As a coach it is awesome to see when Achieve members and athletes want to go hard and push themselves at the gym! Seeing people test their limits and accomplish feats of strength, movement, and fitness they never knew possible is inspiring, humbling, and invigorating. In short, it’s why most coaches get into, and continue with, the profession. However, there are times and scenarios when we want to pull back, take it “easy,” and NOT push for a PR or the max weight manageable on a given day. Some of these situations I’ll discuss include the first time (or two) going through a new program, when already excessively stressed/injured/ill, after a particularly exhaustive training program or cycle, or prior to an athletic event.
New Training Programs:
Hopefully new programs are exciting! The variety and novelty of a new batch of exercises and movements can be a very fun experience. Your body is going to be adapting to a host of new movement patterns and sequences of positions, and in doing so utilizing muscles and joints in previously untapped ways. This is a lot of information for your central nervous system (CNS) to process! Ultimately, the approach we take to learning movements can be crucial to the success, and ultimately the possible benefit of an exercise, and this is why a decreased intensity is initially important in a training program.
The CNS is the command center that drives the activation of muscles and the efficiency with which they contract to perform a movement. As you practice movements your CNS becomes better and better at performing those actions and engaging muscles in a powerful, synchronized manner. Another way to say this is that you develop muscle memory as you repeatedly practice a movement. However, when you progress the movements you had been practicing in a past training plan for those of a new training program, your CNS is going to go through a bit of a transition period where movements aren’t smooth. The learning of new patterns is exhausting from a CNS perspective! New nerve pathways are firing and your muscles are working in new ways, even if they are familiar movements. In this situation, to add in an extra demand of ultra challenging weights will perhaps inhibit learning, as the body is no longer in a relaxed and malleable state but rather in a pseudo survivalist protection mode as intensity drives emotional and physical stress levels into the red. However, to practice new patterns with manageable weights while you adapt to the new movements will ultimately lead to a greater capacity for lifting heavy later on.
During times of illness, injury, and excessive stress the body is already working pretty hard, even without a conscious effort to do so. Injury and illness draws upon the body’s physical resources, while excessive mental and emotional stress has the potential to drain the nervous system as well as induce muscular tensions. Under all of the previously mentioned circumstances your body’s priority is to return to a calm, relaxed, healthy state, and undue weight training can drain these physical and nervous system capabilities, bringing you further from a return to health and even possibly exacerbating symptoms of stress, tension, and soreness. In extreme cases, training during times of stress, sickness, or injury may cause fitness capacity to decrease and physical prowess to drop well beyond just the period of time while recovering, as new injury or fatigue may take over.
While training during periods of illness isn’t recommended, productive training can occur during injury and times of stress. Lowering weights, focusing training on the quality of movements that are accessible (either those do not hurt in the case of an injury, or those that are not overly tight and “sticky” when stressed) can help maintain training levels and even aid the return to relaxation and health, as improved blood flow and endorphins released during productive training can increase the body’s own healing properties.
Post-Exhaustive Training Period & Pre-Athletic Event
In both of these instances the case for lighter weights is to preserve the body’s physical resources. Post intensive training cycle, weights are best reduced to allow the body to adapt to the presumably challenging training that preceded. This is called a deload period. This is a period of time to, as the name implies, deload, decreasing weights and pulling back on the intensity of training, giving the body a chance to recover and adapt. Taking this lighter training period and giving the body an opportunity to rest can make greater training gains made in subsequent training!
Prior to an athletic competition the focus of the athlete is best aimed towards success and performance in sport and competition. Therefore, it would be detrimental in training to utilize inappropriately heavy weights and incur muscle fatigue and central nervous system exhaustion, both of which will decrease athletic capability and success. The goal is to win the game or competition, no the workouts leading up to it. Now, the period of time utilizing lighter weight training prior to competition is going to be sport dependent, but in general at least one day prior to show time training weights can be decreased to prepare for performance!