It can be frustrating to work your butt off in the gym and not see results. Educator and sports performance coach Korey Van Wyk is here to explain why you might now be seeing results.
If you’re someone who takes their workouts and training seriously, it’s very frustrating when your results don’t seem to match the work you’re putting in. This is especially true when you are consistent week in and week out with your training (if you know you haven’t been consistent, you know where to start!).
In this 2-part article series, I’ll uncover some factors that may be holding you back despite your consistency and hard work. Whether you’re familiar with these concepts or have thought of them before, my goal is to potentially give you a different perspective and provide guidance on what to do next.
How Do We Get Results from Training?
To understand what factors require our attention, we first need to understand the basics of how we attain results. In the simplest terms, the results from training are a balancing act between two factors: stimulus and recovery.
What is Stimulus?
Stimulus refers to the demand we place on our body through training. In order for a change, or adaptation, to take place we must expose our bodies to a sufficient level of stress.
Whether your goal is muscle gain, fat loss, enhanced endurance, or another athletic quality, the systems of our body must be disrupted enough to initiate signals telling those systems to change in a way that better equips them to meet the demands of the new stress.
In the case of resistance training, we expose our body to greater external resistance than it’s accustomed to. The primary system disrupted, the muscular system, adapts to deal with this external resistance by building more muscle tissue and enhancing its force-producing capabilities.
How Recovery Plays a Role
The other side of this coin is recovery from the training stimulus. It would be great if we could just crush ourselves in the gym every day, provide a huge stimulus, and keep making gains day in and day out. Unfortunately, that’s not how this process works. In many cases, the systems we want to enhance through training will experience some level of damage.
Muscle is a great example. If a resistance training stimulus is strong enough, the structure and proteins of a muscle cell will become damaged. This is not only good but is a necessary aspect of muscle growth. Muscle damage signals the cell to tear down the damaged proteins, build new ones to replace them, and build additional proteins so there are more than before. The result is a bigger, stronger muscle!
The catch is that this process takes time. If a stimulus is constantly placed on a muscle without adequate time for repair, progress will be impaired or completely stalled. In general, the larger the stimulus the greater the recovery efforts need to be.
These two factors give us our first clues as to why you may not be seeing the results you want. First, is your training providing enough of a stimulus to initiate change? And second, are you doing the things necessary to recover from that stimulus? We’ll take a look at recovery in a future article. For now, let’s take a look at some variables in regard to the stimulus and maybe we’ll uncover an area that’s holding you back.
Types of Stimulus
So far, we’ve just discussed a stimulus in terms of general magnitude. Is it large or small? However, when it comes to making gains from training, the type of stimulus applied is just as important. The type of training you do must match what’s needed for the desired outcome.
In the world of human performance, this is known as the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. This might seem like an intuitive concept, but it’s not uncommon for training methods to be a total mismatch for desired outcomes. How to train for all goals is beyond the scope of this post, but you should consider these questions:
- Do I know what my desired outcome is?
- Does my training align with that outcome?
The answers to these questions provide guidance for your training. They don’t need to be so introspective that you start to question the meaning of life, but “I want to be fit” isn’t quite specific enough. And training for everything is essentially training for nothing.
What are your top 2-3 goals?
The majority of your training should be geared toward your primary goal. Then some of it toward your secondary goal. And a small portion toward your tertiary goal (if you have one).
Does this mean that your workouts must always be meticulously planned and that you can never do things that don’t necessarily align with your top goals? Unless you are a specific type of athlete, probably not.
Look no further than CrossFit to see that it’s possible to attain a fairly high level in multiple qualities at once. But would it be the best training style if your primary goal was muscle gain? Or flexibility? Or to be the next parkour sensation? Probably not.
Identify the top two, maybe three, outcomes you want from your training and make sure you’re following a program geared mostly toward those outcomes. This also means you can’t be a program hopper! Yes, you know who you are. You have a new goal every few weeks which means you never give yourself time to make real progress on any of them. Again, you don’t need to hyper-specialize in all training phases, but you need to stick with something long enough so the desired adaptations can take place.
Appropriateness of the Stimulus
Another factor to consider is the appropriateness of the stimulus compared to your current fitness level (“fitness” here refers to your skill, experience, and ability with your chosen goal).
This one is really geared toward beginners. I know it’s tempting to do what high-level performers do, or what you think the pros do. But the reality is that you probably don’t need that yet. And remember- everyone can be a novice.
The SAID principle is more specific than most of us realize. So even if you are “in shape” or fairly advanced in a certain training style and decide to switch gears, guess what, you might be a beginner again.
Trying to follow a program that is beyond your abilities is a recipe for suboptimal results because you will not be able to train in a way that elicits the proper adaptations. When all you need is a little, you’re probably not prepared to do a lot.
Training as a Skill
Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned trainee, sometimes we all need to be reminded that almost everything we do in training is a skill.
Progress doesn’t always come down to protein balance, the ability of muscle cells to produce enough force, or some other physical quality. Sometimes it requires taking a step back to assess if we’ve developed enough skill to be successful.
When I was a collegiate strength coach, I tried to get my athletes to view everything we did in training the same way they viewed techniques for their sport: as skills that needed to be practiced frequently and honed over time. My hope was that it changed the way they viewed progress; that it wasn’t going to happen overnight and if they didn’t see the results they wanted, it wasn’t always because they weren’t strong or powerful enough. Skills develop at different rates for everybody, and maybe they needed more time to let their skill develop with a certain movement.
So, regarding the areas in which you’re trying to progress, when was the last time you got an honest assessment of your skill? Or maybe a better question is when was the last time you were honest with yourself about your skill level? This can be a tough pill to swallow because it often requires us to temporarily pull back on something we’re striving for and it’s easy to feel like this is a regression.
However, if you’ve gotten to a point where progress has stalled or you keep running into injury, you’ve likely been exposed from a skill perspective. Trust me, you’re much better off switching gears for a while to focus on becoming more proficient in your skill rather than focusing on a number (whether that be the weight on the bar, speed, distance, time, etc.).
Where to Start…
I hope you were able to glean at least one area where you can improve. If you feel like some or all of these factors apply to you, my advice is to choose the area you struggle with the most (or the area you feel will have the most impact) and start there. Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn how you can optimize your recovery!
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