Fatigue Does Not Discriminate
Whether you're a bodybuilder, a high performance athlete or a recreational lifter, fatigue will be there. Training itself is a form of stress, and when it's compounded with bad sleep, poor nutrition, and a stressful life, fatigue becomes all the more evident.
So what do you do? Plow through your training when you're in an under-recovered state? Well, that's the best way to get injured or sick, since technique will be harder to maintain and your immune system will be shot.
Luckily, there's a smarter approach... a few of them, actually. They'll help you recover and allow you to follow a more streamlined path to your goals. Use these four methods to train straight through fatigue while boosting recovery in the process.
1 – The Escalating Pyramid
Slowly stumbling into the squat rack with a plan to do multiple top-end working sets is about as bad as it gets for a fatigued lifter. But instead of fighting your mind, body, and better judgment just to push through it, don't. There are times to move forward and times to pull back, but remember: You can only get better from a training stimulus that you can recover from.
One of the best ways to keep quality high and centralized fatigue low is by using what's called an "extended escalating pyramid scheme." That means you gradually ramp up weight over many, many sets. This will allow you to assess your physical exertion on each set according to the load on the bar. You'll accumulate the volume, but with less of the stress that heightens the central nervous system response.
This is also a great mind hack. Starting with a bar and adding weight to each additional set is a lot more approachable than doing working sets at your max weight for those reps.
Think about the top of the pyramid where you're getting close to maximal relative effort. You've slowly built your confidence while keeping a top-end set open and flexible based on the feeling of the preceding sets.
You'll be a lot more likely to avoid the feeling of impeding doom that often fills the heads of fatigued lifters. More often than not, that top-end set will move fast and smooth, knowing that it's the last one of the day with no repeats happening. And hell, if you're feeling great, continue the ramp. You may surprise yourself. Here's some detailed info on ramping: The Most Intelligent Way to Warm Up.
2 – Extend Your Warm-Up
One of the best times to do an extended warm-up is during times of over or under-stimulation. Not all fatigue shows up the same, and many times people can just as easily roll into a training session with an overly heightened central nervous system response as they do with a lowered one.
Identifying which one you're struggling to overcome is a simple process, yet an important one to battle through fatigued training.
In our stressed-out physical society, a majority of people are redlining their stress at home and at work for multiple hours before ever stepping foot into the gym. This population will be jittery, have increased vital metrics (blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, etc.) and can be classified as "sympathetically dominant" at that point in time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum will be a parasympathetic dominance, which shows up as lowered energy, plummeted vital metrics, and a decreased general motivation to train or compete. These people will do extremely well with Christian Thibaudeau's Neural Charge Training as well.
Since all complete dynamic warm-ups should include components of both parasympathetic (soft tissue work, stretching, corrective exercise) and sympathetic work (activation, foundational movement, CNS preparation) as highlighted in the 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up Sequence, it comes down to doing more of what's needed and extending the volume on each phase until the target goal is met with a more optimal physical readiness to train.
For the sympathetically dominant person, who happens to make up a majority of the fatigued lifting population, prolonging the warm-up with increased time devoted to foam rolling, soft tissue work, stretching, and mobility will allow the CNS pendulum to swing back to middle ground.
As for the parasympathetic dominant lifter, the opposite will be needed: increased total volume with emphasis placed on activating key musculature, practicing big compound movements to groove the pattern, and activating the CNS through explosive work. Think short sprints, jumps, bounds, throws and jumping jack movements.
Fatigued lifters' symptoms will vary, and they'll move in and out of sympathetic and parasympathetic dominance. So evaluating your readiness before the start of your warm-up is highly advantageous. And when you're in doubt, extend both sides of the warm-up continuum and test it out.
3 – Decrease Loads, Increase Density
Contrary to popular belief, load (the weight you use) is not always directly correlated with the quality of a training day, especially when training on lower-end recovery.
While both load and relative intensities (your physical exertion) during sets are fatiguing in nature, they stress the body differently:
- Heavy bar weight in the power and strength rep schemes is more dependent on the activity of the central nervous system to display its neural abilities.
- Higher relative intensities (like higher rep schemes taken to failure) takes more of a toll on the mechanical systems of the body such as the musculature, tendons, and joints.
The majority of fatigued lifters are sympathetically heightened when they begin their training for the day; therefore their CNS response will already be riding on high. The last thing you'd want to do is further fry your CNS with top-end loading. There are more serious long-term performance repercussions to overtraining your CNS compared to your mechanical systems.
And that's exactly the idea behind increasing training density (the amount of work done per time unit) and decreasing the load for your lifts.
- For big compound movements, shorten your rest periods by 15-30 seconds per set or stay within the general parameters of 45-75 seconds rest between sets.
- For more isolation-based exercises that are more inherently stable (like machines) decrease pre-programmed rest periods to 30-45 seconds or stay within the general parameters of 15-45 seconds rest between sets.
Also consider Charles Staley's Escalating Density Training (EDT). Escalating your density by decreasing rest time will provide you with one hell of a challenge, especially if you aren't used to the quicker pace of resistance training.
This is one of the most powerful approaches I use for functional hypertrophy training (FHT). It hammers the muscles while sparing the joints and CNS. And that's exactly what we want: less mental apprehension and stress and more mechanical effort.
And just to warn you, if you do this correctly you may end up with some serious muscular soreness, but it will save your CNS and allow for better centralized neural recovery.
4 – Get In, Get Out
One of the advantages of setting goals for every training day, week, and block is knowing the "why" behind your efforts.
Serious lifters don't have to think about it when asked what their training goal is – they live and breathe it every single session. And it makes it that much easier to prioritize what gets done in your training when faced with high levels of fatigue, decreased motivation, or any other type of challenge.
In elite level sports, the idea of implementing short-and-sweet, single-goal workouts is nothing new. In fact, in-season performance training is centered on this simple tenant. It works for recreational lifters too. The one physical metric that a vast majority of people should be focused on is continuing to chase progressive overloading in strength using the big compound lifts.
Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 is one of the most successful progressive strength programs. It's a testament of the fact that strength needs to be strategically progressed over time.
And since Jim has coached more lifters through his program than arguably any strength program in history, he's learned a thing or two about prioritizing training under non-perfect training environments. His recommendation? Hit your big strength lift for the day with a top-end set, achieve your main goal, and walk out of the gym.
Skip the accessory and non-essential work, then move on to train another day. This is a very simple concept, but it requires you to set clear goals beforehand in a systemized manner.
If you know what you want to accomplish in a training session, then that alone should be achieved in a training day where shit seems to just be hitting the fan. Get in, hit your day's goal, and leave. That's what we call a "show and go" training day, and it's a simple method that'll help you keep moving toward your big training goal.