to single-joint, machine-based exercises that provide external stability.
Taking advantage of external stability at the end of a session when you’re fatigued is a wise decision.
It means you can make the target muscle the limiting factor without wasting energy on stability and coordination.
When muscle gain is the goal, you want the target muscle to be the limiting factor, not your ability to remain upright.
Too Much Muscle Stimulus Drives Unsustainable Fatigue
Creating lots of tension in the stretched position of an exercise produces a powerful growth stimulus.
A 2014 study had two groups train with the same range of motion, but the group training at longer muscle lengths not only gained more muscle but retained more strength and size after a detraining period.
The stretch stimulus is a good reason to train with a full range of motion, but keep in mind some exercises can have the same range of motion but different levels of tension in the stretched position.
Also, remember that too much of a stimulus can drive fatigue to an unsustainable level. For this reason, the amount of muscle damage created by a given exercise should be considered when planning your training.
The stretch heavily influences muscle damage under load within an exercise. Taking the hamstrings as an example, you could compare Romanian deadlifts (RDL) and Lying Leg Curls.
The RDL places an extreme stretch under load on the hamstrings.
In layman’s terms, the weight feels the hardest and heaviest at the bottom when the muscle is fully lengthened. RDLs are an excellent choice, but you should be aware of the consequences of the extreme tension they create in the stretched position.
The RDL is a barbell lift that you can load heavily. It also taxes the glutes, spinal erectors, lats, grip and creates a ton of muscle damage.
- Conversely, the Lying Leg Curl challenges the hamstrings in their fully shortened position, and there is relatively little stretch under load.
- As a result, the hamstrings’ muscle soreness and SRA curve are longer when trained using RDLs than Lying Leg Curls.
- Thus, you might only be able to train hamstrings once per week with heavy RDLs. You could increase frequency to two, or even three times a week, by utilizing Lying Leg Curls in other sessions.
Manage Relative Workout Intensity Against Recovery Reserves
Relative intensity is a measure of effort. It is often used on a set-by-set basis to rank how close to failure you got. Reps in reserve (RIR) are a widely used metric to assess this. Two RIR means you stopped a set with two reps in reserve. One RIR equals one in reserve; 0 RIR is when you couldn’t do any more reps.
Sometimes people approach relative intensity from a slightly different viewpoint; they focus on the perceived difficulty or exertion of a set or training session. This is known as a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). On the RPE scale, a 10/10 effort is a maximal effort. It is the equivalent of 0 RIR.
The exact terminology of RIR versus RPE doesn’t really matter. The point is they are both useful ways to quantify your effort levels, the difficulty of a set, and your workout. These are all contributing factors to the relative intensity of your training.
Managing your relative intensity can be a useful tool to provide an effective training stimulus without digging too deep into your recovery reserves.
Train to Failure Occasionally
Imagine the most challenging session you’ve ever done. Every set is taken to failure. Maybe even some drop sets and forced reps thrown in for good measure. Recall how you felt during that session.
You were probably a sweaty, broken mess sprawled out on the floor, asking yourself why you put yourself through this torture voluntarily.
During the session, your muscles burning, and waves of nausea washed over you. In the end, you felt completely wiped out, and it took what seemed like an eternity for you to drag yourself out of the gym.
If we rank that as a 10/10 effort, I’d suggest you rarely hit a 10/10 to make the best gains possible. A 10/10 session can be beneficial if done occasionally, but it will lead you to exceed your capacity to recover when done all the time.
Instead of chasing a 10 every session, you probably want to hit an 8/10 most of the time. When the time calls and the progress dictates it, dip into the 9-10/10 range.
Go there occasionally, but don’t make it your default setting.
If you hang out in the 8/10 range on average, you know you are providing a challenge to the muscles, a stimulus to grow, and a stimulus from which you can recover.
- Do this by taking most sets of compound free-weight exercises to 2-3 RIR.
- Push machine-based compounds a little closer to failure by usually staying at 1-2 RIR.
- Then go full send on single-joint exercises and regularly hit 0-1 RIR.
Doing this is still hard training. It is also smart. It allows for recovery. With recovery comes adaptation. Adaptation can be taken as progress in this context.
Progress in the weights you lifted, the number of reps you did, the overall number of sets you can do. Long story short, it means bigger and stronger muscles.
The benefits of regularly hitting an 8/10 training session are:
- It provides an efficient stimulus.
- Sessions can be completed in 45-70 mins, and you can carry on with your day after a quick shower and a bite to eat.
- You can train frequently.
- You reduce injury risk.
- You do not generate a bunch of anxiety about how hard every visit to the gym is.
- You make significant gains.
On the other hand, hitting 10/10 usually plays out as follows:
- It provides a stimulus.
- Sessions take 70-120 mins, and it takes you 20 mins just to gather yourself enough to get in the shower. Getting dressed happens in slow motion. Eating a meal…forget it you still feel sick. All told, it’s about an hour after the session before you feel vaguely human.
- You can’t train as frequently–recovery takes a few more days, and the debilitating DOMS you get mean that training 3-4 x per week is the vaguely sustainable maximum (even that is pushing it).
- You increase injury risk.
- Most sessions require you to psych yourself up, use stimulants, and generate a ton of anxiety about how hard every gym visit is.
- You will probably burn out or get injured or both.
Training like this every session is a false economy. It takes more than it gives and limits the overall training you can handle.
Less Overall Training = Less Gains
Exercise Training Program Design – Cook to Master Chef
To create a great program that delivers results and maximizes recovery, it is important to avoid thinking in a vacuum or viewing the world through a straw. All of the training variables are interlinked and have a knock-on effect on each other. Finding the ideal blend of all the variables is essential for outstanding results.
Factors to consider when piecing a training program together:
- Your total and muscle-specific training volumes
- Each muscle’s recovery timeframes
- Exercise selection and SFR
- Relative intensity
If you consider these factors when planning a program rather than just following a workout template, it will be like going from a cook to a chef. A cook follows a set recipe, and a chef uses their taste and judgment to make micro-adjustments that elevate a dish to award-winning levels.
They understand how all the ingredients complement each other and when a little more of one ingredient will make all the difference. This allows them to take the same ingredients and transform them into a Michelin star quality dish.
Understanding the training principles in this article can elevate you from a training cook to a master chef. You won’t have to follow program templates with your fingers crossed that they work.
Instead, you’ll know what you need to balance both stimulus and recovery to achieve outstanding results.