Tim Ryan (info @ stronglifetraining.com) is a Master Super Slow instructor and the owner of Strong Life Personal Training in Barrington, Illinois. Aside from personal training, Tim offers mentoring, workshops, and seminars for studio owners.
In this episode, Tim joins me to talk about more questions around client training plateaus and regression, factors affecting client performance, Super Slow protocol issues, training strategies and advanced techniques, and much more.
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- 3:38 – Understanding client training progression
- 8:55 – Training techniques to manage plateaus and regression
- 16:31 – Contributing factors to training regression
- 21:42 – Rearranging exercises (A/B routine) and periodization
- 27:58 – Why you shouldn’t cut training frequency and volume
- 31:51 – Super Slow protocol and its issues
- 45:10 – Super Slow principles that Tim currently use and abandoned
- 55:49 – Is it necessary to always train to failure?
Selected Links from the Episode
- Strong Life Personal Training
- Super Slow
- 40 – Tim Ryan – Personal Trainer, Veteran of the Health & Fitness Industry, and Founder & Operator of Precision Fitness
- Nautilus Inc.
- Force Velocity Curve
- Rate Coding
- Discover Strength
- 390 – What are the Benefits of Nautilus and MedX Equipment Modification for your Business (Q&A with Tim Ryan)
This is part 2 of our Q&A with Tim (check out part 1 here), and we sat down to answer more questions from the HIT and High-Intensity Business community.
As with the previous one, I’ve cleaned up the text here and made some minor changes for the sake of clarity and readability, but these are essentially the same questions as they appear in the actual podcast episode.
On to the questions!
What Can You Do When a Client Hits a Personal Training Plateau on HIT?
We started off with a question from Frank Gines, and he adds some context here:
“I normally start my client on a Big Five, plus a deadlift. I train them once a week. They generally make weekly progress, up a few reps, up a weight, or up on both. The progress is almost linear. At some point the progress starts to slow as you would expect as they get stronger.”
“In my experience, this generally happens around month 3 or 4. Sometimes even start to regress slightly. At this point I generally try an upper/lower body split. However, I struggled designing a routine.”
“For example, [for the] lower body I might do leg press, leg extension, leg curl, and leg abduction/adduction for workout one; upper body it might be chest press, row, overhead press, pull down, and then two isolation exercises like tricep press downs, preacher curls for workout 2 — this split is alternated each week.”
“What does Tim do when a client’s progress slows or even regresses?”
Tim started off by saying that the hallmark of good training is that you want to see some indication of progress with each session to see if they are improving in some aspect, such as “are [they] able to progressively train with heavier weight loads for the same time under load?” or “if they use the same weight load, they can longer?”
He acknowledged that for a period of time, linear progression happens, but at some point, it starts to level off and people reach plateaus.
Tim says that this is just the way things work.
“You’re never going to have this constant improvement forever and ever and ever. There is going to be that faster improvement in the beginning, then periods of plateaus, and then maybe, just gradually over the long haul, you’re going to eke out the gains or the progress a little bit,” he says. “There are certainly things that we can do to work within that. The first thing I would say is part of this is just that’s the way it’s going to be that you’re never going to see progress forever by leaps and bounds and things like that.”
At this point, Tim highlighted the importance of acknowledging this fact: you can’t see significant degrees of improvement all the time as you may have done so as a beginner in strength training.
“We need to be careful [not to have] unrealistic expectations. A lot of these gains in the beginning are not pure strength gains or pure muscle development gains or whatnot — you have a situation where a lot of it is skill-based improvements or neurological improvements, where they are becoming more proficient at performing the exercises,” Tim says. “Some of it is the fact that – when somebody first starts [their] program – they are not training at their ultimate, [maximum] weight load. Part of the ramping up or the progress you see at least in terms of the performance of the exercises and their workouts is simply you’re progressing the weight loads because you started them at somewhat a lighter level in order to teach them and to get them acclimated to the programs. That initial progression is just ramping up the weight loads getting them closer to what they could have done in the beginning had they had the skills and mental tolerance to do it.”
