Too Much, All the Time: SRA, FFM, and Tonnage

Failing in a workout or hitting a wall isn’t a problem; it is a signal. Training is a constant experiment in self-improvement, and being stuck means that there is something in your experiment that requires attention. How you climb over, go through, or get around the wall depends a lot on your training history and level of advancement.

Too Much, All the Time

By: Nick Soleyn, PBC

Here is a familiar cycle from lifters nearing the end of a novice linear progression style of training: three sets of five at gradually increasing loads. The weight goes up, and the lifter rapidly builds muscle mass and strength. Then, the workouts start to get difficult. Rest between sets stretches out. The lifter continues to get stronger. Workouts become a grind. The lifter starts to dread training, but their rapid progress pushes them forward. The lifter thinks he is getting stronger. Finally, the lifter starts missing reps. What now?

Most commonly, the lifter drops the load by a few percentage points and works back up with the same linear progression. Until progress stops again. Not knowing what else to do, the lifter drops the weight and runs it back up and finds it little more effective than charging headfirst into a wall. The more the lifter backs up and tries the same thing again, the harder they hit the wall, the more frustrated they become. Often, they repeat that process several times before realizing that they are stuck and stumped and start looking for help.

This is not just a novice problem. Any training strategy that causes you to do the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different outcome will not adapt to either your progress or changes in your life or schedule. Getting stuck in this way—repeatedly running into the same wall—typically comes from an untempered understanding of the model of stress, recovery, and adaptation (SRA). The basic idea is that you cause stress in the form of a training session, then you recover from that stress, and you end up stronger. To keep getting stronger, you must always increase stress. The novice linear progression is perhaps the purest representation of this cycle in training, equating adding weight to the bar with increasing training stress. And it works really well. Until it doesn’t. That is because stress is not synonymous with tonnage, and SRA alone is not a complete model for programming purposes.


Tonnage: The amount of total weight moved for a given lift or workout. Specifically, the load times the number of sets performed times the number of repetitions per set.

Across the same lifts and similar set and rep combinations, tonnage is a reliable measure of the changes in work being done from workout to workout, week to week, or training cycle to training cycle. Tonnage does not measure performance, however. It does not account for recovery (or lack thereof). And it certainly does not reflect the lifter’s mental state in any given workout.

The tonnage logic that gets people into trouble is this:

  1. Stress or work must always increase
  2. Tonnage is a measure of stress
  3. Therefore, tonnage must always increase

Admittedly overly simplistic, this rationale helps show us two faulty assumptions.

First, stress does not always have to increase. People learning about SRA tend to equate stress with fatigue. The concepts are related but distinct. A more complete statement might be that stress must change to create fatigue and avoid accommodation.

Accommodation: If you train at the same intensity and volume over and over again, using the same exercises, then you will adapt to that level of stress but not more. This is known as accommodation. Your body has grown used to the stress like a long-term and not well-liked houseguest; it will not adapt to go above and beyond or to make the repeated training sessions easier, but it will change enough to tolerate them.

There are two basic ways to avoid accommodation, changing the quality of the stressors or changing the quantity.

“To avoid or decrease the negative influence of accommodation, training programs are periodically modified. In principle, there are two ways to modify training programs:

Quantitative—changing training loads (for instance, the total amount of weight lifted)

Qualitative—replacing the exercises” (Zatsiorsky, Science and Practice, 6.)

When our goal is strength, we want to minimize how often we change the quality of our workouts. Squats, presses, bench press, deadlifts, and their close variations make us stronger, so we want to keep doing those as much as possible. Instead, we first manipulate the weight on the bar or the quantity of sets and reps we perform, preserving the quality of the stress but changing its magnitude and affecting our ability to complete the workouts.

