Sunday, September 29, 2013

When Maintenance is Progress....

Always strive to add another rep, or a pound to the bar or another second to the length of the set!!!

You will have heard similar things.  The gurus shout at us and encourage us to try harder to push more to seek improvement and growth at every opportunity.  Nietzsche is invoked as we strive ever harder to get better, stronger, bigger.  I've probably done the same thing myself - urged you to push for that extra rep that next rung on the ladder.

Well I am tired of it.  Maybe it is my age or other things going on in my life, but at the moment I am tired with trying to improve.  I just want to keep where I am.

Maintenance is progress

I was thinking about training and exercise today in the context of the rest of life.  "Life" as the big stuff - lifetimes, relationships, death, decline and age.  With that in the background I was struck with the idea that as we get older, simply staying where we are is progress.

Whatever we do we are getting older.  Time is marching on.  The trend is for performance to decline, muscle to atrophy, joints to stiffen and become less mobile.  (Alex Hutchison has some great posts on this)

Faced with that inevitable decline, simply to remain where you are is relative progress.  50 pushups at age 25 and 50 at age 50 is not stagnation and lack of progress, it is wonderful and inspirational progress.  At 32" waist at age 30 and a 32" waist 20 years later is victory and improvement!

I sometimes think that my fitness, physique or strength has stagnated.  But, as I look around at age 45 at my peers, maybe staying where I was is the most impressive element as they tend to get fatter, weaker and less mobile?

Returning to the norm

This idea of just keeping where you are might seem a bit defeatist, but there are probably simple things that you used to do that you can no longer achieve.  I'm not thinking about the 400lb squat that you achieved after years of programming and progression.  What about the simple things like crawling, squatting or rolling on the floor?  Maintaining those skills as we age is not just progress but potentially life saving.


Chris Sturdy said...

This is a great post. I look back at my fitness notes over the last 4 years and see that some of my "numbers" have improved, while some remain relatively constant. For instance, I don't put up huge numbers when I lift, but I lift consistently, and think that it is doing me some good.

To wit: My workout this afternoon consisted of 3 sets of 15 push ups alternating with 15 squats then some free weights using a moderate weight, 3 X 10 set structure with 6 different exercises completed in a super set manner. It was about 25 minutes of work in total. Nothing outstanding, certainly no one would blink about a 42 yo guy who did one arm rows with 30# dumbbells, but the fact that I did this workout, and do workouts like this (or like your Hillfit workouts, swimming, yoga, HIT, sprinting etc.) week after week and that I am not crippled for days after (on the contrary, I feel great when I finish), makes me think I am getting something "right".

As you note, if I can knock off this *exact* same workout in 10 years, I will be stoked. Why not be stoked about it now?

Chris said...

Chris Sturdy - you get it!

Anonymous said...

Chris, this is refreshing post. As someone who is maintaining shape it is quite tiresome reading about how one has to change workout, diet, always push the level up a notch... there is little written for people who are already in shape and just want to maintain with efficient use of time except for maybe Mark Sisson.

Anonymous said...

This post led me to think about some of the older fitness guys. They seem to work around this maintenance issue without directly acknowledging it. Clarence Bass's use of periodization seems to allow one to change workouts without acknowledging a plateau. Art DeVany doesn't track his workouts, and just picks different machines and sometimes just uses whatever weights are currently on the machine. Maybe we aren't ready to explicitly accept maintenance, so we have to couch it in other terms.

Chris said...

That is a very insightful comment. I think maybe we need to be honest sometimes and say ok this is it. Let's just keep it here.

Chris said...

Thanks. Maybe we can change things.

Unknown said...

Great post, Chris - the sanity of this blog is truly a sanctuary on the web.

The Master Trainer has come to a similar conclusion as you have (

My own experience mirrors mr Sturdy's. I'm turning 40 in December, and most of my lifts remain the same as they have been for years; some slight improvements, some fallen by the wayside. My endurance is better than it's ever been. I used to be frustrated that I never saw any great results after the first few years, but now I'm pretty much content with maintenance and being decent at several things rather than amazing at one.

sifter said...

As a 53 year old, I can certainly relate to the merit of your argument. But, I still believe working, in general terms, towards forward progressive movement in either reps or poundage is the way to go. If you do 20 pushups in a compressed period of time compared to your in youth that, too, is noteworthy progress. One reason I keep going back to weights is because the weight doesn't lie. You either hoist the 55 lb weight or you don't, for x reps. I imagine increasing the duration of a wall sit, assuming one's bodyweight and angle are constant, also constitutes progress.

FeelGoodEating said...

How happy are you every day?
If you can maintain your happiness..... Now THATS progress :-)

Another wonderful post Chris.

Trust you are well.


Unknown said...

Excellent post. I've had similar thoughts. I actually think that looking at fitness as a process is the way to go, rather than obsess about progress, is the way to go. For me, this process is very simple: I go to the gym once a week and I do 7-9 exercises with great intensity. I go close to failure (inability to do one more rep with good form) every single time and just do 1-2 sets per exercise. This usually takes less then 30 minutes. This half an hour of pain keeps me strong. I don't really care about progress, just being strong (and looking relatively good naked! :-)

Anonymous said...

I have Chris Summers "Building the Gymnastic Body" book, and in it, one of the training protocols he recommends is called the 'steady state' where you stick with the same same weights, reps, and exercises for a period of 8 weeks. So that during that period of time you go through a period of overload(high effort) load(medium effort) ad underload(easy effort) allowing the CNS and other body systems to consolidate.

Perhaps in the "always make progress" mantra we need to expand the horizon and rethink our approach. I like what Chris Sturdy above said about putting in his workout day in, day out, week in, week out, without being hampered by it.

Unknown said...

I think this is more than age issue. It's how we percieve exercise and biological systems.
If you're a newbie, simple progression is there to help you, and it appears to work. The reality is that the plans are only an attempt to control something way more complex that can't be controlled. Progress is not linear. Some workouts are great, some are mediocre and some are bad. As we read fitness stuff, some ideas are hard to get rid of. Like "you're overtraining on 3x a week routine" or "you either train hard or you shouldn't be training at all as it's not efficient". The structure is like a painting on a house. If you remove it, the house is still there.
Why do we like systems? We love the idea we're in control and hate the idea that ve are really not that much. We love to think it's our dedication and focus that brought us results, we want to be productive. The truth is you could never approach muscular failure, you could never use a chart and still build amazing body, enjoying your workouts and deciding what you're going to do on that very day. But we are often scared to leave systems behind, because we want the body to be a computer programme. The same situation in dietary field.

Anonymous said...

Now in my early sixties and having exercised my whole life I don't think either maintenance or progress. In the exercise session itself I am thinking: What kind of day am I having? If it's a good day I strive to take advantage of that and do more. If I'm having a bad day I back off and celebrate a modest workout as a testimony to my commitment to keeping my fitness level current (no backsliding). Staying vigilant to how I feel in the moment during the session and proceeding accordingly keeps me at peak fitness and protects me from injury. I'm happy with that!