Monday, April 25, 2011

When Rest is Best - Charles Fraser

Layoffs & Cycles: When Rest is Best

by Charles Fraser (1989)

Rhythms, beats. Cycles and syndromes. Life is an ever-evolving continuum of wax and wane. The only thing that remains the same is change. Long after each of us has "shuffled off this mortal coil" the living will go on pulsating through the same rhythms for all eternity.

It's ironic that the most advanced and variable of animals -- the human -- has an ordered intellect that resists change. But our need for rest, exercise, food, diversion, work and play changes from day to day, week to week, month to month. We all have a built-in complexity of ups and downs that should not be ignored.

Other animals don't seem to have to be taught this. They react instinctively to life's varying tempos. They move and play, eat and fast, rest and sleep, court and mate in concert with the crescendos and diminuendos that inevitably assert themselves daily, monthly, yearly.

Many biologists believe that we socialized humans don't have this instinct. Certainly most of us do not "listen" to the rhythms within us. Some of us defy them. But in these efforts we are always doomed to fail. The laws of nature cannot be foiled. We are the animals that became too smart for their own good. We must go back to our rhythms. We must become better listeners to our own bodies.

Nowhere is the rhythm of human physical energy more dramatically illustrated than by the female of the species' monthly cycle. Every 28 days or so her body goes through a buildup of tissue and fluid in preparation for the egg that will be released into it. As she approaches that time of ovulation, her energy and strength are on the ascent. During the two- or three-day period that the egg waits for a friendly sperm to come along, the woman is at the peak of her energy and strength (not to mention the summit of her sexual desire). She wants physical union with the male.

If the tiny egg remains unfertilized, the woman's body proceeds to shed that buildup of tissue and fluid along with the egg. During this five-to-seven-day menstrual period, the woman's strength and energy drop to a low ebb.

The male has a 28-day cycle too -- although the rise and fall of his energy is not marked by a physical event, as the female's. Men and women lifters must obey their monthly rhythms if they want to reach their potentials in the gym. Women are, of necessity, a lot better at this. It is we males who do not take the hint.

One way you can find out more about how your body fluctuates is by keeping a training diary. After you've finished, or during a workout, write down the weights and the reps you performed for every exercise. Indicate how hard or easy certain key sets were to do. A difficulty-rating scale can be helpful. Then rate your session with a letter or number according to how you feel about the workout. You might give yourself an A for an energetic and strong workout, a B for an average workout and a C if you were well below par in strength and energy. The same method can be used to rate sets or exercises.

After a month or two you'll see a pattern develop. Not only will some workouts be better than others, but individual weeks will be superior to others. You'll probably find about one in every four weeks during which you were below average in energy.

Keep your diary for years. Not only will it be a guide to your energy levels, but it will also provide an accurate record of your lifting progress that you can use to set goals and plan your training.

An Olympic lifter I know studied the Russian language for several years and then a few years ago visited the Soviet Union. He is a national caliber 190- and 220-pound lifter, so he was invited to train in several of the gyms in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev.

Every athlete there is required to keep a training notebook. Each man lists his bodyweight and resting pulse rate at the beginning of each workout. He then notes every exercise, set and weight done in the workout. When he comes into the gym, he must present his notebook to the trainer, who looks over the lifter's last few workouts. Then he instructs the athlete on how to work out that day, even to the extent of writing out a complete routine -- exercises, weights, reps and sets. It may be quite different from anything the athlete has done recently. The Soviets operate on the principle that the individual is often the least objective judge of what's good for him.

If you're not inclined to keep a training diary, you can still listen to your body and make mental notes of your highs and lows as they occur. It's a good idea to train lighter and easier during one week out of every four until you discover your exact energy pattern.

Several years ago the irrepressible Vince Gironda wrote an article in which he advocated 21 days of training followed by seven days of rest:

He'd found from experience that most bodybuilders become stale after three weeks of hard workouts with a given routine, so he advised his readers to take a full seven days off every fourth week. Vince doubted that most bodybuilders would have the guts to try this system, but he believed they'd make better progress if they did.

Back in the late 1950s and early '60s there was a California bodybuilder named Hossein Shokouh. He was very good. He won some state titles and was featured in the muscle magazines. Hossein claimed that he trained hard and regularly for two months, then took off one whole month! During that month he'd lie around on the beach when he could, rest his aches and pains, soak up the sun and wax philosophical. He believed that the tissues had to be "softened up" in order to grow again. Perhaps his method was extreme, but you had to admire his aristocratic self-confidence. Also, his softening up theory has some precedent in nature.

The bear hibernates all winter. He emerges each spring lighter and flabbier but grows in weight and strength throughout the spring, summer and fall months. Every year until advanced old age the bear becomes bigger and mightier.

Nature, bears, Shokouh, Gironda and women can't all be wrong!

There is an insufferable lack of scientific data on cyclical training, including layoffs, as it pertains to bodybuilders. (Most bodybuilding research seems to be for the purpose of proving the activity's value for gaining weight and strength, information that is put together in order to convince the non-bodybuilding world.) We need more facts about the long-range effects of training with different systems of cycles and layoffs. Since nobody has a large enough group of people in his or her charge for enough years to tabulate and verify such data, we'll have to depend on the experience of our veteran athletes, as well as our own experiences and intelligent analysis.

The Soviets have been very successful in athletics, not only because of massive participation, but also because of what they have learned through scientific analysis. They aren't big on bodybuilding yet, but they are big on weightlifting. They have learned that for optimum success a weightlifter needs to train with a different load, weight and intensity, not only each training day, but each week and month throughout the year. They also consider planned layoffs as part of training.
These layoffs are called "active rest", and during this period the weightlifter does not train at his sport -- although he may engage in volleyball, swimming, track and field or other athletics.

Here are some suggestions for working cycles and layoffs into your training. Develop your own schedule according to your experience.

1) Vary the load (total sets and reps) and increase intensity each workout.

2) Vary the load and intensity from week to week. Make one week in four a light one.

3) Take a one-week layoff every eight, 12 or 13 weeks. Think of these rests as part of your training. You are violating training if you don't take the layoff.

4) During each layoff learn a new sport or physical activity. Take up the archery, golf, tennis, boxing, hiking; learn to do handstands, plant a garden, chop a six month's supply of firewood. You get the idea.

5) Consider one yearly layoff of two or more weeks.

6) Change exercises, reps and weights every three or four weeks. Don't always do the movements the same way. Vary the width of your grip or the placement of your feet. Change angles. Change from barbells to dumbbells. Try exercise machines, kettlebells, trap-style bars, cables, etc., etc.

Even if you're a very advanced bodybuilder, a very dedicated hardcore lifter -- don't be afraid to be eclectic in your choice of training exercises. Draw from the disciplines of powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. Bodybuilders have a tendency to isolate their bodyparts and work them separately and intensely, as is needed. But they can benefit greatly by tying the bodyparts together with the coordinated whole-body lifts.

Use your own imagination along with these principles of training cycles and you'll not only improve as a bodybuilder, but you'll gain greater rewards and satisfactions from your lifting. Improve your lifting, bodybuilding and confidence in training by studying the methods and experiments of other sports.

Someone once said that the unexamined life is not worth living.
That principle can also be applied to physical training.

Know thyself.

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