Thinking About Complexity

It’s easy for us in fitness (inclusive of both exercise and nutrition) to think of the human body in mechanical terms. Our analogies and metaphors are meant to evoke a sense of genes, biochemical pathways, and living cells as rigid clockwork and orderly assembly-lines making up a larger machine.

The best way to describe a non-equilibrium system is to think of it as a “whole” rather than a set of “parts” that just happen to work together. This is not easy to do. The machine analogy is pervasive and the internet fancies itself scientifically literate by way of fantasies constructed from Pubmed abstracts, all of which leads us to think that the parts, rather than the web of relationships, are important.

Complex systems, of which life is a particular instance, exist in the relationships between many individual parts acting in together to create a whole. We discuss hurricanes by describing the properties of hurricanes, like wind speed and the shape of the eye, rather than zooming in to all the water droplets. These properties give hurricanes a distinct structure, but that structure exists within incredibly violent, uncertain, and constantly-changing conditions. The water droplets work “up” to create the hurricane structure, and the hurricane structure works “down” to keep the water droplets moving in that pattern. You wind up with a system that is inherently unstable and, because of that whole-part relationship, orderly in spite of that.

How this ties back to fitness may not be immediately obvious, but there are two related claims that prompted my thinking on this matter:

i) Risk of injury increases with the amount of exercise done.

ii) The amount of exercise you can do depends on your ability to recover from it.

For these instances we can treat “amount” as being a number of workouts done each week, so that three workouts per week represents a larger amount of exercise than one. Volume and intensity will matter, but for simplicity let’s just look at the frequency.

Both of these claims are widely believed to be true, commonly cited as factual, and make up the core of many a workout program. I don’t believe either of them is true when taken at face value, and the reason is precisely because they rely on the mechanistic analogy rather than seeing the living body “as it is”.

Since complex systems adopt a condition of “unstable stability” and thus have no equilibrium condition (the way a factory or a clock would), the same rules don’t apply. The same hurricane can exist in hundreds or thousands of states during its lifetime. It can grow, shrink, move faster, slow down, decay into rain clouds, and transform back into a category 5 death-engine. As long as the unique whole-part relationship exists, you have a hurricane.

The same metaphor applies to your body. It’s not quite right to say that you have a “reserve” of recovery, as if you just call down to the store room for power-ups after every workout. You haven’t depleted a battery; there is no battery.

When you undergo any major stress-event, you throw your body out of its comfy state of stability, and it scrambles to bring the house back into order. This process is not fun, which is why you feel beat up and “worn out” after a hard workout. But “exhaustion” and “fatigue” are not the right words for this condition. Your body is coping, not exhausted.

The feeling of beat-up-ness (which applies equally to physiological measures of stress, including serum levels of testosterone and cortisol as well as HRV) represents a “pseudo-limit”. It may feel as if you have reached your limits, and your physical state will show signs of stress, but this condition has far more to do with the feelings, sensations, and emotions generated by your body than it does your genuine physical limits.

Imagine you walk into a maze and every step you take changes the layout. That’s how a complex system works. When you alter any piece in the whole, the whole changes along with it. The whole-part relationship is stable, but not on terms that fit our machine analogies.

If you envision your body in mechanical terms, you can map injury risks and recovery a like along a nice orderly inverted-U curve. One workout means X risk, three means a risk of X+3. Nice and linear. But you aren’t mechanical, and moving from one to three sessions does not simply move you along the pretty graph — it changes the graph’s shape.

Doing more may not involve any increase of risk at all. It might even reduce the risk (yes, I mean to say that training more often may be inherently less injurious than the typical once-or-twice-a-week split methods).

The simple notion of “recovery” is concerned with pieces; the genuine limit requires thinking of the whole, the way the whole changes according to what you do. What can your body really do, if you ignore the “I feel bad” signals and just keep training anyway?

The whole has limits, obviously. Hurricanes run over dry land and starve to death. Living bodies have very real limits to the amount and magnitude of disruptions they can take from the environment. In that vein you cannot endlessly add volume and frequency to your workouts (whether strength or endurance) with no repercussions. Eventually you reach the limits of the whole’s ability to adapt.

My argument is that these genuine limits lie well beyond what is allowed by the pseudo-limits implied by the simple notion of recovery. The machine implies snapshots and “more is less” relationships.

We need to focus instead on the “second-order” effects: the behavior of the whole as an ever-changing system, a system which can experience positive feedback (wherein you “do more to get more”).

18 thoughts on “Thinking About Complexity”

  1. First.

    Then how does one know one is reaching “real limits” and not pseudo-ones? Since feelings and sensations are what is commonly used as proxy, do you have any suggestion?

    Also write moar moar often

  2. When I was experimenting with daily max-squats, I found that I could go for months with no ill effects. I figured that I’d totally beaten the process, as I was handling workloads that would blow the skulls of anyone who sticks to orthodox views on recovery and seemed to keep getting stronger.

