Adaptation, Not Exhaustion

By Molly Galbraith

"Just because a trainer can make you tired, doesn't mean they can make you better."

The above quote is one of my absolute favorites when it comes to helping a person distinguish between a trainer who knows what they're doing, and a trainer who doesn't.  You see, many "trainers" are in the business of exhausting their clients.  They put them through countless reps of zillions of exercises with no program, no plan, no purpose, and no progression.


Unfortunately, these trainers don't understand proper programming or execution of proper programming, and so they simply give their client what their client *think* that they need -- a butt kicking.

Now if your goal (or your client's goal) is to be worn-out, sore, and feel like they got crushed, then maybe that works. But in my experience, most clients want to look better, feel better, and feel stronger and healthier, and what you need for that is as follows:

  1. Good Nutrition
  2. Pure Strength Training
  3. Intelligent Energy Systems Work (i.e. Cardio)
  4. Quality Sleep
  5. Good Stress Management Skills

Obviously entire books could be and have been written about each of those subjects, but for the purpose of this article, we will be discussing the strength training piece of the puzzle. However, before we can talk about the purpose of strength training, we first must understand what it is.

adaptation-not-exhaustion-molly-goblet-squat-327x341In our Get Results programs, we discuss how strength training isn't necessarily just lifting heavy weights as many people presume. Strength training is any type of movement or exercise that imposes an increasing demand on your muscles and/or central nervous system, causing an adaptation.

So basically, you apply stress your muscles and/or your central nervous system, and then your body tears down muscle tissue and rebuilds it bigger and stronger than before, or it increases the efficiency of your neural pathways so you can recruit more muscle fibers more effectively in the future. Simply put, your body figures out how to make the task you just performed easier in case you have to perform it again in the future.

When many women think of strength training, they think it means that they have to walk in on Day 1 and bench press 135 pounds for 10 reps.

That's not the case at all.

adaptation-not-exhaustion-alli-crawl-450x338In the beginning, simply moving and manipulating your own body weight can cause a positive adaptation within your body in terms of getting stronger and adding muscle mass.  In fact, it's vitally important to master the basics of movement and manipulating your own body weight before you add external load (i.e. resistance).

As you can see, the entire purpose of strength training is to cause positive adaptations within your body to help you gain muscle mass, get stronger, increase your bone density, improve your body composition, improve your hormone levels, improve your posture, and much more.

And you want to know a secret?

You don't have to exhaust yourself to get this effect.

In fact, I would argue that exhausting yourself too much too often will hinder your progress toward the positive adaptations listed above.

Yes, your strength training program should be challenging.  Yes it should raise your heart rate.  Yes, it should raise your temperature and likely make you sweat.  But if the purpose of your strength training is Strength Training and not Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT), then you should be resting enough between sets of exercises to be able to perform each set with good form and challenging weight.

Think of it this way:  if you're supposed to perform three sets of 10 Push-Ups, and your max that you can perform at a time is 12, do you think you'll be able to do three sets of 10 reps with minimal rest in between?  Or even 15 or 30 seconds?  Likely not.

You'll probably gas out around rep 7 or 8 of your 2nd set if you only rest 15-30 seconds.  Of course, you could pair it with a lower body exercise like a Goblet Squat and that would allow for more rest for your upper body while your lower body is being trained, but if it's an upper body day, you should allow for plenty of rest between sets of exercises.

That's not to say there's not a time and a place for MRT, we love MRT, and you can see an example of exactly how we would include it in this FREE PDF.

However, many women get stuck in the trap of only doing Metabolic Resistance Training, and very little pure strength training. case you didn't know, pure strength training will actually make your MRT more effective. The stronger you are, the more weight you can use for more reps during your MRT workouts.  Pure strength rocks, didn't you know?

Ok, so back to our strength training discussion.  A lot of my female clients will perform the programs that I write for them and come back with comments such as:

"I like it, but I feel like I should be doing more." 

"What should I be doing during my rest periods?"  (hint: RESTING!)

"Are you sure this is enough?  I wasn't that tired at that end."

