Reversibility – A Personal Account - Performance Training Academy

All fitness professionals should have a good understanding of the Principles of Training:

  • Overload
  • Adaption
  • Specificity
  • Progression and Regression
  • Rest and Recovery
  • Reversibility

Each of these principles should be considered and used appropriately in individual training programmes. We need to ‘Overload’ to achieve goals, we need to  ensure that the training we programme is ‘Specific’ to our goal, we need to periodise our training to give our bodies time to ‘Adapt’, on so on.

What I would like to explain a little about is the principle of ‘Reversibility’. For this I can draw upon my own experience and the effects it has had on my own body, in terms of health, fitness, strength and composition.

A brief history about myself…

To summarise, I have been training since of the age of 17 (at the date of this being published I am 34). I have had many different goals and periodised training routines over the years, I have gone through hypertrophy training, strength training, endurance training, SAQ training, and many more. For the last five years my focus though has been to ensure I am fit, strong and healthy, probably my favourite goal of them all – Fitter, Stronger, Leaner!

I have loved training and I have hated training, I have been at the top of my game and I have also been rehabbing from injury, but I have always trained. That is until I lost the habit, motivation and desire to train.

Since I started training at the age of 17, my habit of going to the gym pretty much every day of the week was formed. Of course there were some weeks of the year where I didn’t train, holiday, illness, work?! but more often than not I was in the gym training anywhere between 4 and 8 times per week, depending on the type of training or cycle of training I was in. I was 23 when I qualified as a Personal Trainer so then training became even easier as I was in the gym every working day.

For the last few years, I have been mostly focused with staying, fit, strong, lean and healthy. My training consisted of 4-5 high intense weight training sessions, utilising big functional moves such as Squats, Deadlifts, Clean and Presses…..and lots of supersets, tri-sets etc, high intensity with minimal rest. The idea was that after 45 mins to an hour I was done. Around these sessions I would also incorporate one long distance run or one tempo run (5km sprint max intensity) and 1 to 2 interval sessions. Each week was tough and tiring but I felt like I could’t give anymore and I felt at my peak for doing so.

However a few years ago, this type of training stopped. I have no excuses as to why, I could have always made time to, but instead I chose to walk past my Gym bag each morning, grab my Laptop bag instead and new habits were formed. My initial habit had always been to pack up my gym bag, prepare all food and supplements and take them with me to work each day. Even if I had not planned on training I would still take my gym bag with me, just incase I felt the need to get a cheeky session in. But I had broken this habit, and it did not take long either, forming a good habit can take a while: 6 weeks to 3 months plus, but breaking that good habit can take only a few weeks in this case.

My emphasis went from finding an hour or two each day to train to finding a few hours  that I could sit down and work and establish my company. I don’t regret doing this, I had a lot of work to do in setting up a Training Provider to offer industry recognised qualifications, but I should have still found a few hours here and there to train. I also had a family to spend time with as our first daughter was born, that along with renovating our house meant all of a sudden I found I had plenty of excuses to no longer train. The good thing was I knew that these were all excuses as I am sure I could have fitted at least 1 or two sessions in each week.

So where am I going with all this? Don’t worry this isn’t some kind of public justification to those that know me as to why I haven’t been training, I want to explain the effects of Reversibility, and how this effects our bodies. I can use my own experience to explain the effect it had on my body and how things are different now that I am back into training.

What is Reversibility?

Reversibility essentially means that ‘if you don’t use it you lose it!’. Training is all about consistency and discipline, if you are ‘Overloading’ you are improving, if you are ‘ticking over’ you are maintaining (to a point!), if you do nothing you give your body no other choice but to start turning back towards its original state (to a point!!!).

Physiological adaptions through exercise…

Due to regular and high intense training, there are a number of adaptions that take place within the body, these are:

  • Increased muscle fibre/motor unit recruitment (Nervous system firing patterns)
  • Increased muscle hypertrophy (Increasing fibre size not the amount of muscle fibres)
  • Higher metabolic rate (Constant need for my body to grow and repair, therefore fat burning was going on at high level, even at rest)
  • Lower stores of bodyfat (Due to good nutrition, and a high metabolism – see above)
  • Improved stores of Amino Acids, Creatine, Glycogen (down to good nutrition also)
  • Greater tolerance of Lactic Acid and a greater ability to flush out
  • Higher levels of Capillaries (increase ability to deliver oxygen and remove waste products)
  • Greater Stroke Volume of the Heart (Increased ability to transport O2 and nutrients around the body)
  • Higher levels of Mitochondria (Increased ability to recycle ATP – energy reproduction)
  • Greater balance of Hormones (including mental alertness, positive mood)

What changed through lack of training?