“But at any rate, it’s not just a pure physiological progression in those early stages. And that’s one of the reasons why we see this happening so quickly is that those neurological gains, skill gains, learning how to train harder type of gains are all working together and we’re seeing a lot of quick progress.”
“Once that stuff – the neurological, the skill, and natural ramping up of the weight loads –starts to work itself through and you get to a level where now you’re getting into the actual strength and muscle gains, it’s not going to be as fast as it was in the beginning. We shouldn’t be alarmed by that – that’s normal and natural and that’s going to happen to anybody with any type of training program.”
Tim then warns us about a mistake that many trainers make:
“From there… they assume that as soon as these gains slow down, it must mean that the client is starting to over train or that they are not fully recovering. So then sometimes trainers will try to extend the recovery time, put an extra day or two of recovery, or reduce the amount of exercises they are doing in a workout,” he says. “Starting to do those types of things with the assumption being that this person hasn’t recovered – ‘so now I’ve got to reduce the volume, I’ve got to decrease the frequency of training and train less frequently in order for that person to recover’ – I think we do too much of that… [but that’s] just natural. It’s not that they haven’t recovered; it’s just that you’re reaching that period of slower progress because now you’re dealing with actual physiological gains and not skill and neurological improvements any longer.”
Continuing to reduce frequency or volume based on this incorrect assumption will lead to deconditioning because you are not doing enough exercise to adequately train all the major muscle groups.
“If somebody was training twice a week and they became a more advanced trainee and they were raised to a level where they were working extremely hard and doing things very well and deeply inroading or fatiguing their muscles, then you would see that they weren’t recovered after a couple of days. That could certainly be the case in that issue,” Tim says. “And then perhaps reducing frequency, putting an extra day or two of rest between the workouts. Maybe instead of training twice a week, you train on every 4th or 5th day to where you are essentially training maybe three times over the course of two weeks or something. So that’s warranted.”
“But if you’ve got somebody that’s already training once a week and maybe only doing the Big Five plus the deadlift, like he mentioned in the question, I would not go to less frequent training. I would not reduce the exercises to even pure because at that point I don’t really think it’s a recovery issue. I think it is just the natural plateauing.”
Tim points out another thing to consider: a client’s willingness (or lack thereof) to push themselves as hard as they can to strive for improvement as their workouts become more intense.
“As the workouts become more and more intense and as the weight loads are becoming heavier, it’s very common for clients to not be progressing because… it’s becoming so hard,” he says. “They are not willing to push themselves as hard to overcome that and strive for improvement. You get to the point where once those weight loads are really dialed in and you’re very effective at training, every rep is hard.”
“The discomfort of the workout is very challenging. Sometimes I think people just literally lose the desire or the motivation to just workout after workout, keep pushing and pushing, trying to get that extra rep or that extra 10 seconds time under load, and it becomes a mental battle — perhaps some of the lack of progress is that type of thing.”
Advanced Strength Training Techniques to Help Clients Break Through Training Plateaus
With that in mind, Tim suggests occasionally using these techniques to help clients:
- Rep Assist — once they are at failure, the trainer can help the client complete the last rep
- Breakdown Training — once the client hits failure, the trainer can reduce the weight and have the client try a few more reps at this lighter weight setting
- Slow Negatives and Negative-Only Training — these can be easier to tolerate on the concentric part of the rep with difficult loads
“I think bringing in some of those techniques in order to do something a little different both psychologically and physiologically — that could be good,” he says. “Perhaps consider this becomes somewhat of an art to recognize who you’re dealing with and what the client may be struggling with.”
“Maybe you have some occasional workouts where you just do a maintenance workout, where you maybe don’t quite train to failure — maybe you just stop a rep short of failure or something and just give that person a little mental break and then go back to doing a workout where it’s more normal and you try it to failure.”
