The Effort-Recovery Pendulum

In today’s fitness culture, People often speak of the benefits to a winning mindset, cut-throat, ‘take no prisoners’ mentality and going as hard as possible for as long as possible. This is closely related to modern ‘hustle’ culture with work and work ethic that says ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “I work while my competition sleeps”.

In general, adopting these mindsets and living them in your day to day life is a good thing. You should always set ambitious goals for yourself, push yourself to and past your limits, and strive to become the best version of yourself at all times.

However, when it comes to health, physique, and physical performance in and out of the gym, actually achieving truly optimal results requires a more nuanced approach.

Working out is a stressor on the body. It’s an intentional stressor we place on our body in order to elicit an adaptive response. That means it raises stress hormones such as cortisol, as well as physically breaking down muscle tissue that needs to be repaired by the body.

Our nervous system has two primary ‘modes’. One is the sympathetic nervous system, which includes our body’s ‘fight or flight’ response and is responsible for helping you feel alert and awake.

The other is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘rest and digest’ mode. This helps repair cellular damage and regulates things like digestion. 

So, much of bodybuilding, strength, and physique as well as health in general comes from a balanced level of stimulus and response, from intensive action to adequate rest.

Getting enough rest doesn’t just mean getting enough sleep. It can mean taking intentional time off from training, decreasing training frequency, adding or removing cardio, and other stimuli on the nervous system.

Things like alcohol or other drugs, prescription or not, can also cause stress on the nervous and immune system, making recovering from training much more difficult.


This is a common reason why bodybuilders use ‘split’ routines, that let them train different body parts at the optimal frequency. It should be noted, however, that just because you do a split routine, does not mean you are exempt from these principles. Training in general still places stress on the CNS.

So, if you feel like you are going harder than anyone, and you’ve stopped seeing progress or hit a wall… sometimes the best thing to do, and even the most difficult thing to do is to take some time off. It might just be a day, or you might need a few days.

For me, I love to work out. I’ve had to learn the hard way a few times that more is not always more. There is a delicate balance in the effort-recovery pendulum and you can’t keep it at one side for too long.

Rest too much, and you become complacent or even lazy. Go too hard and you will end up burnt out with cortisol levels through the roof, unable to make progress or recover properly from your workouts.

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