Rate Of Gain Vs. Injury Potential

The inspiration for this post came from a comment I left on Free The Animal:

Maintain your modest goals and a modest rate of gain; your peers are in decay and if you advance even a little bit you’re doing even better by comparison. I stress this to my clients on a daily basis.

From a personal point of view, I can give you an example: 8 years ago I was ~188lbs and chinning BW+25 for 5 reps. Now I’m ~175lbs and chinning BW + 52.5 for 5 reps. So 20lbs in 8 years. I’ve been stronger for short periods of time and heavier, but that’s a small 2.5lbs/year improvement. Learn from my experience and just try to double my strength gains on that exercise for the next 4 years. ;)

If there is a nugget of wisdom in that statement, I’d say its that your rate of gain is directly proportional to your injury potential. Throw your genetic potential into the mix and…well let me show you.

Rate of Gain

Ultimately, training is about muscle tissue. At the very least the maintenance of, but often the increase of the total weight of dry muscle tissue you carry around. Improving your work capacity will often maintain your muscle mass while improving other metabolic factors (capillary density, total mitochondria, blood shunting, acid buffering) but the increase in work signals a need for maintaining muscle mass. While what I’m talking about in this post is related to strength and vis a vis muscle mass understand it applies to those who desire the deep end of work capacity.

Our rate of gain is really very slow; even when it is fast it is slow. I’ve discussed this when it comes to muscle but it applies for strength as well. When you are past the novice stage, the rate of gain is staggeringly low. Powerlifters and olympic lifters struggle to gain pounds (single) to their total. Also note that, like muscle mass, there is a limit to natural strength a human can achieve at a given weight. Casey Butt has discussed this in his article “Predicting Maximum Strength in the Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift:”

Interestingly, other absolute records on the Powerlifts have not increased significantly since the introduction of steroids in the late 1950s. For instance, Reg Park’s Bench Press and Squat would be within 20 lbs of the current raw, drug-free Powerlifting records (set by specialists at that), as would Doug Hepburn’s major lifts.

So if all of the conditions are right, one can push strength fairly aggressively in the short term with an ever increasing risk of burnout and injury. Our joints are fragile, as are the connective and shock absorbing tissue that surrounds them. Compared to muscle they’re positively implastic: their rate of change is slow and their strength relatively fixed. It could even be argued that a person’s ability to gain strength is at the mercy of their connective tissue’s ability to resist trauma and rebuild.

So we have a strength potential and, by extension, a mass potential. This potential is reached asymptotically, with a more aggressive slope corresponding with an increased potential for injury. It looks like this:

So the horizontal black line represents the absolute limit of your potential and each of the curves represents are rate of gain for a given trainee. The more aggressive the angle of the slope, the more potential for injury. Knowing that you have a limit that you’ll infinitely near (but never reach) the question must be asked: are you in such a hurry that you’ll risk a potential lifelong injury just to reach a potential that you would have reached with a more modest approach?

To put it another way: you’re going to train until you die…why not pick the route that gives you the greatest gains compared to injury risk. Don’t be a knucklehead.