Balance your work and exercise physical demands to optimize recovery

Planning your workouts is more than simply choosing exercises each day and hitting the gym. Even if you have a good long-term plan laid out, it will only be effective if you take into account your physical activity outside of the gym, especially if your job is physically demanding.

The concept of program-induced cumulative overload (PICO), introduced by military strength and conditioning and injury prevention experts, describes how a Service Member might suffer from overtraining syndrome when a physical training program isn’t planned to account for job-related workload. Managing fatigue to prevent PICO is more than simply using the proper work:rest ratios during your workouts. It takes planning and thorough consideration of all of your physical demands.

Ideally, try to have 24–72 hours of rest and recovery time between PT sessions or intense work periods that hit the same muscle group. For example, if you have leg day on Monday, the next leg day is either Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the intensity of Monday’s workout.

Exercise frequency

How often you resistance train outside of your physically demanding occupational tasks depends on your training status—whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced—as well as your work-related physical activity. Absent overly demanding work tasks, plan according to your training status.

  • Beginners (less than 2 continuous months of resistance training). Those who are just starting out should aim for 2–3 resistance training sessions per week. 
  • Intermediate lifters (currently resistance training for 2–6 continuous months). Experienced lifters can plan 3–4 sessions per week. 
  • Advanced lifters (currently resistance training for at least a year). Those with advanced training status can safely lift 4–7 times per week. In order to PT 4 or more times per week, programs are usually structured to target specific muscle groups, or split between upper and lower body in order to include enough rest and recovery between sessions.

Fatigue management

Start by taking inventory of all of your work-related physical demands. Your work demands can be some of the hardest to modify because they can often be outside of your control, so it’s best to plan your workouts around them. Be thorough and specific—and try to include the movements you’re doing for your work tasks. Even the seemingly simple things, such as range time where you might cock your weapon dozens of times, can add up.

Next, take a look at your weekly schedule and line up your list of physical demands with the upcoming events. For example, Tuesday is range day, which has low intensity but high-volume demands on your upper body, and Friday you have a ruck march, which is a full-body effort that places the greatest load on your lower body. In addition, you might be in a maximal muscular strength phase of your PT program, requiring you to lift heavy a few days per week. Then plan your PT around the demanding events to maximize your recovery in between work and PT.

Using this example schedule, it would be best to do a heavier leg day early in the week, so your legs have time to recover before the ruck march. And then schedule your upper-body lift day on Wednesday or Thursday so that you’re not lifting with the same muscles you used on the range in a single day. After the ruck march, spend a couple of days dedicated to active recovery vs. a heavy lift day or intense cardio.

Managing fatigue to prevent PICO takes planning and thorough consideration of all of your physical demands—at work and in the gym.

Try to plan your PT workouts around your work demands to reach your target frequency, including work activity, based on your resistance training experience. This can be challenging if you have a very demanding job, especially with a high or unstable OPTEMPO. If you’re a Soldier or Marine, your unit might have a Master Fitness Trainer or Force Fitness Instructor who has specific training on how to plan PT around work demands. Some installations across all Services might have civilian strength and conditioning professionals who also have training and experience programming for Service Members. The Army Health and Holistic Fitness (H2F) program, Army Wellness Centers (AWCs), and Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) gyms often have these professionals. Members of the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard might have access to these resources as well.

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Orr, R., Knapik, J. J., & Pope, R. (2016). Avoiding program-induced cumulative overload (PICO). Journal of Special Operations Medicine : A Peer Reviewed Journal for SOF Medical Professionals, 16(2), 91–95. 

W. Kraemer, D. Feltwell, & T. Szivak. (2017). Physiological issues related to military personnel. In Brent A. Alvar, Katie Sell, & Patricia A. Deuster (Eds.), NSCA’s Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

Sheppard, J. M., & Tripplett, N. T. (2016). Program design for resistance training. In G. Haff & N. T. Triplett (Eds.), Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (4th ed., pp. 439–470). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.