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Biorhythms: Ride Your Strength Wave to Success

I’d been competing in Olympic weightlifting for six years, and something had been puzzling me for a while. Why was it that I could go into the weight room feeling tired and with little energy and emerge having done a splendid workout? Conversely, why could I show up for a session bubbling over with enthusiasm and have a crappy workout? I believed there were factors beyond my control influencing my training and my performance at contests, but I didn’t have a clue what they were. So I decided to try to figure it out.

In my training log, which I kept diligently, I recorded everything that I thought might have a bearing on my training: weather, time of day, health problems, unusual stress, sex, diet and bodyweight. I also devised a scale. Zero was the median, and plus-3 was the best, while minus-3 was the worst. I charted how I felt coming into a workout and then how I performed. After several months I could see that something was going on, but I was unable to find a pattern.

Then in 1965 an article on biorhythms written by Kenneth Sommers appeared in Peary Rader’s Lifting News. I had the answer to my riddle, and it quickly altered my training philosophy. Dr. Sommers sent me in search of a book, Is This Your Day, by George Thommen, and I learned even more about biorhythm science.

Yes, it is indeed a science. At the beginning of the 20th century a new theory was introduced supporting the idea of the existence of an inner order of life. Two European doctors working separately and without the knowledge of each other’s research theorized that all human beings are governed by biological cycles, measurable and constant over their entire life span. Dr. Hermann Swoboda of Vienna and Dr. Wilhelm Fliess of Berlin published simultaneous works describing the existence of a 23-day physical and 28-day emotional cycle that operated in every person on earth. Our inner clock, they asserted, is set in motion at the moment of birth, and its metered life cadence continues uninterrupted until death.

Their studies were extremely difficult to understand, however, by anyone besides a Ph.D. in mathematics, so not many people even knew about them. As laymen began decoding the scientific jargon, what the men were trying to convey became clear. That is, during the ascendant stage, or first half, of each cycle a person is healthier and emotionally more positive and has greater immunity to disease. While in the negative stage, or second half, of each cycle a person is more susceptible to accidents, emotional imbalance and disease. A third cycle, the 33-day intellectual rhythm, was later discovered by Austrian Alfred Teltscher in 1920.

Here was the exact information I’d been seeking, and I immediately set about charting my biorhythms. Once I had the numbers, I backtracked to when I’d started the scale in my lifting log. Sure enough, everything coincided with my three cycles. My crappy sessions and meets occurred when one or more of the cycles were below the midpoint, and my best workouts and meets were on days when at least two of the cycles were high.

Soon after that I moved to York, Pennsylvania, to work as Tommy Suggs’ assistant on Strength & Health magazine. He, too, had read Sommers’ article and wrote one for S&H that explained how to use the information in weight training. It was very well received, and many lifters across the country began incorporating the data into their training programs—although not all of them. A large number of lifters stated that they didn’t want to know where their three cycles were on any particular day. They said it would influence them too much and make them change their schedule for those days. Although I can understand that response, I can’t agree with it. I believe it’s beneficial to know the variables in advance. Then you can make changes, and what could have been a poor session can be turned into a productive one.

I also want to point out that while I’m a staunch supporter of biorhythms, there are plenty of other factors to consider when it comes to training. Rest and diet head that list, as well as previous workload, injuries, stress, weather and even nutritional supplements. The thing I like about biorhythms is that you don’t have to buy anything, unless you want to, to figure out your own cycles. It’s simple math that anyone can do. I know that because I can do it, and I’ve never been much of a math wiz. I’ll get to the math part in a bit, but first I want to go over the three cycles.

The physical cycle lasts 23 days and influences top-end strength, endurance, energy level, resistance to illness and general physical confidence. Researchers believe it originates in the muscle cells. The physical rhythm has 11.5 positive days and 11.5 negative. When the physical cycle is above the midline, you’re in a positive, or discharge, period. That’s when you can get away with overtraining and it’s much easier to recover from a tough session.

The negative, or recharging, period occurs on the down slope of the curve. During those 11.5 days you lack energy, endurance lags, and you have difficulty recovering from a hard session as readily as you did when your physical cycle was in the positive stage.

