Stress and Performance: Finding A Balance

Minimal effective dose, do all that’s necessary not all that you can, less is more, these are all ways to describe the same thing.  The picture below is a performance curve that I borrowed from a DVD lecture series called “The Philosopher’s Toolkit: How To Be The Most Rational Person In Any Room”.  In the lecture the professor is discussing performance as it relates to emotional and physical stress.  And, since here we talk about training, how do these things affect performance in training or daily life?  As you can see from the curve, performance increases as stress does but only to a point before a decrease begins.  As we can see, some stress is good, whether it’s the emotional stress that might get you “fired up” or the stress that you are putting on your body physically.

Performance Curve

So we’ve got physical stress in the gym and both physical and emotional stress outisde of the gym.  Let’s start with in the gym first.  When is too much?  Hard to say.  At Ambition Athletics we try to consistently hammer home the The 80% Rule.  What feels like 80% effort one day may or may not feel like 80% the next so you’ve got to pay attention and listen to your body.  It’s called training smart really.  It can put a hurtin’ on your ego sometimes but suck it up.  In the book “Easy Strength” Olympic weightlifting competitor and coach Tommy Kono is quoted as saying, “There is a diminishing return for an excessive amount of work.  When your workload gets to the point of fatigue, all the previous good lifts performed beforehand will be erased by sloppily performed or imperfect lifts.”  This diminishing return is an easy concept to understand but not so easy to employ.

Recently some more advanced coaches and athletes have been using Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to help determine which days are better or worse to train hard on.  Some coaches with a keen eye and ton of experience can determine this simply by looking at the speed of the bar while an athlete is training.  For the average person without these two advantages, you’ve got to train intuitively.  Pay attention to how fast you are moving the weight and/or your body.  Some days adding more weight to the bar is simply going to be adding more stress and at some point a decrease in performance.  It’s possible that just taking a little longer than usual between sets will be the answer.  As usual there is no perfect solution.  I can tell you from experience that I have had some great training sessions on days that I thought I wouldn’t due to a lack of sleep, poor eating or the occasional adult beverage.  The key is I only pushed limits when performance kept increasing throughout the session.  Other days I have planned to train hard only to find that today just wasn’t going to be “the day”.  It’s not easy to do but just back off the gas pedal a little and live to fight another day.  Consistency and the ability to see the long term is more important.  I’m paraphrasing Coach Dave Dellanave when he said “Attempting to train beyond limits does speed up progress.  You’ll make greater gains faster but you’ll also up your chances of injury.  You’ll get better faster but it’s also more dangerous training outside of your limits.”


Now for stress outside of the gym.  Maybe because of a hectic schedule your training has been less but the emotional stress you are enduring is no less.  Some days your job is just killing you.  Other days it might be your spouse or three crazy kids under age 6 that have you questioning whether you want to continue to live.  The gym might be an escape on these days and that’s awesome but it’s important to be aware of the days that you aren’t “feeling it”.  You should probably just push through though right?  You workout calls for you to do a certain number of reps with a certain amount of weight or some crazy amount of conditioning.  If you don’t do at least as much as last time you’re a failure.  No pain, no gain.  Pain is weakness leaving the body.  Elite people don’t take a day off.  I’m sure you’ve heard it all before.  Well, not everyday is a winner.  Train accordingly.  Be aware of when your performance is slipping and don’t let it nosedive down the curve by adding more stress whether it’s more weight on the bar or too much intense conditioning.  In this case performance is not relegated only to the gym.  It may be at work, or other situations outside of actually performing a sport or lift.  Be honest with yourself.  On the days you really feel like getting after it, do so.  But on some days it might be wise to either back off the intensity of your conditioning or skip it entirely.  What!?!?!  Remember this whole thing is about making yourself better, not about punishment.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Pavel again from “Easy Strength”, “A colleague pointed out to me that people who always train all out live in a startle reflex – with their shoulders hunched up and forward and their necks turtled.  No wonder.  Their bodies do not ever get a chance see enjoy exercise and see it as nothing but a threat.  I will make a blanket statement: Those who always train all out have the worst exercise technique.  Fortunately, not for long.  As Jack Reape put it, “Show me somebody who goes hard all the time, and I will show you a career about to end.”

– Mike Baltren

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