Staying behind the curve of adaptation
Getting better is rarely a linear process, and handling your training more intelligently can produce better results with less risks.
Today we’re going to take you on a brief journey through how you should structure your training. This is a simple principle of training planning that applies to everyone from the total beginner to the elite athlete.
Stick around and you’ll gain some perspective on how to progress better, more often, and more consistently.
The Curve of Adaptation: Making Sense of It
The curve – or wave – of adaptation is the trajectory of your progress over time. It’s something we can visualise and it makes the whole process easier – which is why we spent over 10,000 hours in Microsoft paint to show you:
This is a rough, but pretty accurate, idea of how you’re going to progress. There are sometimes plateaus and jumps that happen – based on how you train, as well as your lifestyle outside of the gym. Overall, however, you’ll probably be developing along this slowly-shallowing line of progress.
This is the classic progression where you’re going to be out there, working hard, seeing slowly diminishing returns. That’s fine, because you’re still there getting the work in, you’re getting some results, and if you’re building better habits then it’ll keep going for a long time.
So, with all these fancy images, what’s the problem?
The Dangers of Getting Ahead of the Curve
Getting ahead of the curve sounds like it was a cool saying in the 1920s, but in training it’s usually one of the main ways to get yourself hurt or plateau.
What I see all the time is newer trainees getting themselves caught up in their own progress. They’re rushing to get ahead of themselves because of the urgent need to chase the next number or progress linearly forever. We’ve all been there, but it’s a fairyland.
In strength training/sports, this attitude can get you worn down and broken pretty fast. The adaptation of muscles may be quite fast, but the adaptation of connective tissues is slow and may lag behind, causing injuries as load increases too quickly.
In muscle gains, you’re in for a nice plateau if you’re pushing yourself beyond what you can do. Injury is less of an issue when you’re doing 20-rep sets of curls, but it’s still going to suck when you stall on progress.
We’re not saying not to push yourself, but that you can push yourself in better ways than slapping on more plates and praying to the lifting gods that you make it. Often, when you’re trying to push the pace and get ahead of the curve, you don’t actually get better – you just trade technique for kilos.
So, now we’re done being sceptical and you’re probably telling us to sack up and push it to the limit, let’s look at what you can do to make the most consistent and sustainable gains…
Staying behind the curve
When you stay behind the curve, you’re not sitting around doing triples at 60% of your max. That’s too light – and we’re not trying to convince you to only lift light weights (baby).
You see, contrary to what OG Bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman said, everybody does want to lift heavy-ass weight. You know what they don’t want to do? Increase their working volume consistently over time and not push their lifts to the max as soon as they notice gains!
Training Smarter by Staying Behind Your Capabilities
The basic idea of staying behind the curve is a simple one: you stay a few kilos behind your absolute maxes. If you gain 5kg of extra squat strength, lift 2.5kg more on your next set, rather than the whole 5.
It’s easy to get into the habit of doing as much as you can all the time, but this misses out on what got you there. Building maximal strength/size is a different thing to demonstrating your strength, and training at/above the curve of your progress demonstrates strength with more risks and less rewards.
The things that gained you strength are the things that you should continue doing as you improve.
RPE is Key for Staying Behind the Curve
This is why things like RPE are great: what’s the difference between adding 10kg to your RPE9 5-rep squat and adding 10kg to your RPE10?
The answer is nothing. There’s value to going heavy, but the vast majority of your work shouldn’t risk you failing reps or bailing lifts. Obviously it’s possible, but if you’re missing all the time, your recovery (and thus progress) is going to be compromised and your ego is going to get bruised.
The RPE system exists specifically so you can measure what weight feels a certain way. If you’re training to build strength and size then lots of quality work is the key. If you see progress in the weights you can achieve at a specific RPE, you know you’ve gained strength.
There’s so much variability in training that pinning your hopes to a true max can really be difficult to track and understand. Adding work and consolidating your ability to perform weights that are/used to be heavy is usually the better alternative for psychological and physiological reasons.
The focuses should be two simple, effective methods of progressing:
- Increasing the weight you can lift at a given RPE (e.g. going from 160kg to 170kg while remaining at RPE 8)
- Increasing your overall work volume with a weight that is/was challenging (e.g. adding reps/sets using your old 5RM)
Keeping some in the tank allows you to maintain consistent progress over time. When you have a competition or want to test, then you can push real maxes. Training at max all the time is just unsustainable and injurious.
If you’re committed to results, you need to be committed to patience and good hard work. As Powerlifting OG Ed Coan once said;
Leave the heavy ones in the tank – they don’t mean anything in the gym. Unless you’re an ego-lifter, of course. Challenge yourself when it matters, rather than banging your head against the wall every day.
Work hard, stay at the upper 10% of what you can do (on heavier days) and put thought into your training. It’s not about showing off your strength, it’s about building more. This approach will ultimately leave you with more to show – in competition, for example – and better progress.
There’s no value to big gym lifts if you’re not gaining the ability to do them when it counts, or to reproduce them over time. Put the time into these basics: build volume with good quality reps and focus on bringing up your heavy-but-not-maximal work!
If you really want progress rather than short-term gratification, stay behind the curve of adaptation!