“Some of those different techniques I think can be brought in to give the person just a little bit of stimulation. Maybe continue to eke out some gains or give them a mental break from the stress of constantly striving for improvement on every single workout.”
Tim then highlights another important point: just because you’re not seeing any tangible progress related to weight load or TUL, that doesn’t mean that the workout isn’t extremely beneficial.
“First off, all the different physiological benefits that we’re getting from a workout are still going to be occurring,” he says. “Particularly, this idea of the myokine release that occurs as a result of the training — that’s still happening whether you made progress on your reps that day or something like that. There’s still a lot of benefits to be had.”
He then adds this bit of perspective that perhaps many of us tend to gloss over:
“I even tell people too, considering the aging process. Over time if you just maintain your strength over a period of years, that’s progress. Because normally the aging process would be causing a loss of muscle or gradual loss of strength and you would be getting weaker as you get older. If you’re just as strong two years from now as you are today – that’s progress. A lot of different ways of looking at that.”
In other words, even if you don’t make obvious progress by increasing weight or volume but you just maintain your strength as you age (compared to the average person who loses muscle mass and gets weaker as they age), that’s progress.
How To Deal with Client Regression in Strength Training
“What’s happening here? Is regression real?”
I prefaced the question with a bit of context — we considered a few factors that might play into it, such as the possibility of overtraining, a genetic predisposition or sensitivity to training, perhaps requiring a lower volume or frequency, and the aforementioned psychological aspect of really intense training, since even experienced HIT trainees can struggle with discomfort and not always go to actual failure.
“This intimidation factor or the stress of having to deal with the intensity and this constant attempt at progress could be getting to people,” Tim says.
How to Troubleshoot Strength Training Plateaus and Client Regression
It’s important to not automatically assume that the client is overtrained and immediately turn to reducing volume and frequency, especially if your client is only training once a week with 5 or 6 exercises.
Tim points out a few factors to consider and questions to ask your personal training clients:
- Sleep Quality — “How was the person sleeping? Are they not sleeping well?”
- Stress Levels — “Are they undergoing a period of stress? Are they just under stress at work?”
- Diet & Nutrition — “Are they not eating very well? Are they not eating enough protein? Have they been neglecting their diet?”
- Social Factors & Lifestyle Changes – “Are they doing other things? Are they going out and partying a little, or overindulging in alcohol on the weekends, or something like that?”
Formulate good questions and ask your client about these factors and see if you can pinpoint what might be affecting their training negatively – take a more holistic, bird’s-eye-view of your client’s current situation when trying to determine what might be the biggest influencing factors in their plateaus or seeming regression.
Dealing With Fear (and Other Psychological Aspects) When Training Clients
We then talked about fear causing underperformance and slow progression, such as clients being wary of the risk of injury when it comes to using heavier weights in their training sessions.
“I definitely think that plays in with some people. Whether we lump that in with the intimidation factor or the mental stress of always striving to go up, up, up, fear. All of that is related there,” Tim acknowledged. “Again, I think this could be an area where, okay, instead of just constantly putting more and more weight on there, try some other techniques that can add a different stimulation or additional stimulation like the slower negatives, or negative only training, or breakdown training, or things of that nature that you can break it up a little bit, and find a way to still keep getting really good stimulation for that person.”
Then, Tim points out that this is where you, as the trainer, will have to make the call:
“Maybe it just gives them that mental break or it takes the focus off of just always going up, up, up with the weight… this is where the art of being a trainer comes in is that there is not necessarily a scientific research study to document every tiny little thing like this,” he says. “You have to use your experience and do some of these different ways of continuing to get good stimulation from the workout and make progress in other ways.”
Should You Change Your Client’s Exercises Completely to Deal with Training Plateaus? (And if so, how?)
We then talked about whether or not completely changing a client’s set of exercises to introduce novelty to break through plateaus is a good idea.
