Posted on April 23 2018
Have you ever had this situation? You’re training, improving, and everything is going great. Then, you come into the gym one day and your strength is down by a lot – something like 5-10%. If it were just a bad day, then you’d expect the next session to be back to normal. But the next session isn’t back to normal. At best, it’s just a marginal improvement. You don’t think it’s fatigue because you feel fine – you even feel normal. Subjective indicators of fatigue, even objective ones like HRV, aren’t showing an accumulation of training stress.
Above: graph of a lifters estimated 1RM squat as they progress through a training block.
Situations like this are frustrating, in part because there is no good explanation and no clear course of action. I’m afraid I can’t offer any great explanations of what’s happening, especially at a physiological level. But the coarse explanation I’ve been using in my own mind lately is that your body is essentially “done” with that training stimulus.
Ideally, what I’ll have people do in this situation is to change the stimulus in a fairly significant way. Exactly how you go about doing that depends on your training strategy. Lately, I’ve started with a specific block we call a “Pivot”. For now, think of it like a deload. One of the things this helps us do (among many) is dissipate any accumulated fatigue. In many cases there won’t be much, but it doesn’t hurt to dump any residual anyway. After that, we begin training again, but the training should be different in some meaningful ways. Perhaps a shift in the intensity or a different set of assistance exercises. Don’t be afraid to make some fairly big changes across multiple variables. It needs to provide a new stimulus, but do so in a way that’s different from the old cycle. It’s important to note that you shouldn’t normally need to add a lot of training stress. Volume may go up if intensity goes down, but the answer is typically not simply “work harder”, especially if the previous block was productive.
Above: A zoomed-out version of the same lifter’s estimated 1RM squats. Highlighted instances show the downturns. These weeks were followed soon after with a pivot and a block change.
Once you have corrected the issue, take note of the timing of your performance degrade. Once you establish the timeframe that these drops happen, that becomes very useful information for developing future training cycles. If you always have a significant downturn in week six of a given block, then it’s good practice to end the block just before that. Preempt the drop. Some of you will settle on three-week blocks, others eight or even ten weeks, or even somewhere in between. Seen in this light, it’s easy to see where the three-week block recommendation comes from – fewer people will see these kinds of performance dips because the blocks are so short. But on the other hand, most people can adapt to a stimulus for longer than that and there are distinct benefits to doing so.
Why does this work? Hard to say. I know just shrugging my shoulders at this point is a deeply unsatisfying answer, so let me provide an explanation that will almost certainly change as more light is shed on the topic. Most training blocks have a theme or character, and they should – a certain volume, intensity, exercise selection, etc. This is the training stimulus as your body sees it. Over time, your body stops responding to the stimulus. Why does this happen? The specific instance I’m referring to in this article would be that your body has essentially “numbed” to the stimulus. Another way to think about it would be that your body has “adapted” as much as it’s going to. It would be somewhat like wearing a hat. At first, there is a hyper-awareness of it, but over time you “numb” to it to the point where you forget it’s even there. Now obviously your body isn’t completely forgetting that you’re deadlifting in the same way your sensory perception desensitizes to a hat, but as I observe this in my athletes, it seems like a similar effect.
Finally, I’d just like to further encourage you to observe your training closely and trust what you see. Specific information about how YOU respond to training is the best kind of information you can have.