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Understanding Variation To Improve Training

Precision is required for experienced trainees to make any improvements in our training and body composition during a training cycle.

Using a very standard protocol over an extended time period provides feedback about what variables facilitate or hinder progress and how we adapt to our training.

I use the Graded Exercise Protocol (GXP) as a spring board to describe a new concept Ėvariation around a mean - that can help us make progress.

For cardiovascular training I use the GXP and it helps me to standardize my training. I suggest you use the GXP for health and fitness and for learning via Ďbiofeedback. With the GXP I can use the same piece of equipment and the exact same protocol, and most importantly, use a heart rate monitor. Thereís no need to get fancy here. The least expensive heart rate monitors from Polar or other reputable brands are fine.

The heart rate monitor provides a part that is missing when we try to learn through feedback about progression and adaptation using a resistance training protocol. Besides lack of consistent form that can undermine accurate feedback, what is missing is an objective indicant of just how hard targeted muscle groups are working. For muscle groups, we do not have a ready equivalent of the heart rate monitor.

For the GXP I use a standard, extended warm-up, a standard five-minute work-part, and a standard extended cool down. The lessons Iíve learned doing the GXP are worth repeating. I will add in one observation and then make an extension to resistance training.

When I do the GXP I do not just look at my heart rate at the end of a segment. I look at it every minute so that I have great process feedback.

My heart rate data, at the same time in the protocol and at the same workloads, show that I produce higher heart rates when I train on consecutive days and when Iím tired, anxious, or distracted. These are Ďrest and recoveryí variables that are controllable and changeable. My heart rate data also show that itís difficult to make even a small increment (about 1/3 MET or equivalent to decreasing a mile run pace by about 15 seconds) in the workload for the five-minute work-part of the GXP and stay within my target heart rate. Thatís not surprising because Iím already working at a good level and Iím in my 60th year. These variables are not changeable.

The new consideration, even when I can optimize training variables during a training cycle, is variation around a mean heart rate between workouts at the same points in the GXP. Even with optimization and precision, some times Iím slightly below and some times Iím slightly above my target heart rate. It isnít surprising. Weíre not machines.

Variation around a mean is important. There are variables that we do not yet understand and can not track that influence our performance. Recognizing that variation exists can help us make small improvements and progress.

As an example, letís use a training session where Iím slightly below my target heart rate. If I accept that dayís performance as a real indicator of adaptation and progression Iíll marginally increase the workload the next time. Thatís what weíve been told to do for decades. If I take that training sessionís performance and the effort it required based on my heart rate as just a slight variation from a mean, then I will not increase the workload for the next session.

Evidence of true adaptation and progress is several or even five or six sessions where my heart rate data shows me that Iím consistently below my target heart rate using a given workload.

If I had taken the single sessionís data as evidence that Iíve adapted and then increased the workload the next time, I may find my heart rate soaring toward the end of the work-part of the protocol. Thatís discouraging and will send my training backwards.

Without considering variation and the difficulties involved in progressing as experienced trainees, we can set up our training in ways that are frustrating and self-defeating.

Hereís a question. Why do we think that simply doing a particular performance once Ė exposure one time to a specific stressor and absorbing its impact Ė leads to adaptation so that we need to increase the stressor the very next time? I do not claim to have definitive data about adaptation to answer this question. But constantly increasing a training load is not possible and variation of response alerts us to good and bad days.

In resistance training we have the same variation around a mean. For example, as a mean we can do 10 repetitions with 100 lbs but in some sessions it may be 9, 10, or 11. Itís easy to deceive ourselves in resistance training because itís hard to keep everything standard such as the form and duration of every repetition, and the time between exercises. So, on a not great day we do 100 x 10. If we had the right instruments, we likely will see that the repetitions are done just slightly differently and the effort required is more. The reality is we could on that day only do nine repetitions, or possibly just eight.

If we do a perfect 100 x 10 in one session and do not consider variation, we could easily make the mistake of moving up to 105 for the next session. Just like the GXP, the outcomes for us experienced trainees will be disappointing.

Variation indicates we need to do 100 x 10 at least several times before attempting any progression.

Iím well aware that this isnít the easiest Ďsellí. It means if we want to have the best indication of any real progress, we need to standardize training and stick with the same exercises, resistance and repetitions for quite some time.

Hereís an example. Last week you did a great deadlift set. You use the same form and the exercise is done at the same point in your workout each time. You increased a repetition and the time it takes to do a complete repetition (8 seconds) from three prior workouts. You felt very good despite not sleeping very much. You also reached your goal for repetitions and time under load for the deadlift. Conventional wisdom says you should increase the resistance by 3%-5%, quite a lot of weight in the deadlift.

Variation suggests this could have been just a Ďgood dayí. You have no data to show that you can consistently reach that level in the deadlift. What you need to do is to show you can do the same resistance for the same repetitions for at least several workouts. Only then should you consider some increment.

Now suppose itís a week later. In the workout for this week, you perform the same number of repetitions and time under load as the week before. But, it was a struggle. Youíre not ready for any increment. You havenít really adapted.

When you take into account variation, at first it looks like micro-loading will take care of this problem. Micro-loading uses very small increments. But micro-loading assumes that small, gradual progressions are linear and consistent. Variation shows that progression is difficult and requires a good deal of paying attention to feedback, consistency and patience. If you move forward before adaptation, you are likely to move backwards.

If we experienced trainees want to progress we need to stick to standard protocols because they provide the best feedback about our performance. Standard doesnít necessarily mean that we need to do long duration repetitions or Ďsuper slowí. For example, for a few movements you could perform long duration repetitions, some movements can be performed with 4 seconds for the positive part of the repetition and 4 seconds for negative, and some you can perform in 3,3. The consistency is the repetition duration for each movement across workouts, not between movements.

Even with this degree of variety this still may sound incredibly boring. For a period of time or some long training Ďcycleí you perform the same workouts.

There are solutions to boredom. We can use the exercises and protocols we like to do. We can set challenging but realistic goals for each major movement we perform in a training cycle. We can pick or make the setting we train in conducive to optimal training. All these things make training enjoyable.

When we use standard training protocols, we know that any gain is real.

When we see evidence of some real adaptation and improvement, we can relish the accomplishment.