It’s time to stop acting like an alcoholic. You don’t get to have PR’s (Personal Records) all the time just because you WANT them.
Your progress in the gym is not Linear.1 (It doesn’t go up in a straight line.)
- You won’t make a 5kg improvement on your snatch every week.
- You won’t make a 1kg improvement on your snatch every week.
- And you certainly can’t PR every day!
Real progress looks like a mountain range.
You have peaks and valleys. Some peaks are larger than others. Some valleys are lower than others.
PROGRESS is a PROCESS of ups and downs — even lefts and rights! Your improvement will come via long periods of hard work punctuated by short bursts of PR’s.
The 2D Mountain: The Sine of Progress vs the Line of Bullshit
I just drew this for you on the white board in my office.
I call it the Sine of Progress function — Your progress is the “squiggly line” going up and down — not the curved-line on the top of the squiggles (I’ll get to that one later).
However, as my analogy of the mountain range should have made clear, even this graph is way too simplistic.
Because the human body, like all biological systems, follows the laws of complexity. That is, we can understand it, but we can’t predict how things are going to happen (much like the weather). Moreover, there are endless feedback loops, recursion is rampant, and everything affects everything else.
Therefore, the goal of a graph like this isn’t to model reality in all its glory, but to break your brain of the bad analogy that is holding you back.
You have this HOPE that your progress will be a straight line — that you’ll PR every week until you are lifting the earth2.
Sorry. That’s bullshit. Your daily, weekly, monthly, yearly progress will never be a straight line.
You’ll have (at least) as many really bad days as you’ll have good days — I’ve represented the bad days as those points where the y-value is Zero (that is, you made NO progress that day), and the “good” days by the logarithmic curve on top.
Every other day will be in the middle, Waving up and down between those extremes.
The Sine of Progress Function: Mathy Goodness Time!
Instead of using this function:
… the very first function you ever learned (hopefully no later than Middle School3) to describe your progress, lets at least try something more fun.
We’re going to combine a logarithmic function — your best days — with the sine function that describes the “waving” up and down.
We’ll call the “Progress Function”.
I square both sides to get rid of any negative numbers. While you DO have negative progress in life — like injuries — adding those into this function would actually make my POINT less clear. I prefer to imagine your worst day being one where you didn’t even TRY to make progress, like a day off.
Going down is not the same as being negative!
The point is to understand that your progress WILL go up and down — and that it’s good, not bad.
Tapers Exist for a Reason (not to be confused with Tapirs…)
Real training means going through LONG periods where you might not “see” progress at all. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t doing the right thing!
Why do you think athletes need to “taper” for contests? Just for fun?
They need to let their bodies recuperate from the hard training in order to hit big lifts on contest day. Think about what that IMPLIES about whether they were hitting big lifts BEFORE the taper…
The Stress-Adaptation Cycle:
The most basic principle underlying every theory of “periodization” is the human body’s Stress-Adaptation Cycle.
- STEP ONE: stress the shit out of yourself (workouts, meditation, math training).
- STEP TWO through the 795,374: keep doing this! More work is good.
- STEP DONE: Taper down so that your body can recover and have a chance at the PR’s you so crave.
As I said, you’ll actually hit PR’s randomly, even in the middle of really hard training. But, you can’t RELY on that, nor can you EXPECT that.
The body is UNPREDICTABLE in the specifics, but UNDERSTANDABLE in general.
Again, it helps to imagine weather forecasting.
- You CAN predict that Winter will be colder than Summer, and usually you will be right… unless you live in Australia!
- What you CAN’T do, is tell me whether it will rain on February 9th, 2027.4
In the same way, you CAN predict that over the entire Stress-Adaptation Cycle — a PERIOD (this is where “periodization” gets its name) — that you will make progress. A good program will, on average, do exactly that for most people.
However, you can’t predict whether you’ll hit PR’s on some specific day in the middle of that period. Certainly not tomorrow!
A TAPER is a way for an athlete to Increase the Probability that they will hit a big lift on contest day.
It does NOT guarantee jack-shit!
A really good routine, acted on by a really serious athlete, makes it more LIKELY to work… but it’s still a probability game.5
In short: get over it. Doing so will make you stronger, inside and out.
Living in Utopia Dreamland is Making You Weak and Dumb
I consider the “Sine of Progress” model Less Wrong than the linear one and less accurate than the Mountain analogy.6
I use it, however, because I can literally draw it for you, which helps illuminate the KEY thing that will help you overcome your inner-bullshit: Progress comes in waves!
Accepting reality is the first step towards mastery of that reality.
In other words: You cannot solve a problem you refuse to believe exists.
If you keep living in a Utopia Dreamland about what progress is “supposed” to look like, then your training will reflect that naive belief — and it will cause you to avoid the VERY HARD training required to see the ultimate results you are after.
To reach the mountain’s peak, you must hike for miles through valleys, mud-soaked rivers, up those barren hills, down into the caverns of darkness, and sideways through caves, slowly making your way towards the light. You must fight the ghosts, goblins, and chupacabra that haunt the corridors of your mind. And once you’ve reached the top, you must work your way back down so that you can climb another.
That’s REAL progress.
Now go lift something heavy,
PS. I’ll be going into more detail and specifics of how this actually works in practice — and other programming principles — in every issue of Nemesis: The Journal of Rational Action. Check it out if you like Learning, Science, and Results.
- There are very few linear systems in nature. Your body isn’t one of them. ↩
- Ignoring, of course, that lifting the earth would put you in space, in zero-gravity, where the concept of “lifting” takes on a different meaning, LOL. ↩
- I fear that today’s kids aren’t learning much math at all. See My Rant on Math Education. ↩
- That will be my birthday. I’ll be 49. So if you DO know what the weather will be like, I’d like to start planning now for what I’m going to do that day. ↩
- If all of that sounds counter-intuitive, welcome to lifting and life! Real life done right is USUALLY counter-intuitive. That goes for the technique of riding a bike, learning to play piano, doing science, math, and certainly for physical programming and progress in the gym. ↩
- To go further, we’d need to dip into dynamical systems, concepts like feedback loops, and even some topology to put together a 3D graph that was able to represent how your body is changing over time based on the stimulus you are giving it — and how that change affects the choices you make, which in turn affect the process, etc. Our programming philosophy, Nemesis, is based on these very principles. ↩