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Starting Strength in the Real World


Repurposing Recovery Day

by Brent J Carter, SSC | November 03, 2016

snatch-grip deadlift

Obviously, not all clients are driven to be competitive “lifters.” And yet we have a responsibility as coaches to increase our clients' adherence to an exercise schedule as much as possible. The beauty of the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression is that it produces meaningful, objective improvements in performance: how much weight is on the bar today vs. last time? This provides motivation for the client as he continues to add weight to the bar, and the habit of showing up to the gym, lifting, and continuing to seek performance gains is reinforced.

In addition to increased adherence to behaviors that lead to productive training, the basic novice template also improves the lifter's self-confidence in his performance of the main barbell lifts. Without relying on the trainer to “switch things up” and implement “muscle confusion techniques,” the lifter is actually able to practice the correct motor patterns and therefore move closer to demonstrating with precision the models he has been taught.

In psychology class we learn that “enhanced self-efficacy and extrinsic motivation leads to increased adherence until intrinsic motivation can be established.” Encouragement in the form of both positive professional instruction and the successful personal attainment of short-term goals builds the foundation for and an appreciation of good exercise habits. As the lifter begins to demonstrate advanced expertise with the movement models, he may be approaching the time that a “Recovery Day” is necessary to facilitate continued linear progress.

Those of us who understand the stress/recovery/adaptation model will no doubt also understand the eventual need for implementing workouts where both the intensity and volume are reduced to facilitate recovery. The client may not see the same value in this recovery day as his coach does. This can be a problem. 

If the lifter’s intrinsic motivation and long-term outlook on progress has not yet jelled into a Training ethic, removing the motivation of achieving another workout-to-workout PR by inserting a “lighter” day into the week can lead to diminished enthusiasm.  And when personal training is your business, it hurts your pocketbook when clients skip sessions they regard as optional. Depending on how you bill for your services, an opportunity has been lost when clients skip sessions or want to try to do things on their own for a while.

Since some clients may have the tendency to view recovery days as wasted or unproductive, a strategy that can circumvent this is the inclusion of a more technically-demanding skill that still allows for recovery due to a reduction in absolute intensity. For our novice, the power clean instead of the deadlift works nicely for this. A paused squat instead of a lighter squat, a strict press as opposed to the dynamic press normally trained, or the snatch-grip deadlift, paused deadlift or some other pulling variant that makes a lighter load "feel" heavier, for example, can be used as an opportunity to facilitate progress that does not involve a PR set of 5.

I therefore suggest changing the name to “Technique Day,” wherein the goal is expressed specifically as technique development, not “de-loading” or lighter weight. It is likely that by the time the client needs a lighter day for recovery purposes, he also demonstrates some technical issues at high intensity. The opportunity for technique development would therefore be used to justify a lower volume/lower intensity recovery workout, while working on high-value technical instruction not available with less-qualified coaches. This preserves the value of the workout and, from a business perspective, preserves the client's motivation to show up for the appointment.

By shifting the focus away from setting another PR and instead using it to improve technique in a challenging movement pattern not trained in the heavier workouts, we can recover the perceived value of the lighter workout for the more-advanced yet under-motivated personal training client. I predict this strategy will increase your client session retention as much as it has mine.


Consulted texts:

  • Miller W & Rollnick S. Motivational Interviewing: preparing people for change. 2nd Ed. The Guilford Press. New York, NY. 2002
  • Weinberg  R & Gould D. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 2nd Ed. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL. 1999
  • Marlatt A & Donovan D. Eds. Relapse Prevention: maintenance strategies in the treatment of addictive behaviors. 2nd Ed. The Guilford Press. New York, NY 2005


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