“Usually, I’ll have clients on an A routine and a B routine that we’re alternating. But yeah, after a period of time, not really frequently, but after a period of time most of my charts… Basically the charts are set up so that there [are] enough workouts on the charts depending on how frequently they are training,” Tim says. “The client is going to go through 3 or 4 months of training before the charts filled on both sides. Usually when it comes to writing up a new chart, they’ve been on those routines for four months or something. So, then I’ll just mix up the routines again and create a different A and B routine.”
Tim then points out that you should also consider the facilities available to you and your clients.
“Depending on how much equipment you have, if you’ve got 8 exercises on each routine and they are doing a total of 16 exercises over the two workouts or the two routines, it may be just taking those 16 exercises and rearranging the exercises and the routines and doing certain exercises in a different order and different sequences of things and just mixing it up,” he says. “Or if you’ve got enough equipment and enough exercises available to you, then maybe you do bring in some exercises that they haven’t been using in a while. Then you’re going to certainly get some of that novelty and then some of that progress occurring again for those reasons we mentioned with the skill and the neurology and that kind of stuff going on.”
“There is nothing totally wrong with that because that brings a mental relief that re-enthuses the client, and they get a fresh perspective and a mental boost by doing some different exercises, having a different routine, and then feeling like they are progressing again on these. There is a lot of good to be said from that. It keeps things fresh, and keeps the client engaged, and not getting down or depressed about hitting plateaus or something.”
So, long story short, the answer is yes.
“You have to look at the long term. If you want clients to stay in the program these are all things that are helpful to keeping them engaged, keeping things moving, and progressing in different ways,” Tim says.
Can Periodization Help with Strength Training Plateaus?
Related to this, we turned to the idea of Periodization – not quite the mainstream fitness world’s idea of periodization (“undulating,” “overreaching,” etc.), but more along the lines of lower frequency or lower volume for a certain period of time.
I gave Tim an example:
- 1st month: Big Five or even 10 workouts to failure
- 2nd month: workouts with three big compound movements for additional recovery
- 3rd month: revert to 1st month routine
“I think it’s fine to experiment and you start to get to this point where you do have to try some different tactics and strategies. If you feel that it would be helpful for that particular client to stay engaged and to stay enthusiastic about their program so whether it would be something similar to what you described,” he says. “Or perhaps doing every other workout or maybe not every workout is training to failure. Maybe you have a workout to failure and then the next workout you treat it as a maintenance where you almost go to failure, but you don’t get crazy about pushing to the all-out end. And that serves as a maintenance, gives them a mental break, and you can mix things up a little bit.”
Tim also warns against trying different things just for the sake of change without thinking about the whys behind what you plan to do for your client.
“I think it is fine to experiment with some of these things as long as you’re not just randomly doing all sorts of crazy stuff that has no logic behind it,” Tim says. “But if you are really logically analyzing it, and you know your client and you’ve talked to them, and you’re trying to use your skills and your experience to experiment with different things that may be helpful for a particular client. I think that kind of stuff is fine.”
Tim clarifies that novelty and change are not the issue but reducing volume and frequency over time without returning to a comprehensive and properly intense routine that results in undertraining is.
“I definitely don’t think it should get down to this thing where while you were training once a week with 5 or 6 exercises your progress slows and ‘now I’m going to reduce it down to 3 exercises,’ and then, your progress slows again so now I’m going to have you train rather than once a week, every 10 days… then, if you plateau on that you are just going to train once every two weeks with 3 exercises,” he says. “That, I think, starts to become a problem because you get to so little frequency and so little volume that even if you maintain your strength on those particular exercises – or what I should say maintain your performance on those exercises – I think you’re doing a disservice in terms of the health and the physiological benefits of the workout, and to some degree, deconditioning and losing fitness, even though you might see on that chart their performance of those exercises appear fine.”
Is the Super Slow Protocol Any Good?
We moved on to this next question from Steve: “What do you think of Super Slow as a protocol and what from that school [of thought] or training do you still use in your client workouts, and what have you abandoned?”
