What is required to grow stronger?
The first ingredient is obvious – There has to be a training dose. And just like with a medicine you might take, there is always an initial exposure, then a response. An effect. But that said, it’s still hard to know for sure.
We can remove some of that response uncertainty by building great habits. For example, if you are mindful of the #windowofgainz after training and disciplined enough to make quality sleep a daily priority, then you will be able to tolerate and adapt to much higher training doses. In other words, you can grow stronger, much faster.
But there’s still another step to take if you want to get the best possible result. To make the very most of your training, you need to build a habit of measurement and careful observation.
The first step to measurement is figuring out what your strength numbers are right now. If you want help with this, take our free strength test now.
For optimal performance, measure.
There is training dose, food and rest. But you still need to close the loop by actively monitoring your response to training. Depending on what you observe, you can then adjust your dose up or down, whatever it takes to achieve a relatively steady rate of progression.
There’s no other way to grow stronger, actually.
While there are a million things you could measure, in infinite detail, the truth is that nothing complicated is required. The simple act of taking measure is itself most of the magic. When you pay close attention, to where your work is going and if it’s working, you’ll naturally notice more and more ways to improve. That’s just one of the perks that comes with making the effort and paying attention.
To get you started, here are some of the most useful variables to monitor.
Once you learn to monitor, strength progress is easy.
First, know your dose.
One of the most useful things you can know is the total amount of work performed.
That’s important because some training sessions will turn out great. You’ll crush PR’s and feel like you’ve made a ton of progress. But then other times things won’t turn out as planned. You might not even be able to identify a cause at first. In both cases, it can be hard to get a true sense of how well you’re actually progressing over time, and whether your training is serving your needs.
Keep a training log, preferably in a simple spreadsheet that will allow you to plot your numbers. Capture the movements you’re practicing. The number of sets and reps you are performing. And of course, write down the weight you lifted during each set. If you multiply those numbers together, that’s your training volume load, or total dose. A very useful thing to reference.
If that number is going up month to month, you’re probably well on your way to more new PR’s. Likewise, you might notice that everything was going great in training, right up until you exceeded a certain amount of work.
Now that you have some data to guide you, adjusting the dose is a simple step.
Never tracked training before? CLICK for a starter spreadsheet from Shrugged Coach Mike McGoldrick.
Get time on your side.
Another very useful performance indicator is time.
You start every training session with your plan, your program, the prescribed work for the day. Next to what you will do, the next biggest consideration is how long it’s going to take you to get that work done.
Think about all the time you take to warm-up, mobilize, to set up your barbell and adjust load between repetitions. Think about how long it takes you to complete every single repetition.
All things being equal, if you can get your work done quicker – with a heightened sense of urgency and intent – then you will grow stronger from the effort.
And likewise, if you notice that it’s taking you longer and longer to get the training done, then you can expect your overall performance to start taking a dive as well. A diluted training dose is obviously not as potent and carries less effect.
Track and be respectful of your time. It’s an honest indicator of your true priorities, and your real effort.
How long does it take to get your work done? The clock doesn’t lie.
Assess fatigue by getting vertical.
One thing you’re trying to measure directly is overall fatigue. After all, every single dose of heavy training is a stress that carries a big fatigue after-effect.
Your body will respond to each dose, but at a cost. And the more and more you dose, the higher the recovery debt. There’s nothing wrong with this. One thing you want to do in training is to purposely over-reach a bit.
For example, after 3 weeks of hard, heavy and progressive squats, it’s completely normal for fatigue, aches and pains to set in. That would indicate that you’ve placed sufficient demand on the body, enough to spur the flesh into adaptation. After a week of tapering and recovery work you can expect to feel great, and ready to push towards a new max. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Why not?
One reason is that fatigue creep is subtle. You can add weight quickly to a barbell for a long time, without really noticing how tired you’re getting. Strength is well preserved, for a while. But then even an empty barbell starts to feel heavy, and all the repetitions start looking a little slow. A big progress plateau or all-out regression is never too far behind.
