Living Life in the Fast Lane

I hope everyone is enjoying the hot summer days.  On my downtime, Amanda and I have been going to the movies, beach, pool, and spending days reading.  I’ve been working to secure a teaching position for this upcoming school year and it looks very promising.  I will be in a position where I’ll be having options to choose from, at least that is what I’m hoping for.  Which is very fortunate for me as I know of people who have yet to find a teaching position for the last few years.

We live in an era in that being ‘busy’ has become the norm.  Sort of like being identified as cool or important, ‘yea, busy as usual.’  As most of us can be identified as ‘urbanites,’ we have grown up in a culture that screams, GO GO GO GO!  Doing more and more is considered the ideal norm.  We have been taught to live our lives in the fast lane.  Type A personalities and extroverts have been portrayed as the ideal type in the Western culture to achieve success.  It has shaped corporations that promote solely team/group interactions with less privacy which has trickled down into the classrooms that promote cooperative learning groups.

A common theme with my posts is one that promotes reflection, taking a step back to look at the entire picture, deep thought, making choices based on understanding, and not to engage in dichotomous thinking.  Within our society, we love to take an idea or concept (without seeking a deeper understanding of it) and run to the other end of the spectrum.  An example of this is the popularization of minimalist shoes, such as the Vibram’s FiveFinger.  What did people do?  They took this concept of how great this shoe must be and went to the extremes, such as running an excess number of miles in which their bodies were unprepared for.  Or look at our fitness trend which has promoted the concept of WORK HARDER or NO PAIN, NO GAIN.  The popularization of cross fit most likely has a direct correlation to the Western culture that promotes the ideal person as being Type A personalities, extroverts, and team/group interactions.

Before I continue, let me make it clear and reiterate the importance of having an open mind and not engage in dichotomous thinking.  I am NOT inferring that Type A personalities, extroverts, cooperative learning groups, and cross fit are BAD.  So don’t think in terms of good versus bad; healthy versus unhealthy; evil versus good; night versus day; male versus female; introverts versus extroverts.  Dan John calls this the ‘either/or’ thinking.  For example, “Is training style X good or bad?”; “Is the Paleo diet good or bad?”;  “Is running good or bad?”.  For most of you whom have worked with me, the answer to most questions related to fitness is…

IT DEPENDS

The world in which we live in is always striving to achieve BALANCE.  Yes, the very natural environment you are surrounded with is an actual living organism and it needs balance (homeostasis).  As most of us have learned in middle school about the various ecosystems (marine water, freshwater, jungle, desert, wetlands, etc.) that make up the earth, the human body isn’t much different at all.

The human body is exposed to an environment that is in constant change and is always striving to maintain a balance (homeostasis) in order to keep the body alive.    For example, when a stressor is imposed on the body multiple systems are working together and will adapt to it.  Some of these systems are: cardiac; cardiopulmonary; metabolic; detoxification (primarily your liver); hormonal; central nervous system; muscular; immune.  The process of achieving a balance within these multiple systems is called allostasis.

According to Joel Jamieson, what this means is that your body has to maintain blood pressure, blood sugar, pH, and it has to keep all of these various parameters within certain ideal levels.  If they go outside of normal ranges, let’s say your body temperature reaches 110 degrees or blood sugar drops too low or pH levels gets off, you are in big trouble because your cells can no longer maintain energy production.  As a result, vital organs are damaged and quickly you’re going to be dead.

In terms of your fitness and how workouts impact your body, Jamieson describes it as,

In the big picture, that’s the process of training. That’s all we do. We work out. Whatever it is we do for a workout, we challenge the body. The body figures out what we did to it and responds. It responds so it’s better at it the next time, and you disrupt homeostasis less in future events.

That’s the basis of the training continuum. It’s repetitive stress. The body is always designed to minimize repetitive stress. It wants to get better at what you just did so if it faces the same thing in the future, it’s less likely to have as much of an impact. If it has less of an impact, the body has a better chance of survival. That’s really what it comes down to, survival.

In order to tie everything together, let me share with you a common scenario.

Client Jane has been a member of a cross fit gym for a few years now.  She is in her mid-forties, employed as a nurse, a mother, and is fanatic about working out.  She work outs approximately 5-6 times during the week and mostly enjoys her group.  After seeing great results the first few months, she has hit a plateau and has fought through multiple injuries.  She doesn’t eat much at all in hopes of losing body fat.  Based on my observation, she looks the same now as she did 2 years ago.

In terms of physiology and how your body responds to stress, Jamieson describes it here,

The training continuum comes down to general adaptations. It’s the process of how the body goes about adapting to stress, not just from a single workout, but from repetitive stress or repetitive workouts. That’s where we consider the long-term picture of adaptation—the long-term picture of how the body responds to training and stress.

