Squat Every Day: Thoughts on Overtraining and Recovery in Strength Training - by Matt Perryman
Strength isn't always built through raw muscle bulk. Strength sports aren't bodybuilding. Strength means lifting things. Powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters and strongmen all need to pick things up and move them around. The exercises are different, but the better you are at moving heavy things, the better you perform. What better way to get better than to spend time practicing your sport?
A central theme of this book is that there's more than one way to get strong. Not everyone has the potential to eat themselves to a svelte and muscular fighting weight. Not everyone wants to be 30% body fat for a 10 kilo bump in their squat. The "bulk and power" method, effective as it can be, is not for everyone, and probably has little place outside brief and occasional growth spurts. Strength can happen in other ways. You can be sleek, streamlined, and still lift impressive amounts of weight. Strength can be more like practice. We need to think more like Bob Peoples and Ivan Abadjiev.
Paraphrasing Vladimir Zatsiorsky, the idea is to train as heavy as possible and as often as possible while staying as fresh as possible. Think five or six workouts, 50 minutes to an hour each, with a squat and a press, or a press and a pull, and some conditioning work thrown in. Whatever you want to call it, the idea is to get as much exposure to heavy weights as you can stand.
Circumstances matter. The people around you, the people in your gym, the atmosphere of your gym, what you read about training, who you talk to about training, what you believe about training ― this all matters, and I believe it is key to making any type of training effective.
The more quality work you do in training, the more your whole body ― muscles, nerves, organs, everything ― experiences a demand to adapt. These adaptations lay the base for future peaks in strength. You can tolerate harder training, even as the training itself builds strength. Volume is part of the answer but not, by itself, the goal. Strength is about skill, teaching your brain how to handle both a movement and a maximum weight, but it's also about building your body's capacities.
The powerlifters that have traditionally done the best in minimal gear, at lighter body weights, and under strict judging have always had more in common with Olymplic lifters than the current popular image of powerlifters.
Simple cause-and-effect thinking has no place in the study of living beings. Causes and effects smear out over networks where each piece effects, and is effected by, tens, hundreds, or thousands of other pieces. The patterns that define our bodies are complex. Complex systems have some interesting properties. Their patterns are inherently unstable, intrinsically variable, having no easily identified chains of causes and effects as we would expect in a factory. Despite all this volatility and uncertainty, these patterns can remain stable over long periods of time and are resilient in the face of all kinds of perturbations. These are all features that have obvious implications for how we train, let alone how we eat and live our lives. Unfortunately recreational exercisers, bodybuilders, and let's face it, most strength & conditioning experts and athletes, love to get hung up on details. We still think of the body as a collection of linear systems that we can tug on and pry apart. Every time someone asks what's most important or worries about whether a hormone is optimally stimulated, you're seeing reductionist thinking in action. Whenever that comes up, just remember: Biology Is Not Like That.
Allostasis is stability through change, the flexibility that living organisms need to survive. The allostatic model of stress suggests that stress-induced illness isn't a result of depleting or exhausting any particular glands or hormones or what have you, but rather the unintended consequence of an overactive coping strategy. Stress-mode is not a healthy place to be, thanks to all the physiological changes it involves, and spending too much time there accumulates wear and tear across your entire body, which we measure as allostatic load. Paraphrasing researcher Robert Sapolsky, your body's army doesn't run out of bullets; it spends so much on the defense budget that it doesn't have any cash left over for the more essential life processes. If the brief dip into stress-mode is adaptive ― that is, if it solves the problem ― then you're fine. You'll adjust and everything settles back to normal. It's when you stay in stress-mode all day every day, for weeks and months, that you develop real health issues.
The stability-via-change dance of allostasis leaves supercompensation theory in an awkward position. No depleted biomolecules to trigger the supercompensation effect. No exhaustion of stress hormones to leave you overtrained. That also means a lot of things the textbooks tell us about recovery could stand a revision. Supercompensation isn't exactly wrong, but it's not quite right-enough either.
Recovery vs Overtraining
"Recoveredness" isn't about muscles or the CNS or any of the pieces. It's about the accumulated disorder across your whole body relative to your current fitness level. While I enjoy some good navel-gazing over biology, we also have to ask if the shift from a focus on bodily exhaustion to a focus on the altered behavior of coping systems really makes any difference. If your body's so stressed out that it's not working right, and our mood and gym performance reflect that, does it really matter that we're not technically exhausted?
When I say supercompensation isn't entirely wrong, I mean that the notion of a limited pool of "recovery energy", that our capacity to recover from punishment has limits, is not entirely unfounded. Any extreme physical trauma or illness can readily demonstrate the limits of the human body, and it isn't terribly difficult for an athlete, recreational or otherwise, to find that point. Biology does have limits to what it can handle, and that isn't in question.
In Supertraining Mel Siff wrote that "the capacity of these [adaptive] reserves is not fixed, but alters in response to the demands placed on them by stresses such as training." Recovery itself, in as much as the word has a meaning at all, can be trained with practice. The more you expose yourself to stressful events, within reason, the less stressful they become.
