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6 reasons your training has stagnated (and ways ahead)

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential”.
Bruce Lee
One of the pleasures about training, as a component of life, is the constant learning process. No one routine seems the same, the body and mind responds differently, you try new movements, you hit peaks, you plateau you make small adjustments, you learn from others, you ask questions, you focus on the job at hand, you see results. Many however, get tired and dissolusioned with the effort required to make progress, and it is more often a result of being overwhelmed by external factors that overcomplicate the simple internal factors.

As someone passionate about the nature of human evolution and cognition and especially how it relates to physical training, I adopt a holistic approach to helping people achieve their potentials which is often met with a confused look. People seem conditioned to expect defeat with the myriad of excuses society provides to delay progression, or reward mediocracy. But we all have within us the ability to change, it just requires awareness of the factors of interference, and the courage to step beyond their constraints.

The Deadlift

Gym Scenario

“But I just wanna get big”, dude says.

Fair enough, you´re a young guy, I was there once as well and we all know a little more naturally induced testosterone in today´s paisley shirt and skinny jeans society is no bad thing.

“Tell me about what you eat, how much you train, what kind of programme you follow and how much you sleep”, I say.

Errrrrm,(throws odd look) I train 5 or 6 days a week at the moment, plus I play indoor soccer on Monday night. On the weekends sometimes I don´t train because I usually go out. I don´t sleep or eat so well on the weekends. I eat lots of pasta and chicken, but I hate cooking, so usually just carry protein powder around with me. Always after training. I´m pretty bad with the sleep, always up late with friends on the PS3. But when I train, I hit it hard. Currently following Starting Strength every second day, but I don´t reckon that´s enough, so I do extra bench, leg press, lat pull downs and stuff on the other days. I heard the 5×5 programme is good though, so I might try that. Weekends are a bit of a mess, but, you know, student life and that”, says dude.

So your goal is to get bigger. And I assume stronger too. But it sounds like you don´t have much of a routine with your lifestyle. Pretty inconsistent stuff happening there mate. How much do you want to improve?”, I respond.

I really want to make changes, but it seems hard at the moment. I´m training most days, but don´t seem to be getting anywhere!”, says dude.

    • 1. Your nutrition is not dialled in

Eat me

    There is no way your training will move forward if you don´t adopt an understanding and appreciation of the importance of a sound nutritional plan. Time and time again, I see young guys at the gym chugging down protein drinks post-workout. If they were used in ADDITION to a proper nutrient rich dietary plan, fair enough. Fast metabolizing carbs and protein for rapid restoration of hormonal balance, controlling the cortisol increase and spiking insulin levels. Muscle gain 101 for the young gym rats. But I suspect these shakes are being used as substitutes for proper solid food.
The more I experiment over the years with my training, the more important nutrition becomes. To get big, you need to eat big. It really is that simple. But the caveats are numerous, and I won´t go into them here, suffice to say that the nutritional (macro-ratio) requirements for Mr. average body composition looking to stay in shape, Mr. slightly porky looking to lean out, Mr. skinny looking to bulk up, Mr. Crossfitter looking to improve WOD numbers etc are different.
You need to work out a nutritional plan that is right for YOU and your goals. Your metabolic typing is directly related to your various homeostatic control systems, and if your balance is not optimal, your health will not be either. BUT, the foods that make up your diet need to come from natural sources, NOT man-made ones. Once your body has eliminated the main sources of inflammation and hormonal disturbance (from sugars, gluten and plant oils) you will be in a much healthier metabolic condition to play with macronutrient ratios according to your body composition, goals and training intensities.
The great thing about the Paleo-style way of eating, is the simplicity and the seasonal adaptability. Remove the (year round) crap, eat natural foods (when in season). There is NO excuse if you are serious about your training, to be a lazy-ass when it comes to nutrition. Don´t waste money on powders and expensive supplements looking for a miracle boost or a shortcut. Only consider tweaks when you are already healthy. Eating naturally cannot be commercialized, eating man-made processed chemicals can, which is why supermarkets are 90% toxic. Be clear about this when you open your pie hole. FEEL guilty if your diet is not dialled into a natural food based regime. It´s why you feel like crap and half the reason why your training has stalled. Learn to appreciate and cook nutrient dense food, after all, it is THE building block for a healthy, strong you.

