First published on April 4, 2011
Newbie Gains: Soon Ripe, Soon Rotten
Chances are if you are a beginner to strength training you’ve heard about “newbie gains”. Newbie gains are what we call the easy and all but automatic results that beginners to strength training (or bodybuilding) get. When you first start out you get a period of easy strength increases. This extends to performance physiology in general. Early gains in performance come easy and there is also a period of general adaptation wherein the same general adaptations tend to occur to different exercise stimuli. So it seems that not only do strength gains come easy at first but they come “regardless”.
These easy gains do not mean there are not better and worse ways to train and the phrase newbie gains should not be taken to be an excuse to train stupid! Really we just use it to shout down 15-year-olds who think they have some kind of innate talent because the plates just keep piling on so fast. Lots of us started out thinking we found the magic fruit tree of strength training. But as they say in the East: Soon Ripe Soon Rotten!
Something about old Latin quotations that seem to sum things up so nicely. Presto maturo, presto marcio is one of them. We all know the 15-year-old kid who has prodigious success in his lifting. Seemingly. But very few prodigies stand the test of time.
Another way of saying that is easy come easy go. It’s true folks. It may almost rate as one of those training “laws” that people are always going on about. What are there? Seven? Let’s make it eight, then. Let’s call number eight the easy come easy go law of strength training. But I’m not just writing this to rub it in. There is a point. Now that I’ve got the introductory rambling out of the way I’ll get to it.
Early and Reversible Adaptations to Resistance Training
Regardless of what fitness and strength training experts would lead us to believe there is still a lot to learn about the body’s adaptations to resistance exercise and to exercise in general. In fact, one of the keys to knowing BS when you see it is to have a general sense of what we DO NOT know. Just remember that a lack of evidence or data is not an excuse to invent fantastic theories and ask people to accept them because they are the only thing going!
Anyway, particularly vexing in strength adaptation are early adaptations. People make a lot about early neural adaptations in strength training without mentioning that these changes in neural drive early on are malleable and dynamic. So too are the metabolic adaptations. In fact, it is possible that the early changes in muscle metabolism occur to protect the energy state and are independent of any long term changes in oxidative potential. Some preliminary data has suggested that these early metabolic changes can happen much earlier than was previously thought given that they have usually been associated with much longer-term changes that were linked to changes in total oxidative potential.
The Body May Make Very Quick and Easily Reversible Adaptations to Resistance Exercise of Strength Training
What this could mean to the layperson is that the body is capable of making very quick and reversible adaptations to early resistance exercise. The path of least resistance is at play.
As we see from the opening paragraphs, part of the picture is that the harder won your performance improvements, the longer they will stick around and the less they will fluctuate in the short term. Harder won means more time spent to get them with more training involved to cement them. This is why I preach consolidation of gains. But that is assuming you have the opportunity to do so. If you are an athlete everything comes down to the preseason preparatory period and the in-season competitive period. Since I do not compete, I base my strength training, those people I train, on not only achieving new PRs but establishing those as a baseline for performance. In other words, I make sure that any new achievement is not a ‘flash in the pan’ but that it has become a semi-permanant state of fitness.
However, say you’re a strength coach and your athlete competes in a sport with a relatively long season. The amount of heavy strength training you can do, of course, during the competitive season is limited. The longer the season, the more detrained maximal strength qualities will become. How much then is enough to maintain maximum strength levels without impacting the more important in-season training? It depends on the athlete.
The less seasoned athlete and less “strength trained” athlete will lose maximal strength qualities at a quicker rate than a more mature athlete who is more strength trained. Also, if the non-competitive period is short compared to the competitive one more maintenance using maximal loads will need to be used if you wish to avoid losing a lot of maximal strength.
But the athlete with a longer strength training background, even if he should lose some strength, will be able to recapture that strength quicker. However, as a strength trainee who is not trained by a professional strength coach using periodization based on the competitive season, it is not necessary for you. We do, however, know a little about how the detraining of different qualities tends to occur.
Detraining Versus Deconditioning
First off, I need to discuss the difference between deconditioning and detraining. These terms are often used interchangeably by fitness writers, and that’s okay for the purposes of casual explanation. We do not need to make a distinction between the two. However, many seem to think that deconditioning is just a word to use so that they don’t use the word detraining too often in the same article. These are two different things.
Detraining can mean one or two things. It is what you do. A period of abstinence from training is known as detraining, then. Detraining can also be used to describe what happens as a result of this abstinence. So we say we are “detrained” or that “detraining has occurred”. Detraining, then, can cover all the bases. Deconditioning, however, is only used in the context of what happens as a result of detraining.
Nonetheless, deconditioning is a useful term since “loss of fitness” does not have to mean you have exercised, it simply means some habitual stimulus has been taken away to a sufficient extent to cause you to lose a certain amount of “fitness.”
Deconditioning is based on your baseline fitness. Therefore the term can also apply to non-exercising individuals. For example, long term bed rest results in deconditioning. Astronauts who spend long periods in space in zero gravity become deconditioned in certain ways even when they exercise to prevent this. So you do not have to cease all exercise to decondition.