Instead of diminishing returns, we can start thinking about positive feedback ― that doing more can, in turn, create more. Training and recovery are more of a "both-and" situation, rather than the "either-or" of supercompensation. Your body's condition, its ability to handle stress and to recover from it, depends at least in part on being exposed to stress in the first place. With that in mind, I think we can start to look at training as a way of coaxing your body into a more robust condition, such that you can not only handle more training, but thrive on it. You can't do that with a fixed cap on your recuperative powers. But treating the body as a "growth system", one with limits but still far more adaptable than you might otherwise believe, gives us this option. We are less machines with limited resources and more ecosystems which can adapt and grow with the right encouragement.
Once you stop looking at recovery as hitpoints, a whole world of new possibilities opens up. Training is a continual process of biological growth and change which is balanced and checked by accumulated wear-and-tear. You're always walking on a knife's blade, at "the edge of chaos" so to speak, but as your fitness level grows, so does your ability to tolerate a thrashing. You can handle more intensity as weights get heavier, and more volume and more workouts as work capacity improves. The result is a system which grows to match what it's been trained to do.
It would be unfair to say that workouts based on supercompensation "can't work", because obviously they can and do. Minimalist-style workouts, ranging from straight-up HIT to meat-and-potatoes powerlifting workouts work, and work just fine. For some people. I don't think supercompensation is wrong as much as it is incomplete, and it's in the incompleteness that we find possibilities.
"Burn out" or staleness in strength training is a consequence of training too heavy, with high emotional and psychological arousal, rather than the amount or volume of training. When you go stale, performance plateaus, weights feel too heavy, and motivation evaporates.
According to Noakes, we experience fatigue as a specific sensation that alters our perception of effort as our bodies do work and grow tired during physical activity, and we can measure this conscious perception of difficulty with the rating of perceived exertion (RPE), a value that rates how hard you're going compared to your theoretical best-effort. Noakes's central governor hypothesis says that the feeling of difficulty, measured by the RPE, gradually increases during a workout, and in response our neural output ― central drive to the working muscles ― drops off. We're often physically capable of doing much more work, at a higher effort, than we typically do, but from a survival standpoint, voluntarily working to a point of catastrophic failure isn't the best idea. Noakes suggests that the brain pulls back on the throttle as a protective measure. The sensation of "tiredness" is our psychological experience of this protective mechanism. Our limits, both in endurance and in maximum intensity, are in part physical and in part psychological (although in reality there is no distinction between the two, as I've suggested).
Mentally-demanding tasks fatigue the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), another part of the brain important for its role as a junction between your body-sense and your conscious perception of effort. During exercise, the autonomic nerves fire on all cylinders to keep heart rate and blood pressure and everything else working in "exercise mode". The ACC plugs that information in to our conscious minds and we experience it as "hard work". When you go exercise after spending half the day studying differential equations, you've worn out your ACC and the exercise feels much harder than it should.
We might be better served to think of recovery as perceived recovery ― that is, the experience of feeling recovered ― rather than using "real" physical recovery of muscles and nerves and whatever else as the metric. We can't do anything about the physical condition, but I don't believe that's the critical problem in the first place. The feeling of not-recovered reflects an underlying stress placed on your body, but that condition need not be a genuine physical limitation. It might be that you feel bad for reasons that have nothing to do with your ability to train ― and details that you might not consider important can impact your performance. Intense concentration and focus, or mentally-demanding stress at home or at work, might sap your self-regulatory powers, and this too would qualify as "neural fatigue". You're tired and not hitting all cylinders even though you didn't "do" anything.
Regardless of our natural tendencies, we can probably train and condition our psychological responsiveness to some degree. Even though behavioral leanings have a genetic component, there's truth in the statement "you do what you become". Baumeister has since discovered that willpower can indeed be trained with practice. By regularly flexing your self-control circuits, you can strengthen them much as a muscle gets stronger with practice. The more you exert your will and train your attentional focus, the better you get at staying focused and in control. I think that "self-training" is a crucial skill. Just as our muscles can tolerate a lot of things if we take the time to build up to them, so can our minds. A good many folks will give up the instant things get difficult on a psychological level, or throw up their hands and go "overtraining!" at the first signs of a sore muscle. Worse, they'll invoke science as a rationale. This is not simply a defeatist view, but one that depends on a particular set of ideas about the mind that, as I've hopefully demonstrated, just aren't right.
When you feel sore, achy, warm in the day or two after a hard workout, that's the immune system telling you that you're coping with the stress, what Smith called the cytokine hypothesis of overtraining. The overtraining symptoms experienced by athletes really are like being sick. Sickness behavior is the equivalent of muscle soreness for your entire body. "Squat flu" is your brain's way of making you aware that Something Big happened, and it's trying to make sure you aren't in danger (recall allostatic load from Chapter 3). You're experiencing a tantrum of the emotional brain percolating up into conscious awareness and creating a genuine feeling of illness, your brain gently nudging you away from more squats.
