Eustress Training (the opposite of distress training, which most people do)


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Most people know that I lift weights using high intensity protocols, but not everyone knows how I approach strength training.  I have done all of the various Russian programs, Renegade Training, Westside (I actually did this for a while.), along with many 5×5 or 5 x 3 protocols.  Want to know what I figured out? None of those meathead geniuses knew me better than I know myself.  Don’t get me wrong; I like coming into the gym, looking at the board and doing what is written.  It takes the thinking out of the equation, and that’s good sometimes (especially when you tend to overthink training.)  Other times, there is a strong argument for taking the reins and doing your own thing.  Before I get ahead of myself, I’d like to talk about a couple of things.

First, powerlifters get a bad rap for being fat, but modern champions like Stan Efferding and Matt Kroczaleski put that stereotype to rest.  Many of the top bodybuilders in the game erected their physiques atop a solid strength base, but as far as work capacity goes, people who train as athletes will smoke them both.  Whether you’re focused on conditioning, strength or aesthetics, training can tear you down, but you don’t have to leave the gym sore and worn out to get stronger.  We could all use a break from our routines once in a while, and that’s where eustress training comes in.

The Eustress Method

“Eustress” is basically the opposite of “distress”.  Working out with high intensity is mostly distress training, where athletes attempt to adapt to various training modalities to achieve a specific result.  Most powerlifting and bodybuilding workouts fall into this category too.  Distress forces your body to deal with what you’re throwing at it; sometimes it’ll leave you lying on the floor ready to puke, take a nap, or both.  Conversely, eustress training centers you and can leave you questioning whether or not you worked out at all; it’s more about listening to your body and engaging in focused bouts of effort rather than deliberately tiring yourself out.  It can be quite refreshing.  Both types of training play important roles in athletic development, so hear me out; I believe that what I’m about to describe could really help someone win the Games.

When an athlete preparing for Regionals or the Games says, “I want to get stronger.” they might seek out a good powerlifting coach.  That’s fine, because powerlifters know first-hand how to develop brutal strength.  Usually, the programming is based on one of the methods I mentioned earlier (Westside, 5×5, etc.) customized for the individual’s strengths and weaknesses.  While these protocols are great examples of effective distress training, they can’t account for bad days, good days, or days where you’ve got the magic and you wind up hitting a real PR.  Additionally, without the aid of a skilled coach, there’s no way to determine what’s right, what’s wrong, or what’s optimal.  How does the program know that 85%x5 isn’t either too light or too heavy today?

It doesn’t, but you do.  Or at least, you can sort of figure it out.  What I am about to describe is a system for people that are well on their way to self-discovery, that are willing to listen to their bodies and check their expectations at the door.  If you like the idea of two-a-days, you’ll want to read this article a couple times.

Examples of Eustress Workouts

This style of training revolves around doing what you want to do, how you want to do it, and enjoying yourself.  It’s a break from structured training that will take your mind off of percentages and forced adaptation.  Here’s some insight into how I implement this method in my workouts:

Deadlift example (these all take you to my Fitocracy log)

You’ll see as I present some of my other examples that for this workout, I chose a slightly atypical modality:  while remaining as relaxed as possible, deadlift a total of 30,000 pounds.  It took me about 45 minutes but there was no “time limit”.  I was just chilling out and enjoying myself.

Squat example

The goal here was a little different.  I just wanted to get in a decent workout, and when I got to 225 it didn’t feel right, for whatever reason.  Any other style of programming would have had me handling weight slightly out of my league for that day, but I’m smarter than that, so I just dropped the ego and got some work done.

Assistance/rehab example

Lastly, this is a workout where I did some pretty light training for my hamstrings.  I also added in ring dips for shoulder rehab.  I typically don’t like to do too many exercises; I prefer to hammer just one or two big, compound movements.

One of the real advantages of eustress training is that it’s fun.  You are typically doing something you like to do, at a pace that you determine.  Another great aspect is that because you aren’t set on a rigid progression of weight, you can still train at points where you don’t feel like pushing it to the limit.  By utilizing your body’s signals, these days become invaluable “active recovery” sessions that will speed up healing and improve performance.

Range of Motion:  Using Biofeedback to Optimize Your Training

When you aren’t feeling quite right, it shows in more ways than you may be aware of.  Everything from your grip strength to your vertical leap decreases when you’re not at 100%.  By analyzing markers like spinal flexibility and hip mobility, you can dynamically program a workout that will leave you in better shape than you were before you walked into the gym.  I learned this test from Dave Dellanave at Movement Minneapolis.  It’s really quite simple.

Picking a Movement: 

  • Establish baseline Range of Motion:  From a standing position, reach down, bending at your hips, to touch your toes.  When you reach the end of your range of motion, make note of where your fingers end up.  This is your baseline ROM.
  • Next, perform the movement you plan to train (ie. barbell back squat).  Use a weight that feels light and focus on your form.
  • Re-test your range of motion in the same fashion as you did before.  It’s important to use the same stance.
  • If range of motion increases (ie. In your baseline ROM test, you touched your toes and after squatting, you can now touch your knuckles to the ground), that movement is probably a winner.
  • If range of motion decreases, that movement may be a dud.  Pick another movement and find one that results in an increase in ROM.

Picking a Weight: 

  • Establish a baseline ROM.
  • Perform your chosen movement with a given weight (for example, 135lbs on a back squat)
  • Re-test your ROM and compare it to baseline.
  • Add more weight to the bar, perform the movement, and re-test.
  • Your goal is to find a weight that renders an increased range of motion after performance of the exercise.

I have tested all of my movements; my ROM is infinitely better after deadlifts and front squats; back squats typically result in a decrease in ROM.  That’s just the way I am built.  Thankfully, a bigger front squat will lend itself to a bigger back squat.

The Best Part of Eustress

With eustress training, you are the meathead genius.  Chest or glutes lagging?  Find an exercise you like and hammer it until the movement no longer amuses you.  You should mostly be doing stuff you like.  Keep it fun and you’ll keep training.  If you remain relaxed and save the adrenaline for later, you’ll be less sore because your muscles will get enough oxygen; this is why if I was preparing for the Games, I would use this method opposite my met con WOD’s.  By integrating eustress workouts into your training, you can get to the gym and train optimally instead of forcing something that may not be right for the day.  Nobody knows your body quite like you do.