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Maximizing Fitness Gains: How to Find Your Effective Training Zone

Updated: Jan 18

One of the most common complaints I hear from coaches (and see myself) is that clients are either doing too much [volume] or trying to do too much in the moment [intensity]. We'd call either of these overtraining (or under recovering, but that's another blog) of different types. Oddly enough, both are motivated by ego, but in slightly different forms; one is the well known want to impress, lift more weight, jump higher, do the most complex movement etcetera, the other is the less well known fragility that exists on the other side of ego that produces fear of failure, self-worth tied to ability and a chronic dread of never being good enough. Again though, I digress. Overtraining is common! What's actually much more common is under training. This may be less common in gyms, but outside of gyms (and other places people frequently work out) the world is overflowing with people who either do nowhere near enough, or often nothing at all. The key is finding the sweet spot or, more accurately, the sweet zone. Since this blog accompanies a series of Instagram stories, I'll use them to break the tory down. Here's the general idea:

Outline of the effective training zone

We have a zone that sits between the minimum stimulus that will drive a response, and the maximum stimulus we can tolerate either in the moment (acutely) or over a period of time (chronically). We want to get all of our training to fit neatly within this zone. How exactly we do that will depend on a whole host of factors, and will vary person to person, however there are some guidelines we have available to us as coaches and programmers. We have percentage zones for weighted movements such as squats, deadlifts and cleans. We have percentages of max reps for bodyweight movements such as push-ups and pull-ups. We have pace zones for activities like running, swimming or cycling. We have power outputs for machines such as static bikes or rowers. We have heart rate zones for activities that stimulate the cardio-respiratory system. We have perceived rate of exertion and reps in reserve as more subjective, in the moment self-assessment tools, and the list goes on. None of these though, are perfect. They each have their flaws and their limitations, and they especially each have their populations to which they don't apply particularly well. As a very brief example, imagine a complete novice walking into a gym and being asked to deadlift sets of 2 at 80% of her maximum.

So let us begin with the minimum effective dose. What is it, and how can we determine it? What it is is pretty straightforward; it's an amount of work required to illicit a response in the system (body). That work is subject to variables that make up the total, for example in a lifting context, reps, sets, load, recovery period and tempo are all relatively obvious and easily manipulated. If we have established that we require 25 repetitions at 75% of our maximum to create a response, we have a few options such as 5 sets of 5, 8 sets of 3, 12 sets of 2, etc. I'm fully aware the maths is a little off, but hopefully the point is made? How we find it is a little tricker. We certainly have some guidelines, but the truth is it's mostly trial and error. A word to the wise after years of getting this wrong, err on the side of caution! The longer someone trains for, the more accurate both the guidelines will be, and their knowledge of themselves will be too.

A representation of the minimum effective dose

The maximum tolerable (or recoverable) dose is actually of far more relevance to most gym-goers. I base this assertion on the assumption that most people who are in the gym actually want to get better and I've certainly seen more over than under training. It may not be empirical fact though. Again, our handy guidelines, such as Prilepin's chart among others, are a handrail, but establishing this upper limit is again a little trial and error - most certainly on the chronic side. This will also fluctuate greatly periodically with the effects of hormones, external stressors, training load, weather, and a load of other factors. This chronic overreaching is often characterised by stagnation or regression, frustration, loss of enjoyment and an unhealthy relationship with training.

Acutely, unfortunately, is pretty obvious; something goes wrong. When we safely challenge that threshold, butt up against it, if you like, that might be a perfectly safe rep fail, or a gymnastics spot taking over at a critical moment. We need to butt up against this line sometimes to progress, but the issues arise when we overshoot it, especially too often! Torn muscles and tendons, bulging spinal discs, falls and even illness can arise from pushing beyond our limits in the moment. The vast majority of the time we can prevent this by simply following CrossFit's®️ charter of Mechanics - Consistency - Intensity. That's much easier written than done, but time and again it holds true! Building a solid foundation will reduce, if never quite remove, the risk.

A representation of the maximum tolerable dose

That zone in the middle is a big old zone though. How do you know how hard to train, how often, and when to push? Well, I'm going to break the gym-going population into 3 very broad categories to try to explain. Bear in mind though, this is very dependant, and only a guide.