The "superadaptation" concept: the idea that the adaptive processes can, themselves, adapt. I think we should treat the psychological as we treat the muscular and neural, as another quality to train. The "fatigue" response isn't the enemy but another target of our training.
We're given a limited and naive view of recovery. The "feel bad" and the wacky hormones and HRV measurements aren't, by themselves, any indication that you've overtrained. You need to see when these symptoms happen and how long they last. They might go away. They might persist through your entire training cycle and then vanish after recovery during a deloading week. From day to day and week to week performance and stress-mode have little overlap. Where monitoring comes in handy, is in seeing when and how the stress-mode happens. If you've just made a change in training, maybe hit a new PR or added more volume, and you get a blip of autonomic disruption, then it's worth waiting to see what happens. If your lifestyle changes suddenly and you're more focused throughout the day, getting less sleep, or whatever else, it's worth waiting to see what happens. Monitoring your autonomic responses over time helps you make sure that increased workloads are "adaptable", and if not, that you take breaks to let everything settle down.
HRV isn't limited to measuring purely physical stress. Research showing that HRV can also detect the autonomic disruption caused by ego depletion. If you're zapped after a 12-hour drive or a hard day of sitting through meetings, you may not have the fight in you to have a spectacular workout and HRV will reflect that.
If you don't respond to brief, intense, and infrequent, then maybe you need to think practice. Practice builds proficiency with lots of repetition at the edge of our limits. Forget about hammering your poor body into submission. Coax it and nurture it through consistency and repetition. Aim to do as much quality work as possible. This is what daily lifting is all about. The more often you practice training, and training heavy, the better you become at it.
This isn't a strongly supportable claim unfortunately, but there are hints that the overall result, insofar as what you gain from time spent training, can scale according to the work you put in. That is, a "low responder" doing a high responder's low-volume workout may see poor results ― but that same person doing a more volume-heavy workout may suddenly transform into an average or high responder.
The lesson is that if you don't find that "less" works for you, then you might be better served by upping the amount of work you do.
V.S. Ramachandran speaks of the "James Bond reflex", in which the emotions are inhibited but the actions are not. This is what we call a dissociative state, in which you lose yourself in the moment and your emotions separate from the experience. This is the kind of thing that soldiers, police, and martini-sipping secret agents receive training for. Diminishing the automatic emotional response is, in effect, improving your recovery powers. I can't overstate how huge this is. You can train as often as you want as long as the motivated workouts are managed. Here, motivated workout covers any artificially-inflated performance. Using pre-workout stimulants. Psyching up to hit a training max. Entering a competition. Anything you do that elevates your performance above your normal calm baseline.
Psychology matters. Where you sit relative to the avoidant introvert or sensation-seeking extrovert, or between the neurotic high-reactor or sedate normal-reactor, impacts your life. Your intuitions, your gut feelings, your instinctive reactions, that all influences your physical state. Your mind lays the foundation for subsequent physical responses. What isn't so clear is which ― or how much ― of those tendencies are fixed, and what can be cultivated with effort. Plasticity means that nothing need be set in stone and many traits we've taken for granted as fixed actually can be changed with the right set of circumstances. If you train hard and often, will your mind and body trend towards a more stress-tolerant, fatigue-resistant mode? I think so. Training often conditions you to train often. We can train our whole psycho-biological system to handle brief, intense, and frequent stress events, to take the edge off and remove their destructive power.
A maximum effort anchors the top of the scale with a score of 10, which would be a best-right-now lift without the possibility of another unassisted rep. A nine leaves you with one or two reps, still hard but staying just shy of maximum. An eight leaves you with 2-4 possible reps ― heavy but comfortable ― while a seven qualifies as speed work, only felt as "hard" when you focus on acceleration. RPE measures quality. Lifts with RPE scores of 7-9 could be described as smooth, crisp, or springy, whereas a more fatiguing lift in the 9-10 range brings to mind words like grinding and straining. One rep or twenty, you can rate any set according to how hard it felt.
Forcing yourself to pay attention, to reflect on and honestly evaluate each set, adds information that percentages and sets can't quite capture, and this helps you keep your work sets dialed in to that zone of quality. Think smooth. Think crisp. Learning how to lift with quality is critical to any kind of training, but if you want to train hard on a regular basis, it's absolutely essential to be honest about your effort. Quality means less physical stress and less emotional stress, which means you'll feel more "recovered" between workouts. Quality means you're owning the weights, even if they're heavy and a little slow to the eye. Quality means deliberate practice, working right at the edge of your limits – but no further – every time. You're already naturally good at this. All you have to do is pay attention.
Single reps maximize the quality we're after. With only the one rep to worry about, technical cues and a focus on rep quality can take priority over straining with tired muscles. Lots of first-reps give you lots of opportunity to practice getting a complex lift down to an art. Since you can handle much heavier weights on average, you won't need to do as many total reps to see a big effect. Most of the "tone up without getting too bulky" crowd would find themselves right at home doing very low-rep sets, which build immense strength without size to go along with it.