The emotional cycle is on a 28-day course and is associated with the nervous system. A highly emotional individual will experience dramatic ups and downs in mood, while someone of a calmer demeanor might not show much behavior change. During the 14 days that you’re in a positive, or discharge, state, you’ll have a more positive outlook on life and training. Your psychological mood will be at its highest. You’ll relate much better to others, and you’ll be optimistic, even ambitious, about your coming workouts and future goals. Your overall spirits will be way up, and you’ll go into the weight room full of vigor.

The next 14 days will find you more negative in both thought and action. Many people don’t care to be around others, and they’re much more argumentative, ready to verbally challenge the most insignificant point. Some become very moody almost to a stage of depression. Others, however, who are by nature more calm, show very little difference in behavior. Everyone responds differently to the ups and downs of the biorhythmic cycles, something always to be kept in mind.

The third cycle, the intellectual, lasts 33 days and is believed to originate in the brain. Since the brain is directly involved, it only makes sense that all activities dealing with thinking and learning are affected by the cycle. During the positive segment, the first 16.5 days, you can absorb new material more readily. It’s the ideal time to engage in creative work and master new information. You can reserve the low portion of the cycle for reviewing and practicing previously learned data.

When I taught a course in anthropology at York College, I included a lesson on biorhythms. After one midterm exam a student came to me saying he’d like to redo the test because he was crossing intellectually on the day of the exam and his other two cycles were low. I let him take it again, and sure enough, he scored quite a bit higher. I doubt whether a teacher in any other college would have allowed that, but then again I doubt if any other teachers even knew about biorhythms back then.

Many athletes who have adopted biorhythms do not believe that the intellectual cycle has much bearing on performance and so basically ignore it. They concentrate on the physical and emotional. I believe, however, that the intellectual cycle is equally important because much of the success an athlete has in the weight room comes from the ability to concentrate on the exercise being performed at the time. That’s especially true for Olympic lifters and other strength athletes who include one or more high-skill movements in their routines. I’ve also found that a great many injuries occur during the low phases of this cycle. The athlete breaks concentration, and if he or she is using a heavy weight or pushing the reps to the absolute limit, something gives.

I mentioned crossing in regard to the student who asked for a chance to retake a test. Crossing is one of the key things to understand about biorhythms. Cross, or switch-point, days are the ones on which the cycles begin a new swing upward into the positive stage or move downward into the recharging stage. Anytime a cycle crosses the midpoint is considered a critical day. Cross days are actually the most important days in any biorhythm chart because they have the most dramatic influence on your behavior. Everything about that cycle is magnified. There are also double-cross days, which happen about six times a year, and the dreaded triple crosses, which, thankfully, occur only once a year on average.

On the cross days your body is in flux and is not stable. Your body chemistry is changing from positive to negative or vice versa. George Thommen states, “Critical days in themselves are not dangerous. Rather, they are the days in which the individual’s reaction to his environment may bring about a critical situation.” In other words, you’re very prone to sustaining some sort of injury or being in an accident. That’s not theory but is based on fact. A survey reported in the American Society of Engineers Journal in 1973 found that of one thousand accidents involving airline pilots, railroad engineers, truck drivers and traveling salesmen, more than 90 percent happened on critical days.

Japan, more than any other country, has adopted the science of biorhythms and uses it extensively in work-related matters. At one automotive plant workers’ biorhythms are calculated, and anyone who’s about to have a cross day gets a yellow card placed on his or her time card. The employee is moved from regular duties to duties of much lower risk. The company figures that it’s saved millions of dollars by making that move.

The interest in biorhythms peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Computerized biorhythms that covered three or four years were available through ads in magazines. Someone did one for me, but I mislaid it. A device called the Biomate was a small biorhythm calculator. I had one of those too but moved around so much that I ended up losing it. No matter; I simply went back to finding out my biorhythms the old-fashioned way. I used math.

Step one, multiply your age by 365. Next, add the number of leap years that you’ve lived in your lifetime. Leap years are the same years in which the Summer Olympics are held, so you can work back from 2008. Add those two numbers to get a subtotal.

