Bill Starr on Adaptability
How to adapt your training to the stress of your environment when you feel over-trained.
By Bill Starr
Editor’s note: If you’re a long-time reader of MuscleMag, you’ll remember Bill Starr’s no-nonsense strength- and muscle-building advice from some of our early issues. A legend in strength circles, Starr was strength coach to the Baltimore Colts when they won the Superbowl in 1970, and he later held the same position at several US universities including Johns Hopkins. He’s also a US Olympic weightlifting champion, and he holds numerous national records in powerlifting and Olympic lifting. This is one of his classic articles from the MuscleMag vault.
I was in the process of packing my gym bag to leave, thankful for a better than average workout and looking forward to getting home in time to watch The Wonder Years. But before I finished my packing, two of my trainees came into the gym and stood in front of me, both wearing forlorn expressions. “Got a minute?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy joined in. “I need to ask you some things too.”
I am quite successful at slipping out of such situations, especially when questions come from someone I’ve trained. Josh was a college student who started on my program while he was still in high school, and Jimmy, a construction worker, had been following my power program for the past two years.
I sighed, sat down on the leg extension machine, pointed toward Josh and said, “You first.”
Eagerly, he began, “My lifts have dropped something terrible in the last few weeks. I was holding my squat at 400 for five and now I’m busting my get to get three reps with 365. And I’ve had at least three colds in the last two months. “I feel puny,” he said.
“You look puny,” I told him. His color was that of chalk and it appeared that he had lost 20 pounds.
“And what about you?” I asked Jimmy.
“Kinda the same thing. I get in one good workout a week, usually on Mondays; then the bottom falls out for the rest of the week. All my top-end lifts are down and I’m tired all the time.”
While he spoke, I studied him. Unlike Josh, he didn’t look the worse for wear, but I knew from his grim expression that his problem was equally serious.
Figuring this session might take some time, I excused myself, went to the water fountain and took my minerals, then returned to the expectant pair.
“Obviously, something’s changed lately. What’s been going on with you two, Josh?”
“Actually, I know why I’m shot. I carried a heavy load this semester and finals just ended. And I took an evening job at the lab. I haven’t been eating right or getting enough sleep. I know why I’m beat, but what I need to know is how I should train when I run into these situations.”
“I’ll get to that. What about your situation, Jimmy?”
He glanced over at Josh, nodded, then said, “Same sort of thing. I’ve been pulling lots of overtime. We need the money. Ginny quit work and then the baby came along, and we’re trying to buy a house.”
“Okay,” I interrupted. “It seems you two are really in the same boat.”
“So what should we do about our training?” Josh asked.
“Basically, you need to do some adapting. There are a few nutritional things that I’ll hit on later. Now, you’ve been trying to hit that same four-day-a-week power program I gave you, right?”
Josh and Jimmy nodded in agreement.
“In a nutshell, that’s your problem. When situations change, you have to be flexible enough with your training program to adjust it so that you don’t fall into the trap of serious overtraining and chronic fatigue.”
“But you’re the one who preaches about consistency and never missing a workout,” Josh said. “And not letting the top-end lifts slip back.”
“That’s very true, but stick with me and I’ll try to explain what I’m talking about. I still believe in fighting the top-end numbers and I still believe in consistency of training, but what I’m saying to you now is that you have to be flexible or you’re defeating the purpose of strength training and bodybuilding. Getting sick or injured should not be one of your goals.”
Seeing I had their full attention, I continued, “There are lots of situations that can alter your lifestyle and therefore your training — social changes, such as marriage, divorce, dating a new flame, or having a baby in the house. Climate is another, especially extreme hot and cold. A new job, more work on the old one, and other stresses all influence physical training.”
“Let’s consider Josh’s situation first. How many hours did you put into your finals studies and into your new lab job?”
“Two or three — no, it was more like four or five in the library, and I work nine hours a week in the lab.”
“Which adds up to almost two full work days over and above what you usually did. That’s a great deal of mental stress, and mental stress is the most draining. Now, Jimmy, your problem is rather easy to figure out. The added responsibility of the new rug rat, the new house, extra physical work, lack of rest because the baby is crying at night — your stresses are mostly emotional and physical, but they also drain the body of energy.”
“Well I can’t stop working, if that’s what you’re suggesting,” Jimmy said.
“I understand that, and Josh can’t stop trying to get good grades either. The next time exams roll around, he’ll be at the library again. What you both have to do is to make some adjustments in your training. For example, on your program, you’re doing three heavy sets of fives in the squat on Mondays. If you’re overly tired when you come into the gym, work up and only do one heavy set; then back down and do a couple of high-rep sets with a comfortable weight. In this way you’ll be able to maintain your workload and not become discouraged. Limit yourself to just one heavy day a week, keeping others moderate to light. You might try spreading your four days of work over six days.”