Training with quality – heavy but smooth – keeps you fresh and in control of the weight.
If the weight you're lifting on the regular isn't treated as a threat by your body's coping systems, then you are avoiding most of the problems of ‘recovery'. Hitting a daily minimum won't do that. All the daily max does, then, is give you the option to tinker with the heaviest weight on the day. Specifically, the daily max method tests the maximum weight we can handle without getting mentally wound up.
Going by the RTS scale, you'll want most of your reps to fall in the 8-9 range, leaving you with a reserve of 1-4 reps. A daily training max wouldn't allow for second rep, but might still be 20-30 lbs shy of a genuine psyched-up max. If you like percentages, then you're looking at the 85-90% range, plus or minus a few percent depending on the lift and the person. The actual percentage will shift upwards as you get used to handling heavy things on the regular. Avoiding psyched-up grinders makes it really hard to get above 92-95% of a true contest max ― and that's exactly what we want.
This is not to suggest that these workouts are "easy". This is still good old fashioned hard work, and that's how the magic of daily training happens. Work hard, and keep your eyes open for opportunities ― whether that means a PR or an opportunity for a light day. So there's your plan: go hit a daily minimum and come home. After you've done that for a month, start tinkering with a daily max. This should translate to an RPE of no more than 8 or 9. When RPEs stay low and all your reps have snap, you can keep working up. When difficulty takes a jump, you're done. It's that simple.
Apollonian vs Dionysian
It might help if you think of your body as more like a garden than a factory. If you try to manage your garden like a factory, you probably aren't getting much of a crop. Gardens require tending rather than intrusive management. Tending a garden means guiding along processes which, for their intended purposes, are far smarter than you could ever be. Respect the garden's nature as an organic, fluid, adaptable system and it will flourish. Your job is to guide the ship, so to speak, to provide direction. That's how we need to envision the entire process of training for self-improvement, whether that means strength, muscle mass, or improving body composition to look better.
The undercurrents of order and control run deep in the modern world. We're under the impression that science, and the analytical, objectifying mindset implied behind science, can establish all truths if we just look hard enough. Friedrich Nietzsche called this the Apollonian tendency. The analytic mindset gives rise to an appearance of order, and that order is necessary for control. The entire enterprise is predicated on our need to be in charge.
Thinking on Apollo's terms might actually hold you back, robbing you of much-needed stimulus by focusing too much on orderly programs. We need to think more like the drunken Dionysus, adding a little uncertainty back to the process. Uncertainty can be frightening, but it also works for us. In fact, our bodies thrive on it ― and don't work right without it.
By autoregulating, the "daily max squats" will, more or less, take on a power-law structure. Most of your time will be spent doing lighter, easier work in the eustress zone with occasional breaks into high-payoff, PR-delivering workouts.
You don't always see the best improvements by aiming for small increments and mediocre progress, hanging out around the middle of the Bell curve. Think big. Think aggressive. Think extreme. Contrast between ups and downs is a better fit to living bodies than a fixed schedule of progressive overload. Lots of small doses and occasional extremes can create better long-term results than a gradual, incremental process. Since we can see the pattern, but can't predict the highs and lows, we autoregulate. You cannot predict your condition, but you can prepare yourself for the uncertainties.
A shocking number of people have it in their heads that running head-first into the wall of a maxed-out lift is the way to get stronger. All that does is wear you down and destroy your motivation. By thinking in terms of "lots of training" and contrasts between ups and downs, none of that even matters. When you're squatting 5-6 days a week, a bad workout is nothing. So you've had a bad day? You're coming back tomorrow. You've totally removed your mental investment in any single session. On a 12-week cycle, a bad workout can be ruinous. When you're auto-regulating on a regular basis, mistakes are painless. No single workout is that important; you can absorb a screw-up and still benefit from it. This approach to performance improvement, ditching the Apollonian in favor of the reckless and unpredictable Dionysian – exploiting the contrast between highs and lows – is what I've taken to calling the Longtails Strategy.
We'll be putting the asymmetry between brief, stressful effort and cool relaxation to work. Our mindset needs to be thus: Light is light. Heavy is heavy. The middle ground is best avoided. These terms are vague at best, so let me clarify that I'm talking about a somewhat less vague idea which I'll call training effectiveness. Training effectiveness is all the effortful things about the workout. Heavy weights count. High reps taken to the limit, even as high as 20-30 or more, count. Anything involving mental effort, grinding, and straining ― and lots of it ― would be a "heavy" workout by this standard. A light workout would fall on the other side of the continuum: medium to light weights, lower volume, and most importantly, only lightly tapping into the mental-neurological stuff. You'd be tempted to call that "easy" training, but that's not the route I want to go. "Easy" gives the impression that these workouts are useless or somehow not manly enough to be productive, but I don't believe that to be the case. The effort dimension and the actual fitness-promoting effects on the body are two different things. You're still moving in a light workout; nerves are firing and muscles are contracting. Training effectiveness, as I mean it here, can be summarized as the net effect on your body, which is maximized by exhausting yourself with straining, grinding effort. A light workout would score very low, whereas a heavy workout would be high. In that sense, we're trying to tie it back to our emotional state. You need to be able to train without emotional effort most of time, and then to intentionally drop adrenaline on days you're good for it. Most of you will naturally want to do the latter, all the time, when in reality we need to learn to do what Dan John calls "punching the clock" for the bulk of our workouts.