“Well, I’ll say this, according to the way Super Slow is traditionally performed and according to the original recommendation of Super Slow, I think [that], potentially, can be a step in the wrong direction,” he says. “What I mean by this is that originally when Super Slow came on the scene everybody was doing prior to the standard Nautilus protocol of 2 seconds up and 4 seconds down. People experienced what kind of weight loads they were using at that 2-4 method and so forth.”
“And then Super Slow comes along and Ken Hutchins says, ‘Well, okay, to do Super Slow you need to reduce the training load by 30%’ – in other words, put the weight 30% lighter and then now intentionally slow down and move very slow and precise and take 10 seconds to lift and 10 seconds to lower,” Tim continues. “Along with these recommendations of being ultra, ultra ‘don’t twitch an eyeball, don’t grimace, don’t move’, I think what happens is… the biggest problem is, first off, this idea of reducing weight: it’s actually the exact opposite – you are actually able to produce more force from your muscles at slower contraction speeds than faster contraction speeds.”
“There’s been numerous studies that have documented this that your muscles in terms of the force that they produce of muscle contraction is higher at slower speeds or slower velocity. It’s called the Force Velocity Curve: the slower the velocity, the more force your muscles produce.”
“Now, with that being the case, then that means you are able to lift heavier weights at those slower speeds than the faster speeds,” Tim says. “One of the reasons in terms of the actual weight you can lift is that if you’re moving faster, some of the force your muscles are producing is serving to accelerate the load – not just merely overcome it and start to lift it, but you’ve got a level of force that is causing acceleration. But due to this Force Velocity Curve, this slower contraction, you are capable of actually producing more force and in effect lifting a heavier weight. By reducing the weight load you are making it easier.”
“I’ve stated this before: if you are intentionally moving slow, you are reducing your effort – you are holding back. You are voluntarily choosing to reduce your force output. That’s less intensity. That’s less stimulation.”
“The proper way to train is that rather than telling someone to intentionally move slow and in effect be holding back their effort in order to move slowly, the weight should be heavier, and you should be moving slowly, and results should be slow movement, but…” he says.
Tim then emphasizes one important difference: “…it is slow movement because [of] the load you are using, you are not capable of accelerating it. It’s heavy enough that you can’t accelerate it. The level of force that your muscles are producing are very close to the level of the load. There is a closer match between the load you’re lifting and the capabilities of your muscles. If you’re doing this correctly, you end up moving slow by virtue of the fact that you’re not capable of moving fast.”
Tim then recounts an experience that highlights this principle in action:
“I had an awesome experience a week or so ago: one of my clients was training and he brought his two sons in to observe his workout. So, this guy is training and one of his sons says, ‘Jeez, dad, your form is perfect and you’re moving so slow and nice and smooth. Boy that really looks great!’ The father [responded], ‘I’m only moving this slow because I can’t move it any faster than this!’ I’m like, ‘Exactly! That’s exactly what should be happening,’” Tim says. “In effect, he was trying his best to produce force and to move that load. It was so closely matched to his capabilities that basically that slow speed that was resulting was just a natural result to where he really couldn’t move it any faster.”
That made me think: what’s the best way to instruct a client so that they can execute an exercise with proper, strict form?
Instructing Clients to Execute and Follow Proper, Strict Form – What Should You Keep in Mind?
I put the question to Tim, and he responded:
“If you’re taking a client from day one and starting to teach them how to train properly, certainly there’s going to be a period of time where the weight is lighter and they are capable of moving that weight fast if they wanted to, but you are intentionally moving slow,” he says. “That learning process and that refining of the form and the technique and learning how to train properly, learning how to contract your muscles, starting to learn how to tolerate the intensity, there’s certainly going to be a period of time where they could be moving faster and they are, in effect, holding back.”
“But as you progress the weight loads, and if everything is going well, you are gradually progressing the weight loads, things are getting harder and harder, and then you will reach a point where now they are no longer intentionally holding back. They are moving slow because now the weight loads have moved to a point where they really can’t move it fast.”