A sufficient reduction in training intensity, volume, or frequency can result in deconditioning. Furthermore, since fitness gains are specific to the mode of physical activity performed then deconditioning is also specific. In the non-trained individual, such as someone deconditioned due to bed rest, it is the absence of certain specific stimuli that result in the loss of fitness. So, in all cases, deconditioning occurs as a result of the absence or reduction of specific stimuli.
Detraining is the more common term used in casual discussions. If I use the word deconditioning you should understand it to mean the effects of detraining. So what we can say is that detraining is deconditioning but deconditioning is not necessarily detraining. That should do for the terminology.
Physical Fitness Adaptations are Always Reversible
Although the fact that when you stop exercising or reduce exercise, the adaptations you underwent because of that exercise will reverse themselves may seem obvious, it is not obvious enough. For strength and bodybuilding trainees the “power of nutrition” and in particular, supplements, seems to confuse the issue. A common question for me to receive in my inbox is: “I can’t train for the next two months. If I eat enough protein and take x supplements, will I still lose my muscle and strength?”
The answer, of course, is yes. Although proper eating will help preserve muscle mass longer, the body simply does not hold onto adaptations it no longer needs. As I pointed out above, in fact, reversibility may be “built in” to how our body adapts to physical activity. How much muscle and strength our trainee loses depends more on how long he has trained. If he has been training for a very short time prior to this layoff then his gains will reverse much faster. In fact, if he fails to train for long enough he should expect a complete reversal of his gains. If he is a well trained person he will lose fitness at a slower rate and may retain some even for extended periods of time, although it is impossible to say how much and how long since we simply do not know. Training adaptations are a result of overload stimulus and deconditioning is the result of lack of that stimulus, pure and simple. There are no magic pills or magic protein to get around this.
This is sometimes called the “principle of reversibility”. Only in exercise science can “principles” be built around things like “use it or lose it” and still be taken as scientific. The names of such principles are frequently an instance of the nominal fallacy, where naming something is taken as explaining it. Despite the sciency sounding principle, though, we know less about detraining than having such a fancy name would suggest.
Anaerobic Exercise: Strength and Strength Endurance
When you engage in any kind of resistance exercise, called anaerobic exercise. there are three primary interrelated adaptations: increased muscular strength (force output), increased muscular endurance, and increased muscle mass.
What we are primarily concerned with, of course, is our force output. We want to know how bad our one rep maximum will suffer when we have to lay off training. All the different circumstances that can affect this is certainly beyond the scope of this post, and you wouldn’t want to read it anyway. But all detraining is not the same. For instance, you will lose squat strength quicker if you break your leg and walk around on crutches for several weeks than you would if you just didn’t squat and walked around normally for several weeks.
There are some general statements we can make about detraining subsequent to cessation of resistance training but keep in mind that as with all things strength, much of the results of detraining comes down to “it depends”:
1. If you have been training hard for a while then a few days of inactivity should not severely impact your gains and may result in some performance improvement. In fact, a few days off, even up to a week, may be as good as a real taper and peak for some lifters.
2. How fast you lose strength and how much of it you lose seems to coincide with your training level.
3. In general, strength gains tend to occur faster than strength losses with long periods of detraining still retaining a significant level of strength as compared to pre-trained ability.
But Strength is Hard to Maintain!
No, actually, it isn’t if that is all you have to worry about. We often hear that strength maintenance is very difficult but this statement is almost always in regards to competitive athletes maintaining the the strength levels they achieved in the off-season training during the competitive season. A certain strength training intensity and frequency must be maintained throughout the competitive season without ‘getting in the way’ of the athlete’s performance by inducing unnecessary fatigue and compromising recovery. This can be daunting.
As simple strength trainees who only care about our maximal strength and are not worried about it interfering with a game of touch football or something: We have an easier time of it. Usually, however, when we say strength maintenance, we mean that we are maintaining ONE lift while bringing another lift forward. The same things that applies to one lift will apply across the board if all strength is put on maintenance, and one would generally keep training down to a handful of large lifts, say 2 to 4 at the most, with perhaps some core work thrown in here or there.
However, it is rare that a trainee decides to put all his strength training on maintenance, or face detraining, unless he or she is sick or injured, which then becomes a subject of individual planning. However, most of what I discuss here applies in general. Now, do not comment and tell me you are going on a long vacation and want to maintain your strength levels! I’ll probably just tell you you need to get your ducks in a row and enjoy your vacation! There is more to life than lifting heavy things.
Maintaining a Lift
Assuming that we are not injured or prevented from training our primary lifts the question becomes just what is the minimum amount of training we need to do?
Although we are concerned with our maximal force output, or 1RM, that does not necessarily answer to how we could maintain this ability with a minimum of input. That is, how much training and what kind of training do we need to keep from detraining our maximal strength? Is it the volume that counts or the intensity? Are both equally important? What about the frequency?
Well, it seems that it is the intensity that counts for the most. Which makes sense when you think about it, of course, and most of us would intuitively have come to the conclusion that in order to maintaining maximal force output we need to keep lifting pretty darn close to maximal. But how much and how often?
