B1. Spectrum ↵
I’m bound by strength training code to mention Milo of Croton. Legend goes that Milo lifted a baby bull each day. As the bull grew, Milo’s strength grew. Milo was able to lift a the fully grown bull at the end of the story.
Sounds wonderful. Linear progress for president!
Linear progress is fantastic…
…until it stops working.
Because, at some point, it will absolutely stop working. But, for now, a look at why it does work at first.
Your physical ability to overcome high(er) gravity environments exists on a spectrum.
To the very left, there’s nothing. No movement. Grandma on her death bed. You aren’t overcoming gravity.
To the right is “hysterical strength,” which is an unconscious ability that only vomits out of your muscles in times of desperate need.
You know the story: Mom’s baby is stuck underneath the wheel of a monster truck. Mom can’t even open a jar of pickles on her strongest day. But, in a five second fit of human preservation, seeing her baby on the verge of death, Mom turns Super Saiyan and lifts the truck to save the baby’s life.
(Not bad, Mom. But, next time, use the Force. The Force can move an X-Wing ship out of the Dagobah swamp, so it can surely lift a monster car.)
Hysterical strength is an unconscious phenomenon. You can’t tap into it consciously because it’s dangerous. When you go from pickle-jar-puzzled to monster-truck-tossing, there’s no telling what bones may break, what muscles may shred, or which tendons may snap.
But the risk is worth the reward in order to save a baby. Not so much when you’re on the basketball court trying to cramajamadingdongdunk on your friends.
The monster truck situation represents a higher gravity situation because, uhh, it’s a monster truck. And lifting a monster truck on Earth is akin to standing on Jupiter, where gravity is over twice as strong.
Where you sit on the spectrum is fluid. You can surf left or right depending on your body’s juggle of risk, reward, resources, and survival.
B2. Stress ↵
Moving around stresses your body. Movements are more stressful or less stressful depending on where you sit on the spectrum, but, still, it takes energy and resources to move. Nothing is free.
“Stress” sounds bad because we’ve been culturally misconditioned to the idea of stress. But, with a biological system, stress can be positive. And, likewise, a lack of stress can be negative.
Do nothing but slug in bed all day and your body will weaken. Why spend a bunch of resources maintaining your muscle if don’t use it?
On the flip side, the stress you undergo from moving your body around with some intensity is the catalyst for muscle growth.
Let’s use an (nerdy) analogy to understand this better.
The gravity spectrum is your Level. It goes from Level 1 to Level 99. You are a character in a neoRPG. You can Level Up, yes, but you can also Level Down.
Now, as you Level Up…
Your magic level also increases. Meaning if you go from Level 9 to Level 10, your magic also goes from Level 9 to Level 10.
You learn a new magic spell commensurate with your Level. Meaning, if you’re Level 10, you have 10 different magic spells — one for each Level.
Your magic spells use an amount of magic commensurate with their level. Meaning your Level 10 spell uses 10 magic points. Your level 5 spell uses 5 magic points.
When you use a magic spell and deplete your magic resources, your magic level slowly regenerates over time on its own.
So imagine you’re Level 10 and you use your Level 1 magic attack. It only requires 1 magic point. Considering you have 10 points available, the overall impact isn’t huge. You still have 9 points available.
But say you’re Level 10 and you use a Level 8 attack. You only have 2 magic points left, which means you’re vulnerable. Even a peon enemy can beat you because you can’t use stronger attacks.
So this Level 8 attack is a lot more stressful on a Level 10 character. It’s stressful from a resource standpoint (it uses up a lot relative to your overall capacity). It’s also stressful from an impact standpoint (after you use it, you’re vulnerable).
Using a higher Level magic spell leaves you weaker in the immediate time span that follows. Your body doesn’t like to be weak and vulnerable. It’s no bueno for survival. So your body can make a calculated decision to Level Up.
On one hand, Leveling Up requires resources because you need to upgrade to a bigger magic capacity and you need to spend time and effort towards learning new spells.
