woman under barbell to bench press

There is a paradox in weight training:

As we start training, we see rapid and consistent progress despite not knowing what we are doing. 

Then, as we gain experience, learn how things work, and stop making so many mistakes, we no longer make good progress. Instead, results come to us slowly and often unpredictably.

So what gives? Why do beginners seem to make such quick progress, where everyone else struggles for each extra kilogram on the bench press?

Let’s review.

How Your Body Perceives Training Stress
Your body has one primary goal in mind: to keep you alive and healthy. It does everything it can to keep you out of harm’s way.

Beyond the apparent survival characteristics (fight or flight, reflexes, rational thought, and more), your body also carries out deeply nuanced physiological processes that promote homeostasis and resist change.

While you perceive training as beneficial and strive to be consistent, your body doesn’t see it that way. Training stress is potentially life-threatening for your most basic self, so your body has to develop defences that allow it to handle it better in the future.

Practically speaking, your body adapts to the training stress. If you lift heavy weights, you get stronger. If you run consistently, you become more endurant. If you sprint, you become faster and more explosive. In doing so, your body builds defences, allowing you to handle these stressors more easily in the future.

The Blessing of Newbie Gains
By definition, beginners are untrained and not used to training stress. As they start training, they cause a significant shock to their system, which puts the entire body on alert. So, the body scrambles to make substantial and sudden improvements to handle that type of stress. 

Practically, this means beginners get to enjoy newbie gains: building muscle, strength, and other characteristics in record time.

But as someone new trains for a while, his body adapts, and the previously disruptive training stress is no longer that significant. It still causes disruption, but at a much smaller scale, so the body responds proportionally by making much smaller improvements. This is essentially why beginners see rapid improvements even on a sub-optimal training program and why their progress eventually slows down. The body learns to adapt.

What Does It All Mean For Us?
Your training has to be disruptive regardless of your fitness level. If it isn’t, you won’t make progress.

Your body’s ability to adapt is what makes you stronger and more muscular. But if your body is perfectly capable of handling specific training stress, it has no reason to improve further, which makes you plateau.

In essence, your body fights for equilibrium, which means it wants to adapt fully. Regardless of how challenging your training program is now, it will eventually stop doing anything for you. For example, how can you ever hope to bench press sets of 5 with 120 kilos if you never do sets of 5 with more than 100 kilos?

So, keep two things in mind:

First, you must continually push yourself and manipulate the training variables to keep disruption high and progress ongoing. Second, you need to accept that progress slows down after the newbie phase, which is a normal bodily response, and there is little you can do to change it.

August 23, 2021 — Daniel Felstein

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