Starting Conjugate: Fatigue Management
The level of success an athlete achieves with their strength training program is dictated by a few key things: exercise selection, intensity regulation, volume regulation, training frequency, and fatigue management. Fortunately, a well-written training plan should be able to dial in the first four aspects of training. Still, it can be difficult to predict how fatigued an athlete will become when progressing through a training program.
Whether an athlete is running the most optimized training plan, fatigue will always be part of the equation when executing a short or long-term training program. For this reason, coaches and athletes need to understand the basics of fatigue management, along with a few strategies to employ when fatigue levels begin to affect training.
The Conjugate Method provides a coach or athlete with a few different ways to go about managing excessive levels of fatigue. Almost all of these strategies can be used without making significant changes to the overall training plan, allowing an athlete to avoid detraining or loss of skill due to an abrupt shift in training focus.
Provided the coach or athlete understands the signs and symptoms of excess fatigue, there should be no reason for a fatigue-related issue to reach the point where the entire focus of training needs to change. A competent coach will be capable of identifying the signs or data points that signal excess fatigue may be a problem and making the necessary adjustments. Training interruptions remain limited by identifying issues with fatigue early, resulting in limited deloading and virtually no risk of detraining.
Time is a valuable commodity, so it is essential to become capable of managing fatigue when running a Conjugate Method-based training program. The ultimate goal of training is to bring about substantial positive training adaptations year after year without experiencing losses in strength or skill caused by interruptions in the training plan due to poor programming or fatigue management.
What is Fatigue Management?
Fatigue management is how a coach, athlete, or training plan accounts for and manages fatigue levels throughout a training plan. Following the basic Conjugate Method template, our primary fatigue management strategy is our training schedule. The basic template calls for an athlete to train four times weekly, with 48 to 96-hour rest periods scheduled throughout the week.
Maintaining proper rest periods between training days is critical when using the Conjugate Method. At Westside, we keep our max effort training days at least 48 hours apart, with our dynamic effort training occurring 72-96 hours after max effort training. Maintaining this schedule can be relied on to provide athletes with adequate recovery time throughout the week.
As long as an athlete maintains a disciplined recovery plan, the pre-planned rest periods are often enough time for most athletes to maintain an acceptable recovery rate. However, if these recovery days are not enough, we must move on to modifying the individual training days.
When excess fatigue becomes apparent, we start utilizing training strategies within each workout to allow the athlete to once again reach a state where recovery is on point and training can be executed as usual. These changes could be subtle or drastic, but the goal remains to disrupt training as little as possible while getting the athlete back on track.
Here are a few strategies we use at Westside Barbell to ensure athletes do not run into significant issues caused by excess training fatigue.
Max Effort Fatigue Management
There is no doubt that max effort can be a taxing training method. However, max effort training is relatively easy to manage and recover from as long as the coach or athlete performing max effort training understands how to manage a max effort workout properly. Typically, coaches and athletes run into issues with max effort training caused by mismanaged exercise selection or miscalculated jumps in weight when working towards a top set.
At Westside, we typically rotate our max effort exercises weekly. For max effort lower, we will often rotate through squat, deadlift, and good morning variations week to week, and we will rotate through bench and overhead press variations during our max effort upper training. While these exercise rotations are certainly intended to help avoid accommodation, we also rotate exercises to prevent excess wear and tear due to overuse of specific muscle groups.
For instance, if we were to perform max effort deadlift variations for three or more weeks, we would expect the athlete to begin experiencing recovery and overuse issues related to the lumbar spine. If we were to bench press against heavy band tension for three or more weeks, we would expect the athlete to experience elbow and shoulder pain that could potentially result in injury.
So, we rotate max effort exercises not only to avoid accommodation but also to reduce the likelihood of an overuse injury occurring due to unreasonable demand being placed on specific muscle groups or joints.
Another way we can manage max effort fatigue is by manipulating the top set rep count. As we know, meaningful absolute strength improvement can be achieved by training above 90% for 1-3 reps. So, if we notice max effort training is causing excess fatigue, we can begin performing top sets of 3 reps around 90%. If this does not solve the issue, we can increase the top set rep count to 5 reps, around 80-85%.
By controlling and limiting the overall training intensity for a week or two, a coach can often provide an athlete with the relief necessary to get training back on track. Is it guaranteed that the fatigue-causing culprit will always be max effort training? Of course not. However, by manipulating max effort training intensity, we can help mitigate issues caused by other aspects of a training program.
Dynamic Effort Fatigue Management
If a coach is confident the fatigue issue is not caused by max effort training, evaluating the dynamic effort training approach becomes necessary. While many believe max effort training is the most demanding and problem-causing training method, they would be surprised to know that mismanaged dynamic effort training will cause more significant issues for an athlete than the worst max effort training plan.
