Diminishing Returns and Training

It’s very common to encounter a hardcore attitude about training. In fitness it’s often, “No Pain, No Gain!!” or  “Train hard! Train often!” However, there is a point where putting in more effort will actually result in negative results rather than positive rewards. I’ve personally hit my own wall of degradation of skills many times as the result of putting a massive effort out. I’m sure most of you have as well.

There are 3 ways to look at diminishing returns for training.

  • Diminishing Returns in the Training Session
  • Diminishing Returns over the Long Term
  • Diminishing Returns of Lifestyle

 Saturation: Diminishing Returns in The Training Session

This is a pretty simple concept. There is a certain point during one single training session that if you keep going, you are not going to gain any more improvements. In fact, in fitness or strength training you could actually hurt your progress or yourself. Think about physically working out to the point of exhaustion, where your muscles can not successfully perform the movements any more. Continuing to work through that post-fatigue level of exhaustion can not only work against you but eventually it becomes dangerous as the muscles can no longer do the job of protecting the tendons, cartilage and joints from damage while under load.

If you did not hit specific goals, it’s ok. Pushing past this point won’t help you reach them and the harder you try to push it the farther away those goals will get. It’s also the point where safety awareness begins to fade under the weight of mental drain and physical fatigue and mistakes become more likely. 

There is a technique of training just into the point of diminishing returns that I am a fan of. Basically, it means not quitting at the first sign of becoming weary. There’s that point where sometimes you’re ready to quit, but it’s well before you’re spent or drained. There’s a short opportunity there to push your limitations, force yourself to pull it back together and perform at your higher level for just a bit longer. 

I would argue it’s more of an exercise for mindset than for improving skills. Overcoming the desire to shut down and forcing yourself to focus is a form of stress training and does work. Doing this correctly will help you perform better under stress and helps to build stronger character. But remember, this in no way means pushing into that dangerous territory of mental and physical fatigue or forgetfulness when it comes to safety awareness.

Pushing past that first urge to quit, to give in and not do another set, or another run, is where the boundaries of your work capacity begin to get pushed out. But eventually fatigue, both physical and mental, will take over and your form will deteriorate with your capability. You will, at that point, be doing too much damage and risking injury. 

The trick is knowing when to actually walk away and save it for the next session, which is another reason to have the guidance of an experienced coach or instructor. 

Adaptation Threshold: Diminishing Returns over The Long Term

This is the one unavoidable instance of diminishing returns. Basically, the better you get and the more capable you become, the less improvements you will gain from training sessions. In the early days of your training endeavor, you are brand new and have close to zero skills or fitness level. When you start at the bottom you get your first gains quickly, newbie gainz, as we call them. 

Nearly any program or method you try at first will give you good results. Basically just getting off the couch and becoming active will make you better rather quickly. But as time goes on, those methods, workouts, rep ranges, etc. will not have the same affect. Your body will adapt and you will become more resistant to adaptation, which is the desired result of training. That is where quality coaching, experimentation and good programming come in to help you continue to grow.

You just have to be aware that you will hit plateaus and you have to push through and keep working at it. Constant evolution and the discovery of how you change and what it takes to grow and adapt will be required to keep moving forward. Diminishing returns in this phase come from stagnation, or continuing to rely on the same methods and workouts that got you to this point. 

Diminishing Returns of Lifestyle

The final one, diminishing returns due to lifestyle, is a bit more complicated. It’s also probably the most important one to fix. There are endless factors that combine to affect your training abilities and the rewards you will get from that training. I am speaking mainly to those of you who are ambitious and are actively pursuing an increase in your strength and/or physical fitness on a regular basis. I mentioned that I’ve hit my own walls of diminishing returns. The worst wall, for me, is due to lifestyle. 

Everything affects your performance: how much sleep you get, what you eat, when you eat, stress levels, work schedules…every factor will enhance or diminish your performance. As you get older, the impact those factors have on your performance becomes magnified. Once I hit 40, even something as simple as not getting a full night’s sleep can seriously affect a day of training or performance for me. 

