Back in February, with the onset of spring at the forefront of my brain, I decided to try my hand at one of the most popular training programs ever designed — the Ed Coan Deadlift Routine. The plan was to spend the final weeks of winter bulking up before the annual springtime cut; and as every gym rat knows, few exercises have the potential to add slabs of muscle like the deadlift.
Before starting this 10-week program, you need to know your true single rep max (we’re talking solid form here — neutral spine during the lift and a full lockout at the top) and have a realistic end goal. Once you have these numbers, you enter them into a spreadsheet and your weekly training loads are automatically calculated. My deadlift max is 310 lbs, but heeding the advice of the great Mike Mahler & Sincere Hogan, I went with 305 lbs to ensure I wouldn’t burn out too soon. However, in a stunning display of cognitive dissonance, I chose the (overly) ambitious end goal of 335 lbs. This decision would come back to haunt me further on down the road.
Fly to the Sun/Fall to the Sea
The first six weeks of the program went well. Deadlifts are my favourite of the Big Three Lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift), so, despite the fairly gruelling nature of the workouts, my enthusiasm and mental focus was high throughout. Progress was steady. I entered the second phase of the program confident that I’d hit my goal, until sometime in the middle of March when I slammed into the proverbial wall with a force akin to a twentysomething Gym Bro jacked-up on N.O.-Xplode. Weights I could once easily lift for 3 reps were now a slow grind. My kung fu grip was giving out during each set. I caught a nasty cold that I couldn’t shake. My enthusiasm and focus began to wane. All was not well.
Easter came early in 2016; I decided to use the holiday as an excuse to take a break from the gym. Turns out time off was just what I needed. By the end of the long weekend, my cold was nearly gone and my energy levels were back to normal. Yes, the Ed Coan Deadlift Routine had claimed another foolish victim, but I would not be deterred. I resigned myself to learn from my mistakes.
Looking back, it’s easy to see where it all went wrong. First of all, aiming for a 30 pound increase on a lift that’s already at twice my bodyweight in 10 weeks was a hubristic goal worthy of Icarus himself. Add to that a hectic personal training schedule that allowed for, at best, 5 hours of sleep most nights, and the day-to-day stresses that come along with being a 36-year-old adult with three jobs and a life outside the gym, and it’s no wonder my waxy wings melted so early into the program.
One of the most important (if not the most important) concepts of physical training — and the one concept most young trainees have the hardest time grasping — is that you don’t improve while training in the gym; you improve while resting after training in the gym. It’s on your days off that your body repairs the damage done during training, and it’s this repair that, over time, builds stronger muscles. In order to optimize recovery, your body needs adequate sleep, minimal stress, and lots of high-quality food. Mess with this formula and you run the risk of falling into the overtraining trap.
Overtraining can lead to all sorts of side effects, from the mild to the extreme. The early stages are marked mostly by a slight alteration of neural function (i.e., your brain don’t work quite so good no more) and motor unit recruitment (i.e., you can’t lift as much or as well). The late stages are where things get ugly — chronic fatigue, depression, increased illnesses, and a beat up central nervous system are all symptoms of the severely overtrained athlete.
Over-trained or Under-recovered?
Pay close attention to the last word in the above paragraph. I used “athlete” intentionally, as the vast majority of People Who Lift (a demographic referred to in the industry as the “general population”) will never train so hard or so often as to fall into the later, scarier stages of overtraining. For us regular folk, the worst we usually have to deal with is a compromised immune system and a few missed lifts. The key is to know your body and pay close attention to the red flags. If your performance starts to suffer, take a day off. Things can fall apart quickly if you push too hard. This is especially true if you’re new to training and/or lead a high-stress lifestyle.
The Role of the Personal Trainer
Intelligent trainers discover how their clients behave outside the gym and learn to manage their training stress accordingly so that they live to lift another day. Terrible trainers do the opposite; they take no interest in their clients’ lives and they ignore the obvious warnings in favour of grinding their clients into mulch.
All it takes is a little bit of effort on the part of the trainer at the start of each session. Begin with a quick visual assessment and follow with some simple questions:
- How did you sleep last night?
- How’s work/school going?
- What did you get up to over the weekend?
- What have you eaten today?
Each one of these questions can reveal a wealth of information regarding their training readiness. For example, if they pulled an all-nighter studying for their third straight exam, or if they spent the weekend celebrating their hockey team’s first-place finish in a gruelling tournament, we won’t be working on maximum lift squats today. Instead, we’ll focus on single-leg bodyweight movements and light dumbbell modifications. Or maybe we’ll work on mobility drills and light aerobic-based circuits. There’s always a Plan B. And a Plan C.
That’s how professional trainers work.