Luckily, I almost always convince them to trust me and sometime around 8-10 weeks later, their comments look like this:

"I cannot believe how effective this is.  I can see definition in my shoulders and my abs for the first time ever!" 

"I am so excited that my Front Squat has gone from 75 pounds for 10 reps to 100 pounds for 10 reps in three weeks (and with better form!)" 

"I have so much more energy.  It's so nice to actually want to spend time with my family and not just crash when I get home from the gym."

How? Why? What am I doing differently with their programs? Well to be fair, I often change their nutrition as well, but having them follow a pure strength training routine (often for the first time ever) is critical, in conjunction with the other puzzle pieces (i.e. nutrition, energy systems work, sleep, stress management).

So what does a pure strength training program** look like?  Ideally, a program would be completely individualized for a person after a full assessment, but since that's not realistic, I'll simply show you an example of what a solid full-body strength training workout for an intermediate lifter might look like:

**I should note that "pure strength training" for our purposes simply implies that the purpose of this program is to achieve the benefits listed above (strength, muscle gain, postural improvements, etc.) and not to maintain an elevated heart rate and elicit a "cardio" effect.

TIP: We always have our clients start with some Foam Rolling, Breathing Exercises, and a solid dynamic warm-up before they strength train.

1. Barbell Back Squat: 4 x 4-6 reps (rest 3 min)

2a. Single Leg Romanian Deadlift: 3-4 x 6-8 reps (rest 60-90 sec)

2b. One Arm Dumbbell Row: 3-4 x 6-8 reps (rest 60-90 sec)

3a. Split Squat: 3-4 x 8-10 reps (rest 60 sec)

3b. Push-Up: 3-4 x 8-10 reps (rest 60 sec)

4a. Band Assisted Leg Lowering: 3-4 x 8-10 reps (rest 30-60 sec)

4b. Heavy Suitcase Carry: 3-4 x 10-15 yards each side (rest 30-60 sec)

Program Notes

  • Exercises listed with just a number (i.e. 1) are performed alone.  Exercises with a number and letter are performed in a superset (i.e. Band Assisted Leg Lowering and Heavy Suitcase Carry) meaning you perform one set of the Band Assisted Leg Lowering, then move on to one set of the Heavy Suitcase Carry, then go back to the Leg Lowering until all sets are complete.
  • Follow the rest period recommendations listed, so you'd rest 3 minutes between sets of squats, and 60-90 seconds between sets of Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts and One Arm Dumbbell Rows.
  • Make sure you’re always challenging yourself weight-wise, but always leave 1-2 reps “in the hole” meaning you could have done 1-2 more reps with good form.

As you can see, this is a relatively simple program consisting of large compound movements that work all major muscle groups through several movement patterns (squat, hinge, pull, push, single leg, split stance, and resist extension and lateral flexion).  The rest periods between the exercises are sufficient to allow muscle groups to almost fully recover, while maximizing the amount of work done and minimizing time spent in the gym.

Yes, this can be a challenging workout (assuming you execute it properly and are strong enough to challenge yourself in these movements, and set and rep ranges).

Yes, you will benefit from performing this workout, and other workouts like it.

No, you will probably not be dragging yourself to your car after almost vomiting. And that's OK. Go into the gym, do enough work to elicit a response without annihilating yourself, go home, eat, sleep, recover, and live to train another day (and week, and month, and year).

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About the author:  Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and woman-in-charge at Girls Gone Strong, a global movement of 800,000+ folks passionate about women’s health, fitness, and empowerment. She’s also the creator of the The Girls Gone Strong Academy, home of the world’s top certifications for health and fitness pros who want to become a Certified Pre-& Postnatal Coach or a Certified Women’s Coaching Specialist.   The GGS Academy is revolutionizing women’s health and fitness by tackling critical (and often overlooked) topics like body image struggles, disordered eating, menopause, amenorrhea and menstrual cycle struggles, PCOS, endometriosis, osteoporosis, pre- and postnatal exercise, incontinence, diastasis recti, pelvic organ prolapse, postpartum recovery, and much more.   Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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