    But both times I did this for months at an end, I reached a point where I just ran out of the motivation to train. It wasn’t a physical effect or anything like that. I’d pretty much adapted to the soreness and whatnot. I just gassed out psychologically, and I have a strong suspicion that this mental burn-out was connected to an underlying physical change (if you’ve read where I’ve talked about allostasis, how coping to stress is damaging in its own way, well that’s what I think happened — I racked up so much “coping wear and tear” that it caught up to me and affected my mental state in a deep way).

    Bear in mind this is just my working hypothesis on what happened, but it makes sense and it also fits with the two-tiered “recovery reserves” that the Russians always talked about. You can spend a whole lot of time doing amazing workloads, but if you really do push past the long-term sustainable capacity you will hit a point where you don’t *overwork* yourself as much as you just lose the motivation to train. I guess you could call that going stale.

    (Though I’d be curious to know what would have happened had I trained with a team and/or had a competitive goal in mind. That might have changed the circumstances and made a real difference in how I responded over the long run. Casual recreational lifting w/o a team is a different ballgame.)

  3. So why not just push through the ‘dark times’ of low motivation like Broz and others (moser, abajeiv) advocate? Because you’re not currently a competitive lifter? I thought the whole controversy was whether or not ‘overtraining’ or ‘dark times’ were an adaptive stimulus like DOMS or whether it was the body telling you to BACK OFF before something horrible happened. If you stop as soon as you mildy over-reach, are you testing the hypothesis really? Even low frequency advocates say that you can do high frequency stuff, what they question is the long term applicability, so if you’re not doing it for a consistent period, does that not validate their concerns? Or is the best system one of rotating frequency/volume/intensity in a sensible way? Are the dark times just a grinder system that filters out those not at the top 0.1% genetically or using ‘the medicine’ to recover?

    Sorry for the heap of questions, but I’ve been following your work for years and am very surprised you didn’t push through the dark times to see what would happen, as I thought that is exactly what you were advocating the last few years with your high frequency experiments.

  4. You don’t think 5-6 months is long enough to test it out? I could have just as easily gotten bored with it all rather than invoking the mystery Pubmed science explanation as I did in the earlier comment.

  5. Broz said that Mendez took a year+ to adapt to daily maxing. I dunno, I guess there’s no point driving your dick into the ground or doing the same thing and expecting different results forever, but it seems like you missed the entire controversy (as I saw it) which was what happens when you ‘push through’ the dark times. Keep lifting to max, even if it’s 50% of what you would do fresh, and do it daily. Can you adapt and start making PRs while fatigued, reaching new levels of awesome, or without ‘the medicine’ will you be on a one track road to regression, injury and more, as convention lifting wisdom suggests, along with recent drug test results from ABG.

  6. Well that’s kinda what I’m getting at, but let me clarify. For me, the “dark times” hit within a week or two, certainly inside a month. That’s when you feel all the typical achy, sore, OMG I HAVE TO SQUAT AGAIN symptoms that normally make people think ‘overtraining’ and back off to recover. Once you’ve ridden it out for months at a time, you’re way past dark times (as I see it anyway).

    As I say, physically speaking I was fine and, as it felt to me, I could have gone indefinitely. I stopped mainly because, as I say, w/o competitive goals I just felt like I had better things to do with my time (I like drinking beer, for example). I did feel a kind of “burn out” but this was, strictly speaking, all in my head and nothing to do w/ performance or “recovery” — I just quit caring about going to the gym.

    Now my question to myself was, did that happen for “purely” mental reasons, as in boredom, rather be doing other things and such, or was there an underlying physical reason that contributed to those feelings of “tired of lifting all the time”? That I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows, but I do have a strong suspicion that i) the physical did contribute and ii) if I’d had some kind of external motivation, as in training partners, competitive goals and whatnot, that would have been enough to get over it.

    I don’t think the drug issue is a consideration for the particular version of daily squatting I was doing. It will enter the picture at extremes, both in training volume and in absolute weights lifted, but naturals can easily tolerate 1-2 max-lifting sessions a day if they’re done in the right mindset.

  7. Do you really think they were the ‘dark times’? That sounds like the standard month or two it takes to adapt when someone goes from a split routine to a full body routine or from low volume to high volume, not the way Broz speaks about it.

    Broz would tell stories of his back hurting so much he couldn’t stand up to brush his teeth, he had to crawl out of bed and kneel, of his knees hurting so much he resorted to booze, of feeling so exhausted he would get home and lie on the couch for 4 hours staring at the wall before having the energy to walk to the fridge to heat up food. Of course Broz is a storyteller and likely some things were exaggerated, but that sounds many orders of magnitude different to what you experienced, unless I’m under-estimating how much suffering you endured?

    Or is this just a problem of perception? You said achy and sore is what many people consider overtrained and would backoff at that point, I can’t imagine anyone who backs off then getting far in strength sports.

    How are you currently training?

  8. Your body doesn’t know whether you’re lifting a barbell or wrestling with a bear. It’s also going to supply a generous helping of endorphines to cope with the stress of fighting (which wears off hours after the stress ends, resulting in ‘delayed’ soreness).

    At some point, if you continue wrestling with barbells (or bears) the central governor is going to downplay output to prevent escalating trauma. You can still fight- not as well- but hopefully enough to keep the organism alive in order to spread its seed. Surely better to downplay activity than to continue at levelsthat may result in injury?

