Most people, when they first train to improve their athleticism, have some level of success in the first few months. However, most people also stop having success beyond those first few months. Long-term progress is actually pretty rare. Why? We could list numerous reasons, but one of the big ones is lack of an effective long-term plan. A lot of people pick a particular training method that worked for them originally and just do the heck out of it. A high school athlete may start a plyometric program and jump a few inches higher within weeks. The response then is to just keep doing those plyometrics, which will likely produce little to no improvement ever again. Or perhaps an athlete starts a lifting program and has great results in the first couple months. The response then is to just lift and lift and lift, always hoping for the same results that happened in the beginning. But it doesn’t happen. So how do we get around this problem? There has to be a long-term training plan because physical stress has long-term effects on the human body. This is a critical concept to understand. It is not as if the workouts in January produce the athlete in February, and the workouts in February produce the athlete in March. It is the summation of all previous training and adaptation that produces athleticism at a given time. Even physical activity during childhood has huge effects on athletic ability during the adult years. So we have to go beyond putting together a good week of workouts and instead have a long-term strategy. The body is an overwhelmingly complex organism, so long-term training progression, or periodization, has turned into a science by itself. There are numerous approaches to managing the ups and downs of various physiological qualities over time. Doing so successfully requires expertise. I do not intend to discuss periodization thoroughly in this article or in any article. I want to talk specifically about one particular athletic phenomenon, the Long-Term Delayed Effect (LTDE) of strength training, the principle we learn from it, and a very loose periodization model designed to harness its power.

The LTDE of strength training is a somewhat mysterious significant increase in athleticism that occurs when an athlete stops a rigorous strength training regimen and gets rest. It was discovered by Yuri Verkhoshansky, a Russian track coach and sports training scientist and probably the all-time most important contributor to the sports training field. Back in the 1950s, strength training was widely viewed as exercise that made people bulky and slow. Verkhoshansky was one of the pioneers who first used barbell exercises successfully to improve the performance of track and field athletes. His first observation of the LTDE phenomenon occurred during his short career as a track and field coach. In his coaching position, he did not have access to an indoor track facility to use during the winter. As a result his athletes spent the winter performing barbell exercises and explosive jumps in a small training space that was available. In the spring they moved to a warmer climate for their specific event practice. After lifting for the entire winter, the athletes reached surprisingly high performance levels in the spring while they were not strength training. Years later Verkhoshansky hoped to duplicate those results in experimental research. He took a group of athletes and put them on an intense strength training program. The lifting initially resulted in decreased performance in all the athletes. Then one of them got pregnant and stopped the strength training. However, Verkhoshansky continued to monitor her athleticism. After resting from the strength training, her performance shot up to a significantly higher level than before the experiment. The other research subjects followed suit and experienced similar results. In following years, Verkhoshansky continued to study this phenomenon with numerous experiments and officially identified the LTDE as a verifiable physiological phenomenon. From his results he was able to predict the behavior of the phenomenon. (See the graph below. A is strength training volume. B is sprinting, bounding, jumping, etc volume. f curves are performance level.) For example, he found that the lower an athlete’s performance dropped during the strength training period, the higher it would shoot up during the following explosive training period. Unless performance dropped too low. Then instead of overshooting during explosive training it would slowly rise back to where it was originally. Verkhoshansky also found that the time an athlete spent strength training was roughly equal to the time it took to reach an athletic peak after the strength training. Think about that. An athlete lifts hard for 3 months. The athlete stops lifting and does not peak athletically until 3 months later! Track athletes, how does that make you feel about lifting all the way through your season? My goal is not to get everyone to do Verkhoshansky’s training protocol. I don’t even know what his strength block looked like other than that it involved a high amount of training stress. What I want to focus on is the general concept that strength training often does not produce athletic gains right away. Rather it creates potential which can only be realized after strength training ceases.