Daily Squatting: What I Did
My workouts were set up to focus on two main exercises, which were a squat and a press, and then anywhere from one to three accessory moves depending on my motivation and energy level. It was almost always one upper-back exercise, either chin-ups or dumbbell rows, and then if I felt like it, a few sets for arms. Back squats and bench presses were the bread and butter, with front squats making an easy substitution if I wanted a lighter day. Also, if you have any concern about your overhead pressing strength ― and I did ― you might want to rotate it in as well. I alternated days between push press and bench. The first time I ran through this, I alternated back and front squats, as well as bench and overhead presses, each workout, for a total of five days a week. I found this made for a nice heavy-light contrast between days. In a later cycle, I stuck to back squats but alternated between belted and non-belted lifts as a way of tinkering with the daily effort levels.
I aimed for the daily max as I outlined in the last chapter, and it quickly turned into a focus more on the daily minimum ― after a week or two, I knew what I'd be able to hit as a "no-brainer" weight for the day, and I always made that my benchmark. If I could do more, I would. If I wasn't feeling so hot, I'd hit it and call it done. When that weight wasn't on the table, because I was achy or just couldn't get the juice to switch on (you will come to know what this means), it meant I needed a couple of days off.
Ramping It Up
The "small jumps" approach gets in a lot of volume, easily 10-12 sets before you get anywhere near daily-max territory. I found this was useful for building "strength fitness", since the small change in weight combined with low reps means you don't have to (or want to) rest very long. If you're doing this every day, though, it can get boring, and sometimes you don't want to go through all the motions.
In the "big jumps" warmup, I'd take as few sets as possible to get near the day's training weight, and then see where I stood. Most days, I'd stop there or add maybe five kilos if I was feeling good. An exceptional day would hit anywhere from 10-20kg over that baseline weight.
Which do you pick? I think that big jumps are best when you're going hard-out, hitting the lift every day or near to it. After 5-6 consecutive days of squatting or benching, you won't need much of a warmup. That means the opposite if you're only hitting the lift twice or three times. You'll get more play from a lot of sets on the way up. On days when you don't feel switched-on, it's a judgment call. You might want to make the big jumps and call it done, but I found that a lot of these days I came in feeling bad were misleading. I'd get 5-6 sets into a warmup and suddenly the lights would come on. You might find that doing more warmups gets the power flowing. I think there's something for doing more warmups on exercises you're bad at, too. There's just something to building a weak lift with volume before you tackle more intense max-lift training.
I found it was better to cap the reps at say 5-6 on the light weights, maybe as much as ten with the bar, and then limit it to triples on anything beyond the first plate or two (if you're a lot stronger). You make up for that by doing multiple sets at each weight.
The Bulgarian weightlifters used a series of waved attempts up to the daily training max, which set the bar for the day (so to speak), then backed off for a few sets and then moved back up to that training max for a few more attempts. This would be repeated two or three times at each workout, much as below:
Wave 1: -20kg for 2, -10kg for 1, Tmax for 3-4 singles
Wave 2: -10kg for 2, -5kg for 1, Tmax for 2-4 singles
Wave 3: -20kg for 2, -10kg for 2, Tmax for 3-4 singles
With the Bulgarian waves, I was getting a lot of training max singles, and then back-offs that weren't very backed-off. I also found it too easy to get riled up, pushing too hard thanks to pushing myself into a "beat the record" mentality. Max singles have a way of getting in your head and becoming almost addictive. Hit one and you want to hit more. I was reminded of something the late coach Charlie Francis once wrote, roughly paraphrased: the hardest part of the coach's job is holding back an enthusiastic athlete. It's easy to get in "dare mode" with yourself, where hitting a heavy attempt makes you want to lift more heavy attempts.
I think the best option is to wave your back-off sets. Instead of backing down to -20kg and grinding out sets at that weight, change the weight each set. Do a triple at -20, then a double at -10, and alternate like that. You might want to work back up to the max again, or you might not.
Back Off Sets
I always tried to hit at least 2-3 back-off sets unless I was totally wiped out. I'd just take 15-30kg off the bar and try to knock out some triples. How many? It always depended on how the daily max went. I found that I'd have days where the top lift would be mediocre, but I was able to crank the volume. Other days the opposite would be true.
Pushing back-off sets too soon will take you bad places. Always be conservative; if you aren't sure, the answer is no. Like the daily max itself, the volume of back-off sets needs to ease in slowly. Be consistent and it will come to you. If in doubt, the answer is no.