Firstly, the newcomer. If you're new to the gym, 3-4 sessions per week, with a huge focus on quality of movement, learning technique, and not failing any single rep or effort is a great start. This alone will see you pushing your relative intensity limits enough to progress, but with enough of a check in place to stop you overdoing it. Remember, there is no deadline! At this stage, consistency will build the foundation, not rapid progress.

If you've been training 1-3 years (consistently, and only as a guide) you'll be more familiar with your limits, and should ideally be training 4-6 days per week, life permitting. In that case, 1-2 days per week I'd suggest going hard. Very Hard. Pick a day where you're feeling good, the movements are ones you've earned the right to push hard on with good form, and you know you'll have the opportunity to recover well. The other days you might want to push your limits on some skill work, and go at 80-90% on some conditioning, but all at a slightly lower intensity than the really hard days. When you get to image 4, think of these as red, and then orange days respectively. This should form 60-80% of your training IF YOUR RECOVERY ALLOWS. The yellow section is what I'd call accumulation, you're getting reps in the bank, accruing miles or metres or seconds, but not really pushing the envelope. These are the days that might not need to be outright rest days, but where the body needs to slow down a little. Play it by ear, but looking ahead will help. These aren't the days to learn new or complex skills, lift maximal loads, or sprint or jump with maximal intent. They're the days for movement as medicine. These should be 1 day per week or, if you feel the need, maybe more.

Visual display of the intensity zones contained within the effective training zone

As we advance beyond that 2-3 year mark, we start becoming more adapted to training, harder to challenge, and more in tune with our bodies. This is when we can up the ante a little - or indeed when we may need to up the ante in order to keep seeing results. The temptation here, usually after a period of stagnation, is to increase training volume but, in almost all cases, intensity should be manipulated first. That 1-2 days of near redline training might creep to 2-3. That easy day might become a solid 1 per week, or even drift to one every 10 days or so. What's key here is digging into each session; getting more granular. Isolate the movement(s) that you want or need to go hard on, but also those where you just need to accumulate reps. Choose carefully when to drive for that new PR, and when to bank a rep at 95% because, other than on the whiteboard and Instagram, there's no real difference. Some misread this advice and throw in a buttload of "zone 2" (another separate blog required) work because it's lower intensity, then smash themselves with a barbell and accessory work. That's what we call junk volume, and leads nowhere good. It's time consuming, and often leads to you not having the time or energy to focus on the things you actually need to improve, and that require the neural drive you have decimated on a 1 hour steady state cycle ride that could have been spent improving the low level skills you lack. Regardless of how you cut it though, the more advanced you get, the more you can and ned to butt up against your threshold, and the more accurate you need to be.

The final step is to look at how this evolves over time. Nothing is static and if you, as you hopefully should, improve in any given field of endeavour, both what is required to progress and what you are capable of will move right. It is worth noting at this point though, despite what my illustration may suggest, that these lines do in fact come closer together over time, narrowing the effective training zone. This is quite simply because the more you do something, the more stimulus you require to benefit, while your upper limit cannot progress indefinitely. If you have ever read of Milo of Croton, know that the story of him carrying the cow daily from calf to adulthood is simply a fable. It may offer many life lessons, and many analogies of value, but it remains untrue. The important thing is that we realise as we get better we are both able to do more, but also have to do more. Sensibly increased intensity, using one of many variables, is both the most effective and efficient manner by which this is achieved. Endlessly adding volume is a recipe for disaster. In fact, many top trainers will keep the volume as low as possible in the earlier years of an athlete's career, because they know that at some point it will be the only option remaining, and they'll be forced to resort to this less effective measure to avoid regression.

An outline of how the effective training zone shifts over time.

This blog evolved from the series of Instagram stories included within it, and as such is supposed to be an overview. There are many points made that wouldn't stand up to scrutiny without further qualification or defence, and there are doubtless errors. The idea, at this stage, is simply to convey some principles in a way hopefully not too clumsy so as not to break through. Hopefully the message you leave with is this; train hard, more often than not, but earn the right to train hard, and don't out train your ability to recover.


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