Now count the number of days since your last birthday. Incidentally, the very best time to calculate your biorhythm is on your birthday or very close to it. Makes the math much simpler. Make sure you include your birthday; that’s the beginning of a new year for you. Add that number to your subtotal, and you’ll know exactly how many days you’ve inhabited the earth.

Suppose you came up with a grand total of 9,500 days. To determine where you are in relation to the three cycles, divide the grand total by the number of days in the cycle: 23 for the physical, 28 for the emotional and 33 for the intellectual. What you’re looking for is the remainder, so use long division, and don’t carry it out to decimal points.

I’ll start with the physical. The grand total of 9,500 is divided by 23, which gives you 413 with one remaining. That means you’ve gone through 413 physical cycles in your life and are at day one of the next cycle. For the emotional it’s 28 into 9,500, which gives you 339 and 8 left over. Same for the intellectual: 33 into 9,500 equals 287 with 29 remaining.

From the raw numbers it’s easy to draw a graph of each cycle and get a picture of where you stand on the day you selected. You may want to find out where you stood at a certain date a few months previously or are interested in where your biorhythms will be somewhere in the future. Since your physical cycle consists of 11.5 positive and 11.5 negative days, you’ll see that you’re on the first day of your discharge period: excellent. You’re also on the high end of the curve for the emotional since you’re at eight and since the emotional cycle has 14 days up and 14 days down: another plus. Only in the intellectual cycle are you in the recharge phase, with 29. That cycle is divided into two 16.5-day phases, so you still have five days left in the low part of that cycle.

Here’s what Tommy Suggs and I used to do after we did the calculations. We recorded each of them for that day on a calendar, using blue ink for the physical, red for the emotional and green for the intellectual. Then we moved them all forward until we’d filled in the entire year. We also sometimes worked the numbers backward to find out where our biorhythms had been on a certain date, usually a past contest. Then, when we wanted to know where our biorhythms were going to be in, say, a month, we merely consulted the calendar and made any adjustments accordingly. Most important, you know for certain when your cross days are going to pop up, and it’s really a good idea to know about those when you’re training hard and heavy.

You absolutely must know how to train around those critical days, or you’ll eventually sustain an injury. It’s really just a matter of common sense. I tell my athletes to approach it much as they would if they were extremely fatigued. If someone is facing a triple cross, I advise him or her to forgo an intended workout and switch to a very, very light day with exercises that need very little technique—and to stay away from any new movements. Double crosses need to be dealt with in much the same way, and single-cross days should be recognized and treated as somewhat tricky as well. Taking it easy for one day isn’t going to be a setback. Forging ahead and ignoring those chemical shifts in your body, however, could set you back for a very long time.

If you’re a competitive weightlifter, of course, you can’t always avoid cross days because occasionally they fall on the same day as a major contest. Tommy and I did our best to schedule our meets so that our biorhythms were at least favorable, but whenever Bob Hoffman insisted that we compete in an upcoming meet, we had to do so if we weren’t injured, regardless of our biorhythms. When we did try to beg off by telling him we were severely overtrained, he merely replied, “Then don’t go as heavy.” Which was, of course, utter nonsense. Why enter a meet if you aren’t going to go heavy? So we had to deal with it.

What we did if any cycle was due to cross on a contest day was to overtrain like crazy leading into the meet, then back way off on our loads several days before the contest. We did the same thing if our physical cycle was low going into a meet by working more slowly and making sure we got extra rest during that time. Rest was a most valuable asset when the physical cycle was low or crossing—as was nutrition. We’d load up on protein foods, drink extra protein milk shakes and take double the amount of antioxidants: vitamins A, D, C and E and fish-liver oils.

Crossing days for the emotional cycle are the ones noticed most often and are the most influential on competitive weightlifters. That’s because individual athletes rely completely on themselves rather than the support of team members, and being positive psychologically is very important. Cross days on the emotional cycle will find you easily irritated about even little things. Your overall mood will be down, and you may not want to go to the gym. I’ve found that it helps to train alone; then there’s a lesser chance that someone saying or doing something will drive me nuts. As with the physical crosses, don’t tackle maximum weights on cross days. Take a lighter workout, and make up the deficit the next day or sometime later that week.

