Every weight lifter knows after a while progress stalls. It’s due to the biological law of accommodation which states “the response of a biological object to a constant stimulus decreases over time.” It means the body adapts, and what was once perceived as challenging is now part of the normal way of doing things. Interestingly, accommodation happens at the cellular level of the body and can be triggered in any number of biochemical processes. For example, when the body continually senses excess glucose in the tissues, it accommodates and stops removing the excess glucose which leads to Type 2 diabetes. If you consume prescription thyroid medication, over time the body adjusts and stops producing its own T3/4 hormones. Likewise, if you’ve been doing the same weightlifting exercises for several months and stop making gains, it’s a sign that your muscles have accommodated. So, how do you avoid accommodation and continue to make progress? Variation. I don’t mean switching exercises. Although that works. I mean introducing new ways to create muscle tension/fatigue that align with your unique strength profile. Just a few of the right changes, every 2-3 weeks can keep your trainability and motivation high making room for muscle gains for many years to come.
Accommodation…Every Weight Lifter’s Nightmare
Weight lifters hate accommodation because it means the body has fully adapted to a certain type of training. The 3 ways the body accommodates are:
- Equipment/Tools – Weight machines, barbells, dumbbells, cable/pulley stations, etc.
- Methods – Exercise selection
- Strategies – Order / # of exercises, volume, intensity level, rep schemes
Simply stated, the closer you get to being accommodated, the LESS trainability you have. The less trainability you have, the less room for progress and/or the SLOWER progress will be. Ever felt stuck in a performance plateau or lost your motivation to train? It might be due to accommodation.
Once your body adjusts to a new demand placed upon it, things that used to work, simply don’t. That’s when weight lifters get creative with programming and change things. But you have to know what to change to keep your trainability high. First, let’s review the not so effective ways.
- Mistake #1 – Adding Volume. A common strategy to break through a performance plateau is to add more volume … more exercises, more reps, etc. At first, this approach works because anything that challenges the body to do more is good. But it’s not sustainable. Too much volume … especially if it’s done too fast or too frequently, spikes cortisol (the hormone that “turns off” protein synthesis). Likewise, if the body isn’t given adequate time to recover between sessions, fatigue sets in and can tip the body into an “overreached” state. That’s when the body actually breaks down.
- Mistake #2 – Pursuing Novelty. It happens to the best of us. After a while, weightlifters get bored with their workouts and start perusing Instagram or YouTube for interesting snippets. They try everything…buy equipment, swap methods, and download workouts…sometimes on a weekly basis. The problem is when people deviate from the main lifts too often, they never become efficient at them or build enough capacity to reach a high level of performance. Even Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell says turning your back on tried and true methods is never a good thing. Everyone carries the bar at the same place on the back when they back squat, for example. We instinctively do this to take advantage of our best leverage. That’s a good thing. What people need to realize is that when progress stalls, it doesn’t mean the methods are wrong or bad. It just means that your body can perform at the desired work capacity level.
- Mistake #3 – De-loading. De-loading is a period of time when you reduce loads or volume. Because a de-load changes the execution conditions of a workout, it does minimize the effects of accommodation and ups your trainability. However, it only works for a short-time. Why? De-loading periods are often viewed as “easy training” periods that last for a few days. Many coaches, for example, use de-loads every 4th week of a training program, and then go back to their previous training strategies. But the body is smart. Once it recognizes the old way of doing things, accommodation kicks back in and progress stalls once again.
Variation is a “Finesse” Strategy
Truth be told, most people don’t know how to use variation in a way that keeps them in the “muscle zone.” You know what I mean, right? That sweet spot during a workout when you stop chasing more weight or more sets/reps and are completely focused on doing exactly what your body needs to turn protein synthesis on, stimulate growth factors and produce the right amount of muscle fatigue/tears to signal improvement. Whenever you stop counting reps and can “feel” your body responding to the work you’re doing … even if you’re just working with your bodyweight, you’re in the “muscle zone.” But working in the zone requires a decent knowledge of how your body works and responds to exercise. Some good tips:
Tip #1 – Stay With the Main Lifts (aka Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press) – Think of the main lifts as movement training…skills that need regular practice. Even if you are using dumbbells instead of a barbell, always include them in your programs as these methods build up and support your movement foundation.
Tip #2 – Keep Your Muscle Building Switch “On” – When it comes to building strength and muscle, there are 3 variables that have the biggest impact on the body:
- Frequency - # of TIMES you train. (Triggers protein synthesis.)
- Volume - # of REPS x LOAD. (Triggers growth factors and muscle fatigue.)
- Intensity - How HARD/HEAVY you train. (Triggers muscle tears/damage.)
First thing to know is you can’t have all 3 elevated at the same time. Why? It stresses the body, spiking cortisol and turning off protein synthesis and muscle growth. So, the rule is to pick 2 and go lower on the 3rd. For mature adults, I recommend increasing frequency first. (For example, it’s much better to do 30 minutes/6x a week than 1 hour/3x a week from a muscle building perspective). Then, vary volume or intensity as you build up your work capacity.
