For any type of fitness training to be safe and successful, you have to strike a balance – subject your body to more stress than it’s accustomed to, yet do it in a manner that doesn’t overly fatigue your body, lead to injury, or reduce your performance on the next workout. Unfortunately, the fitness world sometimes sends the message that more is better. Lift heavy, harder, and longer and feel the burn. Pain and discomfort are seen as badges of honor and the best means of getting stronger and fitter.
Yes, you need to push yourself to get results but you also need to avoid injury, cumulative fatigue, and the damaging effects of overtraining. As with anything, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Beyond a certain level, pushing your body harder won’t make you stronger. Pushing beyond this point can lead to overtraining or injury. Studies show that your body adapts to stress of a certain magnitude and duration, but if the stress is overwhelming or prolonged, it can lead to mental or physical injury or even death. Of course, lifting weights is unlikely to kill you but it can leave your body feeling overly fatigued.
How much is too much? Each of us reacts to stress a little differently. Some people can handle more stress than others, based on genetics, lifestyle, mindset, as well as life experiences and exposures. So, why should there be a “cookbook” approach to stressing your body with strength training? That’s the beauty of intuitive strength training, as you’ll soon see, you don’t have to follow one.
What is Intuitive Strength Training?
intuitive strength training means listening to your body and adapting your training accordingly. If you’re feeling tired or a sore, you scale back your training. Likewise, when you feel strong mentally and physically, take your workout to the max. It’s a method of modifying what you do based on how you feel but also on how you’re performing.
Why don’t more people use intuitive strength training? Some believe they must advance their training each time they work out and that progression must be linear – but is that even possible? Rarely, in life does progress happen in a straight line. There’s a natural ebb and flow that takes place as you move toward a goal. You make a little progress and then progress stalls before picking back up. The same applies to strength training. Some days you’re able to lift heavier than others based on how you feel mentally and physically when you last trained and how hard. This ebb and flow is part of the process.
Taking an intuitive approach to training doesn’t mean slacking off. To make gains, you still need to follow the principle of progressive overload. In fact, if you violate this principle, you won’t make gains beyond the first few weeks of training. Progressive overload says that for muscles to grow or to make any type of fitness gain, your muscles or cardiovascular system, in the case of endurance training, must be stressed beyond what it’s accustomed to. In other words, if you do the same workout using the same number of reps, same volume, same intensity week after week, your body will stop adapting and changing. However, that doesn’t mean you have to increase the volume or resistance EVERY time you train. We all have days where we’re not as strong, mentally or physically, and pushing harder on those days may be counterproductive.
Autoregulating Your Workout
Another concept that goes along with intuitive training is “autoregulation.” Autoregulation means altering the volume of training on the day or on a particular set based on how your body performs. Suppose you begin your training a training session after a night of five hours of sleep. Plus, you didn’t have a chance to eat lunch and had an unusually stressful day at work. Normally, your plan is to lift at 85% of your one-rep max. On a decent day, you might do 6 or even 8 reps, but after a stressful day and a night of too little sleep, you struggle to do 4 or 5 reps. Yet, your muscles feel a similar degree of stress as they do on a day when you’re strong and can do 6 to 8 reps. What if you ignore your body’s message and push yourself harder, on a bad day, and do those 6 to 8 reps anyway? You build up cumulative fatigue that could affect your future workouts and increase your risk of injury. It makes more sense to listen to what your body is saying and not push beyond that point.
There are a variety of ways to autoregulate. You can adjust the number of reps you do on a set, the load, or the volume you do based on what your body is telling you. The key is you’re adjusting these parameters during your workout rather than following a set protocol. Some fitness trainers recommend using an RPE scale, a subjective assessment of how hard you’re working as a guide to how hard to push. In reality, you don’t have to use exertions scales and charts. When you do your first set, assess how you feel. Could you have done another repetition or used more weight or did you struggle to eke out that last rep using good form? Adjust your resistance accordingly. You can also auto-adjust between sets by taking a longer rest period to give your muscles more time to recover.
The Bottom Line
Intuitive strength training creates greater body awareness. When you listen to your body rather than always conforming to a set number of reps or a pre-set resistance when you train, you lower your risk of injury and overtraining and you better manage your level of fatigue. Autoregulation and intuitive training mean you push yourself harder on days when you feel your best and dial things back on days when you’re not your strongest mentally or physically. Does that sound like a smart way to train?
Sports Med. 2014. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0228-0.
J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(7):1718–1723. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181def4a6.
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