It also helps to do static rather than dynamic exercises when you’re facing a cross day on any of the cycles. Many discount the intellectual cycle in regard to training, but I don’t. It has much to do with concentration, and as everyone knows, an injury can occur with a very light weight if you use ugly form. So keep the movements simple. Do halting deadlifts rather than power or full cleans. Some lifters I know have found success in using light weights and running the reps up on their cross days. That lowers the risk of injury and enables them to greatly increase their overall workload.

Doing isotonic-isometric contractions in the power rack is another alternative for cross days and when the cycles are in the low phase. Instead of doing a squat workout, do three positions in the rack: low, middle and high. One work set for each, and you’re done. On cross and low days I resort to drinking a bit more coffee and double my B-vitamin intake. I also caution myself throughout the sessions to take my time and think about the exercise I’m doing. Take nothing for granted. Assume that you’re going to have to pay closer attention to every rep, and you can end up with a more productive workout.

Researchers have discovered that when someone practices meditation on a regular basis, he or she is in a much better position to deal with the cross days and the low phases of the three cycles. I refer to it as mental preparation, and it’s a practice that all serious strength athletes should adopt. Take time the night before a workout when you know you’ll be crossing or are at the low end of the curve on one or more cycles. That will help you focus on form while training, and maintaining proper technique is one of the keys to avoiding an injury.

Of course, it’s not all negative. You have an equal number of up and down days, and that’s when you should be attacking the weights. That’s especially true for the physical cycle. When you’re coming off a critical day and moving into the positive stage, your energy is surging and will offset negative readings in the other two cycles. You should take full advantage of that. Some of my advanced strength athletes at Hopkins charted their biorhythms, and when I saw that they were about to enter a positive physical cycle, I’d have them go after personal records on every exercise in their programs during that 11.5-day period. Sometimes the records would be in the form of reps, such as fives or threes, but mostly they went after singles. At the same time I had them increase their overall workload, which meant that when they went into the negative portion of the strength cycle, they could back off a bit but would still be carrying a substantial load.

Basically, when you’re low, back off the load, slow your pace, pay closer attention to form, increase your supplement intake—especially protein and the antioxidants—and make sure you get lots and lots of rest. Naps can be your best friend when your bios are low or crossing. Conversely, when your cycles are up, load up the bar, do more total work, and go after records.

You can deal with biorhythms in three ways. One, recognize that they exist, and adapt your training program to them. Two, refute that there is such a thing, and continue to wonder why you’re all of a sudden having terrible workouts. Three, believe in them, but do nothing. Your choice.

If you’ve always considered the idea of biorhythms to be in the same category as crystal ball gazing, perhaps it’s time for you to reconsider. Knowing about the many factors that influence your performance in the weight room is important if you’re trying to get stronger and healthier. By learning more about biorhythms, you can determine how to adapt your training and actually use nature’s continuous changes in your body’s chemistry to your benefit.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

Biorhythms: Passing the Test?
• Harold Willis of Missouri Southern State College conducted an experiment on the school’s football team. He made up biorhythm charts to see whether he could predict how each player would perform during a game. He closely compared his charts with the team coaches’ reports on individual game performances and discovered that he was 77 percent accurate. He also plotted injuries that had been suffered during games in practices and found that 67 percent of them occurred on a player’s critical days.

• Researchers Roberts and Wallerstein of Los Angeles wanted to find out whether they could predict the outcome of football games by charting the biorhythms of the players as well as the coaches. In 1972 the two correctly predicted the results of nine of 10 games the Los Angeles Rams played that year, and they went on to predict the winner of that season’s Super Bowl, when Miami whipped the Redskins.

• The most comprehensive studies of the relationship of self-caused traffic accidents to the driver’s biorhythmic condition have been conducted in Japan. A study by the Japanese Military Police in conjunction with the civil police of Fukuoka Prefecture, involving 1,666 self-caused traffic accidents, revealed that 59 percent had taken place when the driver was undergoing a critical biorhythmic day. A 1971 examination of self-caused accidents by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police showed that 82 percent happened while the driver was experiencing a critical day. —B.S.

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