Second, tonnage is not a measure of stress but is a stand-in for work. Work is a technical term that allows us to measure how much energy it takes to complete a workout. When you complete a rep, you know that you applied at least the minimum amount of force needed to move the barbell vertically against gravity. If you add weight to that lift, you know that the minimum force necessary to accomplish the work goes up over time. (It takes more force to move 305 lb. over a set distance than it does to move 300 lb.) Work, then, becomes a proxy for measuring force (since, in normal gym circumstances, we cannot know exactly how much force you used to move the barbell, only that it exceeded the amount of force that would have normalized the gravitational pull on the bar). By extension, the amount of work completed is a key factor in training stress. All else equal, work and tonnage give us an idea of the amount of training stress in a workout. Of course, when you add in the crucial human component, all else is never equal.

In a steady training cycle, with no missed workouts and a very consistent lifter. Tonnage may be a reliable predictor of training stress against the background of recent training history. But when something happens—births, deaths, vacations, accidents, [life]—things change. A 10,000 lb. tonnage workout may suddenly become far too stressful. You may reach the fatigue threshold with much less work. This does not mean you are getting stronger with less work, but it does affect your ability to accumulate the same amount of stress. These types of intrusions into training warrant more qualitative changes, ones that can help you find progress with lower-stress workouts.

Similarly, it is possible for lifters to overextend themselves. This is especially common in novices who are nearing the end of a linear progression. They start taking longer rests between sets, spending a lot of time in the gym just to finish a prescribed workout, with massive doses of work and stress. Then, they rest for forty-eight hours and do it again. They add to building fatigue as their recovery fails to keep up with their training. They do this over and over again until they hit that proverbial wall. Then they back up five or ten percent and do it again. Or, they add more stress, sometimes adding multiple sets of volume work without adjusting other areas of their training. Head down, they charge at the wall again, perhaps making a little bit of progress but usually just working themselves toward complete frustration or burnout.

Unless the programming is completely heedless, the problem usually comes from trying to increase stress by measuring the amount of work—objectively, as with tonnage, or subjectively by perceived effort—without considering current and long-term performance in the gym that will allow for progress. When planning changes to your program, consider that once you hit the wall, you limit your options for change, often forcing a qualitative change when better planning would have allowed you to make steady progress longer.

This tension can be better understood through the stress-recovery-adaptation cycle and how it balances with your ability to perform each workout and accumulate fatigue from training.

Stress, Recovery, and Adaptation and Fitness-Fatigue

Stress, recovery, and adaptation is a cycle of work that we try to repeat over and over again. We work out, rest, and get stronger. Simple. The idea comes from the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which states that an organism, when exposed to a significant but non-excessive stressor, will adapt to survive repeated exposure to that stressor. Adaptation to certain kinds of stress is predictable and beneficial. For strength training, the stress is the program: moving large amounts of weight, over big ranges of motion, at a high enough intensity and for enough sets and repetitions to require recovery and adaptation in response to the training. In response to that stress, the organism (you) adapts to survive repeated bouts of that particular stress—i.e., you get stronger and better at lifting weights.

You will adapt to the specific demands of the stressor. So, if you have a comprehensive strength program, it does not make sense to change the exercises it comprises except as a means to change the stress to avoid accommodation and cause a more significant adaptation than you already have. GAS suggests that training should have a degree of monotony because the kinds of training that cause strength adaptations are not constantly varied.

If GAS is the big picture of training, then the fitness-fatigue model (FFM) describes the immediate response or after-effects of training. GAS suggests a dose-response to training: the more stress we can induce frequently, the more often we engage the adaptive process, and the stronger the lifter gets. But this would ignore the need to recover from training or the reality that you cannot induce as great an amount of stress in a fatigued state as you can when you are not fatigued.

FFM describes fitness and fatigue as after-effects from training. Fatigue can be neural or systemic (called central or peripheral fatigue, respectively). The accumulation of fatigue will inhibit the longer-term fitness after-effects, meaning chronic or accumulated fatigue can undercut the whole point of your training by degrading your performance in the short term.

So, we end up with a bit of a balancing act. On one side, we have the goal of inducing an adaptation as frequently as possible—so that the lifter can get stronger, faster. On the other side, we have the need to manage fatigue. In general, the more advanced the lifter, the greater the fatigue from the stress that is sufficient to cause an adaptation, with very advanced lifters spending months accumulating enough stress to force an adaptation, inducing extreme fatigue, and requiring them to carefully manage programs that peak for their competitions.