SuperCompensation

Verkhoshansky’s SuperCompensation Curve

The LTDE phenomenon is not easy to explain.  The following are merely some speculations. An increase in fast-twitch muscle fibers is certainly involved. The decrease in total training stress and the switch to high-speed training should cause that increase via the same mechanism as the Overshoot Phenomenon. There could also be some structural adaptation involved. Since strength training is very different from sprinting and jumping, it’s safe to say that there must be some different adaptation to the two types of training. Perhaps the muscle-tendon complex gets a little more spring-like without the strength training stimulus. But to some extent, muscle tension is muscle tension, right? The biggest factor seems to be the general fatigue that comes from frequent lifting and then the subsequent recovery from that fatigue. But that fatigue is a bit of a mystery in itself.

Is it structural fatigue? Muscular adaptation to strength training takes place in days or even overnight in experienced lifters. Connective tissue adaptation is slower, but still not something that would be going on months after the stimulus ceased. The constant high stress on these load-bearing tissues results in chronic inflammation. Perhaps the body is less willing to recruit muscle fibers because of the inflammation. Structural issues may contribute to the decrease in performance from heavy lifting, but structural recovery seems like something achieved in a week of rest, not over the course of months.

Is the fatigue hormonal? We know that strength training provokes strong hormonal response, a large increase in testosterone among other things. What if the tissue in hormonal glands cannot produce enough to keep up with the constant physical stress? If an athlete has low testosterone or growth hormone, it would certainly slow down recovery from physical stress. But is there any way it would directly impact athletic performance?

What might do that is adrenal fatigue. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are hormones that up-regulate the nervous system to make it more excitable for physical activity. A shortage of those hormones would certainly lead to decreased maximum and explosive strength. Strength training does carry with it a high demand for adrenaline, but is the adrenal gland fatigued by frequent strength training? I know during my periods of fatigue due to lifting, I tend to feel a little tired during my workouts when I should be amped up. That goes along with the idea of the nervous system not being fully up-regulated. So perhaps adrenal fatigue is a factor in the decreased athletic performance. But how long would recovery from adrenal fatigue take?

Is the nervous system itself fatigued? In the strength and conditioning world, Central Nervous System (CNS) fatigue is a term that gets thrown around a lot. Whenever an athlete is not performing well, it is supposedly due to CNS fatigue. But how does this fatigue happen? Is the neuronal circuitry in the brain that drives muscle contraction worn out somehow? Does the myelin sheath of spinal cord neurons get worn away by so many signals traveling down the axon? What we do know is that strength training does demand a lot from the nervous system. During a heavy lift, a maximal effort muscle contraction is sustained for a couple seconds. That involves recruiting as many motor units as possible, sending signals to each motor unit at the fastest possible rate (possibly 500 per second), and sustaining that for a couple seconds to complete one heavy repetition. That is a lot of stress. It’s not a physical stress like muscle tension, but some type of chemical, physiological stress. It’s safe to assume that there is some type of recovery and adaptation that occurs in response to that stress. The problem is we cannot feel our nervous system like we can feel our muscles, so we don’t know what kind of condition it is in. As muscles grow accustomed to the physical stress of lifting, athletes stop getting sore, which allows them to train harder and train more. This leads to an accumulation of fatigue over months of training. People keep lifting frequently, because their muscles feel fine. Meanwhile their nervous system just gets burnt out.

The other factors mentioned above may contribute to fatigue from lifting. But I believe CNS fatigue and a decrease in average twitch speed of muscle fibers are the primary source of the long-term drop or stagnancy in performance that results from strength training in advanced athletes. I also believe those factors are the cause of frustration in thousands of athletes who lift and lift and lift and simply cannot get more athletic. They try new things, switch up their approach, lift harder and harder, but the only solution is to STOP.

We have to remember how the body works. It adapts to the stress placed on it. The stress of strength training is quite different from the stress of running and jumping, so it is impossible to be fully adapted to both at the same time. Remember the physiology of high-speed athleticism. All the muscle fibers cannot be activated in quick athletic movements. They are too fast. The purpose of weight lifting is to improve the strength, both neurally and structurally, of the muscle fibers that are activated in fast movements. As that adaptation occurs, CNS fatigue and a decrease in fiber twitch speed come along with it. In advanced athletes, those detrimental results of strength training outweigh the beneficial results. So strength training just creates potential for athletic improvement. The only way to realize that potential is to reverse those detrimental results. That can only happen if strength training is stopped.