“You certainly may have a situation where that first rep or two of your set even with these heavier loads, the first rep or two you are certainly capable of moving it faster than, say, a Super Slow 10-10. But you are not really going to be capable of moving it fast. You may have something with a proper weight load, even if you took all the restraints off and say, ‘Lift that weight as fast as you could.’ It might not go any faster than 5 seconds to lift it.”
“Even with heavier loads, maybe the first rep or two you are somewhat holding back, but very quickly it reaches a point where every rep you’re trying as hard as you can to move that load and it is just moving slow,” Tim says. “Think about people – whether it’s powerlifting competition or a bench press competition – when they perform that max lift, they are 1 rep max. They are not just pumping off that rep and lifting that weight in one second. I mean, it takes a while to get that weight lifted just that one rep because they are so close to their maximum ability that they can’t lift it any faster. It’s just the end result is slower.”
“The problem with Super Slow is not the fact that it’s bad to move slow. I think the problem is to intentionally move the weight slowly when you are capable of lifting it faster. By the very definition of that, you’re withholding effort. You are holding back the production of muscular force in an effort to control the speed. And it’s been an intentional thing where what you should be doing is trying to push with a lot more effort and having that matched against the proper training load that really can’t be moved fast.”
Are There Any Situations Where It’s Good to Reduce Weight by 30% the Way Super Slow Recommends?
Since Tim mentioned that you really shouldn’t reduce weight by 30%, I mentioned that my business partner at Optima Strength once put me our trainer through a Super Slow workout, and I tried doing it without reducing my weight – I found it very hard!
It was such a shock, as I hadn’t done it for years, at least not in a strict sense.
I really struggled and I was like, “Oh my god. This workout feels so intense and so less enjoyable than what I’m used to.” I started to dread it and I don’t really dread my workouts – I know I’m going to be challenged but I don’t dread it, so that was a bit of a concern. But then again, maybe it’s just the novelty. I was doing it for the first time. If I just decided to do strict Super Slow for a few weeks or few months maybe I would adapt to it.
I mentioned to Tim that I thought there might be some science to support the fact that you become better at tolerating the discomfort the more you’re exposed to it. There’s some nuance that might be in here, but it might contradict some of our early discussion. I found it very mentally challenging, much harder than my previous approach.
So, I asked Tim: what just that novelty or something else?
“I mean, certainly. Particularly if you are doing what I described with having these weight loads that are more closely matched to your ability and not doing this lighter weight load and intentionally holding back in order to move slow,” he said. “If you are training at a more meaningful load that’s more closely matched to you and then you’re moving through that range of motion of the exercise very slowly, you are obviously increasing the tension and the load or strain on the muscles.”
“That, done properly… can be a more intense experience and harder work. I mean, that could be just that initial shock compared to what you were doing and experiencing – that higher level of the load and tension on your muscles and the uptick and intensity,” Tim continued. “It could have just been that or it was mentally hard to take because it was so different from what you were used to. It would take a little bit of building up some mental tolerance to that and so forth. That’s what I would attribute it to.”
Does Tim Still Use Anything from The Super Slow Protocol?
At this point, we discussed this other part of Steve’s question: what does Tim still use from it, and what has he abandoned?
He starts with what he still incorporates.
“What’s going to be still there is that and the degree of how closely this matches it depends on the skills of the person and their willingness to endure this and work hard and everything. But you’re still going to see very slow movement speeds in the range. Maybe not a literal perfect 10 seconds up, 10 seconds down. At least 5 seconds or more excursion time in each direction,” Tim answered. “You’re still going to see proper behavior of maintaining a neutral head and neck position, maintaining proper body positioning and stability as much as possible, trying to remain grimace free, maintaining proper breathing technique, and very smooth turnarounds, all of those other principles are valid. So that’s going to be there.”