    • 2. You over-rationalize your training plans

Learn about your body

      Keep it simple. There are hundreds of training plans out there, some are even gullible enough to pay to read them, but most over complicate things. I´m not paid to recommend a certain program, and even if I was, if it didn´t include classic

Compound exercises

      like the deadlift, military press, dips, pull-ups, squats and bench press, I´d be dishing my morality. Joint strength, coordination and stabilization are essential for a healthy functional body. No matter what function you wish to perform. Add power and speed through

Olympic lifts

      like the snatch and clean and jerk. Include

Kettlebell training

    for all of the above, and especially to prepare your body for the kind of intensity you´ll need to make real progress. Kettlebells will ensure your mobility (in the hips especially) and grip strength will allow you to lift cleaner, heavier and more efficiently, which is key in bulking phases.
“But what about isolation exercises?“. I read in the…..
Mate, you probably get enough isolation exercise in the comfort of your bedroom reading those FLEX mags. Try using the other hand, in the meantime, stick with what works. Learn proper technique for how to shift heavy weight. If in doubt, ask. There are plenty of people who know about this at the gym. If you feel you are not stressing the whole body enough doing these classic movements and you are not responding as an integrated unit, then you are either not lifting heavy enough, or you need to refresh technique”.
Stick with what has been tried and tested to WORK AND GET RESULTS. Get mobile, learn to use your bodyweight. Lift heavy and simple. Don´t over rationalize things. If it´s not working, cut the surrounding crap out, ask, make it work. Save the reverse cable incline suplex pull for your late night keyboard warrior session.
      • 3. You over train and don’t rest

Overtraining (source: nw conditioning)

              “But isn’t it a good thing that I train like the pros?”
              “Bro, you are not a pro. If you were, we wouldn’t be speaking like this. The set up for a pro athlete is based around their specific skill set and the optimal way to maximize their performance.”
                I’ve written about this in a previous blog on sleep. In short, if you are stressing your body on a consistent basis (through whatever source) you need to allow it time to recover. But unless you have been through a period of over training, this concept is hard to drum into some young guy full of energy and intent written across his protein shaker.
            I’ve been there, suffered moderate to severe symptoms of adrenal fatigue and wondered why my training results were not only stagnating, but dipping. It may take time, but experience tells me that LESS is indeed the new MORE.I’m starting more and more to get the nutrition and rest message across, before starting talk of sets, weights and numbers. There are many resources out there telling you how to train, but less so, those telling you how to recover. I guess you can’t make money on the latter.

Cycle your training intensities and qualities

          Some refer to this as periodization. Even if your goal is hypertrophy, DO NOT lose sight of strength endurance, flexibility, mobility, power and speed. Throw in the odd metabolic conditioning routine, stretch, swing kettlebells and keep your body guessing. You cannot skip phases and expect gains without building up strength and intensity requires to shift heavy weights and utilize speed and power.

Charles Poliquin is a guru when it comes to these ideas. Bottom line: You want your body to be primed for each training session. If it is fatigued, it will underperform. Work in cycles, say 3-6 weeks, shifting focus to prevent injury and stagnation, adding a backoff week, ascertaining your progress in relation to your lifestyle. Be prepared to MAKE ADJUSTMENTS, but not to the detriment of your long term goals. Work hard for sure, but focus on quality rest in between.

4. You are too eager for quick results

Slow things down bro!

Things take time. We live in a world where we expect instant results with everything we do. All in the name of self-gratification and we are unwilling to put the time and effort required to make the changes really happen. We want to be bigger, stronger, leaner, healthier, wealthier, have more friends, have more crap about the house. We lose touch with reality, and the gym is often a place where this can be observed. To gain the body you desire, to optimize your health, to learn new skills, to become more empathetic or to see results from a course of action TAKES TIME.

If you really are determined to make changes and achieve certain goals in the gym or in your personal life, you must fight the desire for instant gratification. From an evolutionary point of view, this is not easy. We have evolved to survive, and expect results from our hunt or our escape. This is survival instinct. But these days, at least in Western societies, food is readily available, and we are not being chased by predators. Yet we still run on this instinctual system, and we are less than happy as a consequence.

Every great thing in history has taken time to develop, and those you see at the gym with impressive physiques have most likely invested considerable time and commitment into making themselves that way. And I’m not talking about the puffed-up walnut bollocked steroid brigade. Find a training program that feels good, one that is easy to understand, one that has proven to work, listen to the signals your body tells you, rest when it says rest, and work like heck when it says work!. Don’t skip days, don’t load your body with crap, don’t make constant comparisons with the guys beside you. They have their gig to attend, you have yours. Nothing brings more gratification than results from hard work. It WILL come.

