Having touched on some training ideas in previous articles, I figured it was time to have a look at some things with regards to recovery.
So, what do we mean by recovery? Recovery in the context of training, is a return to baseline performance. What do we mean by baseline performance? Any arbitrary expression of your performance that is easily measurable, for example if you can bench 100kgs for 10 reps easily, you can use that as your baseline. So, if that is your baseline and one day you're warming up in the gym and you get to 100kgs on your way up to working sets, and 5 reps feels like you're moving the earth, it's indicative of insufficient recovery.
Photo by: Tom Hosking Weddings
Expecting to test your baseline every training session is unreasonable and overly time consuming, however just having it as a guideline is important. It's also worth mentioning that using peak performances, or what you've done on your best days as a guideline isn't a good idea either.
Before we get into what exactly you can do to ensure good recovery, it's very important to point out that we are talking specifically about training recovery, and not recovery from an injury. A great many innovations have come out in recent years with recovery in mind. However most them were developed regarding injury recovery. The line between injury and training recovery has become blurred, so I'm going to attempt to give it some clarity. That doesn't mean there are no crossover benefits, and I'll address some of the common misrepresentations as we go.
In descending importance, first up is sleep. There's a lot of debate and research around the topic, but it's almost universally agreed that you need at least 6 hours per night. Optimally you're looking to get about 8, anything more than that doesn’t give you any dramatic increase in benefit, and some argue that it can start to negatively affect you. Regardless, the undisputed king of the ring in terms of training recovery is sleeping enough.
Next up in second place is nutrition. I realise this is a very broad topic, so to refine it, I'm talking about adequate calorie and macro-nutrient intake relative to your training goals. If you’re trying to build muscle, you're going to need to make sure your protein intake is high enough to support that. You're also likely going to need a large number of calories for a surplus, as well as adequate carbohydrates to fuel activity.
I'm going to amalgamate supplements into this point as well, however by themselves they would be last on this list. Even if planned and executed completely optimally, supplements make at most 5% of a difference to total recovery. So please save your money, and don't immediately turn to the latest shiny packaging if you feel like you aren't fully recovering for training, it's most likely due to sleep or nutritional issues.
Lastly, managing life stress. Stress comes from many different sources and is unavoidable for a lot of people. Life stress covers everything from family, work, money, the dog ate your Nike Romaleos… everything. But, realistically, you can only manage the stuff within your control, so don't worry about the stuff you can't. One practical take away to help with this aspect, is to try and set some time each day, normally an hour, where you just relax, sprawl out on the sofa watch T.V, read a book, play with the dog since he is still cute despite how much you loved those shoes. An easy time to build this in is right before bed.
What I'm getting at is that you need designated unwind time. You may not get an hour, but anything is better than nothing. The reasoning behind this is that training stimulus is also a stressor. The act of training is exposing yourself to a stress in a specific way so that your body reacts to it and adapts and you get bigger, better and stronger. So being able to control any extra stressor that you don't need or want can play a big part in making sure that as much of your recovery as possible is dedicated to training recovery.
Now let's address the leopard in the room, my list didn't include foam rolling, cold therapy, saunas, KCR, flossing, acupuncture, gua sha, cupping and a tonne of other similar things. That's because, none of these things have any meaningful effect on training recovery. I realise a lot of people may not have heard of some of the things I just listed, so I've hyperlinked out to some places to get your started. As always read as much as possible and ask plenty of questions about everything.
Injury recovery is something totally different, healing an injury and the processes involved with that are different to just recovering from training stress. Let's address the immediate responses most people have.
"Well it works for me". It most likely doesn't, as you're going all in on the placebo effect or just how it subjectively makes you 'feel'. For a practical example, if you attempted to squat 10 sets of 10 reps at 60% of your 1RM every day, when you give up or injured yourself would that be due to a lack of foam rolling? Or would it be because of the ridiculousness of that amount of volume? Obviously, the biggest issue is the absurd amount of training volume. You can't justify that a lack of foam rolling or any other similar modality as the reason you couldn't do 10x10 forever. Every system has limits. I don't think I've heard anyone ask things along the line of “How much do I need to foam roll to bench 180kgs?”
"I do X, Y, Z just because it makes me feel good". This is totally valid, as I've mentioned before how you feel can impact things. So, if you spend a large amount of time on a certain modality just to 'feel' better, I'd suggest looking at your training volumes as well as your sleep and food. No amount of time in the sauna is going to overcome getting 4 hours sleep per night.