Tip #3: Align Assistance Work With Your Unique Strength Profile – Assistance or isolation work is used to build up specific muscles or muscle groups. These methods are easier to learn and involve shorter muscle chains which means people accommodate to resistance work faster. It also means you can change these exercises more frequently. But not all changes are equally beneficial to ALL bodies. According to strength coach and author Christian Thibaudeau, the trick is to ONLY change components (aka equipment, methods, sequence, rep scheme, rest intervals, etc.) that align with each person’s strength profile. Over his many years of training world-class athletes and adults alike, he’s identified 5 basic strength types which correspond to whether a person is more nervous system vs. muscular system dominant or some combination of the two. Briefly, they are:
- “Slow, Gear Strength” – These people have a very strong nervous system and respond well to the core lifts with VERY HEAVY loads (97-110% 1RM). In fact, they only need a few methods (2-4 methods, 3-6 reps), and they respond well to changes in bars (aka safety squat, cambered bar, swiss bar, etc.), strongman methods (aka atlas stone carries/presses, sled pushes/pulls, farmer’s walk/carries, etc.), wave loading schemes and any method that breaks up the eccentric/concentric chain (aka starting from dead start, heavy partial reps, paused heavy lifting, etc.). Coincidentally, these folks also tend to have a weaker stretch reflex (aka the ability for a muscle to elongate during a contraction) which means they don’t do well with explosive methods (Olympic lifts) or plyometric drills. And although they can do hypertrophy work, it’s hard for them to build muscle with those exercises simply because they’re less demanding on the nervous system. Hint: If you played sports as a defensive lineman, powerlifter, shot putter or strongman competitor, you’re likely this strength profile.
- “Fast, Explosive Strength” – These folks also have a strong nervous system and can do the core lifts with HEAVY loads (90-95% of 1RM) but need methods that USE ACCELERATION or explosiveness. They can handle a little more volume (up to 6 methods) and do well with Olympic Lifts and supportive methods. For example, Olympic lifts with:
a) pulls from hang position, floor or blocks
b) deadlifts from clean/hang/deficit position and snatch grip
c) military and push presses
d) power shrugs
e) barbell rows
It’s the combination of skills practice with specific assistance work that is extremely effective at building muscle strength in the arms, traps, shoulders, upper/lower back, glutes and legs. Another thing that makes these folks different is they actually need to use the stretch reflex to move the weight. So, paused heavy lifting and heavy partials, lifting from pins don’t work well with them, and they’ll cheat and use momentum with isolation or hypertrophy work. Hint: If you were a sprinter, boxer, gymnast, basketball player or like CrossFit, you’re likely this strength profile.
- “Adaptable Strength” – This group is more muscle dominant but leverages the central nervous system to build overall work capacity. Hence, they benefit from a MIX of core, assistance and isolation methods. Everything works… big lifts, Olympic skills, plyometrics, isolation methods, with all kinds of equipment (aka weight machines, barbell, dumbbells, chains, bands, sled/prowler, weight releasers, kettlebells, etc.) and different rep schemes (aka ascending/descending, slow eccentric, explosive concentric, 1 ½ reps, super slow reps, paused lifting, etc.). Likewise these folks can handle a little more volume but not a lot of volume of 1 particular thing. Isolation work with 20+ sets of 50-100 accumulated reps for 1 muscle group, for example, does not work well for these folks. Hint: If you’re one of those who can do all sorts of activities: step classes, kick boxing, volleyball, tennis, skiing, weight lifting, etc., you’re probably this strength profile.
- “Sensation” Strength – In contrast to the earlier three, this type is more muscle dominant… meaning they actually need hypertrophy methods to feel the PUMP AND BURN in the muscles they are working. Not surprising, this group can handle much more volume (aka 30 sets of 10-20 reps), and they respond well to rep schemes that increase time under tension (aka pre/post fatigue sets, super sets, giant sets, rest/pause, mechanical drop sets, slow tempo, squeeze/isometric holds, constant tension work, etc.) Likewise, heavy lifting is very hard for them. If they are doing the basic lifts, they can do 1 exercise (about 80% of 1RM) once a week or every 2 workouts, but they don’t do well with explosive work (aka Olympic lifts, plyometrics, etc.) as those are very demanding from a CNS perspective. Also, these folks are most effected by fatigue so they need ample recovery days. They can train 5-6x a week, but only if they are training one muscle group at a time. Hint: Many bodybuilders are this strength type.
- “Precision” Strength – This last group is also muscle dominant, but their focus is less on building strength and muscle mass and more on the CONTROL AND PRECISION of movement. A better way to describe them is they are risk averse, seek to protect their structure and only do weightlifting because they think they have to. Hence, they can stick with the same program for a very long time…5 weeks or longer. They do best with a few exercises (3-4) and 12-15 rep ranges with slow tempo and squeeze/isometric holds. But they can do the core lifts and like pause lifting especially if it’s used to them get into the right position. The key thing is don’t add too much variation, don’t use heavy methods and don’t add rep schemes that make them feel the burn. They don’t need it. Steady, slow growth is the name of the game here. So, make sure they are very comfortable with a movement pattern before you add weight or add in one new method. Hint: Certain dancers, yoga and pilates practitioners are this strength profile.
Also, according to Coach Thibaudeau, these profiles have an affinity to motivation. For example, if you are engaging in a type of training that leaves you feeling under-developed, drained…even demotivated, you’re likely doing methods that are not aligned to your strength profile type.
To sum it up, purposeful change is good. But you need to learn how to vary the right things at the right time in your program to ensure you stay in the “muscle zone” while giving your body adequate time to adapt and grow (aka to progress). That means doing 3 things:
- Stay with the core lifts/basic movement patterns 1 each/every week)
- Strive to work out more frequently (5-6x/week)
- Vary assistance and isolation methods in line with your strength profile (new methods and/or strategies every 2-3 weeks)
That’s the key to using variation effectively. Hope you’re fired up to take your training to the next level. And as always, seek strength!