Anchor Days, Higher Reps, and Split Schedules
Some days will feel like "intensity" days, when you want to push the top weights. Others will be more "volume" days, where you stay easy on the top weights but hammer out the back-off work. If you find you've got a day that consistently pops up as a "high energy" day, you might want to anchor it and leave it as your PR day. It doesn't matter what you do; pick something on the day that feels right, and try to beat your previous record.
Once you start anchoring days like this, you may notice something like a "real program" taking shape. That is also okay, because you arrived at it by tinkering and figuring it out yourself by actually training, rather than trying to organize it all from a manager's top-down point of view. Pay attention to these lessons.
Cluster-reps, like Borge Fagerli's Myo-Reps, would be a good fit as you can tinker with both the initial weight and the total amount of reps. Using rest-paused clusters, you'd work to a high RPE, maybe an 8 or 9, and then set your timer for 30 second rests between ‘mini-sets'. You might hit 8-10 reps on the initial set, then drop back to triples for the mini-sets, stopping when you reach a point of fatigue or a target rep-count. I think you can bring in any of these ‘rep methods' for your back-off sets if you keep the volume low. You might want to see about hitting say 2-3 sets of 5-6 reps or even 8-10 reps after a daily max, just for something different.
If you aren't totally sold on squatting and pressing every single day, the easiest change you can make that will still keep you in the ballpark is a two-way split. Popular choices would be upper and lower body, hitting bench and overheads and then squats and pulls, or pushing and pulling, hitting squats and pressing followed by pulling and back assistance. You could train six days each week, so that each one day is repeated three times, or if you don't care about days off, just alternate back and forth until you need or want a day off. I haven't toyed with either long enough to say which I like best, although the push-pull type of split is similar to what I wound up doing anyway. The main difference is that you'd get more pulling, since you'd have three ‘pull' workouts instead of throwing them in as subs for squats, and less overhead pressing, since it would have to work with benching. Honestly, nothing would stop you from using a simple squat/bench and overhead/pull split, and I think that would be a good choice.
Dealing with the Deadlift
Being at once redundant with squatting and entirely different in how it responds, the deadlift is hard to mesh with a daily squatting program. I've tried two solutions, neither of which is entirely satisfying, but each is worth trying for your own sake.
Treat the deadlift as speed work, aiming for six to ten singles or doubles with that magic weight of 70-80%. Shoot for quality and stay away from any attempt that even remotely grinds. This is John Broz's suggestion, and I've found it to be practical. Once you get fairly strong at the pull (let's say 2-2.5 times bodyweight just for a number), you'll find that the useful percentages can drop down as low as 50-60%, and especially so if you're squatting regularly. You'll be able to get more out of lighter weights than you might think, so don't turn up your nose at a deadlift workout that's "only" 70%.
Train it like the squat but at much lower volume, much like Anthony Ditillo suggested. Work up to a medium-heavy, non-grindy triple and call it a day. After squatting you'll already be warmed up anyway, so it shouldn't take many sets to get there. On days you pull, you could be more conservative with your squat back-offs, or even do front squats instead.
You could combine the two methods, with one relatively hard deadlift workout and then another day or two to do fast singles or doubles. I found this option appealing since I love to pull, so I'd set aside Thursday for light front squats (up to a casual training max with no back-offs) or no squatting at all, and then give the deadlift some attention. On one or two other days, I'd do fast pulls as either speed deadlifts or high pulls. I don't think the kind of pulling you do matters as long as it involves a tight setup and a lot of speed or intent-of-speed explosiveness.
When using a planned max, be careful about taking attempts over that weight even if you feel good. You can get away with that on a squat, but the deadlift is not so forgiving of missed reps so take extra care in choosing your attempts. If there's doubt, you're done.
I think that, like most everything else, you'll benefit the most from cycling in between squat-focused and deadlift-focused phases.
How to Ease In
When you first begin, you'll face two hurdles, and both of them are more mental than physical.
You're nervous when you train. You've been told repeatedly, but you haven't trained yourself for calm arousal yet, so nerves are normal. You're going to get worked up automatically at the sight (or thought) of a heavy weight. Your nerves trigger the stress-response before you lift and make it worse after you lift. As long as this is happening, your perception of recovery time will take a hit. You'll learn to relax with time and practice, but it's probably out of your hands at the beginning.
Your muscles and connective tissues aren't prepared for regular exposures to intense loading. When you squat every day, it will hurt no matter what weights you lift. Frequency has its own break-in curve. After a week or two, your legs (or whatever else) get used to it and it becomes part of the daily routine. But that can't happen if, instead of just squatting, you decide to alternate box jumps, sprints, leg extensions and leg curls, and whatever else you think of. You never give the legs time to adapt to any single input.