5. You are making excuses

Get on with things

“Yeah, but it’s hard not to join in when the guys are going out drinking”

“I’ve been so busy with school lately…”

“It’s hard for me to train consistently with shift work”

“I have bad knees, so I can’t really do squats or kettlebell swings”

“I can’t afford to eat so much meat and vegetables. It’s cheaper to buy pasta and bread”

“I don’t want to lose my endurance for the soccer. That’s why I back down sometimes on the hard strength days”

Bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla…. Excuses are excuses. Just that. We are conditioned to look for excuses. It’s a stress-relief mechanism that social psychologists have long been fascinated by. As a defensive mechanism for dealing with conflicting ideas about what it is we are faced with, we rewire our behaviour, our actions and even our beliefs. Smokers do it, people in bad relationships or jobs do it, and indeed budding gym-buffs do it when straight-out-of-the-block results dwindle.

There are ALWAYS excuses for not achieving what you set out to achieve. Make it a conscious decision to not look for excuses. Face the challenges HEAD ON. Don’t run away and hide out of the fear that what you might experience (but haven’t) may (or may not) be bad. Don’t give up wondering.

6. You think of training as an isolated goal

The master

Training for success involves fine tuning ALL elements of your life, introducing positive mental and physical stimuli, and eliminating the external distractions as best you can. Sounds easy?. Well, of course it is not. We need to pay our way, we have obligations, we have ups and downs. But in reality, those out there you admire for their fortitude, their boldness, their sheer will to make things happen are not so different to you and me. They merely set out a plan of action and get to work. Inevitably you will come across hurdles and certainly detractors. Learn to overcome these EXTERNAL factors and change your tactics in dealing with INTERNAL struggles.

Training is a part of life, even if it’s a daily walk, morning calisthenics, or wrestling with your partner. The more integrated your routines become, the better you are at reading the feedback that comes along in various ways, and making the adjustments that are the key for optimizing your efforts. We all have different desires and have different paths we take getting there. Find YOUR way by sticking to a plan for a while to see if it works. If it doesn’t, make the adjustments required, and if need be, ask for assistance. Knowledge comes from being aware and open to change. Wisdom, said Socrates, comes from wonder. When you find your way, and you put it into practice, you reveal the TRUE virtues that are within you.

 

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“Go to bed now!” (actually, I mean that!)

“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
William Shakespeare

Human biological clock

One of the many curiosities about my time in Solomon Islands over the past years has been the way locals relate to sleep. I have been raised to think of sleep as a necessity obviously, and something done at night when not much else is happening. I have thought of weekends as a chance to alter routines by staying up later, sleeping longer (or “catching up” whatever that means), then by the time monday rolls around, look to more of a routine-esque sleep pattern if I want to keep the work/study/training/social/domestic gig alive. I knew that a lack of sleep made me perform poorly at school, work, the gym etc, but I never really pondered upon how sleep patterns work, and whether or not they are socially, biologically, environmentally or hormonally conditioned.

Solomon Islanders don´t seem to have set routines when it comes to sleep. For that matter, when they eat and are physically active either. It took me some time before I realized that the linear routine of the common Western way of living does not apply to this Melanesian archipelago. Food and sleep and exertion occurs when it occurs. It seemed to me that if I was to survive in rural areas, my body would have to assimilate its natural rhythms to local time as best it could. This meant being hungry, over satiated, so well rested to become stiff, exhausted from random bouts of paddling, trekking, football, bored and over stimulated. In other words, my comfort zones were put to the test every day, by not being able to precisely judge what was about to happen. It was never drastic however. Mostly, locals rested, stayed out of the heat, chatted, chewed betel nut, and left the running about for the kids. I was an anomaly for many reasons, not the least, because I found it hard to rest so much, always on the move for more ethnographic knowledge.

I wondered how Western society has become so agitated, so excuse-orientated, so dissatisfied with its lot?. I know this is a multi-facited dilemma, but the way we look at sleep, and the way Solomon Islanders do, made me search for a deeper understanding of this massive part of our lives.

1. How does lack of sleep affect our physiological/mental/metabolic performance?

2. Is sleep a universal requirement for mankind, or are we quick to adapt to different ´lifestyles´?

3. How does light affect sleep? What about the huge changes in daylight from Northern/Southern hemisphere to equatorial regions?

4. Why am I tired in the winter months, but awake in the summer months? Are we like bears or bats?

Robb Wolf is a guy whose advice seems to resonate on many levels with sensibility and logic. Often talking about the importance of sleep, Wolf advocates getting as much as possible short of getting divorced or fired, and in terms of training, weight control, hormonal balance, cortisol levels and insulin intolerance to name but a few factors, sleep is an obvious component of a healthy lifestyle. But still, I needed to know more about circadian rhythms and environmental factors that have selected us to become tired and awake in different ways at different times of the year. After all, modern man only recently ventured away from equatorial regions out to the extremities, and surely our genetic makeup has allowed for adaptability, but not adaption?. I suspected that sleep was another factor that was being manipulated by modern life, trying to con the physiology of our natural life cycles to fight the need to rest.