The first and only objection to not lifting for an extended period of time is, “I’ll lose all my strength.” This simply is not true. Again, it is so important to understand that training has long-term effects. Adaptations that took months or years do not disappear in a couple weeks. In the case of consistent heavy lifting, the adaptation cannot even finish until lifting stops and the body can recover. If your body is fatigued, the initial result of stopping strength training is getting stronger. After the initial gain, maintaining strength is simply a matter of using your muscles. Assuming that you play a sport or do some explosive training a couple times each week, your strength will stick around. The only way to make strength drop off is laying in bed all day and/or not eating. Will you be able to turn around and have the same 1-rep max after months of not lifting? Not likely. You will probably lose a little bit. But think back to the physiological view. When you lose that little bit of your max strength, what are you really losing? It’s the strength in the muscle fibers that you do not get to activate in high-speed movements. That loss does not affect athleticism. Explosive strength, the strength that you can actually use in your sport, actually increases when lifting stops. Also, the max strength comes back quickly. The little bit of strength lost during an active break is typically gained back within a month of lifting. In the months following, the previous strength level can be exceeded. For people not gifted in strength, taking breaks from lifting can actually be helpful in getting stronger. Rather than trying to train through a plateau, resting and then going at it again with a fresh nervous system can be more effective. Lastly, you have to keep your priorities straight. Heavy lifting and explosive athletic movements are very different activities. You cannot be your best in both at the same time. There has to be a sacrifice. If you are a sprinting and jumping athlete, at some point you have to fully commit to your sport. Temporarily losing 10% of your max squat is not a big deal. You cannot fall in love with the weight room.

With these things in mind, we can put together a very loose periodization model for long-term athletic improvement. Here it is. Step 1: Lift for a while. Step 2: Don’t lift for a while. That’s it. Details beyond that depend on the specific situation. Here are some general principles to follow. The longer Step 1 is, the longer Step 2 should be. The more fatigued you get during Step 1, the longer Step 2 should be. During Step 2, the more explosive training or sport participation you do, the longer it will take to recover from Step 1. As an example, let’s say you have a 4-month competitive season that involves daily practice. You could strength train for seven months, break yourself down about a month before the season, and then not lift until the season is over. Another example, let’s say you’re just training to dunk, doesn’t matter when. You could strength train for three months, break yourself down, and then spend two months doing two plyometric/jumping workouts per week. The model can be adapted to any situation, but the process remains the same. Strength train to create potential. Stop strength training to let athleticism kick in. That second part of the process is what so many athletes never do. And it’s the key to long-term athletic development.

How do you know if you should stop lifting? Obviously plenty of people have done a lifting program, gotten stronger, and gained athleticism right away. This happens regularly to athletes who use the Jump Science program. It is not uncommon to hear an athlete is jumping four inches higher after the first four weeks of training. This is a fantastic experience. But it does not last. This type of fast success occurs when athletes are in what I call, quite simply, the Easy Stage of athletic development. In this stage, adaptation comes easy, and multiple beneficial adaptations do not interfere much with each other. For the sake of discussion, let’s simplify athleticism down to a product of strength and explosiveness. When an athlete is undeveloped in these areas, gains can be made in both areas at the same time. Or maybe strength can be increased while explosiveness is maintained. Either scenario results in immediate athletic improvement. As athletes progress in their strength and explosiveness, they have less and less potential for improvement in those abilities, stronger stimuli and more time are required to provoke improvement, and strength training has a larger negative effect on explosiveness. As a result, athletes lift but often do not get stronger. Even if they do get stronger, athleticism stays the same or even decreases due to loss of explosiveness. This is the Hard Stage of athletic development. Every time athletes begin intense training, they progress from the Easy Stage to the Hard Stage. Younger, less advanced athletes with less training experience will be in the Easy Stage longer. It may be several months. On the other hand, highly trained, advanced athletes may start in the Hard Stage with no time at all in the Easy Stage. Regardless, every athlete hits the Hard Stage at some point and will stay in that stage making no athletic improvements until they stop strength training. With those things in mind, if you’re in the Easy Stage, by all means keep lifting. If you get stronger and more athletic every week or even every month, do not stop. Later on when your gains stall is when you need to stop. My recommendation is to stop lifting after you have been in the Hard Stage for at least six weeks. That means six weeks of lifting but not getting more athletic. Accumulate some fatigue, break yourself down a little bit, earn the rest. That creates potential for amazing results when your body recovers.

