Maintenance and Training: A Focused Pedantic Rebuttal to Rippetoe

by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC | May 12, 2021

older guy locking out a pull

Although his work is and will continue to be controversial, it is impossible to deny that Rippetoe has made seminal contributions to our thinking about fitness and changed the conversation about resistance training irrevocably. Whatever judgement the future may pass on his work, it will have to be reckoned with as influential.

In a recent article Rippetoe addresses an important concern for Masters Athletes with a long experience of training (to the advanced level and beyond) confronted by increasing age, decreased recovery, and an ever-diminishing tolerance for injury or overtraining: maintenance. In this article, he correctly observes that the goals, exercises, and methods employed in the gym must change to accommodate the obnoxious biological realities of aging. In this writer’s opinion, the piece is yet another important contribution by Rippetoe to the ongoing “fitness dialectic.”

However, among the many of his important elucidations of strength and its centrality to fitness is the distinction between training and exercise. This distinction has been practically and pedagogically important. It is an integral component of the conceptual framework of SS system.

In the article on maintenance, however, Rippetoe’s language curiously obscures this distinction:

Nonetheless, each reset involved training: the application of progressively loaded work in a manner reflective of the methods I used prior to my peak in my competitive years, using the principle of stress/recovery/adaptation. I have found that this no longer works in a way that yields the results it once did, and that stubbornly refusing to change my approach has gotten me injured. Since I am post-competitive, I have decided to become post-training too – I am doing maintenance work now. It's actually exercising instead of training, but in my situation it's necessary.(Emphasis added.)

The language used in the article is subtly different from previous definitions of training, and this subtle difference allows Rippetoe to make the present point (a point that I am compelled to point out is not central to the profound importance of the piece) that maintenance is not training. In particular, the phrase “progressively loaded work” is used here. If increasing the absolute load were the discriminatory characteristic that differentiated training from exercise, then we would have to concede the point. However, this discrimination has not previously been emphasized or even necessarily present in the canonical texts of the SS system. In the very text that serves as the canonical SS reference on matters of programming, Rippetoe gives us the seminal and critical distinction as eloquently and incisively as it has ever been made:

Exercise is physical activity performed for the effect it produces today—right now. Each exercise is performed for the purpose of producing a stress that satisfies the immediate needs of the exerciser...

But for athletes with a definite performance objective in mind, Training is necessary. In this context, training is physical activity performed for purposes of satisfying a long term performance goal, and is therefore about the process instead of the constituent workouts of the process (emphasis added). (PPST 3rd ed, pg 2.)

By this definition, maintenance is training. It would require an impressively serpentine or nugatory feat of rhetoric to hold that physical activity directed at “hang(ing) on to as much of what you worked for as possible” (Rippetoe’s words in the article) is not physical activity performed for purposes of satisfying a long term performance goal (Rippetoe’s words in Practical Programming) for a particular athlete. In this case, the particular athlete is a 65-year-old, very strong, beat-up, brilliant, and irascible athlete, but an athlete engaged in training nevertheless, working to maintain a certain level of strength and health within the constraints of his age, previous injuries, recovery capacities, and so on.

The principles outlined by Rippetoe in the article make this even more clear. Upon revisiting the piece, it will be clear to the reader that Rippetoe is discussing the manipulation of training variables: exercise selection, sets, reps, recovery, and even mention of a “light day.” That is not the unstructured, unplanned, today-centered quality of mere exercise. It is not being done for today, because surely today would be more enjoyably and perhaps even more profitably spent arguing on the Internet (about the meaning of “training,” say). The “need” that is met by the activities described in the article is not an immediate need, because it is directed at hanging on to something over the long term. No. The article clearly discusses the general contours of a rational, thoughtful approach designed to preserve relative force-production ability in the setting of advancing age, decreasing recovery capacity, and increased sensitivity to stress and injury. It is no less “training” than the program I might design for a 48 year-old with Parkinson’s disease. In both cases, absolute performance will decline over time, and the emphasis will be on maintaining performance relative to the accelerating decrepitude of All Flesh. In both cases, there is little hope of achieving even local PRs (defined here by Rippetoe as those achieved within the last 5 years). There is only a brutal recognition of physical, biological, and existential realities coupled with a thoughtful, rational, courageous approach – a program – informed by deep knowledge of how to exploit the stress recovery adaptation syndrome, even in age, debility, and disease.

We have a word for that. We call it training.

This may all seem terribly pedantic. It is most certainly that. It is also, in this writer’s opinion, terribly important. The structure of any theory or model heavily influences the observation language and technical lexicon of that model. The words “mass,” “infection,” “shock,” “heat,” “star,” “gene,” and “nebula” don’t quite mean the same thing today that they meant 2 or 3 centuries ago. A paradigm shift in any field is liable to come with a shift in our understanding of what terms mean. The critical distinction between training and exercise, as expounded and professed by Rippetoe, is one of considerable importance, and has begun to change, for the better, the way we talk and think about fitness. Now is not the time to blur that distinction.  

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