Regression towards the mean in training and why you are focusing on the wrong things

In statistics, regression toward the mean (also called reversion to the mean, and reversion to mediocrity) is a concept that refers to the simple fact that if one sample of a random variable is extreme, the next sampling of the same random variable is likely to be closer to its mean.[1][2][3] Furthermore, when many random variables are sampled and the most extreme results are intentionally picked out, it refers to the fact that (in many cases) a second sampling of these picked-out variables will result in “less extreme” results, closer to the initial mean of all of the variables.

Mathematically, the strength of this “regression” effect is dependent on whether or not all of the random variables are drawn from the same distribution, or if there are genuine differences in the underlying distributions for each random variable. In the first case, the “regression” effect is statistically likely to occur, but in the second case, it may occur less strongly or not at all.

Regression toward the mean is thus a useful concept to consider when designing any scientific experiment, data analysis, or test, which intentionally selects the “most extreme” events – it indicates that follow-up checks may be useful in order to avoid jumping to false conclusions about these events; they may be “genuine” extreme events, a completely meaningless selection due to statistical noise, or a mix of the two cases.[4] 

Wikipedia 2022

Lifting sports similar to other higher, faster, further sports has objective and measurable outcomes at almost every turn.  At the start of lifting this is one of it’s main attractions and something that really drew me to the sport initially as someone who pretty only played team sports.

What attracted me to lifting was that

  • It’s only me and my efforts that determine my success and failure which is a better simpler situation to get your head around.  Take responsibility for your own actions and live and learn.
  • The objectiveness of the sport.  We all lift to the same standards so if I lift more than you under the same standards and circumstances we can say that on the day I was the better lifter. 
  • The fact that I can track how my lifting is going in every session based off how things are moving and how I am feeling.

These are big positives to the sport and to the training especially when compared to other sports.  Even in a sport like sprinting how you feel in your training runs and what the stopwatch says can not add up.  I remember doing some runs where I felt fast and for whatever reason (tensing up trying to force it) I was slower than average.  There is a constant awareness of how things are going in lifting sports that really isn’t present in any other sport I have trained for or tried. 

The double edged sword of being aware of how you are doing

I think there are a lot of parallels to lifting and investing.  There are good choices and processes that coaches and experienced lifters know that pay off in the long run.  In a parallel to investing there are good practices like sticking to undervalued investments and practicing good risk management that pay off in the long run.  This doesn’t mean that making decisions and acting out on short term goals won’t pay off.  Doing a program like Smolov that pretty much says fuck you to load managment and injury risk can add 30-60kg on your squat in 12 weeks.  However it also can lead to a series of overuse issues and annoyed connective tissue that can take months or years to get over.  Training to failure or AMRAP sets can lead to really good progress in terms of both size and strength in the short term but they can also lead to your fatigue quickly outstripping your fitness levels which will lead to stagnation, regression and eventually injury.  When you push into the limits on intensity in the form of rep towards failure or weight on the bar close to failure yoru fatigue is going to come and beat your ass. 

When we do well however we get the good feelings.  When you hit a personal best it feels good man.  Endorphins enter the chat and make everyone feel good.  Coach feels good because they feel validated for their choices and your success.  The lifter feels good because number go up and number go up good. 

The goal of the sport is number go up, and trust me when I say as coaches we want number go up just as much as lifters want number go up.  However we need to think of the long term plan and how we are going to be progressing not just this week or block but also in this year and the next.  Therefore we need focus on process and habits because we fall to this level and it’s the only thing we can do really that guarantees prolonged success.

Before I can go into this concept more and how it will make you a better lifter in the short term but also in the long term I need to discuss the idea behind this article and really the lynch pin that holds this argument together.

Regression toward the mean as a lifter.

There predominant model for training and managing fatigue when it comes to the planning of training is the fitness/fatigue model also known as the two factor mode of fitness.  Basically when we engage in a training regime or workout we put stress on certain physical factors we want to see progression on.  During the training process our short term preparedness and fitness will be reduced after we put a stressor on it.  I.e. straight after a workout whatever we have directly trained should reduce in performance.  In layman’s terms if you do a hard squat workout and try to do a max squat a few hours afterwards your squat max should be less than what it was before the workout because you have caused localised damage to the muscle and connective tissues, you have depleted energy substrates from cells and neurons and your nervous system will be fatigued. 

However after this stressor has been recovered from allowing enough time, sleep and calories/protein then the next time we perform the same protocol or workout we should do better than the time before.  Depending on how close to the thing we want to get better at we should see a direct in performance on that fitness characteristic as well. 

Again to use an analogy lets say we are performing a volume focused block of training.  We are doing 10s on squat.  Week one of the program will be more difficult than it might be due to the novelty factor of the training.  Lets say we just came off a competition peak so volume will have been reduced for an extended period of time a lot fo the peripheral factors of performance will be detrained such as your lung, heart capacity, your ability to use your cardiovascular system to recover from bouts of exertion.  Your local muscular endurance for performing strength endurance based tasks will be diminished.  Even if lets say you had a great performance at your competition and you realised big new one rep maxes on all three lifts.  If you were to try and use those performances to base your volume based training off you will be in for a rude suprise. 