There are two approaches to take when jumping in to higher frequency. The slow and gradual approach has you add sessions over months, and only when your volume gets high enough do you let it spill over into an extra workout. And then there's the head-first approach, in which you jump right in to five, six, or seven days a week. This has the advantage of quickly adapting you to the frequency, at the cost of extra soreness and probably a few weeks of diminished strength. If you're after longevity and planning out over a career, the slow and steady approach is worth keeping in mind. I favor the second approach if you want to give daily squatting a try for shorter training cycles. Frequent loading needs its own adjustment, and there's no real way to get your toes wet without going all in.
No matter how well you manage your training and keep your stress in check, you might find that you hit a wall after 4-6 months of training. It won't be physical. You might notice that you feel more soreness than usual, maybe the aches and pains acting up a little more, maybe some nagging tendinitis. Otherwise you feel good, without any of the expected "overtraining" feelings, but the spark's gone. You're just sick of training. When that happens, I think that you're as close as you'll get to genuine overtraining by way of lifting weights. You lose the desire to go to the gym, you have no motivation to train. You've gone stale when, just a few days before, you were ready to go squat. When this happens after several months of high workloads, you can almost bet that you're dabbling with emotional exhaustion. You're literally sick of training.
Don't panic, though. You can be saved. If you notice this happening, the first thing to do is handle the symptoms. Mild doses of anti-inflammatories help both with physical pain but also in controlling cytokine production, which can be useful in blunting the feedback to the brain which triggers the central symptoms. The key thing, though, is getting the skillet off the fire: remove the cause and the symptoms settle down on their own. Plain old rest is one way to do this. Stay home, eat good food, and relax instead of worrying about your squat. Don't be shy, either. Take two, even three weeks, and get your head out of the gym. That's one option, though I don't like it very much. John Broz says to keep going through these dark times. "You can always squat the bar," says Broz. Keep moving, rather than retreating to the couch, even if you're only doing a whole lot of reps with the bar. You're keeping muscles and joints mobile, and more importantly, you're keeping in the habit. I think the not-stopping part is key. Stopping means you lose your momentum, and it's hard to get back when you're feeling mentally burned out. Do something, even if it's just body-weight squats or kettlebell swings. Active rest is better than atrophying on the couch.
Light means light. Light means that the weights feel way too easy and you leave before you're anywhere near tired. It means feeling like you wasted a workout. You feel like you didn't go anything? Good. That's the point. What can you do for light days? If you're going by autoregulation, keep everything at an RPE of 7 or 8. With a planned-out training max, cap yourself at 60% for a set of 3-5 and call it a day. Everything should feel fresh and snappy, so if you have a day where 50% of your usual training max feels slow, you're done. No arguing. Go home. If you've been in the gym 5-6 days (or more) every week, scale that back to two or three. Keep mobile at home with body-weight exercises, stretching, and mobility drills.
Treat this as a long-term wave: we spent a few months going all-in. Now it's time to throttle back and train lighter for awhile. Just as your daily and weekly workouts will self-organize into a program, as if by magic, your yearly schedule will naturally break itself into phases.
I don't believe that any single HRV measurement tells you much, as per the current thoughts on establishing how "ready" you are to train ― I've had days where I've been stressed off the charts by HRV but still knocking over workouts like nothing. A negative trend over time, though, and especially combined with feeling bad and underwhelming performances, can be a good sign you need a break. You can tolerate that "excited" state for awhile, but even a well-conditioned body with well-managed training needs time to bleed off the wear-and-tear of fatigue. If you're willing and able to be honest and take the down time when you need it, then you can autoregulate your rest days and deload weeks. I will say that I think this approach works best as a group effort, even if it's just you and a training partner. One brain can lie. A group can have a more objective eye. For that reason, I think that you're better off with scheduled breaks and even yearly blocks as a solo lifter. Even the Bulgarians took light and easy weeks once a month, and entire light cycles every few months. Penciling in deload weeks, a light cycle every 4-6 months, and even breaking your year into something like "heavy strength" and "light bodybuilding" phases means that you have reason to take the downtime and less incentive to skip it. The game plan takes your ego out of the picture. But remember, you don't even have to stick to that schedule if you find yourself overwhelmed, and if you're exceptionally beat up, take two weeks or four weeks of casual training to recharge. I think that the mental reset is more important than the physical when you feel burn-out coming on, and flexibility is always the paramount concern.
Over time, not keeping your tendons mobile and loaded after strenuous exercise can actually make them weaker. This means that Broz was largely right. Training hard but only infrequently, with the goal of "getting more rest", actually aggravates joint and connective tissue injuries, doing the exact opposite of what's needed to keep them healthy.
Be Easy: A Warning for Beginners and Everyone Else
Some things can't be learned by telling. Some things require a total change of perspective, so completely rewire and reframe your thoughts, that they can only happen with direct experience ― or hindsight. Raw information doesn't mean a thing without the right perspective. Information can be taught. Perspective must come from experience. For the more cynical take, we can't learn except for screwing up.
The most useful advice I'd want my younger self to follow: relax, slow down, and let things take shape on their own accord. There's little use in forcing things out, and then stressing out when they don't work out as you planned. Set ambitious goals, yes, but don't let them own you.
