The Laws of Fitness: The Law of Diminished Returns

Improving performance is a process.  It doesn’t happen over night and it doesn’t come without a lot of work. In fact,  one thing that becomes apparent as we progress as athletes: The better we get, the harder we have to work to get better.

Everyone starts their path of training at different times, with different levels of experience and for a multitude of different reasons. There is commonality in the things that happen to us when we all start, regardless of whether we are trying to run faster, go longer, lift heavier and more. quads

We get started on a new program, we start training and for the first week or so, we are sore. Our body is trying to get used to the “abuse” that we call training.  Soon after that we quickly see increases in strength and speed.  We start to see progress and it seems like all we have to do is more and the results will keep coming. The day eventually comes when the progress starts to slow down.  We have to do twice as much to get half the results.

Depending on our level of experience, the first 1-3 weeks of a new program is all about Inter-Muscular Coordination. This means that we our Central Nervous System is learning which muscles to use and when. We may be able to start moving more weight but it has nothing to do with strength. Imagine that you and friends were going to push a car. This phase would be like trying to pick which friends and how many you need to push.  The car is obviously going to be able to move faster, based off the fact that you have learned to recruit more to your cause.

The Next 1-3 weeks, is about Intra-Muscular Coordination. Now that our body knows which muscles to use, we now have to get all the muscles to work together.  This involves developing timing and balance. Not just getting one muscle to work at the right time, but being able to properly utilize a whole muscle group or groups.  Back to our car pushing analogy, this would mean getting everyone in our group to heave and push together and at the same time.

These first two phases are often considered the Novice phase. This has nothing to do with your level of experience or athletic background. This is solely based on how your body is responding to the stimulus. In these phases, it seems like everything that you do is making you stronger or faster and that all you have to do is keeping doing more. dyel

After so many week we finally hit the prized phase of Hypertrophy. This is the point where I body realizes that it has turned on the right muscles and that they are working together, but they need more. Your body then turned to increases muscle size and density in an effort to increase contractile force of the muscle.  In order for this phase to continue, we must continue to provide stimulus that our body will respond to. In addition to this we must also be able to provide the correct nutrition for our body to be able to grow and develop our muscles.

The unfortunate part is that most people do not always make it to this point.  They assume that because their progress has slowed down that the program is no longer working. This could not be further from the truth. Reaching this phase is where your body actually begins making changes. Far too many people will start a program and only do it for 6-8 weeks and then stop because their growth slowed, and then start something else. They then wonder why it seems that they never get any stronger.  People will consider this an insurmountable plateau and move on to a new program. In fact, once you reach the hypertrophy phase there will be several plateau’s that one will work through. gain-muscle-protein-meme-284x300

In contrast to this, muscles take a lot of protein and nutrients to be maintained and develop.  This is why if we take too much time away from training our muscles begin to atrophy.  Muscle mass that is very nutritionally expensive to build, and if it isn’t being used our body begins breaking it down so that the body will not need so many resources.

The worst part is that you can’t always just do more for the sake of doing more. There is only so much time in the day and so much volume that our bodies can endure without reaching the point of exhaustion and potentially causing injury.

There is no escaping it. The harder you work, the harder you will have to work. This is what will separate the novice athletes who are perpetually jumping from program to program, and the committed who work day in and day out.

One comment

  1. Robin Thomas · June 20, 2016

    Great post. I can relate to what you’ve described from both my running experience and, more recently, my Crossfit experience. I love the line ‘the better we get, the harder we have to work to get better.’


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