A common issue affecting an athlete's fatigue levels is the improper use of accommodating resistance. This improper use can result from the bands or chains needing to be lighter for the training day or the accommodating resistance being improperly set up and connected to the barbell. When this happens, athletes end up training at excessive intensity levels, and issues with training are soon to follow.
When using accommodating resistance for dynamic effort training, we want accommodating resistance to make up 20-25% of the overall training weight. The rest of the weight will be plate weight loaded onto the barbell. Then, once we have our bands or chains ready to go, we want to weigh the setup and ensure the amount of accommodating resistance weight applied to the barbell matches the strength of the athlete performing the exercise.
Ensuring that accommodating resistance is figured correctly, weighed, and appropriately connected to the barbell will help keep training on track and recovery under control.
Aside from accommodating resistance, sometimes the total training percentages for a training wave may be too demanding for the athlete. Depending on fatigue levels, an athlete may not always have the energy or ability to complete a 5 x 5 DE lower wave, going from 70% the first week to 80% the third week. In this case, slight adjustments to the set and rep scheme and training intensity can be necessary.
Our first step will be to modify the set and rep scheme while keeping the training intensity the same. Instead of following a 5 x 5 set and rep scheme over a three-week wave, we will perform 12 x 2, 10 x 2, and 8 x 2 when performing dynamic effort lower. By slightly lowering the volume, we can make significant strides in recovery without having to lower training intensity.
If dynamic effort upper training becomes an issue, we will either lower the training percentages by 5% weekly or replace dynamic effort upper pressing with repeated effort upper pressing for a three-week wave.
Another aspect of dynamic effort training that can cause issues with fatigue is the frequent use of resistance bands. At Westside, we typically rotate between bands and chains from wave to wave. This not only helps to avoid the stabilization provided by the bands, but it also helps to mitigate any pain or recovery issues caused by using resistance bands too frequently.
While resistance bands have a tremendous impact on improving explosive power, they can also become fatiguing if used too frequently or if the amount of band tension used is improper.
Therefore, rotating to chains can be an easy way to continue training optimally while giving the athlete a bit of a break. When training athletes with demanding practice and competition schedules, chains can often be a great option during in-season dynamic effort training.
Repeated Effort Fatigue Management
The final aspect of the training plan we can adjust to account for fatigue-related issues is our accessory exercise training. At Westside, we will always perform 3-5 additional exercises after our main exercise of the day is complete. These exercises are intended to improve strength, work capacity, and physical composition.
However, a mismanaged accessory exercise plan can quickly cause recovery issues.
When using the Conjugate Method, the main focus will always be on the main exercise of the training day. This exercise provides the training effect the entire workout is based around, so much of our fatigue management efforts revolve around ensuring that the main exercise performance is satisfactory.
Knowing this, one of the first aspects of training we can adjust when recovery becomes an issue is our repeated effort-based exercises.
For instance, if an athlete mismanages a few weeks of max effort training, we can adjust the accessory training plan to reduce the overall intensity and volume demands of training going forward. This allows athletes to gain some ground back recovery-wise without reducing the effectiveness of the main exercise of each training day. While accessory work is important, it can also be sacrificed for the greater good without much consequence.
Typically, if an athlete is dealing with recovery issues, just a few sessions of reduced accessory training can get things back on track. All the athlete loses is a bit of training volume while still maintaining the ability to execute the most effective part of training to standard - the main exercise. If 3-5 accessory exercises are standard, a few sessions using 1-3 accessory movements will help manage excess fatigue.
Slight Change with Significant Impact
No matter the method used, all training plans must be adjusted at some point. An athlete's life is dynamic, with many variables impacting recovery and energy levels. Knowing this, coaches and athletes need to have training strategies in mind to bring into play depending on the situation.
If training is to remain optimal, slight changes must be made when necessary.
The goal is to keep these changes slight and not go about overhauling the entire training plan. Too often, coaches and athletes new to strength and conditioning will identify an issue with their training plan and make drastic changes in response. Not only does this throw training off course, but it also makes it challenging to keep track of what is working and what needs to be fixed when the entire plan changes.
Instead of significant and unnecessary adjustments, we always want to make slight and precise adjustments to a training plan. The goal is to keep in place what is working and modify the aspects of training that are failing to work or causing issues. We want to use a scalpel, not a chainsaw.
All coaches must understand the training methods being used, learn to correctly evaluate training feedback, and know how to troubleshoot training once fatigue becomes an issue. If a coach can master those three things, there is no doubt successful training outcomes will become a regular occurrence.
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