Fatigue is a general term. Are you tired from a lack of sleep? Did you just run 3 miles? Watch a 3-year-old from sun up to sun down? Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are extremely “fatiguing”, but for the sake and purpose of this article, I am going to write in terms of “muscular fatigue,” which is the state your skeletal muscular system is in when it can no longer produce enough force to overcome the imposed demand. In layman’s terms…when you can’t get “one more rep!”
From years of experience, working with thousands of clients, I can deduce one thing: training needs to be stimulating in order to produce a change. This is the entire concept of “progressive overload”, which is a scientific principle that emphasizes the gradual demand on the skeletal muscular system. This can come from a combination of volume, mechanical tension (load), and intensity (in terms of how close to muscular fatigue one brings a set). These factors are intimately interconnected, and 2 of them come with significant limitations.
When it comes to mechanical tension, or “load”, unless you are Oleksii Novikov (2020 World’s Strongest Man Winner), you can only go “so heavy” on a set. There is a point where, no matter how hard you try, you will be limited by your genetic capability to produce force in a given moment. Bone structure, neurological efficiency, age, and injury history are all limiting factors here, so while one should always strive to improve performance in terms of “how much” he/she is lifting, there will come a point in time when it is extremely difficult to make marked progress in this department.
“Load” is often the sole component of progressive overload that individuals focus on, and hey, guilty as charged! It is FUN to add more weight to an exercise, and empowering to feel the improvement associated with that increase. But it can come at a price. Lift too much, too soon? If you are lucky, you won’t get injured, but aside from that a compromise in form often ensues, which takes tension OFF of the targeted muscle…exactly what we don’t want. Good for the ego? Perhaps for a fleeting moment, but as a 40-year-old dude who has done this for a long time, I can assure you that the lack of progress, and the joint pain that comes with it, will quickly knock that ego right down.
“Volume” implies the total load lifted during the session. Load x Reps x Sets. An increase in volume is often a more pliable tool to use than load, for obvious reasons. Think about it, if you did 8 perfect bodyweight pushups (but barely get the 8th) in your last training session, what would happen if in your next session I had you perform them with a 100-pound plate on your back? Odds are you will be stapled to the ground faster than Sam Darnold on any given Sunday. However, what if I had you rest for :90? I am certain you would be able to do 5 or 6 more. You have now increased your VOLUME during the session, and induced a new stimulus.
This “eureka” moment often causes trainees to want to do more, and more, and more, but unfortunately, the human body doesn’t work that way. Increasing volume is only as effective as your ability to recover from it, and unless it is done very slowly, and methodically, your joints will most likely feel the increase more than your muscles will.
Ok, so if increasing mechanical tension has its limitations, and increasing volume is only possible for so long…what on earth is the average person to do in order to keep seeing progress? I have the answer, my friends…increase intensity. Before you get too excited, intensity needs to be handled with extreme caution and care, as with anything potent in nature, its power can be misused, abused, and have negative consequences as well.
At Metabolic, we instruct our coaches to manage intensity through a concept called “Reps In The Tank”, or RIT. When a set ends, if I was to give you $1 Million, would you be able to do another rep with strict form? No? Well, then you have “0” reps in the tank. Let’s look at several situations, where different RIT levels are appropriate. Upon review, this will help so many coaches and trainees alike have better experiences in the gym, which is the ultimate goal.
-Individuals with a good base of strength, but lacking the cardiovascular conditioning to perform another set of exercises within :30. One typically sees this with strong men who are used to performing regular “strength training”, but are new to Metabolic Training (MT). Keeping this client here will allow them to build their endurance, and allow their “conditioning” to catch up to their “strength”. When this happens, they will be able to train with much lower levels of RIT, with limited rest between sets, and maximize the effectiveness of MT.
-Individuals over the age of 70, or those with underlying health conditions. By keeping this many “RIT”, the client will be able to manage heart rate much more effectively and have a safer experience.
-Individuals who are “detrained” and have not seen the gym in years. By keeping them with ample reps in the tank, these individuals can keep their focus on form, improving general fitness levels, and leave the gym feeling empowered, not defeated.
-” Ramping” sets in a circuit-style training session. One will typically see this in strong men and women who have excellent fitness levels. During a typical MT session, they may need 1-2 “ramping” sets to work their way up to a load that will serve as their “working” set for the day. In this instance, we want to stay far away from fatigue.
-Those with an injury history in a certain joint or muscle, and are rehabilitating that area.
-Beginner/Intermediate trainees performing repetitions in the early stages of a “Tabata” style “knockout” workout, where a repeated effort is given with little rest between sets.
-Intermediate level trainees who have spent some time building up their fitness level, and are ready for a new challenge.
-Individuals over the age of 65, who have a good fitness level. It is important to be extremely conscious of form to protect joints, prevent excess muscular trauma, monitor heart rate, and allow for adequate recovery.
-The set before a “working” set for advanced trainees.
-Advanced trainees performing repetitions in the early stages of a “Tabata” style “knockout” workout, where a repeated effort is given with little rest between sets.
-This is the sweet spot for most intermediate and advanced trainees on all working sets.
-Promotes a nice balance of “safety”, intensity, and ability to recover for the next session
-Priority of large compound movements like OHP, Front Squat that have dangerous “endings”
-Ideal for Bodyweight/Band movements with advanced trainees
-Safety must always be a factor
-Loaded Movements that have “safer” endings like Bicep Curls, Lateral Raises
-Should be used sparingly for recoverability purposes
-Most trainees will not hit this point, as this is an extreme level of intensity
As a trainee, it is nice to know “why” your fatigue is being managed a certain way, and as a coach, it is important to understand how to navigate each unique situation that your clients present. I hope that this knowledge gives you power, and through that power, come years of safe, effective training that you enjoy!