But, on the other hand, everything underneath your Level ceiling becomes easier and less stressful.
Imagine you’re Level 10 and you find yourself constantly using Level 8 attacks. No bueno.
Your body chooses to Levels Up because, when you’re Level 20, those Level 8 attacks don’t leave you as vulnerable as they do when you’re only Level 10. They are no longer as stressful as they used to be.
(Through this analogy we can also understand why the body Levels Down. If you’re Level 20 and only using Level 1 attacks, you’re wasting a bunch of resources and energy maintaining things you never use.)
B3. Nonlinearity ↵
This neoRPG analogy quantifies stress, but an important note: there’s a nonlinearity to stress.
Nonlinearity is best understood by first qualifying linearity. In a linear system, one step to the east also takes you one step to the north. See the green line below. But, in a nonlinear system (red line), one step to the east doesn’t always take you one step to the north.
So imagine jumping off of a one foot curb. Now imagine jumping off of a ten foot curb. The impact of the ten foot landing isn’t 10x that of the one foot curb because of nonlinearity. In other words, jumping off a one foot cliff ten times isn’t the same as jumping off a ten foot cliff one time.
At some point, the curve shoots skyward and the stress becomes increasingly more intense. The stress and danger increase in a nonlinear fashion relative to your conscious ceiling.
If you’re Level 20, then casting twenty consecutive Level 1 spells doesn’t have the same effect as casting one Level 20 spell. And if you want to stress the body enough to adapt, then this is something you have to keep in mind.
B4. Antifragility ↵
Leveling Up and Leveling Down are best seen under the concept of antifragility, which is a concept recently popularized recently by Nassim Taleb in his book named (not surprisingly), Antifragile.
(The spirit of antifragility has been around for a long time under the guise of supercompensation. See also: hormesis.)
All of these words encapsulate the neoRPG analogy.
When you undergo a stressor, you don’t return to your former baseline. The stressor changes you.
Think of getting a flu shot. You inject a small dose of a pathogen into you, which is a stressor. But you don’t just recover to where you were before the flu shot. You develop antibodies and build a resistance to the pathogen. You’re an upgraded, stronger system.
Training is a stressor. You use resources when you train and, in the immediate refractory period that follows, you’re in a worse (damaged) place. But the body takes the information coded within the stressor and, over time, improves your system to better handle the stressor.
It’s as if the body is says, “Awww, man. He did that. Alright. There’s a chance it might happen again. I don’t like being stressed. I’ll upgrade so this isn’t as stressful when it happens again.”
So when you lift 100 pounds on a consistent basis, your body builds itself into a creature capable of lifting more than 100 pounds. Because, then, that 100 pound load it’s normally exposed won’t be as stressful.
B5. Progressive overload ↵
Antifragility (supercompensation) is why you need progressive overload.
Say, your first squat session, you lift 95 pounds. It’s a tough 95 pounds, too. Your body gets stressed. But because you’re antifragile, you recover 1-UP.
Meaning 95 pounds gets easier to lift over time, meaning 95 pounds eventually won’t have the same stress impact.
Decoded into neoRPG lingo: your Level 3 attacks are stressful when you’re Level 5. But when you get to Level 10, they aren’t as stressful.
If you want your body to continually improve, you have to increase the stress you expose your body to relative to your current level of adaptation.
Once you’re Level 10, you can’t expect to improve by chucking Level 2 attacks. Once lifting 95 pounds is easy (and less stressful), you have to lift 100 pounds. Or 105 pounds. Or 110 pounds.
If you don’t increase the stress relative to your Level, your improvement will stagnate. Your body will settle into stasis — a comfortable level of being — because the cost of upgrading isn’t justified.
A necessary note: a lot of people (my former self included) misinterpret progressive overload. It’s not as if the moment you lift 200 pounds you need to lift 205 pounds or your muscles will melt. It’s not that immediate.
The body adapts slowly.
