NOT training hard every day was probably one of the hardest things for me to grasp as I pushed farther into my fitness career. After all working hard and busting my @$$ in the gym is what got me stronger in the first place. So why would it be any different now that I had gotten stronger? Unfortunately, the trap of lifting balls to the wall every session is the trap that many young and intermediate trainees get stuck in. And honestly, it’s costing them a lot of “gains”. Obviously the gym requires hard work. And obviously no part of working out is easy. However, I am a firm believer that there should always be something left in the tank when someone walks out of the gym. Unless a maximal effort session is planned. There are several levels of experience when it comes to lifting weights or training for a sport. Every year of training sheds new light on weaknesses and brings with it new knowledge. I believe that trainees can be broken down into 4 categories; beginner, intermediate, advanced, and Top 10%. Every level will use sub maximal training in a different way, but let’s explore each level and why sub maximal training can benefit them.
Truth be told, every weight the beginner uses will be sub maximal if proper form is utilized. The reason behind this is a beginner must first learn proper movement patterns before any “heavy” weight is used. Inexperienced trainees need to learn how to lift the weight properly before their bodies true potential can be unlocked. Another reason why it is optimal to encourage newer trainees to stop before failure is because form breaks down very quickly in the beginning stages of training. Even adding 5lbs to an exercise can make it look like the person has never lifted before. So, in short the beginner can utilize sub maximal loads to learn proper movement patters and develop the strength necessary to stabilize heavier loads.
Becoming an intermediate trainee brings with it different styles of programming and also newer heavier loads on the body. Intermediate trainees will not be able to recover as quickly as the beginner. Beginning trainees can usually add weight to an exercise almost every session or every week. Intermediates will add weight, but not as often. Now, when the body is moving heavier loads it takes a greater toll on the central nervous system. For example lifting 300lbs does much more muscle damage than lifting 100lbs. Intermediate lifters have succeeded in adding a decent amount of weight onto their core lifts and will need more time to fully recover. An intermediate will also not be able to lift at maximal effort every training session because it takes too much out of the body and will hinder further progress. This is where sub maximal loads are accounted for. An intermediate can use training in “waves” to slowly build up to a new max. These waves can be as short as 4 weeks and as long as 3 months depending on the level of intermediacy they are at. If an intermediate trainee was to lift as hard as they could every session they would actually get weaker instead of making progress. I feel this is something that most people in the gym don’t fully grasp due to the amount of articles published on “hard work” being the only thing that drives progress. In truth intermediate work at the right times will drive more progress than “hard work”. Intermediates will often need more stimulation to grow so they will usually be training the same lift multiple times per week. Multiple training sessions on the same exercise will usually require different training loads so the body is not overly taxed. This becomes even more important to the advanced lifter.
Advanced lifters are people you see in the gym who either look better than most other people in the gym or are lifting more weight than most other people in the gym. Advanced lifters need very high amounts of stimulus to keep progressing on their movements. Also advanced lifters will have tapped into heavier weights than others will ever lift in their lifetime. Lifting this kind of weight has an extreme effect on the central nervous system. For example, if an advanced lifter lifts 700lbs he may not be able to lift that weight again or anything close to it for several months. This is where sub maximal training comes into play. The advanced lifter will use sub maximal weights to build a platform to either match or beat his or her previous PR’s. Basically, someone can’t simply go from lifting 400lbs to lifting 700lbs in a week. However, after setting a PR of a heavy weight the lifters body may only be recovered enough to lift 50-60% of the weight lifted the previous session. In this way they train in waves like an intermediate lifter will do, but the waves just take longer and are more precise. If the advanced lifter tried to train heavy every session a couple things would happen. One, they would get weaker because their central nervous system would be so fatigued it would cause exhaustion. Two, they would most likely get injured. Advanced trainees know the importance of sub maximal training and they also will have used it for several years before ever reaching this level.
THE TOP 10%
The top 10% of athletes in the world are obviously very genetically gifted and hard working individuals. These are people who have devoted their lives to training. They most likely have at least 1-2 decades of lifting experience under their belt. Or they are just extremely genetically gifted. This paragraph may be a little outside of the scope of my personal experience because I am not a top 10% athlete nor have I coached any top 10% athletes. So, here is what I know based on the research I have done. Athletes that are at the top 10% of the total body of lifters will move weights that could severely injure lifters in any other category. These weights are heavy enough to set world records, and enough to build a career out of their athleticism. People in this category may only touch their true “maximum” 1-3 times per year, maybe more depending on several factors. This is where training at sub maximal weight becomes the most important. Because, one misstep in programming can cost someone hundreds of pounds on their lifts and on their total strength. Now, another group of people who fit into this category are people who have tapped into the top 10% of their bodies capabilities. For example, someone might be at the peak of their genetic capability, but may not have the right genetics to be a world record holder. People who are at the top on their genetic capability still need to train like this. Basically, this is where we see the biggest waves in training. Someone might train all year just to add 5-10lbs onto a lift, or maybe even just to match the same lift as the previous year. The important thing to remember is the closer we get to our bodies true “maximum” capabilities the more rest we need to prepare to do it again.
The moral of the story is, sub- maximal training can benefit lifters of all levels. Sub- maximal training creates a platform to build your next workout on. Remember that when you are training. It is not just about the work done on that day. It is about your ability to create success for the next workout. Sub- maximal training creates a snowball effect because the momentum that you build rolls over to the next workout. If your goal is to lift as heavy as you can to impress others in the gym to even yourself there will come a day when you are no longer impressed. Because in 10 years you will be lifting the same amount then that you currently are. Or maybe just a bit more. True strength and progress is knowing when to put weight on the bar and when to take weight off of it. Many articles will tell you “You won’t progress if you don’t push your body to the limit every day” to which I will say “Athletes build up to an event, and they are the pinnacle of training, why not train like they do”. Listen to your body, and don’t forget to leave your ego at the door when you walk in the gym. Stay strong everyone.
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My name is Patriel Dunford and as the owner of Infinite Fitness my main goal in life is to spread good advice in the health industry and help people live healthier, longer, more fulfilling lives.