“That sounds as if it would be more tiring.”
“It’s not, really. Instead of being in the gym for two hours or an hour and a half, cut down on the work and time so you’re in there for only an hour. This is energy saving in itself. Come back the next day and do a short 30-minute session, which should in fact be invigorating. Become more intuitive in your workouts. If you find yourself having a very good day, with some juice to spare, that’s the day to work the heavy lifts and perhaps throw in some extra work. Conversely, should you feel like dog do-do, drop a set or two, avoid the heavy lifts and concentrate on higher reps. On your droopy days, cut out the beach work and put all your energy into your primary movements. Learn to work fast on those days; don’t hang around and visit. Get in, do your work and get out of the gym.”
“But don’t you think it’s a good idea to just skip a workout when we have a cold or we’re extra tired?” Josh asked.
“Say with me on this, because it may sound contradictory. I’ve found that there are two types of individuals in regards to consistency of training. I call the one the hardy type and the other the Texan type. The hardy type is the compulsive trainee and it’s almost a sin for him to miss a training session. For this type of individual, it’s better for him to get into the gym — sick, tired, injured, whatever — and do something. His entire attitude will improve if he can just do something, maybe only calf raises, chins, dips or some sit-ups. This type believes that once he allows himself to skip a workout, he’s opened the door to further excuses: not enough sleep, a cold, a sprained ankle, have to mow the lawn, help my brother move, finish a term paper. All are legitimate, but all are excuses.
“Actually, the hardy type has more difficulty when it comes to adapting than the Texan type. He sets a plan and often sticks to it when common sense dictates that he should pull back.”
“What’s a Texan type?”
“A Texan will allow any excuse to get in the way of his training,” I said with a laugh. “For this type of individual, it’s to his benefit to skip a workout when he’s extra tired or has a cold. For him to go to the gym would be detrimental. Rest is beneficial; training is not.”
“How do we know which type we are?” Jimmy asked.
“Trial and error. If you miss a workout and are full of energy the next time you’re in the gym, you’re the Texan type. If you miss, feel guilty for two days and have a poor workout the next time, you’re the hardy type.”
“I think I’m the Texan type,” Josh said. “I’ll take some time off when I have a cold and my lifts are fine, but if I drive myself, I can’t shake my cold and my lifts drop.”
“Fine,” I said. “Understanding your body is one of the keys to long-term fitness. Now, there are a few other things you can do to help your cause. Nutrition is one of them. When you find yourself under stress, overload the supplements.”
“Like which ones?”
“The Bs to begin with, because stress destroys the B vitamins at an alarming rate. And load up with extra C, A and D to help reinforce your immune system. One reason your strength drops when you have a cold or start doing extra work is that your appetite diminishes and your bodyweight goes down. Remember that bodyweight is essential to gaining or maintaining strength. Drop 10 pounds and your lifts are sure to drop as well. Take time to eat plenty of protein and carbs.”
“That was one of my problems and I knew it, but there wasn’t any way to get food in the library or the lab.”
“Don’t forget your old friend, the protein shake. Carry one with you. Hard-boiled eggs are another simple but effective food that will let you maintain your bodyweight. Bodybuilders used to carry a bag of hard-boiled eggs with them and eat them throughout the day. A couple of eggs and some milk and you’ve got a supply of amino acids. Be sure to take lots of minerals, too, because they get used rapidly. And some magnesium-calcium tablets at bedtime will help you sleep more soundly. Keep in mind that rest is extremely important. To some people, rest is the most important variable in their training. Try to get to bed as early as possible, even if it means missing your favorite TV show.”
“I’m going to try spreading out my workout,” Jimmy said. “And I like the idea of doing high-rep sets instead of busting my butt with the heavier weights. I’ll go by the health food store to load up on supplements, too.”
I looked over at Josh and saw him grinning. “I’m going for the Texan approach and skip a day when I feel extra tired. That’s always worked well for me, but I just forgot it. I have a supply of vitamins and minerals, but I need to start loading up as you suggested.”
I picked up my gym bag and said, “There will always be events in your life that you can’t control, and you have to learn to adapt your training in order to maintain a high level of fitness and health. The secret, if you want to call it that, is to adapt, regroup and build back up to your former level.”
“Thanks,” they said in unison. I hurried toward the door before someone else decided he needed to know something. Well, I though, at least I’ll make it home in time to see Coach.