Achieve Balance!

By: Jeremy Likness

Finding a balance between training, hobbies, and career is not as complicated as it might seem. Individuals train for different reasons and with different goals. Some people are interested in optimal health. Some people train for competitions, such as bodybuilding shows or marathon races. Careers can impact training, as one person may sit in a cubicle in front of a computer screen all day, whereas another person might make their living landscaping. All of these factors should influence the nutrition and training you choose, with the ultimate goal of creating a balance.

The Factors To Consider…

The first factor to consider when balancing your training is recovery. Recovery from training actually takes place at two levels: physiological and neurological. Both systems are taxed, and while there are physical processes that contribute to recovery, the central nervous system must recover as well. Strength coach Ian King recommends that one never resistance train more than two consecutive days in a row, because even if the muscle groups worked are different, both workouts will stress the central nervous system.

Physiological recovery involves replenishment of nutrients in the muscle cell and repair. Nutrients include glycogen, the fuel for the cell, and regeneration of ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, the actual “engine” of the cell that produces contractions. Cell tissue that is damaged must be repaired. Hormones are released as a response to training and perform various functions.

The central nervous recovers in other ways. The “pattern” of the exercise is imprinted and the body learns to become more efficient at that movement. This is why it is recommended to change the mode of training after several workouts, because the body becomes so efficient that it stops responding. Certain complexes in the body, such as the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), have parameters that are designed to protect the muscle from injury. The nervous system also becomes more efficient at firing groups of motor units (the building blocks of muscle cells), which translates to a strength increase because the muscle is able to generate more force output – this is known as recruitment.

These factors contribute to the fact that one of the most popular methods of training is to alternate resistance training sessions with cardio sessions. If a training session is too long, levels of a stress hormone called cortisol can become elevated and short-circuit recovery. By balancing cardio and training, sessions can remain short, yet intense. Several days pass between working a particular muscle group, allowing for physiological recovery, while the cardio day allows for the central nervous system to recover from the prior resistance training session.

This is not to say that other popular methods, such as 3-on and 1-off, whereby resistance training is performed three consecutive days in a row and then skipped for one day, are not effective. Every individual has a different capacity to respond to training and recover, so it is important to try various methods and determine which works the best for you. For example, in bodybuilding circles, sometimes it is popular to train the muscle twice or more in a week. Often, one workout is high intensity (expressed as percentage of 1-rep maximum load) and the second workout is lower volume and/or intensity to further stimulate the muscle while still allowing sufficient recovery.

Another factor to consider when balancing training is workload. Workload can be characterized in many ways. You can consider the volume of the workload, or how many repetitions of work are performed. You can also consider the intensity of the workload – in other words, how heavy the weight moved is (“load”). Intensity is also affected by time under tension, or the amount of time that a particular muscle group is required to contract. A 4 second repetition will place the muscle under tension longer than a 2 second repetition.

A short, heavy workout would be considered high intensity and low volume. A marathon run would be considered low intensity but high volume. Intensity in this situation refers to the weight lifted – not the perceived effort. Obviously, a marathon is going to require a very intense effort, but each stride is low intensity!

Training should take these factors into consideration. If you are training for a marathon, then a 3-day resistance training and 3-day cardio regimen is probably not optimal – you will more than likely perform cardio up to 5 or 6 days per week. In this situation, you must recognize that you are performing low intensity but high volume work with your lower body and core. In order to balance your resistance training, you would want to stimulate your lower body muscles with less volume but higher intensity work.

Workout Examples

A common leg routine involves 3 sets of 12 reps of squats, 3 sets of 12 reps of lunges, 2 sets of leg extensions and 2 sets of leg curls (not including calf work). This is just an arbitrary example. A marathon runner would require something outside of the mainstream leg routine. Instead of performing 5 sets each for quadriceps and hamstrings, the volume would probably be reduced to 1 or 2 sets. Instead of performing 12 or higher reps, the reps would be reduced to allow a heavier weight to increase intensity.

An example might be to train 4 – 5 days of cardio, then perform 1 leg workout and 1 or 2 upper body workouts per week. The leg workout might involve 2 sets of very heavy squats at 6 – 8 repetitions, and 2 sets of very heavy stiff-legged dead lifts at 6 – 8 repetitions. This workout is intense enough to stimulate both strength (neural) and muscle (physiological or hypertrophy) changes, but also works with the cardiovascular training to avoid over-training – volume with legs is achieved through cardio rather than resistance training. Note that compound, multi-joint movements are used to provide as much stimulation and involve as many muscles as possible in the abbreviated workout.

Similar cases can be made based on career. In one example, a person who types at a computer all day should probably have wrist flexibility addressed to accommodate the high volume – possibly performing wrist stretches several times a day. Their training would also involve a moderate volume of resistance training and cardio to offset the low level of activity during the day, and core strengthening exercises with particular emphasis on posture.

As another example, someone who does roofing for a living subjects their upper body and lower back to a high volume of workload. Their upper body routine would probably contain fewer sets and reps, again with a focus on higher intensity to balance the lower intensity of roofing work (I stress that by intensity, I am referring to weight – not perceived effort – roofing is definitely intense work!) They would also have a higher volume of lower back stretching to accommodate the constant stress that it experiences when bending over to collect shingles or set tile.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider that all contribute towards a balanced routine. If you are interested in general fitness, you should consider periodizing your training to involve high volume, moderate volume, and low volume periods, with similar adjustments to intensity and other parameters over time. Individuals with a specific career or a competition goal should have their training focused with consideration of workload outside of the gym. If you have heavy volume outside of the gym, focus on low volume inside the gym. If you experience lower intensity workloads outside of the gym, focus on higher intensity workloads inside the gym. Don’t neglect flexibility – resistance training, cardiovascular fitness, and flexibility all contribute to a fit lifestyle.

With respect to nutrition, understand that protein is necessary for structure and carbohydrate is the body’s preferred source of fuel. Individuals who expose their muscles to excess trauma – such as marathon runners and furniture movers – should increase protein intake to provide the materials necessary for the body to preserve and rebuild muscle mass. Individuals involved with a high volume of activity – roofers, marathon runners, triathletes, landscapers, etc. – should increase carbohydrate intake in order to fuel those activities.

Finally, do not neglect supplements. Understand that supplements do not create a successful program – they are simply tools that can enhance it. Certain supplements such as glutamine and anti-oxidants may improve recovery potential and allow for more intense training or higher volumes of workload. When the goal is mass, supplements like creatine can help enhance the results of a well-planned training session. Studies of ZMA report improved strength, and many athletes report improved sleep and therefore recovery. Multi-vitamins can fill any gaps left when whole foods nutrition fall short of the mark, and protein powders can increase protein intake to levels beyond what may be practical or convenient with whole foods.

Learn your body. Understand what it goes through each day, and learn the signals that it provides, such as fatigue, soreness, and hunger. Build your nutrition and training around your lifestyle. Through understanding the body, you can help create the balance that you are looking for – and it does not have to be a complicated process!

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