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Playing with Strength
And the underrated role of rest
When many people think of strength training, they imagine a sleeveless dude grunting while doing bicep curls in the mirror. When I think of it, I see a grandparent lifting up their grandchild while they laugh and play together.
Strength training isn’t just about increasing our ability to lift things in the gym. It’s about sustaining our ability to live a long, meaningful, and active life.
Most people don’t need to deadlift 500 pounds or do 25 pull-ups. But everyone has an activity they love and want to continue throughout life. Strength training helps preserve our physical capacity to enjoy these special moments. It protects against muscle loss and frailty as we age.
Best of all, strength training is fun. The feeling of getting stronger is hard to imagine until you’ve experienced it. The surge of energy after lifting a weight you never thought was possible. The joyful shock of doing your first pull-up. The deep satisfaction of seeing months of small gains compound in your body.
Playing with Strength Training
Strength training can feel intimidating and complex. So let’s look at it through the lens of a single exercise: the push-up.
Imagine two friends. Adam is a beginner and Lillian is more advanced. Adam can do 3 push-ups, while Lillian can do 30.
The good news for Adam is it doesn’t take much to reach the edge of his capacity. In seconds, he’s hit a meaningful level of stress and adaption. Meanwhile, Lillian needs to slog through 25 push-ups to get to a similar place.
The challenge for a beginner is that it's a huge leap to add even a single rep. For Adam to go from 3 to 4 reps is an increase of 33%. While Lillian only needs a 3.3% improvement to go from 30 to 31 reps.
Looking at how these friends might approach building strength highlights how simple it can be and the underrated role of rest intervals.
Greasing the Groove
Since Adam can only do 3 push-ups in a single set, one approach is to focus on how many push-ups he can do throughout an entire day. By using long breaks between sets, he is able to do a high volume of reps and stimulate strength gains.
As Adam experiments with strategies to increase the daily volume, he may discover it’s more effective to do sets of 1 or 2 reps than 3. This is “Greasing the Groove”, where you do lots of sub-maximal sets in a day. By doing fewer reps per set, Adam is able to do more sets and total reps.
The game of greasing the groove is to find the balance of reps and rest that make each set feel effortless. This sweet spot enables you to maximize the reps and impact across the day.
Our more advanced friend, Lillian, could also play with Greasing the Groove. A good rep range for her would be 10-15 reps per set.
But that approach might take more time than she has. So let’s come up with a different one.
Intentional Rest Intervals
Instead, Lillian could focus on the total reps she can do over 3 sets with only two minutes of rest. It’s often surprising how much our reps decrease each set with short rest. As a baseline, she might go from 30 to 22 and then 15 for a total of 67.
The consistent rest interval creates three chances to progress. It’s often easier to increase the reps in the second and third sets than in the first. These increases represent gains and added stress on the body to further progress, a virtuous cycle. Before long, we start to see increases in all sets.
If Lillian hits a plateau, she could decrease the rest to make each subsequent set harder. Or, she could take a longer break between sets to increase the recovery and make it possible to do more reps. Tweaking the rest interval in either direction will mix up the way it challenges her body and help her continue to progress.
Within a month or two, Lillian would likely be able to knock out more than 100 reps over three sets.1 In this case, the short and controlled rest creates a hyper-efficient training environment.
Now I can’t leave our expert readers who love strength training without something to try. Jesse at Central Athlete shared a fun example in this week's newsletter:
Cluster training involves sets with built-in, intraset rest periods ranging from 10-30 seconds, which allows for more weight, reps and total volume lifted within a single set. For example, in the context of strength, instead of doing 4 sets of 6 repetitions, the athlete would perform 4 sets of 2.2.2 repetitions with 30 seconds of rest between each cluster.
This is more complex than most ever need to get. Yet, it’s built around the same principles.2 It creatively uses rest and rep ranges to tweak the amount of stress to encourage growth and progress. The small doses of rest inside the set give us just enough recovery to handle more weight and increase our strength.
The Essence of Strength Training
Strength training is working against a force (resistance) to create stress for the body to adapt to. By increasing this stress, we challenge the body and it responds by getting stronger.3
The key is to create a training environment where we can understand and adjust the variables that impact stress. The more you simplify the structure, the easier it is.
You can then bring awareness to how these changes feel in your body. You can notice how different variations challenge your muscles. You can develop an intuitive sense of the different ways to increase the stress on your body and build your strength.
Foundations of Intuitive Fitness
Last week, I announced the first cohort of Foundations of Intuitive Fitness and was blown away by the response. We already have an amazing group of people signed up and only a few spots left.
If you’re interested, you can check out the course and apply here. I plan to share a more detailed overview of the experience next week if it hasn’t already sold out. I’m intentionally keeping this first group small to ensure I can tailor it to everyone who joins.
To see what others are saying, check out the testimonials in the quote tweets of my announcement thread:
Thank you for reading. Please consider sharing this with a friend if you think they will be interested in Intuitive Fitness. I’d love to hear any reflections, ideas, or questions you have in the comments or by replying directly to this email. You can also reach me at email@example.com