The Fundamentals of Training Stress
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When we speak about what exactly training does for you, we often refer to what is known as training stress. There are a plethora of ways to explain the subject, however the concept at a foundational level is not out of reach.
As we get into it, we will first give a basic illustration, followed by a few subcategories based on that illustration. That way, we’ll keep everything grounded in the basics.
In reference to training stress, I want you to imagine a scale. Not the one that you step onto and a number pops out, but a balancing scale with two sides. On one side of the scale is stimulus, and on the other side is fatigue.
When you’re training, weights are added to both sides of the scale. No matter the exercise, intensity, or reps performed, this is an inevitable process of all training. At the most foundational level, this is how training stress works.
For the most part, we want the stimulus side of the scale to be greater than the fatigue side of the scale. In other words, we want the best bang for our buck in training. However, every bit of stimulus comes with a fatigue cost. The trick is managing that fatigue so that training remains productive and pushes you towards your goals.
But how do we do that? As explained earlier, there are many ways to accomplish a balance of training stress. But for now, let’s go over three variables in training that help us accomplish that purpose.
First is exercise selection. When it comes to any exercise, I want you to imagine a circle which represents stress. This circle is divided by a dotted line, and the two sections of the circle each represent stimulus and fatigue. A “stress ball” if you will!
As a general rule, the area of the circle is different for each exercise. For example, a heavy deadlift is more stressful than a dumbbell curl. For this reason, the circle for the Deadlift will be larger than that for the dumbbell curl.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the line dividing our circle is dotted. It can move side to side. This means that an exercise can become more stimulating with less fatigue, or less stimulating with more fatigue. This isn’t a perfect example, but this is often how it works. As we mentioned with the foundational scale model, we want to minimize fatigue as much as we can. Switching up an exercise to a close variation can help us do that. But this isn’t the whole picture.
The second sub category is intensity. We have a recent blog post that goes more in depth on this subject, but we’ll keep it simple here. All other things being equal, as intensity increases, stress will increase as a result.
So as you add weight or get closer to failure within a set, the overall training stress goes up. If you have worked through any of our recent programs, this is exactly how the process works in practice. The intensity starts relatively low and ramps up over time. At a certain point, it is usually a good idea to temporarily ramp down the intensity to allow your body to recover from all the accumulated fatigue. After this brief decrease, intensity can continue to go up again.
Exercise intensity also works very closely with volume. Briefly defined, volume is the accumulated reps performed in a given timeframe. For example, if you overhead press three times a week and you perform three sets of six reps on each day, then your weekly volume would be 54 reps. In a similar fashion to intensity, all other things being equal, increased volume corresponds to increased training stress.
When we talk about volume, there are three main variables to keep in mind: reps, sets, and frequency.
As far as reps are concerned, you can think about it in terms of a range. At the bottom end of the range, one rep is the absolute lowest. On the other side of the range, somewhere around 30 reps is the highest. While you could make an argument that marathon runners rack up several thousands of steps, that’s beyond the scope of what we do here at Steel. Now let’s define the usefulness of each rep in our range.
Between one and three reps is great for maximal strength display. It is most useful at the end of a program after you’ve built your strength up and you want to display that strength using the heaviest weights.
3 to 6 reps trains your basic strength levels. In exercise science, basic strength is your ability to produce force in a general sense. For that reason, if strength is your primary goal, then we should train in this rep range the majority of the time.
5 to 30 reps is a very useful range for hypertrophy (building muscle). As you may have noticed, there is a little bit of overlap between the rep range for basic strength and that for hypertrophy, five and six reps. That is why it is often good to incorporate lower rep ranges in hypertrophy training and higher rep ranges in strength training.
To tie all of this back into training stress, we are trying to accumulate as much stimulus as we need to make progress without too much fatigue. Once you select the rep ranges that you need to train in, Then you can scale the volume up as you need, and down as well to allow for recovery periods.
This segues into the next category of volume which is sets. As we just covered, we need a way to scale up the volume within our effective rep ranges. The simplest way to accomplish this is to add sets. In our most recent program, we start our lifters with around two sets per exercise and gradually add working sets as the weeks go on. This process is not infinite, as we would reach a point where the majority of the stress would only add fatigue.
Adding sets can also be understood in terms of a range. On the very low end is one working set per movement or muscle group per week. This is usually reserved for relatively untrained individuals who don’t need that much training stress to make progress. On the high end of the range is nearly 20 sets per movement or muscle group per week. This tends to be the top end of the range that is needed to progress more advanced lifters who have a higher volume tolerance.
Now, taking a step back, let’s remember our scale model. At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to get as much stimulus as possible while accruing minimal fatigue. But do remember that fatigue is inevitable and that’s why you get tired in the gym! However, we can manipulate exercise selection, intensity and volume when the fatigue costs gets too high. When we allow for brief periods to reset our accumulated fatigue, then we are most able to reach our goals in the gym!
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