Exercise makes us feel great. It makes us less hungry. It helps us perform everyday tasks better. Besides our health and the way we look, feeling great, being less hungry, and performing better are exactly the reasons we put ourselves through exercise. However, en route to ultimate fitness, there are some hurdles we all need to clear. Mainly, they include being faced with the opposite of our intended goals. Enter the trilogy of grumpiness: getting sore, slow, and hungry. We tend to look at these as negatives, but you want these feelings because they’re clear signs your program is working.
Getting in Top Shape With P90X
Before we analyze why you need to embrace “going backward,” let’s answer the obvious question: why would we design this type of program? Certainly, there are exercise programs that don’t put you through torture. Could we have chosen such a path with P90X?
The answer is that programs lacking this trilogy don’t provide you an incentive to get in top shape. In the early stages of any exercise program, it’s possible to structure the schedule and diet around making small improvements and not greatly experience the signs your program is working. You push your body above its normal output, though just barely, and you keep it there. If you are greatly deconditioned, it will yield improvements. This approach doesn’t hurt, and frankly, it helps people who’ve never exercised — mainly due to the mental boost they get from feeling they can exercise. It’s a nice alternative for some people. But let’s be realistic. None of them would sit through a P90X infomercial, much less be inspired by it.
This is what we would call a foundation phase of training for someone who has never exercised. The upside with this method is that each day you leave the gym feeling better than when you walked in. The downside is that you’ll never have the body of a fitness model. To achieve a higher level of fitness, you need to periodize your training and eventually stare into your Nietzschean abyss. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is more than a cliché with P90X — it’s your life.
Soreness is the easiest of the signs your program is working to understand. Most of us have been sore at some point. It happens anytime we do something physical that we’re unaccustomed to. From yard work to a pickup game to a marathon shopping spree, when you push your body beyond what you do in your normal day-to-day activity, you get sore. This is true even if you used to do the said activity all the time. In fact, that generally makes it worse, because you still hang on to the muscle memory of how to do the activity, which means you can really put the hurt on if you don’t have the requisite fitness base.
Most soreness comes from the breakdown of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Our bodies have both slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch fibers have a low recruitment factor, which simply means they get fired up at low outputs. Fast-twitch fibers have a high recruitment factor, meaning it takes something more intense to get them going. A simple example would be raising your fork to your mouth, which requires slow-twitch fibers, compared to raising a heavy barbell over your head, which requires fast-twitch fibers. Furthermore, we all have some extra fast-twitch fiber for emergencies. When you run from a bear, you’re engaging these, which is why you’re likely to run faster than you ever have before.
Fast-twitch fibers are repaired much more slowly than slow-twitch fibers. You can pretty much keep shoving food into your mouth and never get tired. When you do get tired, you’ll be able to resume the activity quickly. Lifting a barbell over your head will wear you out, and it will take some time before your body is able to do it again. The more weight you add, the quicker you’ll get tired and the longer it will take before your body is ready to do it again. And once you’ve escaped the bear, you’d do well to avoid him for a couple of weeks. Those emergency fibers you’ve thrashed will take that long to recover.
Hypertrophy in New Training Programs
Hypertrophy means muscle growth. Almost all training programs target this, even weight loss programs, because changing a body from rotund to svelte requires you to lose body fat. And the quickest way to lose body fat is to gain more muscle. Muscle requires more work from your body, even at rest, so your body will take the nutrients from the foods you eat and store them in muscle tissue rather than adipose (or fat) tissue.
To create hypertrophy, you need to overload your muscle fibers progressively to keep breaking them down. As you get fitter, you engage higher-threshold muscle cell motor units to keep the overload coming. Breaking down exactly the number of muscle cells your body can replenish right away is nearly impossible. This means that to advance your level of fitness, you are going to break down more muscle fibers than you intended. When this happens, you get sore.
Furthermore, the more varied the exercise you do, the more you’ll find areas where your body is out of balance. This means some muscles are stronger than others. When you do new exercises, your stronger muscles are forced to do extra work as the weaker ones catch up. This results in both the strong and weak muscles being overworked while they sort out the balance problem. This is the first step of Muscle Confusion, and as you know, there is no shortage of it in P90X.
“I heard I would get less hungry and all I can think about is eating” is a common sentiment expressed on our Message Boards. The reason is somewhat obvious—our entry-level programs have low-calorie diets, not to mention restricted diets. Most of these people are simply craving the junk foods we’ve had them cut out.
But Xers get hungry too, and they’re usually eating enough calories. This is because your body cries out for nutrients when it’s in breakdown mode, even when you’ve eaten all you can. Learning that this craving is one of the normal signs your program is working will greatly help your success curve.
When your body is craving nutrients, you want to feed it. However, under the type of duress a hard program creates, you can’t possibly give it enough nutrients. Many of us try. We eat and eat. And while eating can help ease the mental anguish your body is going through, you can’t put all of these calories to use, and some will get stored in fat tissue.
Adding Supplements to Your Diet
When your body is hungry, supplements are your best friend. Most have very few calories and a lot of nutrients. Some have targeted nutrients, which basically means they’re designed for nutrient efficiency. But no matter how well we strategize, we’re all going to get hungry at some point in our programs. So much so that staying hungry is a metaphor for the bodybuilding lifestyle. In the film Stay Hungry, a bodybuilding champion (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) sums this up with the line, “I don’t want to get too comfortable. I’d rather stay hungry.”
A note from expert Denis Faye: “If you’re hungry even though you’ve eaten all your calories and you’re trying to lose weight, your first course of action is to fight it. Hunger doesn’t necessarily mean you need food. It just means you’re used to food. However, if you’re going completely nuts, then you want filling foods with few or no calories. Herbal tea is good, so is broth or veggies, as long as they’re fresh and raw. If you must eat something more substantial, I’d opt for a straight protein, like chicken or egg whites. It’s not going to impact your blood sugar as hard and it’s not all that yummy, so you know you’re not just comfort eating.”
This is the hardest condition to conceptualize but the easiest to explain. During hypertrophy, your muscles are growing. Growing muscles are a bit like a growing person. Just as you learn how to grow into a developing body, you need to learn how to use new muscles. During the hypertrophy stage of your exercise program, your muscles are “big and dumb,” like the old-school concept of the “musclehead.”
Larger muscles have a greater capacity for strength than smaller ones. A large muscle isn’t necessarily stronger, but if trained properly, it will become stronger. Muscular efficiency (or absolute strength) is what gets targeted in the latter stages of a training program. Doing low repetitions, along with eccentric and plyometric movements, is all about teaching your muscles efficiency — essentially, the ability to recruit high-threshold muscle cell motor units.
While your muscles are growing, your ability to move quickly lessens. This is why athletes do all of their body-altering training in the off-season. When you start to feel slow, it’s a sign that your program is working. Just remember that you’ll want to increase your intensity and whip those big lugs into shape later on.
These Signs are Temporary
Remember these are stages, not chronic conditions. You should only experience them early in a program or new cycle of training. If you aren’t experiencing them at all, it means you’re ready to ramp your training up to the next level. But if they persist beyond four weeks, you’re overdoing it and risk overtraining. You may also experience them each time you transition to a new phase. In this case, though, they should be gone before you move into the next phase.