Then, he talks about what techniques he no longer uses:
“One of the things that I don’t do anymore is this technique called [the] thorough inroad technique which would essentially be you train to failure. You hit that point in a rep where you cannot move the weight any further. You get stuck halfway up or whatever point of the range of motion. You hit that failure point. And then, rather than the exercise simply being over because you hit failure, you stay in that position, and you push as hard as you can for 10 seconds more in that position. Just pushing, pushing, and pushing. And then, you would come back down, lower the weight, begin another rep, and push to the point where movement stops again wherever that is. Push and push and push for another 10 seconds. And you would keep doing that until you can’t even budge the weight off the bottom. You come down to the bottom and the weight touches down and you can’t even budge it off the bottom. In other words, you completely exhaust yourself in every position to the point where there is just literally nothing left,” he says, referring to having no force output left whatsoever.
He explains why:
“[That’s] Where you’re just so feeble that you’re just completely dysfunctional. I don’t do that anymore for a couple of reasons. One is it will completely destroy you. Well, it will be to the point where you so completely destroy yourself that you do lead to a situation where it takes so long to recover from that,” Tim says. “You’re so beat up, so exhausted, so spent that now you can’t train with very many exercises, and you can’t train very frequently. You need so much recovery and you reduce volume that you’re back to that problem I mentioned earlier that now you’re not just training enough. You are intentionally doing something to yourself that it takes so long to recover from. It’s so devastating that it leads to other problems.”
Then, a key takeaway as to why he no longer uses the thorough inroad technique:
“It doesn’t appear to lead to any better results than simply training to failure. I’ve never seen somebody suddenly break off a plateau or make huge progress because they were doing this thorough inroad technique.”
“I think it’s just beating a dead horse. You’ve already stimulated the muscle and now you’re going beyond it to such a point where you’re doing nothing but depleting yourself and causing a need for extended recovery.”
“Lastly, I think by the time you’ve reached failure all that other stuff past the point of failure, you’re not bringing in any new muscle fibers. You’re not recruiting any new muscle fibers or motor units. You are not activating anything new,” he continues. “All you’re doing is firing nerve impulses and just completely devastating the nervous system where it is just nothing. It is called rate coding where what your body is doing is just fast and furiously pounding the muscle with nerve impulses trying to sustain the muscle force output.”
“You’ve already activated all those motor units and muscle fibers. You’ve already fatigued them to the degree that’s possible. Now, all this thorough inroading is just pounding the muscle with nerve impulses and depleting the neurotransmitter chemicals and things to the point where you’re just depleting your system and devastating yourself, and it adds no value.”
“So, somebody that’s training properly and training hard, once you go to failure, I don’t think anything else beyond that, maybe one rep assist to just finish out that last rep you couldn’t finish and then doing a slow negative resisting it back to the bottom. But spending all this time post failure, doing this craziness with the thorough inroad technique. Or many, many… The same thing would be doing multiple rep assists or force reps at the end of failure or doing too much breakdown training or any of that kind of stuff. I think somebody that’s trained properly and gives you a full effort without holding back, once they’ve reached failure, that’s it. You’re done – I’ve never seen it really cause any better result or better progress than just simply training to failure.”
Essentially, Tim and I conclude that thorough inroading might just be a great way to churn a client – it’s like destroying them so that they have the most horrible experience of their life and making it so they can’t recover for the next workout so they can’t train with higher frequency So, you’re going to lose revenue there, and they’re just going to be so scared from the experience that they are not going to come back.
Tim qualified what he said with this caveat:
“The thing is, I have a different opinion. If doing all that led to better results, and the person is just making progress by leaps and bounds, and growing muscle before your eyes, I’d say, ‘Well, let’s do it’.”