It works in three stages. In stage one, we get the alarm stage. That’s the first part of the training process. That’s where you introduce a new form of stress, new exercises, new methods or a new training program. Because the body has never seen it, it’s new and the work capacity or ability to tolerate it is very low.

The first time you do a workout, a new exercise, a new program or whatever, you can’t do very much of it. You fatigue quickly and your work capacity is generally low. However, there’s a very rapid increase after that. When you do a new exercise, you’re not very good at it. Maybe you don’t feel as coordinated, but the next few times you do it, you get much better. Improvements come quickly. That’s because the body is so shocked from what it’s never seen it before, it makes very rapid improvements in coordination and its ability to respond.

It’s this first stage where you see muscle soreness. You see all these things that are a result of the body’s initial exposure to the stress. The positive side is the body adapts very quickly in that first phase. The first phase moves into the second stage—the stage of resistance. That’s our long-term strategy.

In the first stage, it adapts by making neurological changes, learns how to coordinate itself and respond to the stress better. When you keep doing this thing over and over, eventually it gets better to the point where it has to improve further because it keeps seeing the same stressor. That’s where we start to see the structural changes. That’s where we see bigger muscle fibers. That’s where we see increased mitochondria. That’s where we start to see the real structural changes in the body that lead to an improved ability to respond.

That’s where we see long-term improvements in work capacity and the ability to tolerate the activity. You get better. Your fitness improves. Your ability to respond to the exercise or the training program is better. It’s more stable.

Even if you were to stop doing the task, you’d still have that improved fitness for a period of time before it starts to fade. That’s the stage where most people get stuck. They end up giving into resistance. They see some improvements, but they keep doing the same thing, and nothing happens.

The reason nothing has happened is because the body has already responded to that stress. It has adapted to it. Your muscle fibers got bigger or your aerobic enzymes or mitochondria went up. At some point, the body is no longer challenged by what you’re doing to it. It sees no reason to improve, so it stays the same.

That’s a training plateau. That’s where you’re not going to see improvement. You just kind of go through the motions, and we see a lot of that. We see a lot of people getting into the same routine. They do the same program over and over again or maybe with slight variations. They do it months or years on end, and don’t see a lot of improvement.

The reason is simple. The body hasn’t pushed or improved because you’re doing the same thing over and over again. Some people, on the other hand, know to keep overloading, keep improving and changing the stress, and will repeatedly overload. They’ll see regular improvement. Eventually they end up pushing into over-reaching. This is a further stage down the continuum. This is where the body starts to decrease its ability to respond because it’s being bombarded with so much stress it stops responding to it.

The way it does that is by turning down the sensitivity of the receptors and the muscles that deal with hormones. There’s adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and all these things that don’t rebind the muscle fibers and bind the different tissues in the body to cause a specific reaction. The body stops responding to them.

It’s as if your neighbor is shouting at you all day long; eventually you stop listening to what they have to say. That’s what happens with training. You train. You stress. You stress your stress. All of those hormones are constantly flooding the body.

Eventually, your body is just going to turn down its sensitivity to them and it’s not going to respond as well.

What can happen then? The body can do one of two things. It can either crank up the production of those hormones to try to get the response it’s looking for, or it cannot. Initially the body will just compensate for the decreased sensitivity by turning up production.

Let’s say the cortisol receptors don’t have the same sensitivity they did before you started the training program. When you trained and trained, it decreased the cortisol sensitivity. The body realizes this, and can turn up cortisol production. This is where we start to see negative hormonal patterns. We see too much cortisol and the reason is simple: It’s because we’ve overloaded those sensors to the point they turned down the sensitivity. The body’s response to that is to just crank out more hormones.

That’s what we call “an over-reached state.” If you keep pushing through that, you get into an over-training state. That’s simply where the body stops producing those hormones altogether.

This makes sense if you consider how the body works. If the body isn’t sensitive to the hormone and the only way it can continue to get the effect it’s looking for is to produce more hormones, eventually the hormone starts to read too high. The body has a set of sensors that realize this, as well as how much hormone is in the bloodstream, so it recognizes there’s too much and that something is wrong. The sensors send this back to the brain and the brain responds by turning this hormone down.

This is where we see decreased thyroid, cortisol or testosterone. All these important hormones are needed for stress, but now they’re not able to produce the needed response because the body has reduced production. We often consider this to be a dysfunction, a disease or an over-trained syndrome. However, it’s the body doing what it can to survive in the face of what you’ve thrown at it. You’ve over- trained. You’ve thrown too much stress at your body.

The body has responded in this way, which we see as negative because strength and power are down. You don’t feel good. You may get sick or have inflammation. You don’t want to train. All of these things happen and we see that as dysfunction, but it’s more that the body has responded to what you did to it. When you bombard it with stress, its reaction was to turn down its ability to respond to stress. It stopped responding to the hormones. It stopped producing the hormones because over a long period of time, these have a negative effect.

