by Steve Bechtel
We all love a good story, especially the ones we want to be true. One of my favorites is that of Milo of Croton, a Greek wrestler who lived in the 6th century BC. Milo, was, by all descriptions a very strong and talented athlete, so much so that his legend outlived him by thousands of years. The stories about him are incredible, including that his daily diet consisted of 20 pounds of meat, 20 pounds of bread and 18 pints of wine (probably because 20 pints would be too much).
The most popular story, though, was about the bull. As the story goes, Milo walked out into his field the day a calf was born, and carried the calf across the field. He did the same the following day. And the following day. Legend has it that he did it every day for four years, or about 1460 days in a row. That’s a lot of days on. That’s also a lot of days to progressively overload.
This story is a favorite of coaches worldwide. It’s a great example of how progressive overload might look if it somehow wouldn’t kill you. It’s how we all wish our performance would progress: improving our strength by 2-3 pounds per day, every day, until reaching a squat + carry max of around 2000 pounds, which just so happens to be around 800 pounds greater than the (known) world record squat. Maybe you would also have to follow his diet and eat around 50,000 calories each day…
LINEAR PROGRESSION ALWAYS ENDS. IT’S UP TO YOU TO DECIDE WHEN.
Well, as Ice T says, “Shit ain’t like that.” Biological organisms operate cyclically, not linearly. Whether it’s sleep patterns, yearly weight gain, or seasonal depression, nothing we do happens in a straight line. Although this is slightly disappointing, there is a bright side: you can use these cycles to your advantage, accepting the inevitable valleys to help push the peaks. By knowing when and how hard to push, and when to back off, you can have season after season of great performances.
The simplest way to force peaks in your fitness is to increase the volume (total duration) of your training over the course of 6-8 weeks. On week one, you might train / climb a total of 4 hours. Over the course of 6 weeks, you might build up to 7 hours of climbing activity, which is overloading you on several levels. Your strength and skills increase throughout this period, but your overall fitness will see a dip due to accumulated fatigue. You then back off on the volume, and the next few weeks see you send hard stuff every time you’re out.
PERFORMANCE PEAKS FOLLOW HIGH VOLUME TRAINING. WE SOMETIMES THINK THAT THEY SHOULD COINCIDE, AND END UP DISAPPOINTED.
All periodized plans work off this same basic idea, where performance of a specific facet follows slightly the overload of that facet. If you want to see solid performance year round, cycling up for 4 weeks and then holding steady for 4 is a great way to go. Stretch the periods out to 6-8 week cycles, and you’ll likely see higher peaks in performance but will really feel the need for recovery afterward. You can fit 3-4 cycles of this length within a typical year.
One of the best ideas I’ve heard in recent years is to train hard for three weeks, then do no training week 4. None at all. This comes from one of my favorite coaches, Steve Maisch, who figured out that performance actually went up in his athletes who took a week off each month. It’s such a good idea that I know you won’t do it.
CLIMB AND TRAIN PROGRESSIVELY FOR THREE WEEKS, THEN DROP TRAINING COMPLETELY FOR A WEEK. YOUR BEST PERFORMANCES WILL PROBABLY COME AT THE END OF THE 4TH WEEK.
The important takeaway is this: if you don’t plan cycles in your training, it will happen anyway. It will happen in the form of injuries, illnesses, or just plain burnout.
If you are happy with your performance, change nothing. If you are unhappy, start with the easy changes, such as a simple cycling of your volume. Easy changes are, well, easier.