    So maybe the ‘dark times’ are not necessarily suffering the misery of operating at 70% of max,
    but being injured (or flirting with injurious conditions) and not having the option to duck out of a real crisis.

  9. All I can tell you is what I did and what I took away from it. I’m not sure I see the point in questioning me about someone else’s experiences.

  10. I see your point, I just think there might be a difference between the standard adaptation to a differing volume/intensity/frequency versus the adaptation to pushing through the dark times, which sounds like a whole different level.

    Perhaps conventional wisdom is right sometimes.

  11. >Perhaps conventional wisdom is right sometimes.

    All I have to say about this conclusion, and the above comment that fed into it, is that when you go in search of validating a narrative you’ve constructed, you will inevitably do so.

    Approaching a problem like this with that thought process is exactly what I’m trying to argue against.

    Again: do what you think is best. I’ve related my experiences, and for me, it works. If you believe otherwise, that’s your right and best of luck with however you’ve chosen to do things.

  12. I ‘want to believe’ what Broz and others say, that if you push through you’ll adapt, that old school ‘strong men’ lifted heavy 4-6 hours/day for years, that the body and mind adapts to the demands placed on it, that people would get stronger if they weren’t so afraid of ‘overtraining’ and just learned to shut up and squat. But this just doesn’t seem to gel with reality.

    People get the quick gains of high frequency maxing from the neural benefit of extra practice, fueled by optimism and believing to have found the ‘one true way,’ they throw all notions of other stuff out the window and dismiss anyone who doubts them, they set PRs…but then they flatline and for a long time. At this point they usually quit, get injured, or turn to the sauce to get through. I’m still waiting for examples of people who have thrived on Broz style training long term without extra supplements or being a massive outlier. I’m just not seeing them. Guys like Pendlay and Mike T seem to have come to the same realisation, that there are simply some things you CANNOT do without the needle, and why you need to have deloads, periods of lower volume/intensity/frequency and so on. Even Pavel and Dan John who push high freqeuncy stuff a lot do not suggest maxing all the time, more like working at 65-80% of max consistently and occasionally testing a heavy set, not to mention periods of lower frequency too.

    So the conventional wisdom that ‘everything works but nothing works forever’ seems to apply here, as I’m still not seeing the people who have benefitted from longer term, drug free high frequency maxing out. Yes the body is capable of much more than the HIT crowd and hardgayners believe, but I still think Broz is wrong about what drug free lifters are capable of. So I am keeping an open mind, I’m avoiding looking for evidence to confirm my own biases instead of seeking the truth, but I’m not seeing it. I thought your experiences with high frequency stuff might show that it’s possible, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  13. Avoiding for the moment that i) I’ve never done and may never do a “Broz” workout, ii) I’m not arguing that that specific methodology is apt for anyone but competing OLers in certain circumstances, and iii) in a larger scope I’m not arguing “for” any specific methodology at all:

    Seems like you’ve done everything possible then.

    If only there were a way for you to go try it for yourself instead of looking for answers on the internet.

  14. Perhaps I mis-interpretted your zeal for high frequency training, and wrongly assumed that you were still doing it or gave it a 12 month+ go before stopping, and while I do enjoy your philosophical points about lifting and thinking (hence why I read your blog) I guess I’m just a bit disappointed at what appears to be the reality of lifting that you’re probably not going to be able to max out daily for years on end and see the benefits of that without drugs. Just like when a kid discovers Santa Claus isn’t real or a natural lifter realises that they’ll never carry 200lbs+ of LBM without being super tall or super fat.

    I’ve done high frequency training before, as per Dan Johns ’40 day workouts’ did deadlifts and other lifts every day for 40 days straight, pulled a 15kg PR on the 41st day when ‘testing’ a few key lifts, but after that point, and currently, my life situation doesn’t facilitate daily training, so I do 2x/week Oly workouts and 2x/week general strengthening workouts currently, I’m seeing very good results (hence why I’m not changing), but I still like to talk lifting just like you do, I’m not a keyboard warrior who likes to theorise without ever going to the gym.

    So I appreciate your articles and taking the time to reply to my comments, and I’ll keep the high frequency maxing paradigm in mind for the future potentially when I am in a position to do it, but will also temper that knowledge with less optimism than I previously showed.

  15. First of all, the risk of injury does not necessarily increase as we do more exercise (speaking from experience). Is it fair to suggest we increase our preparedness/fitness via practice thereby reducing risk/danger? Furthermore, when wear and tear escalates to unmanageable levels could output be reduced (whether we like it or not) as a protective mechanism?

    Secondly, flexibility is ‘allowed’ in a closed mechanical system. Inability to function (perform work) may or may not hamper our chances of survival. Since, for many atheletes, the ability to perform is NOT a livelihood- and takes place recreationally- retreat may seem more appealing.

    In other words The option to *pick our own battles* is a luxury that governs social attitudes when it comes to recovery issues. So the ‘amount you do’ does not necessarily hinge upon recovery, it hinges upon existential risk. Without necessity, the pursuit of performance may become more a ‘flight of fancy’. .

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