If you disrupt homeostasis over and over again, and you’re chronically fatigued, eventually the body is going to figure out how to stop that. This is its attempt. It’s in the heart of why we see over-training. It’s the body’s compensation to an overload of too much training and too much stress.

There are two reasons this happens. First, a lot of people don’t understand how to change the stress and how to continue to see improvements once they’ve hit a plateau. Second, and I would say probably more importantly and more commonly, people underestimate the amount of impact of everyday stress.

People underestimate the impact of mental or life stress on their ability to respond to training. They work 40 or 50 hours a week. They have social stress. Maybe they’re financially taxed or their spouses are driving them crazy. There’s family stress. All of these things play a huge role in how much more stress can be thrown on top of it.

If you’re not sleeping well or not eating as well as you could be, these limit your ability to respond and recover from a workout. When you pile on workout stress, throw on life stress and everything else, eventually you’re bombarded by more than your body can handle.

There are always differences in one’s ability to handle the stress because there are differences in every life. There are differences in genetics or differences in training habits, which will play a big role in training recovery. That’s why the “one size fits all” idea with everybody following the same training program generally doesn’t work very well.

For some people, the amount of stress the training program puts on them might be great. They might respond and improve. They might get leaner, bigger, stronger and faster in whatever it is they’re trying to do.

For some people, there might not be enough stress. They might hit a plateau. For other people, it might be too much. It might overload them. There are a lot of variables and a lot of factors that come into play. If you assume everybody will respond the same way to stress, you’re sadly mistaken.

A lot of large group training classes, bootcamps and Crossfit programs that have popped out over recent years are great for people who are relative beginners. In the beginning, you’ll improve quickly. You don’t have the capacity to train a lot, so you self-regulate and see improvements. However, eventually the individuality factor runs out and you find some people are going to over-train. Some people are going to see decent results. A lot of people aren’t going to see any results at all.

The ability to regulate stress through life and training is the key to seeing the longer term and more consistent results. You have to understand how much stress is the right amount and how much exercise someone needs versus how much exercise is too much. You have to have a handle on how much life stress outside the gym is affecting the ability to recover from the training.

And when we look back at Jane, she is able to manage her ‘high-stress’ and fast paced lifestyle because of caffeine.  She is an avid coffee drinker.  So while her body is trying to get her to REST AND RECOVER by making her exhausted, she masks these signals by drinking more coffee.  Eventually, she will be forced by her body to slow down.

Most people don’t have an understanding that your emotional, mental, and life stressors impact your body (hormones, immune, cardiac, cardiopulmonary, central nervous system through the general adaptation syndrome, or GAS) much of the same way as physical stress (running, lifting weights, sportsyou choose to impose on it.  Through genetics, everyone has different thresholds as to how much overall stress you can handle before it breaks down.

Having this understanding, my training is rather simple.  It fits my lifestyle and current circumstances.  I use an alternating linear periodization program.  For 3 weeks, I train for strength; the following 3 weeks, which I plan on implementing if my schedule allows me to do so, is a bodybuilding (hypertrophy or to build muscle) type training.

For strength I train hard for 2 days and have a medium-intensity workout 1 day.  That’s it.  I know I can do 400 meter sprints or kettlebell swings on another, but as a result of my stress levels and age, my body takes a bit longer to recover.  Here’s how it looks:

Day 1

Warmup:

Turkish Get-ups

BB Complex: Upright row; clean-grip snatch; back squat behind-the-neck press; good mornings; row

Training:

Front Squat (utilizing Wendler’s 5/3/1 program)

Bench Press (utilizing Wendler’s 5/3/1 program)

High-rep back squat

Day 2

Warmup:

Turkish Get-ups

BB Complex: Row; clean; front squat; military press; back squat; good mornings

Training:

Deadlift (utilizing Wendler’s 5/3/1 program)

Military Press (utilizing Wendler’s 5/3/1 program)

High-rep back squat

Day 3

I choose one of the BB complexes and push the weight a bit.

That’s the gist of what I do for my training.  Could I do more and get better results?  Only if I had more time and less life stressors.  My training goals are simple. Am I achieving results through my training program?  Of course or else I wouldn’t be doing it!

One of the most important role of a coach or personal trainer is to monitor stressors because training is basically imposing physical stressors (that is purposeful) on the body so that it can adapt a specific way to achieve a specific goal.  Your training is only as good as your body’s ability to recover from it.

In closing, here are a few key points I hope you learned:

  • Body’s basic physiological response to stressors
  • The ability to regulate stress through life and training is the key to seeing the longer term and more consistent results
  • You need to achieve balance in your life and do not underestimate the importance of sleep and recovery
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