Speed kills, in both directions. And that’s why it’s a great indicator.
Again, there a long list of things you could measure, but maybe the simplest, most repeatable test would be a basic vertical jump. This movement is a fundamental test of peak force, along with power and the rate at which you can produce force.
If you can jump higher, then you’ve improved these force and power variables. And it follows that the opposite is true. If your vertical jump starts to tank, and it’s not time to unload yet, then you need to be aware that there could be a fatigue and recovery debt building. Again, time to adjust dose.
And as a practical point, you can also use a decreasing vertical jump as an obvious cue to increase the amount of jumps in your training. That alone will help you get much stronger.
A useful thing to know – Are you jumping well or not?
Nail the simple, critical stuff.
Nail the simple stuff.
Again, there’s so much to track. Feel free to experiment and seek out variables that work best for you. But just before we close, there’s one more point to make.
Until you build a true habit of monitoring the most fundamental markers of performance, nothing else will matter or make much sense.
Heart rate made it on my chalkboard notes because, when measured consistently, daily, its variability can be a great indicator of parasympathetic nervous system function. If you notice heart rate elevation, a lack of variation from morning to night and activity to rest, or even too much variation in your heart rate, then you’ve got a big clue that something isn’t right.
An even simpler bit of advice is to track your body weight and total hours of sleep, particularly if you’re goal is also to lose or gain muscle mass. You’d be shocked to know just how many athletes are struggling and fiddling with their programming while all the while under-eating and getting 6 hours or less of quality sleep per night.
Note: There’s no program or coach in the world that can correct and accommodate such a gross oversight. You couldn’t make a more fundamental mistake.
Until you’re body-weight is stable, or increasing by a half-pound or so per week, and until your total hours of sleep is at least 8 hours per night (with an additional hour or so on tough training days), then you’ve really got nothing else to worry about. The only prescription you need is to eat and sleep more. The fancier, less effective interventions can all wait.
If nothing else, track sleep.
Remember your real training goal.
It isn’t to maximize the intensity or randomness of your training. That’s not what makes you stronger.
The best thing you could do is to know how much work you’re doing, where the effort’s going, and how well you’re responding to your training. If you can do that, you will quickly begin to string together more and more optimal training experiences. And, you will see for yourself that getting your work done, day by day, month by month, is the only real predictor of training success.
This is only a starting point. Feel free to leave some questions below, we’d love to help you with your training. Also, if you’ve got some other indicators that you’ve tracked successfully in your training, please share your experience. I’d love to hear about it.
- If you want help measuring your current strength numbers, take our free strength test now.
If it wasn’t observed… did it even happen???? Quantum Lifting!
Track for dem gainz!
That’s right 🙂
Great article! I’ve been tracking my lifts but not times. Great little idea there. How do I track the fat loss to muscle gain ratio? I’m 31, 230lbs, fairly new to fitness (1.5 years) and loving lifting, trying to get strong, and down into the 190lbs range by June.
I have a beautiful wife and two amazing that I want to spend my life for, I need to be fit for them. That’s my goal.
The best thing to do would be to get your body composition tested. Best options, search around locally for a place where you can do underwater weighting, DEXA scan, or a bod-pod device. They’re around and accurate. Other than that, try “body fat testing” in your search, if your gym doesn’t offer it.
A few points that will help you. Eat well, and often. Just regulate your carbs as you need the fuel. Train of strength, just be control the volume. Doing loads of reps won’t make your stronger, but it could wear you down. For conditioning, again, go high-intensity, some long and slow stuff, but be mindful of taking things to far. They tightened diet and lifting will do most of the work for you.
One more HUGE point – Get a minimum of 8 hours of sleep per night. That alone will help you drop the fat. Better hormones, training, recovery, etc, etc.
Classic line If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Love it
Sooo simple, and sooo true.