"X person does it and they're jacked/good at their sport". This example is used across almost everything, from training to clothing. The real question you should answer is, is this person as good as they are because of this, or in spite of it? Does Blaine Sumner have a 505kg squat because he wears a headband and chalks his face like the ultimate warrior? Or is he just a beast who has trained intelligently for years who just happens to also wear a headband and face chalk? Yes, that isn't a recovery modality, but is routine not a large part of sport psychology? The point remains most top level athletes get there with a large amount of consistent hard work, not just this one weird trick that they do.
To summarise, the big basic stuff that has always worked, continues to work. Training recovery and injury recovery are two different things and I believe the distinction is very important for addressing what is relevant to our current training goals. Don't put too much stock in things that, at best, make minimal benefits, focus on being great at the big difference makers. As always if you have any comments please leave them below or contact me @atsapproved.
In my last article, I talked about the use of RPE (rate of perceived exertion) for making better training decisions with regards to weight on the bar. Now I'm going to touch on how to use that in conjunction with fatigue percentages to regulate the amount of sets/reps in your training.
So, what is "fatigue percentage" and how does it relate to your training? It's a percentage, normally between 0-12% that you take off your top set of the day, based on how much you took off, determines how many sets you do in the rest of your workout. The total sets should also fit within your goals for the relative mesocycle. To expand a little more on the numbers, you essentially want to take off a larger percentage if you want more volume, and a smaller one if you want less. This is because you are going to be aiming to reach the same RPE as your top set, but with the new weight you dropped down to. For example, if your top set of the day is 3 reps @9RPE you work up to 100kgs for your 3 reps. Then you drop 4% which moves you to 96kg or for rounding in plates 95kg (I tend to round to the closest number rather than always up or always down). You then repeat your 3 reps at 95kg until 3 reps at 95kgs gets to a 9RPE at which point you stop.
The auto regulation is quite clever in that, dropping a lower percentage will mean you're closer to your top set weight, and will then get less total sets in before the RPE is equal to your top set. Whereas dropping more weight, allows for more sets before the difficulty increases.
Let's plan another example workout:
Competition Squat x7@8RPE, 6% fatigue drop.
Let's say you work up to 125kg for your top set of 7. We then take 6% of 125kg, which is 7.5kg, drop the weight to 117.5kg and then repeat sets of 7 until it feels like an 8RPE.
Bar x 10
Bar x 10
60kg x 5
100kg x 5
115kg x 7 7RPE
125kg x 7 8RPE Top set
117.5kg x 7 7RPE
117.5kg x 7 7RPE
117.5kg x 7 8RPE We stop here.
As in my previous article I'll go through the pros and cons of this method and then I'll share my opinion on it.
Let's start with the cons, one problem a lot of people have with this approach is that, given enough rest time between sets you could possibly never get to the same RPE as your top set. While that is possible, I'll say that unless you have all day to train for example if you're a pro athlete, then yes this does present a problem. There is however a set of rough guidelines for how long each bracket of fatigue drop should take.
So, the pattern being, the bigger a percentage drop you do, the more subsequent sets you'll be doing and hence the longer it should take, but the top end shouldn't really take more than 35 minutes. I If you are taking longer than that, you probably need to shorten your rest periods.
Another major point we have yet to cover is how do we decide how much lifting to do throughout the week? Again, there are some rough guidelines to work with in terms of total weekly fatigue percentage.
These are good guidelines for how much your total fatigue percent drops should add up to over the week, based on what kind of training stimulus you're looking for. Five percent over three sessions in the week for example, would add up to 15% total fatigue, putting you in the recovery/low stress bracket. These are not perfect and as with the intensity guidelines, I encourage you to make your own tweaks along the way. You might even be one of the few who may need to venture into the very high volume bracket to create sufficient stimulus, equally you may find that the 18% is still too high for you to have an easy time and recover so you might tweak the percentages slightly to suit you. All this information is to try and help you make better training decisions.
I'm going to wrap up with the positives. Similarly, to the intensity guidelines, I think these are great for self-coached lifters and people looking to dial in their own training, past doing cookie cutter programmes (any programme with a totally fixed set/rep scheme and no flexibility). Most people have heard of 5x5 and 5/3/1, these are good examples. Especially if you find yourself either not feeling much training through many cookie cutter programmes or if you find yourself consistently struggling to complete them, or just getting injured (there are many variables that can contribute to injury, but for now I'm just referencing inappropriate training volume as the cause).
