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[This article is for the dedicated long term trainer who wants to keep training hard.]
by Laszlo Bencze
To keep training in the long run (and I mean year after year) a person has to keep changing his workout. The body can take only so much repeated pounding in the same way before something gives. This isn’t news to us who have experienced that “give” first hand. We've taken it in the knees, the shoulders, the elbows, the hips, the wrists, anywhere there’s something to give. We’ve experienced this because we’ve stuck doggedly to certain routines generally acknowledged to be the best routines, the most business-like, the ones the champions use.
Persistence is the mistake. No matter how great a routine may be, no matter how many PhDs have signed off on it, or how many Bulgarian coaches have endorsed it, no routine can be healthy for more than two or three months at a time. The body rebels against the sameness by getting injured. “Just add 5%. Another 5%. Maybe 2%. Keep on going. You can do it. Follow that straight line to success.” Well, the straight line leads to disaster. One day the joint gives. The tendons tear. The ligaments separate.
Yeah, yeah, genetic freaks consuming mass amounts of steroids and handled by professional coaches and physical therapists may look like exceptions to this rule. They stick to brutal workouts and win Olympic medals. But eventually it catches up with them too. The difference is that in their case the certain disaster doesn't matter, because it comes at the end of a successful career. Whether or not they can continue to lift (or even exercise) when they're 50 or 60 is the last thing on their mind. For the other 99.999% of us, longevity does matter. We don’t want to become crippled has-beens.
The rational way to train is to mix it up. That is the key to what I call “chaos training.” Follow a straight line only for a limited time. Then take a big detour into a new training protocol that uses the muscles in a different way. Obviously this prescription runs counter to the very sound advice given to beginners, intermediate trainers, and competitive weightlifters. They need predictable regularity. But you don’t fall into any of those categories. You’re an advanced trainer who wants to keep the joy of lifting alive by being able to lift decent weights and meet a few new challenges here and there.
Do high reps. Do light bodybuilder exercises. And (oh heresy!) dump the squats! Do other types of leg work. Do oddball lifts. Have some fun. You can always go back to that “best” routine after a cycle of refreshment. And here’s the biggie: Avoid repeating the exact same exercise over and over!
Even the most fundamental exercises can be easily modified in ways to freshen them. For example, back squats, cleans, and overhead presses. If you’ve done back squats with normal shoulder width foot spacing all your life, try doing them with your feet farther apart for a while. Or try with your heels close together. Variations make the exercise interesting again, force you to be conservative in the weight you handle, and develop the muscles in different ways. And these are all good things in the long run. Cleans can be done in sets of six or sets of three or even as singles. They can be done with a very high pull and no knee bend or slight knee bend or full squat. Presses can be from the rack in front, or cleaned from the floor, behind the neck, full or partial range, or with dumbbells simultaneous or alternate. Try them all. [Laszlo's orientation is athletic-type lifting; the same idea applies to most exercises.]
Though I’ve made a big deal about avoiding rigid routines that demand frequent repetition, once in a while you can include even these. (All rules can be broken if you do so intelligently.) In the past year I made some excellent gains in my squat using an advanced periodization routine described by the Russian trainer Dr. Veroshansky. It is a high volume protocol that involves a heavy and a light day each week and which requires six weeks to reach a new peak. It was very demanding. But I only did three such cycles and each was separated by significant off time. Once I reached my goal of a 445 lb squat at the age of 64, I decided that was enough and I am not going back to that program. You have to be reasonable about your goals and most importantly you have know when enough is enough.
Finally, I’ll add one last word about frequency: It’s OK to be irregular in the short run as long as you are regular in the long run. What I mean is don’t worry about missing an occasional workout. Travel, work, social life can all interfere every so often. Don’t be the obsessive type who leaves friends at a birthday party to get in a workout. So you miss your Monday workout. No big deal. You’ll be much fresher for your Wednesday workout. Even missing a week of workouts is not going to derail your progress. When you come back, you will probably find the rest has done you good. Use your pent up energy to have a great workout, maybe to push beyond a barrier, or at the very least, to add a rep or two to your work set. Just be sure these unplanned training breaks don’t happen very often. (Check out my article Training in Strange or Unusual Circumstances for hints on how to stay consistent in training despite the irregularities of life; it's in the Strength Training category.)
To summarize: Don’t get stuck in a repetitive rut. Use the arsenal of variations you’ve picked up in a lifetime of training. Be bold in varying your training schedule. Make variety your friend. These are the key elements of chaos training that will help keep the advanced, non-competitive lifter injury free and satisfied for the rest of his life.
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Laszlo’s chaos or variety training also works well for endurance trainers. A dear friend of ours, a dedicated distance runner, dropped dead at 55. He was slim and careful about what he ate. He regularly ran up (and down) a 4-mile hill near his home. He did 27 minutes on the Cooper Clinic treadmill protocol. His fitness would be near the top for men his age, and superior for men of any age.
He didn’t do anything but run, but he was regular as clockwork. He ran every day. Come rain or come shine, he never missed a day of running. I’m not sure about the length of his streak, but it was years on end. You’d think he would be the last one to die young. He had been overweight in his early years and drank a little too much at one time, but he hadn’t had a drink in years.
Although I can't prove it, I believe his relentless, obsessive (?) running contributed to his untimely death. He would’ve been better off doing a day or two of walking and taking at least one day of rest each week. That would’ve given his body—including his immune system—an opportunity to recharge. Better yet, he could have adopted Laszlo’s chaos training idea.
Using Laszlo’s approach, our friend could have done different forms of endurance training, moving the stress around on his body. For example, he could’ve included biking and rowing in his regimen. He could’ve alternated the three forms of endurance exercise during the week, or focused on running for a week or a month, biking for a like period, followed by rowing. He could have alternated steady state exercise with sprints or intervals. Another option would be to alternate hard days and easy days of training. He could, of course, have put resistance training into his rotation.
The possibilities are practically endless. The variety would have served him well. Rest should’ve been part of whatever he did. Even if he didn’t live one more day, he would’ve enjoyed his training more.
Laszlo and I agree: too much of a good thing is a bad thing. It can be a killer.