I read “Lights Out: Sleep, sugar and survival” by Wiley and Formby (2001) on Robb Wolf’s recommendation. Good read indeed, despite the mediocre reviews. I found their argument about seasonal changes effecting not only our dietary requirements, but our need for more or less sleep relating to light and energy zones very much standard evolutionary theory, but sleep specific, in that we cannot speak of optimal health by preferencing one factor (diet, lifestyle, rest, movement) over the other. In this sense, it strikes accord with a paleo-like way of thinking, if not in a more extreme context. To suggest that summertime (obviously this is a Northern hemisphere bias book) is party-time, stay up late, eat, drink and be merry type gig, viz-a-viz wintertime, where we should hybernate like a bear, and live in darkness is more to highlight our misguided lifestyles, than a doctrine to be strictly abided by. Despite the somewhat sloppy writing style (having just finished Gary Taubes’ excellent Why we get fat: And what to do about it) the message appears clear:

  • Sleep more, in order to recover
  • Avoid sugar, grains and excessive carbohydrates
  • Listen to your body as it is trying to be in tune with the seasons
  • Excessive artificial light in winter and sleep deprivation screws your hormonal balance, and exacerbates carb addiction

Lack of sleep blunts human growth hormone response, raises cortisol levels and causes insulin resistance. Not good, unless you want to soften out.

Anthropology, as the great bastion of holistic social sciences, has strangely remained quiet on the issue of sleep. Professor Carol M. Worthman, a leading researcher on the social ecology of sleep and hormone related developmental issues at Emory University, Atlanta, has crucially shown that the majority of clinical research and trials on sleep related disorders and habits are based on Western societies where sleep patterns are drastically different from societies where artificial light sources are infrequently available, and seasonal changes are minimal. The comparative field of evolutionary medicine is one branch of anthropological research that can be useful cross-comparatively in determining the extent of sleep variation in cultures with a focus on certain variables that point to deterioration of physical and mental health. As yet, no long-term cross-cultural epidemiological studies have been carried out that allow us to ascertain the effects of sleep deprivation, and lead us to a better understanding of the ideal way our biological sleep temporality effects our wellbeing, regardless of locality.

A better understanding of the history of sleep practices is needed so the social and physiological constraints that allow sleep to become inextricable linked to circadian patterns of consciousness, which are both phylogenetically and ontogenetically determined, become slightly more demystified. After all, to confuse this matter further, or at least my curiosity as to why Solomon Islanders slept so randomly, is the fact that circadian rhythms, and the hormonal action that takes place regulating our biological makeup, occur whilst awake AND asleep. It has the makings of something sci-fi this sleep thing. We are sleeping less and less, have more and more clutter and stress and fake-food surrounding us, and even try to alter our physical and genetic makeup by synthetic interventions – that perhaps humanity is trying to out-wit biology and attempt not just to stay up late, but stay up forever?.

I recently stumbled upon the work of A. Roger Ekirch, historian, and author of the fascinating “At Day´s close: Night in Times Past” (2005). Taking us back to the medieval days of the 16th-18th centuries, before the advent of electric lighting, Ekirch reveals the common segmented sleep patterns broken up into “first sleep” (dead sleep) and “second sleep” (morning sleep) and all the interesting nocturnal events that went on in between. Lights, he reveals, eliminated this pattern of semi-consciousness, where people would often have sex, pray and reflect. For me this is a startling find, and made me think of the way Solomon Islanders seemed half-awake, but never fully able to function in full consciousness. Often I would hear conversations, when all appeared quiet. Biphasic sleepers?.

Sleep cycle comparisons

Maybe, by looking back at our polyphasic sleep patterns from an historical perspective, comparing that with our monophasic tendencies nowadays, we are denying our evolutionary part in the animal spectrum once again?. An interesting article on biphasic sleep written by psychiatrist Thomas A. Wehr on a study about photoperiodicity (circadian rhythms) seems to confirm our tendencies to sleep in 2 periods (biphasic) of roughly 8 hours, but that artificial lighting and social norms have made us monophasic sleepers, which is not in accordance to our natural biology. To really start to geek-out on this, try this PubMed article on the evidence for a biological dawn. I also found paleohacks a goldmine of information on this issue, and as a bonus, stumbled upon this great thread for sleep hacking. Must give Tim Ferris a big High5 for getting me inspired.

I feel the need to do some more research though, and self-experimentation. Maybe my biological clock will tell me when it is time for that. I trust that clock, for it has made us a perfect species for adaptability to so much modern life presents to us, but we need sleep, and a good deal more than we are getting. That we cannot deny.

 

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