February 25, 2014 posted by

Limited Energy

Limited Energy

Your body’s energy is limited. While you can increase its limitations, it’s still easy to train beyond your capacity. I’m about to post the workouts for my foundation training block, along with some other examples, and you’re going to see volume that differs greatly. A reference post as to why seems appropriate.

Your body’s energy reserves are limited not only by fitness but also  factors beyond your control, age and muscle fiber type. Let’s start with the easiest to understand.


As your body gets into better shape it can withstand more difficult training (of course) and recover better from it. Someone who’s not in good shape will  see their daily energy increase dramatically as they get fitter. At this stage, overloading the system constantly will lead to steady improvements.

Once fit, most of our training should then be determined by how much energy we have to expend. This is where the discussion of rest and recovery comes into play. It’s a broad topic, but not on today’s agenda, which is the factors determining how much volume you can handle in your training.


Another obvious factor, this one bears slightly more analysis because it’s based more on fitness than age. For example, most of my friends score 29 as their “physical age,” even though most of us are older. That’s because we’re fit, and these calculators are designed for normal people. While I’m pretty sure I’ll score 29 as long as I’m alive, my limitations still decrease year after year. Numbers are relative, age still matters.

In the most simple sense, after  age 29 (ish) our bodies begin a slow decline where we’re able to produce less of the hormones we need to produce in order to live. Training and diet offset this very effectively. Still, they have limits as, so far as I know, everybody who’s ever lived has also died.

To use a simple example that’s popular now, high intensity anaerobic training stimulates performance-enhancing hormone production better than low-intensity aerobic training. Since hormone production offsets aging (and changes your body composition quicker), HIIT has become the de facto go to style for modern training. Insanity, P90X, Crossfit and even Zumba all are based on anaerobic intervals and their effectiveness at producing something called hormonal cascades.

With all of these programs is talk about “overtraining” and “recovery”. The harder you train, the more time you need to rest. The older you get, the more that ratio increases, even if you’re fit. This is why smart programs, like 90x, come with set “recovery” periods built in. To keep you from exceeding your body’s energy limit and overtraining.

Body Type

The final factor is body type. We’re all born with three main types of muscle fiber, white, pink, and red (there are sub types but they are not relevant at this level of the topic). White are fast-twitch, red are slow. Pink is in between.

Fast-twitch people run fast and jump high. They tend to be the kids who excel on playgrounds, where these natural born traits lend an advantage.

Red-twitch people can endure. They tend to not be fast, or jump high, unless you’re asked to do it for a long time. These are the kids who were usually not picked for sports until the PE teacher made you run numerous laps around the school, when they might have lapped all the “athletes”.

Most of us are somewhere in between, sometimes referred to as pink muscle fiber types. While these people rarely win Olympic medals, they can take solace in being more well rounded.

The big takeaway here is that at both extremes are advantages and disadvantages. Fast-twitch muscle fiber breaks down very quickly. Yes, it can recruit ridiculously high-threshold muscle cell motor units (that determine speed and power). Just not for long. Conversely, slow-twitch athlete struggle for power and speed but break down muscle fiber very slowly. While never fast, they can endure at levels fast-twitch folks can’t imagine. It’s classic tortoise and hare scenario at work.

You can convert muscle fiber on both ends through specified training. This is often vital to success of endurance athletes, whose ability to create just a little more speed than their tortoise counterparts can lead to victory. True power athletes, however, shun endurance with a tactical passion, as explosive sports, measure in fractions of a second, reward the most extreme body type.

This trickles into our general training, too. For basic fitness it’s an afterthought. Anyone who is out of shape can benefit from the same general training scenarios. Once you begin to approach your potential, body type, as well as volume vs intensity, becomes strategic for every individual athlete. In short, to achieve the same results, a red and white muscle athlete will use different approaches based on volume and intensity.