Strength is built on a foundation of muscle. "Neural" training works by squeezing all the potential out of what muscle is there. You cannot tease out an impressive strength level from an under-muscled ectomorphic frame. You need muscle.
You aren't tuned in to your body, and even if you are, you're more likely to ignore it and train by your ego. If you can't train patiently, really spend time introspecting and learning when it's go-time, and when it's time to go home, then you are going to fail if you try to lift every day. You will overestimate what you can do, push too hard, and burn yourself out. You haven't learned how to train, and no amount of good intentions will overcome that. If that describes you ― and I mean really, honestly describes you ― then you have no business using many of the ideas I've put forth. You can begin the process, make a habit of paying attention to how your sets feel and writing down RPEs so that you learn how you respond. You can practice "training calm" and learning to feel out the difference between an emotional lift and a casual effort. But training every day, for the beginner, tends to be an exercise in ego rather than productive, progressive training. You probably won't listen ― Younger Me wouldn't have ― but I had to say it.
This book has, in its own way, been about what you believe as much as what you do. Whether you believe that you're in charge and responsible for your results, or the product of favorable statistical outcomes. Whether you believe that overtraining is a crippling malady best avoided and thus justifying plenty of rest, or it's just a transient sensation that goes away with practice. Whether you believe you can get stronger by thinking "practice" instead of "destroy". Whether you focus on every last detail or just go get it done.
How can we accept biological inevitability, and yet take back a sense of control and purpose? How can we use randomness and our optimistic biases to our advantage, instead of falling victim to ego-stroking or bitterness when you realize that you probably won't achieve certain goals? That all comes down to how you define "results" and what you expect out of your efforts. Understand the mindset and you can make anything work.
In virtually every instance, growth-minded individuals out-perform their success-driven counterparts. The people who focus on the doing, rather than the achieving, tend to get better results. The fixed mindset creates an ego-preserving need to win at any cost, to the point that they don't want to accomplish so much as they want to have accomplished. From a psychological perspective, this little detail makes all the difference in getting it done and giving up at the first hiccup. Dweck's work with children, athletes, and high-powered executives has repeatedly shown that our beliefs in the "fixedness" of human characteristics matter, regardless of the reality.
How much do you poison yourself by dwelling on "genetic potential" and training by a philosophy of what you can't do? You believe in your poor genetics. You believe that you need a special "hardgainer" workout. You believe that it's normal to struggle squatting your body weight. You've bought in to your own mediocrity, judging yourself according to what speculation and quasi-scientific theorizing tell you "should" be happening. You cannot buy in to that set of ideas without implicitly accepting that you are genetically unfit and destined to be a puny weakling no matter what you do. That might be the practical viewpoint. It might even be "right" in the strictest biological sense, but it isn't useful. When you train because you enjoy it and believe in what you're doing, you'll work hard at it. You don't miss workouts. You push harder and give it an honest run. Even if the training isn't "perfect" it yields results through consistency. Perfect is not a word that applies to biological systems in the first place, so there's little hope that numbers you write down on a page could fit that.
Act with intent. Focus your attention on the task at hand and cultivate self-discipline. Make the effort without making it effortful. I'm talking, on the one hand, about mindfulness, what practitioners of Buddhist meditation would call experiencing the "not-self". Existing fully in the moment. No distractions, no attachments, no ego or sense of self. Just being. I'm also talking about the awareness and intention that comes from that state-of-being, when you're able to immerse yourself in the activity so completely that you lose yourself along the way. Buddhist monks take walks or even do manual labor in order to experience that state, what they call "walking zazen". It's about relaxing, letting go, and losing yourself in the doing of the thing. No emotion, no effort. Just doing.
These are exactly the things we want to happen with quality training. You want to move the weight aggressively, with snap, and you get instant feedback through the RPE score. You want to make your sets challenging enough to test you but not so overwhelming ― emotionally or physically ― that you feel out of control or don't have fun with it.
The weights you use from day to day are not important. Relax and let strength happen. Let it come to you. Progress takes care of itself when you allow gains to happen. Lots of little changes add up to big numbers.
Setting an unlikely goal and then hedging all your bets on it will lead to disappointment. When optimism crosses the line into blatant self-delusion and your ego rides on the outcome, you've already failed. Optimism has to be balanced with rationality and cold pragmatism. Otherwise you wind up like the fixed-mindset children: you want to serve the ego, hit those big numbers, and you forget all about the enjoyment of doing. Forget the goal, take your self out of the equation, and just train. Immerse yourself. Center your workouts on effortless effort. Seek optimal experience. Be mindful. Do what happens and nothing more. You just go train, and forget the rest.
These workouts aren't just meaningless rituals or superstitions. They serve a purpose: they focus you and discipline you. Pre-workout rituals, training partners, teams, and coaches, even the habit of going to train all creates a structure that you operate within. Meditation, mindfulness, the flow-state, these all indicate that head-space where quality work is being done. These strategies are all about imposing a sense of order on your self.