Strength Hacking with HRV: Part 2


Last week I told you that the single biggest reason people hit strength plateaus, overtrain and fail to reach their true strength potential isn’t because because of reasons everyone thinks, but rather because they fail to maintain the right balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic overload is the great strength killer.

In order to develop the highest levels of strength and power, it takes a lot of training, which means a lot of stress. The problem is that unless it’s carefully monitored and controlled, this level of stress can easily lead to sympathetic overload, plateaus and even injury – and all too often it does.

Today, I want to share a real-world example of a high level strength athlete that has learned to take a different approach to training and discuss the strength principles that can be found in his story. He a competitive Weightlifter in his 20’s, training for a run at the Olympics in Rio.

I’ll discuss the lessons that can be learned from his experiences, some good and some bad…

He is the perfect example of the importance of maintaining autonomic balance with HRV. Unfortunately, he had to learn this firsthand the hard way…

Mike Nackoul

Mike Nackoul is a former resident lifter at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. His ultimate goal is to make the US Olympic Weightlifting team and compete in Rio in 2016.

Consequently, he’s spent countless hours in the gym lifting heavy weights over and over again, striving to go heavier and get stronger without worrying about much else.

While this approach served him well at times, it also inevitably led to overtraining and injuries. Frustrated by his lack of progress and chronic injuries that were threatening his shot at the Olympics, Mike decided he needed a smarter approach.

Although he had been measuring HRV through the previous year, he wasn’t listening to the data and paying attention to what it was telling him, as he’ll tell you in his own words:

“Early in my career, I trained mostly based on feel. I usually had a plan, but I approached every day with a “go for broke” attitude. Unfortunately, this approach gave me a one-way ticket to overtraining and led to multiple surgeries.

During this time, I measured my HRV but often ignored it, feeling that if I could go, I should go. Now, as I make my comeback from injury, I am paying attention to the residual and underlying stress that BioForce HRV is able to measure.

As I’m building my strength back up after surgery, Olympic and strength exercises that I once considered easy and automatic are now causing much more stress. As an example, as I started to increase the intensity of my training for the actual Olympic lifts, I recorded the following HRV readings:

Mike Nackoul HRV

When I was in better training-shape and was able to train with much more volume, I would have considered the workout the day before the amber reading as easy and felt that I needed to train hard again the next day.

I almost fell into this trap again.

This time around, I could see that my body had a more stressful time recovering from the same workout. BioForce HRV is a objective tool that is not biased about what I think should happen. Instead, it takes advantage of the stress signals that my body and heart are providing and tells me what is actually happening under the hood.

This time I listened and let myself recover, whereas before I’d have just gone right back into the gym and pushed as hard as I could.

Retrospectively analyzing my training, I have noticed that negative events are often preceded by changes in my HRV. The following are readings from the week preceding a back injury. My body was having a hard time coping with the stress I was placing on it (reflected in the multiple amber readings), but I ignored the warnings.

As a result, I hurt myself.

Mike Nackoul HRV

After looking at the data and putting the pieces together, I could clearly see the trends that should have served as warning signs. I made the mistake of letting the feeling that I had to train hard if I wanted to improve get in the way of the objective data BioForce HRV was giving me.

Using BioForce the correct way the second time around has allowed me to listen to my body and stay on top of the stress that my training is causing, rather than waiting long enough for my body to send me a clearer (and often less-kind) message.

Not coincidentally, I’m also co-founding a startup that is creating data-centered tracking software to learn how the different types of training I perform are leading to these changes in HRV. Not only do I have a tool (BioForce) to objectively measure the stress state of my body, but I also have a tool that tells me how to get there.

Pretty powerful, and I believe this combo is setting me up well as I approach and hopefully surpass my previous records.

Training for weightlifting is all about stress. On the spectrum from aerobic to anaerobic, I’m about as close to anaerobic as you can be. Even still, BioForce HRV has provided me with valuable information on both good and bad days regarding my body’s general stress response.

For too long, I ignored the warning signs from BioForce and I paid the price as a result. This time around, I’m listening to my readings and so far I have been strong and healthy. I’m confident I’ll reach my goals because I’m objectively monitoring and adapting to give myself a higher probability of success.”

The golden rule of getting strong

Mike’s case study serves as a perfect example of one of the most important principles to developing long-term strength while staying healthy: always focus on quality over quantity.

All too often, those trying to develop strength fall into the trap of thinking that more is always better. More reps, more sets, more weight, more training sessions.

They believe that more is the key to success and usually it takes some sort of injury, or multiple injuries, until they realize that it isn’t always the answer – in fact, it’s rarely the answer.

Whatever your specific strength goal may be, the best approach to achieving it always starts with the mindset of putting training quality above training quantity. The key to seeing long-term strength development is training at the highest intensities only when your body is actually capable of handling it.

You’ll see when this by looking at changes in HRV.

The best approach to achieving your strength goal starts with putting training quality above training quantity.

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For just about everyone, this means maximal effort training should be kept to two, or at the very most, three times per week. You simply cannot train heavy more than that over time without ultimately breaking down.

HRV patterns have shown this time and time again. You can’t outsmart the body, no matter how hard you try.

The body is not capable of recovering from more heavy training days than that and almost everyone that’s tried to prove this principle wrong has paid the price sooner or later.

As you can see from looking at Mike’s HRV in the charts above, there are clear downward trends that point to the stress his body is under. Decreases in HRV are the result of a higher level of sympathetic activity, while increases are generally a reflection of higher levels of parasympathetic function.

In Mike’s case, you could see the sympathetic overload starting to happen just before his injury. Remember that when there’s too much stress, the body responds by decreasing the receptors for vital stress-response hormones and the muscles aren’t capable of producing the same level of force.

When this happens, the body is at a much higher risk of injury because of the reduction in force potential.

The simplest way to prevent this is to only train at your max when readiness is high, i.e. when there is good autonomic balance as reflected in HRV. This means you should only lift above 90% of your 1RM and/or to failure on days when HRV is green, indicating relatively low fatigue.

Just following this one single strategy will help ensure that you avoid the pitfalls of too much stress and prevent the inevitable sympathetic overload.

Not only that, but you’ll also end up gaining strength faster because you’ll be providing the highest level of stimulus possible, forcing the body to adapt to it by getting stronger.

Along those same lines, if you see a decrease of more than 3-4 points in HRV across a training week, plan to reduce training volume by at least 10-15% the following week and add at least one extra day of rest. Again, this will keep you from progressing into sympathetic overload and make sure you’re on the path to strength rather than injury.

Summing it up

In recent years, the obsession with high intensity training has had the unfortunate consequence of driving everyone toward training more and more, harder and harder. In short, quantity has been put ahead of quality and even though the body can handle a ton of training for short periods of time, in the long run this approach leads to plateaus and often injury.

Saving your maximum effort days above 90% for days when your autonomic function shows your body is prepared to handle it is a very simple and yet extremely effective way to drive your strength higher and higher and see consistent progress while staying injury free.

When it comes to strength, quality over quantity wins every single time

Don’t miss the webinar


In case you missed it in the previous article, I’ve put together a free webinar to give you even more strength building strategies and tips. The live webinar session has already past, but I’ve recorded it for you to watch on your own time.

If you want to get stronger and you want to know to do it in the shortest and safest way possible, make sure to watch the webinar replay. Regardless of if you’re already a BioForce HRV user or not, this webinar will show you the most effective way to outline your weekly strength program.

Click here to watch free webinar replay now


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