First of all, let us go back over the factors we can manipulate and deal with some unfortunate terminology. When you read about research on the effects of detraining, etc. in regards to resistance exercise or anaerobic exercise you will often read about “reductions in training volume.”
So, one of the big problems we face is that many of the common words we use around resistance and strength training tend to be used in many different ways ithe n literature. Some of the words have a distinct definition and are often used incorrectly, such as the word “power”, and others simply don’t have a precise enough definition and are used differently, but legitimately, by different authors and experts. Intensity is one such word. Volume is another. When I tell someone to reduce their volume, I usually mean something very specific and very simple: I am saying they should reduce their sets and/or reps. I am not saying they should reduce the weight on the bar. I am not saying they should reduce their frequency. However, many times, “reducing training volume” means basically a reduction in intensity, frequency, duration (which would affect volume and/or density). This is important! I have seen many writers talk about reducing training volume, in terms of reps and sets, only to find out the literature they are referencing uses “volume” in a much more comprehensive way.
As said before, intensity is the number one consideration to maintain a lift. Meaning simply the percentage of our 1RM, in this case. The general range of intensity that must be met is at LEAST 80% and, more realistically, 85% of 1RM. If you consistently dip below that, and indeed, don’t go much above it, during a prolonged maintenance phase, you will find your maximal strength level declining rapidly. Some time must be spent above 90% of 1RM if you expect to maintain strength levels as close as possible to the post-training level.
Another part of maintenance that is often overlooked is familiarity. Much of the apparent strength loss after a prolonged layoff from a lift is just “not being used to the lift”. This means that some minimum level of volume and frequency must also be maintained so as not to loose the ‘groove’ of the movement. To keep your “technique” you need a little bit more practice. Where people go wrong is that they do ALL maximal strength with very low volume to maintain. Which is fine for pure strength maintenance, but they end up doing the lift so little that they don’t get enough practice with it.
Prioritizing Some Lifts, Maintaining Others
This brings us to the main point of this post. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to strength training success is an unwillingness to compromise. It is difficult to always simultaneously progress on your big lifts. Some of your best gains will come when you bring one or two lifts forward and put the others on a back burner or on ‘maintenance’. The purpose of this is to be able to train your priority lifts harder and give over more volume to them and their supporting exercises.
The very fact that you need to prioritize certain lifts and maintain others will tend to mean you are way past the beginner stage of your training, or at least you are advanced on a certain exercise (or several). So we do not need to discuss how a beginner or low intermediate should maintain lifts as they will generally have no need to do so.
Many strength trainees come from a resistance training background that prioritized mass or general fitness and are given generalized beginner strength training routines only to find that they have a very hard time progressing on certain lifts.
The problem here is that beginner resistance training, bodybuilding and strength training are not completely separate pursuits. No matter the specific practices and parameters, much of the primary adaptations will be quite general across the board. So, in other words, a bodybuilder who has been hammering away at the bench press to build his pecs may have trouble progressing the bench press at the same rate and by the exact same parameters as every other lift. By the same token, one would expect most of his lifts to have specific needs attached to them, depending on how much they were trained up to the present point. For this reason we have many “beginning” strength trainees complaining that they are very weak in certain lifts relative to others. However, this would not mean they necessarily need to put certain lifts on the back burner if their training age was relatively low. More likely it would simply mean that each lift would need to be addressed slightly differently. The problem, of course, with most cookie cutter strength programs is that all the lifts are trained exactly the same. To me, you can never train your overhead press, for instance, the same as your deadlift. They will always have slightly different needs, depending on the person. But modern mass-market strength training treats all lifts the same and all trainees the same.
When you are more advanced, at some time or another, you will find yourself having trouble progressing one or a few lifts, if not trouble with progression in general. You may find yourself wondering “how do I fit this or that lift in while still progressing this lift that is more important to me.” This question is a good signal that it may be time to put a certain lift on maintenance!
General Recommendations for Maintaining a Lift
Maintenance should be considered and adjusted on an individual basis. How you go about it can always be tweaked as you go along and learn more about what works and what doesn’t. For a general starting point, I’d advise working up to a relative max on alternate weeks and then doing a couple of singles or doubles. On the other weeks perform a couple of lighter sets, say in the 5 rep range at around 80 or 85%. The volume will still be very low compared to your volume across the board. And depending on how long a lift is on maintenance you can always have a test day to see how you are doing with it. Don’t be afraid to skip a week here or there. Your absolute frequency requirements will differ depending on your advancement and, indeed, very advanced lifters, may benefit from reducing the frequency more than I have outlined here while less seasoned lifters will need to to keep to at least once a week (but not always at the highest intensity).
You can lift lighter when you feel you need to. Remember that the idea of maintenance is not to lose a great deal of maximal strength. It is not to maintain your strength levels exactly where they were in your post-training state. You will generally not go back to a lift after maintenance and hit your old PR (although this happens and some even get new PRs). However, you should be able to very quickly regain any lost strength.