If I can max deadlift 405 pounds, I can train deadlifts using 315 pounds for a looonnnngggg time and still be making progress simply because there’s a limit to my strength potential (somewhere off in the distance that’s unpredictable).
So, at some point, once you get strong, something that’s tough to lift will always be tough to lift and always challenge the body.
Not to mention, progressive overload is many things. You can increase the weight on the bar, you can decrease your rest between sets, you can repeat workloads with a higher frequency.
Don’t put progressive overload in a box. And don’t get stuck in a classic rut.
Classic feedback is concrete and measurable. Something like the amount of weight on the bar. But improvements also happen romantically. Romantic feedback is visual and artsy fartsy, like feeling something different.
Romantic feedback doesn’t provide clear feedback for the robot-types, which leaves them on an uncomfortable stoop, looking for some kind of classic feedback where none exists (or where a subpar substitute exists).
It’s in your best interest to get these types people drunk in order to have a lively conversation with them. Try (for the good of mankind) to get them to take a step back and enjoy the beauty of everyday moments. Get them to marvel at existence and how amazing it is to be human.
Also, buy them drinks they aren’t used to drinking. Because of their classical lust, they likely know exactly how many drinks they can consume before they get too tipsy. It’s better if they go overboard without their knowing.
Finish the job by not letting them log their beer consumption in a spreadsheet (or app) with their phone. No selfies. No pictures of the beer either. Enjoy the moment for yourselves.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to appreciate and understand romantic feedback at first. And thus, it’s most convenient to track weight on the bar or number of repetitions.
As Henry Rollins once said, 200 pounds is ALWAYS going to be 200 pounds. Emotions and feelings aren’t as concrete.
B6. Funnel ↵
We’re going to add another analogy here to help us personify the recovery process. Using the neoRPG example, I said your magic replenishes over time naturally.
So think of a funnel. One of those devices that helps you put over-poured milk back into the carton without having to calculate angles, wind resistance, and other pesky matters of physics.
Pouring water into this funnel represents a magic attack, which represents an expression of strength. The water filtering through the funnel represents the recovery process. When the funnel is clear, you’re recovered. Where’s water in the funnel, you’re stressed.
Now, at Level 1, you can’t consciously pour a lot of liquid into the funnel. So it’s kind of like being able to pour a thimble full of water into the funnel.
Funnel engineering allows small pours to flow through without hassle. So you have a clear and clean funnel quickly after Level 1 pours.
This is why you don’t have to take a recovery day after you walk up a flight of steps.
But, as you pour more, you’ll eventually hit a point where the water won’t slide through the funnel with ease. It’ll back up and there will be residual water in the basin.
You might have heard of the 48 hour rule. The 48 hour rule says it takes the body 48 hours to recover from a bout of high intensity training. Train Monday, rest 48 hours, you’re fresh Wednesday. This is where SS gets the M-W-F three day per week training template.
The 48 hour works is a decent starting recommendation, but, eventually, hefty dumps will be taken on the 48 hour rule. According to gymnastics coach Christopher Sommer, it takes your connective tissue 200+ days to turn over. The 48 hour rule puts “recovery” into too narrow of a box.
Alas, assuming a lower Level, in terms of being fresh enough to repeat high intensity performances performances, the 48 hour rule holds up well. Train on Monday and, come Wednesday, you’ll be fresh enough to repeat Monday’s performance.
B7. Stalling ↵
With antifragility and progressive overload, you’re gradually increasing the amount of stress you can impose upon your body, meaning you’re gradually pouring more and more liquid.
A thimble of water becomes a shot glass becomes two shot glasses…
As this happens, residual water sits in the basin. You’re alright at first because you’re using the 48 hour rule, but, eventually, there will come a point in time when the pours are too large to filter through in 48 hours.
Instead of entering the training session with an empty and clear funnel, there’s residual water in the basin. But you pour more in anyway because, quite frankly, you never really know the status of your funnel.