Ok, after all my rambling, the question is, “Does it work?” Let me share some stories…

Chris, the athlete in a bunch of my youtube videos, had a great first two months of training. He gained six inches on his vert from 28 inches to 34. This was the Easy Stage. After that things got very difficult. When Chris would begin strength training, his vert would go down. After a few months of lifting, he would have to rest for a couple months before his vertical would shoot up to higher than before. That is the pattern he followed to reach his 40-inch vertical.

I got an email from a high schooler who had been training his vert. He had been making great progress in the weight room for several months, but his vertical was stuck at 30 inches. I told him to stop lifting and gave him a program with two plyometric workouts per week and nothing else. A month later I got another email…  
ive been doin that peaking phase you wrote for me and its working great ive got my vert up to about 38″ from 30″ without making any strength gains.”

In the summer and fall of 2012, I trained University of Wisconsin basketball recruit, Bronson Koenig. We put a lot of work into improving his strength in the weight room. He saw athletic improvements early on, because he was coming off an injury. But then the improvements stopped. A month before basketball season started, we stopped his strength training. A few weeks later, he was quicker than ever and jumping 40 inches. (see video) And he did that without even being flexible.

In August 2012 I started training a collegiate 400m hurdler, Alex. The first month of training yielded increased strength, power, and athleticism. He was in the Easy Stage. After that, things slowed down. He continued to make slow strength gains but not noticeable athletic improvement. He stopped strength training during the indoor season while he competed in the heptathlon. He set numerous PRs in those events, but that’s not what I want to talk about. He did six more weeks of lifting going into the outdoor season. He set a PR in the 400 hurdles in his first race. This was a result of his increased power. But then we stopped all his lifting seven weeks before NCAA nationals. Over that time he got fresh and explosive, and his times kept improving. He ended up running a 53.15 and qualifying for nationals. That was 2.45 seconds faster than his first race of the season and 3.13 seconds faster than his PR from the previous year. Taking three seconds off a 400 time at the collegiate level is unheard of. He achieved that because he stopped lifting. And to be honest, I don’t think he had fully peaked yet.

I trained a former collegiate sprinter for a few months in spring of 2013. He did a rigorous strength training program and then stopped lifting. Unfortunately we never got to see how fast he could have been. He rested for two months. His first time back in the weight room, he “didn’t go super hard,” yet he completed a set of box squats that he could not have even dreamed of attempting back when he was lifting. Honestly, I would estimate that his box squat strength went up over 20 kilos while he rested for two months. Is that typical? No, but it is an example that demonstrates how long recovery from strength training can take.

I posted the above story on the Jump Science facebook page. Go figure, in the comments I got another testimony of delayed athletic gains from training. Read it.

Here’s another facebook post with three more testimonials, one in the email convo and two in the comments. Read it.

Yes, this strategy has worked for me as well. The dunk video on the opening page of this site was a product of over two months of no strength training.

To the athletes across the globe slaving away in the weight room all year long. I invite you to step out into enlightenment and take a break. Remember who you are. You’re a running and jumping athlete. You’re supposed to be loose and limber, light on your feet, and explosive. You are not a powerlifter. Leave behind the aches and pains, the fatigue, and the slowness of strength training. Let your body get fresh and feeling good. Just go be an athlete for a while. The results will amaze you.