Here’s a little muscle type anecdote to hammer it home. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a red fiber athlete and could handle great volume. When Tom Platz (another legendary bodybuilder) came to California he instantly sought out Arnold and trained with him. Platz, however, was a consummate white fiber guy. Instead of growing he got smaller. In the end, he said (to me at a fitness conference years ago), his training used a fraction of Arnold’s volume but much higher intensity. On stage they looked, more or less, the same.

All this can be summed up in that there are factors that limit the amount of energy you have, which can be used for training or other activities. You can’t simply out train it. You must analyze what you’ve got in the tank and plan your training around that. If you don’t, your results are likely to suffer.

How to do this is a big topic, and not perfectly understood (or overtraining would never happen), but I’ll try and deal with while assessing this cycle of my training.

pic: arnold to tom. “impressive, but can you do it 30 times?”


  • Steve, what are your thoughts on measurement of actual energy, and avoiding the wrong voices in your head where budgeting your energy is concerned? I agree with the above entirely, but I think it is applicable at face value for those who have been through the fire and who “don’t believe the lies” in their heads telling them to stop a hard workout/training regimen, as Mark Twight describes it. I cannot say I am past that obstacle myself, but I am amazed at how much more I can do when I push past what limitations my sit-on-the-couch-and-eat natural psyche wants me to do. I have been working 12 hour days for the past 4 weeks with only 3 days off in there, and still hitting it at both ends, and I am finding the mental to be the most crucial part (especially when the rower is involved).

    • For normal people, absolutely, they need to get through that point but it flips, big time, for high level sports and, especially, on the amateur level, where overtraining isn’t just rampant, it’s a lifestyle. In the endurance sports world I’ve read and heard so many examples of “I cut my volume in half…” or “I quite training…” “…and got faster” I can hardly remember who said what.

      Think about your weekend warrior friends. How many have been on a plateau for years, with little blips up and down? Now how many of those train all the time? Most likely every one of them is exceeding their energy limit and, at that point, training is more of a mania (or habit) than actually training.

      I think what Twight is referring to is for big pushes, more than day to day existence. There are times when you can–and need to–go beyond. But those times are fleeting, and should be strategized. You’ll see more about this when I get my final birthday challenge write-up done.

  • To tailor my answer more specifically to you, I’d say that, yes, you can push yourself through and see benefits for a while. But not forever. The mind is strong but the body still has limits, which we find out when we push too deeply for too long. Your emergency hormones (cortisol, adrenaline etc) come into play here. When you stimulate them for too long it leads to serious breakdown. Be careful. I’ve seen a lot of athletes push too much in scenarios like yours and end up with issues such as chronic fatigue. The body wants you to survive. It’s not always lying.

    • Thanks, that’s great insight.

    • Hi Steve,

      Have you got any more info on chronic fatigue? I’d be very interested in that.

      “Your emergency hormones (cortisol, adrenaline etc) come into play here. When you stimulate them for too long it leads to serious breakdown. Be careful. I’ve seen a lot of athletes push too much in scenarios like yours and end up with issues such as chronic fatigue.”



    • Hey Jim,

      I’ll post in chronic fatigue soon. It’s not my area of expertise in any way, but I do have some observations that you’ll probably find interesting.

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for getting back to me.

      My particular interest would be how training performance is affected when in a cycle of training (P90X/X2/bike) plus being tired, and then using coffee to get through the day. It seems a downward spiral.

      I’ve been told by people who don’t train, to stop doing P90X, stop drinking coffee and sleep more.

      I want to train and wondered if there were things that my present routine were negatively doing to my hormones and in a sense sabotaging my results.



  • Thank you Steve, good subject 2 continue with, so many thoughts now since I decided to brake my plateau with doubles (different programs cardio based in the morning strength based at night) this week… Would be interesting to see how my body can handle it in that respect. Tanks again – good subject, how is it for people who are working on getting in shape with 30-20 lbs to loose.. Is slow and study wins the race or … I think it should be like a wave easy then hard.. fast then slow.. you right just like P90X – 3 hard weeks then one easy week… Got it! LOL! I think our bodies so smart: what we call a plateau – our body call it slow down and let me recover… Love your articles!

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