Water backs up further in the funnel. And, as the trend continues, you’ll hit a point where the funnel overflows.
The actual manifestation of this: a failure to increase weight on the bar. This is called stalling.
Think in neoRPG terms…
You’re Level 25. (Your max is 250 pounds.) You cast Level 20 spell. (You lift 200 pounds.) This “amount” goes into the funnel, which starts your recovery clock. So right after training, you have 5/25 “magic potential” left, meaning you can cast a Level 5 or below spell.
Your next training day comes, but the funnel hasn’t cleared fully yet. Only replenished to 19, meaning you can cast a Level 19 or below spell. But you go to lift 205 pounds (a Level 20 spell)…but you can’t. You don’t get all the reps you’re supposed to.
Stalling happens to everyone, and, in some respect, is a good sign (as long as you follow the guidelines here). It means you’re getting stronger.
Also, it’s worth noting: stalling comes from your body’s inability to recover from a heavy workload. You aren’t getting weaker, you’re simply fatigued.
B8. Butterfly effects ↵
There are a lot of factors that influence when and where the stall hits. I call these factors butterfly effects because little things (things usually not thought about) influence your body’s ability to adapt and recover.
Some butterfly effects are within your means to (somewhat) control, like eating enough and sleeping enough. But certain exercises are quicker to stall because of mechanics, leverage, and muscle mass involved.
Let’s first establish the obvious.
Say you follow the SS linear progress method (adding five pounds to the bar), but change the number of days you train
- Squat once per week: 260 pounds added to the bar in one year
- Squat twice per week: 520 pounds added to the bar in one year
- Squat thrice per week: 780 pounds added to the bar in one year
Yikes. Quite the difference
The more you train any one lift with immediate progressive intent (getting better every session), the more demanding your program will be. Asking the body to change so that it can support and move with 520 pounds is a supersized order compared to asking the same with 260 pounds.
Squatting 520 pounds in one year sounds cool, but the world record isn’t that far above 1,000 pounds. No one squats 1,000 pounds with only two years of training.
You can now see how this program gets demanding, even if you use a conservative starting point. You train the lifts at a high enough frequency for shit to get real.
Regardless of frequency, there are more mechanical reasons for stalling.
Most upper body exercises stall earlier than lower body exercises because the muscles of the upper body are smaller. Smaller muscles aren’t as strong as bigger muscles.
Most simple lower body exercises (squat, deadlift) are strongest because they’re driven by the big muscles of the lower body and there’s not much movement complexity.
But size of the muscles involved is only one factor. Even though the power clean involves big muscles, it doesn’t have the same progress potential as a less complex exercise because it’s held back by technique, range of motion, and complexity. You’re taking a bar from the floor and putting it on your shoulders. That’s a lot of ground to cover.
A lot of self-taught people end up power cleaning more than they squat clean. This is bass ackwards because, in a squat clean, the bar isn’t pulled high. The squat clean should be stronger, but technique limits strength expression in the non-specialist.
Technical proficiency helps strength, too. Correct form allows for good mechanical positions, making lifts easier. And range of motion matters. Less movement is less work, which makes for more strength potential.
Bottom line: limiting factors are naturally built into exercises.
Lower body, less technique, more joints and muscles, bigger muscles, less range of motion, less complexity = more weight, longer sustained progress.
Upper body, more technique, less joints and muscles, smaller muscles, more range of motion = less weight, shorter sustained progress.
The general strength relationship for basic barbell exercises shakes out as such:
1. Conventional deadlifts
2. Back squat
3. Front squat / snatch deadlift
4. Bench press / barbell row / power clean
5. Overhead Press
6. Barbell curl
• Parallel bar dip
(The bodyweight exercises are hard to compare numerically because you’re lifting your own bodyweight in addition to attached weight.)
This limiting factor business reveals a more intricate aspect of why SS is programmed the way it is.
But there’s a few more concepts we have to develop before the full programming picture turns from cloudy to clear.