Lets say you hit a 260kg squat and it’s a new +20kg personal best.  In the build up to the competition your performed one of the following benchmark volume workouts both of which would represent an increase in your fitness for volume training and give you a really good base from where you could push on to more specific training and realsie some of the progress you have made in a more specific manner (a new one rep max for example)

Load (kg)% of MaxSetsRepsAverage RPE
192.5kg80%558 – 9

Now lets say we have finished the competition. We have taken a week or two of active rest and less specific training to allow us to recover from the training into the competition and the competition itself.  Now we are looking to start a volume based block we could look at the above benchmark workouts would be 

Load (kg)% of MaxSetsRepsAverage RPE
207.5 kg80%55>10

If we were to try and do them we wouldn’t be able to complete the workout this is because our training was so specific and focused towards maximising our ability to hit a one rep maximum to competition standard our volume training specific adaptations (fitness) have reduced drastically even though our performance/strength on the face of it has increased.

This is because the specific adaptations to the training we are doing has shifted from volume training to competition training and as such the metabolic and other adaptations that make us better at handling that kind of training have detrained and regressed.  And as we shift back to more of a volume based approach we can feel that lack of adaptation in the lack of fitness we feel when we start doing the training session.

If I start someone on a new volume focused block especially after a competition and lay off I deliberately set the bar as low as I think is productive.  For instance if we were to start one of the above workouts I would look for the following entry points  (using 260kg as the working max)

Load (kg)% of MaxSetsRepsAverage RPE
155 – 170kg60 – 65%3105 – 6
170 – 182kg65 – 70%555 – 6

The reason I set the loads so low down is to allow the athlete to get over the shock in the change of training stimulus and to give them some breathing room to allow them to adjust.  A naive way of looking at this kind of transition would be RPE 5-6 isn’t enough to produce adaptation according to this study or this coach so we are going to forget about coming in at a lower level and get straight to adaptation because i don’t have any time to waste.  However you just end up compromising the athletes ability to cope leading to a spiral of poor execution due to never getting a chance to adjust and weights and sets that should be light/achievable proving to be too much of a challenge for them.

Where does the mean come in?

The above graphic shows three blue lines that represent sustainable progression for three possible scenarios where you have a fast responder, a normal responder and a slow responder to the training provided.  Some people have better ability to respond and adapt to strength training than others due to genetics and training history.  The real secret in training is developing a system that matches the lifter or athlete’s ability to adapt that allows them to develop at their own pace.  We don’t know how fast someone can adapt to a program or how long it takes them to acclimatise to the loading schedule you have put together or how that is going to work with their lifestyle as such the less we assume in a top down manner the quicker we will find a fit for that athlete.

If we were to draw a conceptual line like the above that represents someone’s adaptation to a sport or training regime we know that we are going to be below, on and above the line day to day, week to week and month to month.  The further we trend away from the mean or the trend line the more likely we are to start trending in the other direction.

  • If we have a bad session, followed by bad session as long as we don’t do something stupid like abadon the process or system we are using in favour of something else because we got cold feet then we will start to trend towards better session eventually assuming we are doing our bit outside of the gym, staying hydrated, eating well, getting our sleep and not being stressed out of our fucking minds.
  • If we have a good session and have multiple good sessions in a row it becomes more likely that we are going to start losing momentum in our training at some point.  The longer our momentum goes for the more likely it is to dissipate.  We don’t make any assumptions and pull the plug on a good run of training for the sake of it. Whenever momentum arises you need to ride that bitch for all its worth.
  • If we don’t put any pressure on the training by putting on arbitrary load every week or by increasing weight or reps for the sake of it then we can see how we are adapting if we compare it against an internal metric like RPE or an objective metric like bar speed.

The mean progression line or your natural progression line will provide you with the most prolonged adaptation to a training stimulus and it’s what we should be looking to track or to cultivate.

Using a standard candle to track your base trendline.

It’s always good to have some form of reference point in your training plan or week to try and judge how you are tracking the point in this is to try and track how you are adapting to the training stress you are being put under.  Ideally it should come in the same point in the week and be matched up against the same standard.  

RPE – you can use RPE to track your progression this should be pegged on the same RPE or on the same weight for instance you might look to do a double at 80% in your warm up and then rate it on the RPE scale and assuming you are honest and consistent you can track this to see how you are progressing or reacting to the training stress you are being put under. 

Bar speed – this is probably the better method to try and track this sort of thing longitudinally since it will be more consistent assuming your measure in reliable and repeatable.  Standardising your warm up and tracking your mean bar speed in the reps can provide a good objective measure of how you are adapting and reacting to the training stress you are being put under.

Bringing up your mean

The goal of training should be to constantly be bringing up your base line since it is either the level we fall to when training isn’t going well for whatever reason or it is the level we rise back to when we are either getting out of a bad run of form or we are coming back from injury.  

If you prioratise only your one rep max or your peak one rep max you are trying to constantly come off your base trend line and putting yourself under unsustainable levels of fatigue this may lead to short term progress but in the long term will wind up in frustration and ultimately and overload injury of some kind. 

If you have fallen away from your mean performance and are performing under what you consider to be par and only focusing on your peak strength then you are going to be even more frustrated and more likely to make poor short sighted decisions than someone who is setting personal bests but constantly looking for more and more.

The real secret sauce is to find out for you what is sustainable progress, to cultivate that and save coming off your trend line for important competitions knowing full well what goes up must come down, and planning accordingly. 

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