What about resting heart rate or blood pressure? Are either if those useful measures for determining work / recovery needs?
I mentioned HR briefly. Yes, that can certainly be used as an indicator. Track it and see what you notice. Blood pressure? …Not sure that one has been used. But, if it’s high, probably a good thing to keep aware of.
I am sure it’s been mentioned on here before, but hrv has been shown to be fairly accurate in measuring stress and fatigue. Very similar to tracking hr, hrv is the variability in each heart beat (variability is a good thing). With a four stroke engine, each stroke has a different function. The heart is the same way, valves are opening and closing with each beat. It’s also tied to the respiratory system so there are a lot of important things that happen at each individual beat. So when your heart rate has some variability one beat to the next, it means it is firing on all cylinders and is able to speed up and slow as the body needs. Could be a cool tool for the data junkies.
Heart rate is mentioned. It’s just, until everything else is being measured, I don’t think an HRV device/method is needed. For example, who cares what the HRV value is, if you are also not sleeping enough or not tracking training volume. Bigger principles will always displace smaller one’s. So, starting with the easiest stuff.
Your looking at HRV all wrong. HRV is not an input like sleep and training volume. HRV is actually an output or a flag like how you feel during training. HRV is the output of all the recovery or stress you put on your body the days before. HRV is the indicator that something is not right and if you are tracking your recovery (sleep length, sleep quality), stress (training, daily physical and mental stress), and diet (intake quality and quantity) you should be able to pinpoint the problem or set of problems. If you just track sleep with no output values you will just have a graph of hours slept. You have to tie that back to something like how you performed during a workout or how prepared you are to tackle your day based on your inputs. Its best to track how you felt during the day and during your workout (but this can be skewed by different things; if the workout is in your wheelhouse, if you had caffeine prior to working out, the hot chick in yoga pants is watching you, etc.). HRV is a form of output that, if done correctly, is not skewed, or has far less likelihood to be. I think tracking an output is the most important thing, because it will flag that something is wrong. Most importantly, you cannot know the results of an input if you do not track the output.
I don’t disagree with you. Just pointing out, my only point here was to communicate how important it is to be aware of what you’re doing. Most people track and monitor nothing. They might be interested in learning about HRV (a cool thing), and tracking these variables. BUT, that analysis might have limited value for someone who, for example, doesn’t even really track volume, or something very simple, like their sleep. Keep in mind, we run across people every day who obsess over analysis and detail (supplements, programming, etc), but then sleep 5-6 hours a night, and aren’t aware of a problem. Sometime we can deep dive this and do more on the HRV front.
Yeah I have not read anything on blood pressure being a function of overtraining or recovery. There is some stuff on optimum training habits for people with hypertension(high blood pressure). Moderately high intensity, short workouts have been shown to decrease hypertension. So crossfit if done around 80-85% of max hr will actually lower blood pressure. Though I’m pretty sure working out in general lowers blood pressure. I think the study included athletes with hypertension though, so the idea was finding out the best workout option to reduce blood pressure. Something about the atrium thickening at too high intensity is not the best.
[…] Click here to read the full article. […]
Best minute of the episode: 1:04:00-1:05:00
Nail on the head. Awesome.
“Track your progress!”, the first advice my Crossfit coach told me when I said I wanted to train harder. I am 4 months away of it and I feel much better seing how I’m improving every week. Amzing. For me, a geek of crossfit and It I’m always searching new Apps for crossfit . 🙂 you can get it for everything, diet, timer, track your Wods,..
Thanks for the great article, Tony. I would like to implement this in a training program for high jumpers. How many times a week do you recommend doing the ankle rocker exercises as part of an overall jumping program? Thank you.
[…] information from Barbell Shrugged…remember we do offer Beyond the Whiteboard as a tool to monitor your […]
This is a very interesting and awesome article.
“Building a habit of measurement and careful observation”, great words.
[…] Get strong by monitoring your training […]