In summary, the concept of individualising volumes in training is nothing new, however hopefully I've presented it in a way that is both easy to assimilate and apply to your own training. As always if you have any questions, comments, or feedback please leave here or contact me @atsapproved.
Although the idea of using RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) is not a new concept, it's resurgence in the powerlifting and strength training community, is largely due to Mike Tuchscherer at Reactive Training Systems*. For those who may be unaware, RPE based training is where you determine the weight used for a specific lift or set of lifts, by assigning it a number out of 10 in relation to how difficult it was, and you judge that difficulty by how many reps you could have done.
credit to Reactive Training Systems
I think it's very useful and does, like anything, have pros and cons. So, I'm going to expand on both then give my general opinion as both a coach and a lifter.
Let's get the negatives done first, one of the biggest criticisms of RPE based training is that it requires a very objective view of one's own lifting and very much requires you to check your ego at the door. It can very much be misused on both ends of the spectrum, for example constantly under loading weight and being extremely reluctant to really push. As well as being overzealous and kidding yourself that the single you just ground out for 1 rep was an 8RPE. There is very little I can say to counter these points, only that it’s an issue with the lifter rather than the system itself. Both will stall progress in that if you under-lift constantly you won't get anywhere, and if you over reach frequently, you will eventually auto-regulate through injury.
To further expand on the under-lifting point, a lot of people don't like the idea of 'wiggle' room and feel that if they have a X reps and Y% in their programme, they just have to hit those numbers in the gym. I do understand where they're coming from, it would be very easy when things get tough to under-lift but again, your own objectivity needs to come into it. This is a lot less of an issue when you work day to day with an in-person coach or trainer. They are another set of eyes on how things are moving and how it compares to how you normally operate. There will be times where you may be unfocused and feel awful, but the weights are moving great and there is no noticeable performance drop off, in which case nothing needs changed.
Where I believe RPE based training takes it to the next level over purely percentage based, is when people are self-coached. One issue I and people I've talked to before have had is, what happens when you can't do the prescribed weights? You're programmed work for the day is 3 sets of 3 at 88% of your 1RM. What happens if you do your first rep and it's awfully slow and there's little to no chance of you getting another one, let alone two reps? Do you drop the weight and complete 3x3 at a lower weight? If so, how much do you drop? These things aren't covered in a lot of programmes, however if we changed the annotation from 3x3@ 88% to 3x3@ 8RPE it allows you to make a much better choice. As you were working up, things not feeling great, you can just complete 3x3 at a weight that you could’ve hit for 2 more reps.
On the back of that, lets transition into the positives. The general theme of RPE based training is to make better training decisions. For those that are hard wired for percentages, like everything good in this world, there's a chart for that.
Columns indicated reps, rows indicate RPE. Credit to Reactive Training Systems, Mike Tuchscherer.
Certainly for me this tied a lot of loose ends together, for example you can instantly start translating your favourite set rep schemes into RPEs and see how they compare. It's not all about having to tone things down either. The system is equally useful if you're feeling great and demolishing weights. Working up to a specific intensity rather than pre-set weight percentage means that if you crush your top set, you don't have to stop there. Keep working up until it meets the specific intensity parameters. Another slightly more advanced nuance where RPE shines, is that you can build your own RPE scale specific to you. Let's make an example of someone who has a lower back injury, and wants to avoid anything that would place anything above minimal amounts of shear forces on the spine. Just for catch up, shear forces are unaligned forces pushing one part of a body in one direction, and another part of the body in the opposite direction. Think tearing a piece of paper. If you were trying to avoid these in the squat for example, you'd be looking to stick entirely to high bar position and avoid any chest fall. So you could cater your own RPE scale to include that, so an 8RPE might be “could definitely get 2 more reps with no chest fall”.
So if you find yourself frequently missing training reps using straight percentages, you may want to give RPE based stuff a go. A simple way to start would be to not change anything straight away, and just reference the RPE chart, and start practising rating your lifts whilst sticking to your regular programme. Just do you lifts as normal, but as soon as you re rack the bar think about how hard that set was, how many reps did I have in the tank? Then compare it versus the percentage conversion chart and see how it holds up! As always if you have any questions or comments please let me know either here or @atsapproved.