Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Maintenance, Limits and Training

by Gwyn Brookes | September 29, 2016

  Training, not maintaining

“Just because something bears the aspect of the inevitable, one should not, therefore, go along willingly with it.” – Philip K. Dick, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer


When I introduce people to strength training, I often get asked whether it’s okay to train for maintenance, or what the limit is on adding weight to the bar. Seems reasonable, but I submit that training for limits, or training for maintenance, is a bad idea. Why? Just like resisting gravity is hard but important, resisting entropy is harder – and even more imperative.

What is training? Training is different from exercise. Exercise is something we all need for our health. People walk for exercise, or they cycle, or maybe they do something that is fun and active, like play a pick-up game of basketball on the weekend. At a certain point, you might decide that you need something more. At 35 we don’t have the strength and stamina we did at 25. At 55, we start to lose muscle mass at a faster rate and at 75, we start to wonder when we’ll need assistance to get up off the toilet. 

At some point, we decide we need to get stronger. That is the point where exercise is no longer sufficient. We must decide to train. Training involves a planned number of exercises, and a planned load and volume that are meant to achieve a specific goal. In the case of strength training, that goal is to get stronger. The stress/adaptation/recovery cycle is a powerful tool and to harness it, we must provide the correct dose of barbell medicine every time we train. This means adding weight to the bar. Now, when we start strength training for the first time, we are capable of adding a little weight to the bar every time we train. Even if you are an experienced lifter, if you have never run through a planned linear progression, you will be capable of doing so, although the length of that linear progression might be shorter than someone who has no athletic background.

What is entropy? A simple definition is that entropy is the universal tendency of a system to progress from order to disorder in the absence of energy being added to the system. Every system – every thing – in the universe as a whole tends to move from order to disorder, with an increase in order only observable in the presence of energy being added to an isolated part of the system as a whole. Aging is an important form of entropy. The way to slow this aspect of entropy is clear: train to get stronger. We won’t cheat death, but we can do something to shorten that time span at the end of life where we cease to be able to function.

What is strong enough? When can we just maintain? What is the limit of how much weight we can add to the bar, and if we know what that limit is, can we look forward at some undetermined point to easing off our training, just a little? When do we get to reap the fruits of our labor, and work less?

Strength training is hard. Work sets, the bread and butter of our stress/adaptation/recovery cycle, are hard. They will always feel heavy, but you do get stronger. You will warm up with weights that used to be your work sets, and those warmup sets will feel lighter. But in order to do the job you want done, which is to create a sufficient stress to cause an adaptation, you must figure out how to keep adding weight to the bar.

And even if you are a competitive athlete, life and entropy will interrupt your training. You will be exposed to periods where, due to injury or illness, you must significantly modify your training. This may very well include putting less weight on the bar for a while. And when you have adapted to the new situation of not training, or of training very light, you have become weaker.

In other words, entropy dictates that your progress will eventually slow or stop anyway. If you build slowing or stopping into the program, instead of always trying to make progress, you're just helping entropy instead of fighting it.

So guess what your task is next? 

Luckily, strength is a long lasting adaptation, which means that getting back to where you were doesn’t actually take as long as it did the first time you got there.

So now we’ve covered two things: the innate desire of everyone to work less, and the complications of a life that includes things other than training. There is yet another reason why training to maintain is a bad idea – entropy of the mind. 

The mind likes challenge. The mind likes to achieve things. If our training were to become a task that remained the same from day to day, we would lose interest. Training for maintenance is not sustainable because training for maintenance does not take into account the inevitable effect of entropy, which is to say systems always move from an organized state to a disorganized state.

As humans, we always want to be better and this is good, because that desire organizes our behavior. Adding weight to the bar in the effort to get stronger requires us to be better. More efficient, tougher, more focused in a state of adversity – and a heavy set of five on the squat is a state of adversity. Rising to the challenge provides us with an incentive to keep training.

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