Putting Strength in the Bank

A favourite saying among old-school bodybuilders and weight lifters is to put strength in the bank. It means stopping just short of doing your absolute maximum in a training session, to do just one or two reps short of complete failure.

It’s hard-won wisdom with sound basis in biology. Strength training requires gradual adaptation over weeks and months and training, and your muscles adapt faster than your connective tissue. If your ligaments can’t catch up to your muscles, they will fail right when you’re picking up a weight far too heavy for them. Catastrophic injury follows.

But ‘strength’ isn’t simply physical. It is mental and emotional. It is the wellspring of creativity from which ideas arise, it is the font of energy that powers artistic pursuits, it is the reservoir of vitality that keeps you centred and in the game. The same concept of keeping strength in the bank applies to artistic works too.

A core tenet of PulpRev is pulp speed, but pulp speed doesn’t come overnight. Writing 3000 words day after day after day is, frankly, exhausting. It requires focus, stamina, commitment, willpower, discipline–the same qualities needed for a strength training or any other fitness regimen. These can be built up, but it can’t be done out of the blue.

Writing 10000, 8000, even 5000 words a day may feel like a significant achievement. But writing isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. If you want to be more than just a hobbyist, if you want to keep writing all your days, then you need to be able to write at a sustainable pace.

Suppose you’ve committed yourself to writing a novel of some 80000 to 100000 words. On your first day you write 10000 words, then 7000 words, then 8000 words. If you’re not already acclimatised to writing so much every day, you’ll burn out. Exhaustion sets in, quickly followed by despair. Your brain will focus on how many words you’ll have to slog through instead of the story. It’ll show up in your prose as a heavy, leaden weight, a weight that drags down the reader into the depths of boredom. At this point, it is easy to declare that this writing thing is hard, that you won’t be able to finish it, and throw in the towel. Or you could try to power through, but the result will be 100000 words of utter garbage, written to meet some arbitrary word count instead of entertaining the reader.

A far better option would be to write at a pace that you can sustain. It can be 3000 words a day, 2000, 1000, even 500. The important part isn’t the actual number of words you write, but the ability to keep going without burning out. Writing should leave you energised instead of exhausted. Once your brain is used to the burden of writing at a sustainable pace, you can step up and work your way to pulp speed.

The same principle applies strength training. Go too hard too fast too early and you’ll pay the price. If you’re lucky, you’ll merely wake up the next day aching all over and utterly exhausted. It is not a pleasant state to be in, and it saps your ability to commit to consistent training. If you’re not, you will hurt yourself, leaving yourself unable to train for days, weeks, months, even years on end.

The better approach is to start with weight you can manage. Start with however many sets and reps that take you just shy of your limits, and slowly work your way up. By starting slow and maintaining a steady pace, you stay injury-free, remain fresh, and maintain the motivation and energy levels needed to continue training.

With that said, there is a time to commit your strength fully.

These cases are limited in scope. When you’re aiming to beat your personal record, when doing a specific and limited high intensity workout, when you’re in a competition, when you’re caught in an emergency and the only way to survive is to exceed your limits.

These events are not and should not be performed regularly. They are one-off events under specific circumstances, with clearly-defined goals, limited time duration and proper preparation. Before picking up a heavier weight or attempting a longer running distance or any other athletic achievement, you should be able to consistently hit at least 80 to 90% of your intended target to ensure success. Following high-intensity training, grant yourself an appropriate rest period to recover from the additional strain.

Done properly, the extra shock to your system will stimulate greater growth and challenges you to perform beyond what you think you can do. But too much of it will destroy your body. Always take time out to rest, and limit these events to no more than once or twice a week.

From an artistic perspective, there is also a time to exceed your daily output: when it’s crunch time and a deadline is looming, when you’ve been tapped for a special one-off project with high potential payout, when you can see the end of the current project in sight and you know it can be completed swiftly.

In my case, I’m used to a daily regimen of 3000 to 4500 words (usually on the lower end). Near the end of my latest project, I broke out a 10007 word sprint. I wrote from morning to morning, taking breaks only when absolutely necessary. It left me completely drained and shattered. But when it was over, I’d completed my latest novel, and I could edit in peace.

This event had a clear goal with specific circumstances (completing the novel), limited duration (one day), and plenty of preparation (daily regimen). The same heuristic I applied in physical training.

Body, mind and spirit are interconnected. It is something that the PulpRev crew is keenly aware of, and we value physical fitness as highly as creativity. The qualities you need to crank out novels and sustain high daily word counts — discipline, stamin, perseverance — are the same qualities you need for physical training. Developing one strengthens the other; the key is to recognize and apply the overlapping principles.

Putting strength in the bank is time-honored wisdom for bodybuilders, gym rats and everyone else looking to honour and hone their bodies. But it also applies to artists and creators working on long-term projects. Work and train with an eye towards sustainability and sustained growth, and save your strength for the times when it truly counts.

Putting Strength in the Bank
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