The Type of Client That Wants You to Throw Everything Plus the Kitchen Sink at Them
With that, I pointed it to Tim that Discover Strength uses an intensity rating system of 1 to 5 (which we borrowed and use at Optima Strength), where 5 means you throw everything and the kitchen sink at the client, where this type of client is the kind that’s hungry for the highest possible intensity he can get, even though it might not be providing anything further to their health outcomes – maybe it’s a psychological need, and that’s what keeps them coming back, and we’re just figuring out what works for them and tailoring that intensity. Perhaps it’s not quite thoroughly inroading with other advanced techniques; it may just be a few assisted reps and some clever programming where there is pre-exhaust to make a muscle feel like it’s toast. That could be an exception to this in terms of that cohort of people who just love to be absolutely annihilated.
“You’ve got all kinds of different personnel. You’ve got all kinds of different people and what they are willing to endure and what motivates them and what they can tolerate,” he says. “Yeah, you’re going to occasionally have those clients that just thrive on this idea of this intensity and applying these advanced techniques, and they just eat it all up.”
“I think it is more common that if you get carried away with some of this stuff, you’re going to beat up your clients so badly that they are not going to stick with the program. They are going to drop out, or they are going to get burnt out, or they are going to feel themselves just not being recovered and just feeling beaten down all the time and sore, and all this kind of stuff.”
“It’s clear that all of this craziness is not necessarily to stimulate gains because there’s multiple examples of people that get gains with much less inroad than some of this stuff is going to elicit,” he continued. “I think it’s a matter of the person to the best of their ability training, getting every rep that they can, completing every rep that’s possible for them to complete with proper form. But going to true failure and having the best performance that that person can elicit and get the most out of their effort and completing all the reps so to speak.”
“Once they’ve done that, going way beyond that with an excessive amount of advanced techniques, I think it adds no value,” Tim said. “Of course, if you have clients that are sandbagging or holding back and not really going to a true state of failure, now you have to get out your bags of tricks and start to employ some of these techniques as a way of getting a little more intensity out of them or getting a little more inroad or stimulation out of them with some of these things.”
“It’s not that they should never be used, but you have to properly understand where it’s appropriate, and the kind of person you’re dealing with, and what you’re seeing as a trainer whether they legitimately gave you their all and train to failure or whether they were holding back. Now, you have to find a way to get a little more out of them.”
Is Going to Momentary Muscular Failure the Be-All, End-All Goal of Good Strength Training?
The thing we talked about was the obsession with going to failure all the time, where there are some who strongly believe that a good workout must go to failure, or you may as well not workout at all.
As context, there are studies that show that there are benefits to low-intensity resistance training, and that these can also provide good results, such as in elderly populations.
In our strength studio, we focus completely on trying to get a client to failure or as close to failure as possible, because we know it’s going to produce probably the maximum number of benefits.
That’s just the thing: we don’t know exactly if or how proximity to failure is the switch for everything, and certainly not an argument for ‘you must workout to failure, otherwise don’t workout at all’.”
So, I put that question to Tim.
“I think what you have to look at is, I would say, if you’re only doing one set of an exercise, then you better get to failure on that set or pretty darn close to it if you want to make good progress,” he said. “But if you’re going to be doing more of this traditional, multiple-set type of routines, yeah, you could do 3 sets and none of those sets really need to be to failure.”
“As long as you’re sufficiently – over the course of those 3 sets – training hard enough and getting enough fatigue and so forth that you’ve got a little more latitude that you don’t have to train to failure in all those 3 sets to get results,” Tim continued. “If you are just doing one set, then you do need to failure or pretty darn close to it.”
“I think what we are looking at here is that certainly our approach as high intensity training one set to failure is going to be a much more time-efficient way of training and [it eliminates] the need to have to do all that volume and all those multiple sets of all these different exercises.”
“It’s not a matter that the other methods don’t work; it’s going to be a much more time-efficient way of training and stimulating the gains with a lesser amount of exercise, and a lower amount of frequency, and of course a lower amount of wear and tear on the body and all that kind of stuff. So, there’s many, many advantages to this. But if you’re only going to do one, you got one shot at stimulating that muscle, so you better do it right.”
Want to Upgrade Your Strength Studio’s Exercise Equipment?
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