Going Around the Wall

Failing in a workout or hitting a wall isn’t a problem; it’s a signal. Training is a constant experiment in self-improvement, and being stuck means that there is something in your experiment that requires attention. How you climb over, go through, or get around the wall depends a lot on your training history and level of advancement. For a more complete study, check out our MED programming content page, and for a structured presentation of programming, consider signing up for The Barbell Academy’s Principles Course. To close out our discussion here, we will look at ways to adjust as a lifter nears the end of a novice linear progression.

Managing Stress, Fatigue, and Progress

For the novice lifter, progress is measured as more weight on the bar within the structure of the training program. Moving three sets of five repetitions at heavier and heavier weights requires more and more effort from the lifter. As the weight on the bar goes ever upward, the lifter has to produce more force to move it. This is not the only way to measure force production, but it is the one most directly tied both to our goal and to the method we are using to achieve that goal. New, heavier loads are the measure of progress; the goal is weight on the bar, more than you had to lift last time.

These first changes following prioritize added weight on the bar. There are many different things you can do to troubleshoot here. We like to prioritize small, simple changes over more complicated solutions and focus on increasing the weight on the bar. These changes follow the Minimum Effective Dose principles for programming, which you can learn much more about here:

Weight on the Bar

The first change to make is to reduce the amount of weight you are adding to the bar each training session. If you had been adding ten pounds, switch to five pounds. If you had been adding five pounds, switch to two and a half pounds. For most men under sixty years old (yes, that is somewhat arbitrary), adding less than five pounds per increment is counterproductive for the squat and deadlift; the same goes for less than two and a half pounds with the upper body lifts. Everyone is on a case-by-case basis, but simple, linear progress is efficient and worth preserving as long as it is possible to do so with smaller jumps in weight.

The next weight change for the squat and deadlift is to introduce a light day in the middle of your training week. This allows you some more recovery time and a structure that will still prioritize the progress you had been making twice per week.

A sample novice program with a light day in the middle of the week.

Rearranging Volume to Add Weight to the Bar

After you have adjusted the increments and added a light day to your squat and deadlift, the next change is to maintain the overall volume of your training but to organize it in a way that allows you to continue to add the same increments to the bar. There are a few different ways to do this:

  • You can change from 3 x 5 (three sets of five repetitions) to 1 x 5 (one set of five repetitions) with two back-off sets, a change preferred most often for your lower body lifts.
  • You can flip 3 x 5 to 5 x 3. This tends to work well for the upper body lifts. It is the same total volume, but most people can lift more weight for five sets of three than they can for three sets of five.

In each of these changes, the total volume in each workout did not change.

Change Volume Last

After manipulating the sets and reps, you may need to change the volume on a lift-by-lift basis. At this point, you should start to look at your week as a whole training unit with the goal of preserving your overall weekly volume while making changes that allow you to still add weight to the bar regularly.

There are different ways to make changes and maintain progress, but the basic idea is a reduction in volume or the number of reps-per-set that will allow you to add weight to the bar on one of your heavier days in the week: switching to 2 x 3 or 1×5 or 1×3 with back-off sets or 2 x 5, etc. are all acceptable changes. But you want to make up that change in volume on your other heavy training day in the week. In the above example, the first change occurs on Friday—where the weight on the bar goes up and the volume goes down. The following Monday, we have added a set of five to the workout to make up for Friday’s change.

Keep in mind that personal records (PRs) are not just for the intensity but also for the volume day. If you move from 3 x 5 to 4 x 5 or 4 x 4, continue to treat more weight at a given volume as a PR. By tracking multiple rep ranges, you will better track your own progress and where your intensity and volume work should fall as you need to accumulate stress.

An example of tracking different rep ranges from a Barbell Logic Coach.

Failing a lift or struggling as you get stronger is the paradox of progress; the more you do, the stronger you get, the more difficult training becomes. Training can and should be fun, but it will rarely be easy. There is tension between knowing that training is difficult and the reality that you cannot continue on the same program indefinitely.




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