Through a lack of training all of these Physiological gains reversed, and this is how I was affected:

  • A decrease in Muscle/Motor Unit recruitment meant that I had become weaker, slower and less co-ordinated.     The nervous system essentially switched off some of the connections (neuromuscular pathways) to the muscles as they were not being used effectively. This was due to the fact I was no longer consistently trying to recruit all my fibres in big overloading lifts for repetitions, I gave my nervous system no reason to keep these pathways open. It was like putting up a road closed sign!! So now that my muscle recruitment has been massively reduced, there is no way I could lift what I was doing before as I could not generate the same strength in contraction. Along with this, the sequence of firing pattern is affected also, this causes my technique to be not as refined and my movement to be much slower. ‘Reversibility’, in this way also affected my motor skills/SAQ training ability, decreased motor unit recruitment and firing patterns meant I moved slower with less coordination, everything became less autonomous and reversed back to more cognitive (I had to think about footwork or technique rather than doing it automatically, without thinking).
  • Muscle mass dropped drastically. My muscles were not being overloaded, or even maintained, essentially they were not being used to their full potential. My body recognised this inactivity, allowing my body to go into a state of Atrophy (the breaking down of muscle).  Therefore my body composition was being affected as my muscle mass decreased, it was effectively broken down and used as energy for everyday lifestyle tasks. To dispel a myth, my muscle did not ‘turn to fat’ as some people believe. Indirectly this happens as muscle gets broken down and used up as energy, unused energy gets put into fat storage (I will be writing about this at a later date).
  • Bodyfat stores increased. My Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) decreased as I was no longer causing the effect of growth and repair and I was expending a lot less energy on a daily basis. Therefore the amount of calories I would normally use on a daily basis , some from my fat stores, drastically declined. This contributed to my fat stores increasing from the calories coming in from food, along with the fact that the calories I was consuming on a daily basis were not being burnt off, or stored in high amount as Glycogen or Amino Acids within the muscles as it was no longer necessary. Unused calories will be stored as bodyfat.
  • Lack of stored energy. Through a lack of training, there was no reason for my body to maintain well stocked Amino Acid pools within the muscles, or high amounts of Glycogen or even Creatine Phosphate as they were not necessary. So these levels were reduced and not utilised, the fat stores became a more efficient place to store extra calories.
  • Lower pain threshold to Lactic Acid. Any activity that would bring about a high level of Lactic Acid within the muscle would cause immediate discomfort. My body is no longer as tolerant to this accumulation, therefore my bodies response is to now stop rather than push through the pain. This then massively affects my mind set and focus. Due also to a lack of capillaries being used in the muscles, the Lactic Acid could not get flushed out of the muscle as quickly, therefore taking longer to recover.
  • Regression of Capillaries. A lack of capillaries surrounding the air sacs in the lungs and around the muscle cells means that less oxygen can be delivered around the body and less waste products removed. As well as less nutrients being supplied for energy.
  • Weaker Heart. The Heart like any other muscle becomes weaker, therefore reducing the Stroke volume.This is the amount of blood that can be pumped around the body in each beat. Because of this the heart has to pump more and work harder to get oxygen around the body once activity begins.
  • Decreased ability in recycling energy results in fatiguing quicker. If I am no longer utilising the Mitochondria in the muscles to recycle energy (ATP), these will also become dormant. Therefore my ability to generate energy for a long period of time will be hindered. An example of this is long distance running. Where I once could run 10 – 15 miles plus on stored glycogen and recycling of ATP, I could now only sustain this for 4 – 6 miles to get to the same point of fatigue.
  • Hormone levels are drastically different when in a state of regular intense exercise, to low activity. I won’t go into this too much just yet, but the main focus that I found was that my mood levels were drastically different. Grumpier, lazier, more lethargic, no energy…

To summarise:

I can no longer lift as much, 50% drop in some cases. My form has been massively affected as firing patterns have been reduced  and my muscles are definitely tighter with less flexibility due to inactivity.

Recovery between sets is so much slower, due to less Capillaries, weaker stroke volume, slower release and tolerance of Lactic Acid, fewer mitochondria and lower stores of Creatine to resynthesis energy.

Lack of Amino Acid pools causes quicker muscular fatigue and slower recovery between sessions. Increased DOMS.

In terms of the Cardiovascular side of things, as mentioned earlier, less mitochondria, decreased number of Capillaries, reduced glycogen stores, and a decreased recruitment of slow twitch muscle fibres means I could run no where near as far as I could before. My pace had massively dropped, by over 2 minutes per mile and my mindset was so much weaker, thinking about stopping rather than how far or fast could I go.

My Flexibility has been drastically reduced while the  inactivity has lead to adhesions within the muscles. This causes tightness and a reduced range of movement, affecting movement patterns in exercise.

So whats next?

Habit forming is my first short term goal. Get into the habit of ensuring I am prepared for each and every day:

Gym bag packed and ready to go,  supplements ready, the days nutrition pre cooked and ready to grab from the fridge on the way out of the front door.

Relearn the habit of training, not straight back into training everyday, twice a day. To start with I would be happy with a week consisting of three resistance training sessions and maybe one steady pace short distance run. The way forward is to try not to do too much too soon, and don’t get frustrated when I can’t do what I used to do. So long as I am incurring a form of overload I know I am on the right track.

Once habits are formed over the first few weeks I can then think about structuring my training slightly better, being more specific within each session. Looking towards a medium term goal in 2 – 3 months time. Being more consistent with training, higher intensities and more specific training sessions. Getting into necessary habits with my daily nutrition, eating everyday like I should be eating to sustain my training sessions and to active my long term goal.

The main thing I would do would be to set some long term goals that will get me through the next six months… the year… and ongoing.

It’s not easy. Training is never easy. It takes discipline, consistency, overload, and a strong mind to achieve the goals that you want to chase down.  Set some achievable targets and push yourself to get them. The awards will balance out the hard work.

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