We all have our own physical and mental issues that need tending to on a regular basis. For example, if you are sensitive to carbs, or you are diabetic or hypoglycemic, you can forget about feeling great or performing well if you don’t eat correctly that day. In fact, if you try pushing through a hard workout you could end up unconscious on the floor. The examples are endless but it’s easy for you to understand what your own issues are if you take the time to log your inputs and your outcomes and compare the notes after a few times. 

Using my own example, I used to have a habit of letting my ambition run me straight into the ground. I can remember working 80 to 100 hour weeks regularly. This resulted in a multitude of problems. The administrative tasks of my business ran late into the night causing me to lose sleep consecutively day after day. The busy work schedule prohibited proper eating. The stresses wore my mind down to mental fatigue. Do you see the negatives stacking up there?

Nothing will destroy your performance or your ability to recover from performance like the accumulative effects of insufficient sleep, poor nutrition and stress. On top of this, we can allow a busy schedule to prohibit regular practice and training. It can happen even if you work in the business; it’s easy to be the proverbial mechanic who’s own car doesn’t run properly. 

Why is this an example of diminishing returns? All of our hard work each week is put toward a goal. At a certain point you’re just putting out maximum effort but you are spread out too thin and you are hurting your performance and thereby hurting your ability to attain your overall goal. The returns for your efforts are diminishing. 

In some ways, you are hurting your goals because you are repeatedly performing things incorrectly, which makes them a trained performance. You are training yourself to do it poorly. You know you feel like hell, but you’re going to show up and do those cleans, or snatches, or squats anyway. Consequently, you practice doing them wrong. 

Of course, this is reversible. When I get fixated on a goal I pursue it relentlessly and will burn myself down to get to it. I’ve ran across a lot of students and athletes who exhibit this same intensity in their desire to perform well on the field or in the gym. Sometimes we need to sit down and prioritize and, sometimes, sacrifices need to be made. The fix is there. If you are unhealthy or unhappy, figure out why and fix it.

 Breaking the Plateaus of Training

When you reach plateaus, places where diminishing returns seem to halt all progress, take the time to examine your regiment and your lifestyle to determine what you can change to disrupt that plateau. It’s that old saying about not getting different results as long as you keep doing the same things.

Sometimes, it’s technique related. If you spent a lot of time doing slow, heavy lifting, after a while your body is trained to move slow, so it makes sense that you will find your  performance in explosive movements to be subpar. 

The easy remedy is to change your fitness training to include more movements and methods. You have to cycle your workouts, vary your rep ranges and intensity levels and venture into different programs to reach new goals.

Lifestyle causes are a bit harder to change, but it can be done. While most people can’t quit their jobs and go on a quest to achieve a mystical level of strength or skill, you can adjust how you sleep, eat and improve your fitness level. The resultant improvements in fitness will change your life. Stress itself is more easily regulated due to a lower resting heart rate, a slower climbing heart rate and a faster heart rate recovery time.

The point is that there is a solution for most problems leading to diminishing returns. But it does require change. It requires doing things sometimes that are not fun, or working on things that might not be the “focus” of your goals but will hoist you over the plateau and on to the next level of your performance potential. Working hard is a good thing, but working too hard for diminishing results is not working smart. Identify your goals, work hard to reach them, and improve or change any factors in your routine or lifestyle that might slow or obstruct those goals in any way.

Physical Conditioning: In Conclusion

         There are many great ways to get in shape, be stronger, healthier and live longer. Some are definitely better than others so you need to find what fits your lifestyle and your goals. Seek out proper guidance and coaching if possible; if not, then get on YouTube and make a go of it.  Much of what I talked about in this section can be done with moderate equipment at home that can be purchased $50 to $100 at a time. The important thing to remember is that no matter what your “mission” is, none of it is realistic without the physical fitness to carry you through to it. 

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