How Much Effort is Necessary to Keep Making Progress?

I’m kinda shitty at following programming. Don’t get me wrong–I do my lifts. I’m “consistent,” if you define that as doing something most days I plan to do it. But I’m frequently changing up what’s on the page or deviating from it.

Sometimes, it’s about honoring my energetic boundaries. Sometimes my mental health–managing depression, PTSD and stress–creates barriers to following the program as written. Sometimes I change up the moves because after trying them out for a while, they just don’t feel good in my body.

Is all this change a problem? Am I lacking in discipline, or am I really good at honoring my needs in the moment?

How I answer this question, and how you answer it for yourself, will depend on our goals and how we define progress. What am I trying to get out of my training? The answer to that for me right now is that I want to keep building muscle, but not at the expense of my mental or physical health. I’m looking for sustainable progress–figuring out how to keep doing the work for the long haul. I don’t have any timelines to meet. There’s no urgency. As long as I slowly keep adding reps or weight and keep reinforcing strong mind-muscle connections, I consider myself on the right track.

There’s a theoretical boundary somewhere between the amount of effort necessary for progress and the amount of effort that maintains our current levels of progress, and yet another boundary still somewhere else when our efforts become insufficient to maintain our current levels of ability. In order to progress, all we need is to be somewhere above the minimum effort to maintain. We may progress more rapidly doing more than that minimum effort, but all progress is progress. Which is a great thing to keep in mind when life requires us to reexamine our priorities.

Photo description: Bear with me, friends using a web page reader, I’ll do the best I can to describe my graph. The horizontal axis is labeled Effort, the vertical says Progress. There is a horizontal zero line that represents maintenance. Starting below that line, to the left (low effort) and curving up to a peak and then down again below the zero line is a u-shaped curve. Following the curve left to right are the following labels: insufficient effort to maintain, sufficient effort to progress, (at the peak of the curve) maximum effort to progress, more effort than necessary to progress and finally excessive effort harming progress (overtraining).

Frameworks like the Muscle and Strength Pyramids(1) help us prioritize where to put our efforts and where it’s ok to be more flexible. Helms, et al, place the first priority as adherence. Within that chapter, they discuss the requirement to have flexibility in order to remain adherent. I want to think that the way I deal with my changing needs counts as maintaining adherence within this framework. In any case, I find it reassuring, this focus upon realistic training plans and finding what works within our everyday lives, especially from folks who work with competitive bodybuilders. If they value flexibility, then certainly a recreational bro like me gets to have some flexibility, too, without throwing all my goals out the window.

Part of that flexibility for me is having the tools to change up exercises when they don’t feel right, or to be totally honest, when I’m just tired of doing them. For example, I hate split squats with a rear foot elevated (sometimes called Bulgarian split squats). They always give me DOMS, I have to focus like mad to keep my front knee happy, and I can’t load them with hardly any weight because I feel so precarious in that position. I’m sure they’re doing something for me, but I’m not sure it’s worth the headache. I will do them once a week for maybe a month and then I let myself move on. So, if the program I’m following schedules them, I always have other moves in my back pocket that serve a similar purpose. If I need another single-leg, quad dominant lift, I can do strict step-ups, alternating step-back lunges, slow-eccentric pistol squats to a box, or walking lunges, or if I’m in a gym, single leg press or single leg extensions. I remain adherent to the intent of the program, even while I allow myself to be flexible about which exercise I’m doing.

So, if we’re staying “adherent,” what is the next consideration for progress when we’re needing to balance lifting with our other needs? Well, back to the Pyramids, they place volume, intensity and load together on the next rung of importance. It makes sense to tie these together, since we really can’t talk about one without the other. My own preference when I’m trying to cut back but still progress is to keep intensity and/or load high but to lower total volume (one hard set or a couple good sets for each movement). If I’m feeling worn out or just struggling to care about doing the work that day, I can usually talk myself into one of these options and still get some quality work done.

So, with sufficient adherence, volume, load and intensity, we should be able to keep ourselves on the “progress” side of the graph. What makes it “sufficient” is going to vary from person to person. Completely anecdotally, it seems to me that I notice folks seem to fall into two rough camps on this–those who seem to do better maintaining high levels of load (benefiting more from short, heavy sets) and those, like me, who do better with keeping relative volume a bit higher but lower loads. I feel better and bounce back more quickly after 3 sets of 8-12 than I do from 5 sets of 5. And so that informs what I do when I need to back off a bit. We each need to do our own trial and error to figure out what works best for us. Lucky(?) for me, my life has given me lots of opportunities (surgeries, chronic illnesses and other traumas) to back off and see what works!

A huge piece of all of this is approaching the work with an abundance mindset–paying attention to and appreciating what we can do instead of what we’re cutting out. I’ve heard so many people who say they feel like it doesn’t count if they have to back off. If they aren’t doing what they consider the best or optimal, then why bother doing anything at all? This mindset is a motivation-killer and gets in the way of continuing to do the work. Do something until we can do more. I admit, I have my moments of perfectionism, too. But learning to do what I can instead of what I think I should is a skill I’ve practiced for decades, and I feel good about where I’m at on it these days. Sometimes one day of backing off is enough for me to feel ready to push harder the next time. Sometimes it takes longer. By continuing to do the work and paying attention to how it’s feeling, I’m keeping myself available to do more when I’m ready to do it. At a minimum, I’m staying in the “maintaining” side of that graph, preventing myself from losing ground, so that I can continue to progress when the situation allows for it again.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about avoiding the insufficient training side of the curve. Honestly, I’m not much inclined to the excessive training end of things these days, but I know there’s plenty folks out there who dance on that line. It’s worth noting that THAT is the place for overtraining, overuse injuries, doing stupid shit because we’re tired that ends up hurting us, and possibly just hating our workouts. Live there a while, if that’s your style, but eventually an injury, mental health challenge, life stressors outside the gym, a newborn baby, whatever, will cause you to have to make some choices. When you’re doing that, come back to this post and ask yourself what you can do to help yourself remain adherent and continue to do the work? Give yourself room to figure out what is enough. You might be pleased to discover you can continue to progress with less effort than you thought.

(1) If you haven’t already purchased and devoured the Muscle and Strength Pyramid books (or even the classic Youtube videos), you’re in for a treat. I think the books go on sale a few times a year, so you could get on the 3DMJ email list and keep an eye out for that, if cost is a concern. This is not an affiliate link, I’m just a big fan.

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