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Most gymgoers who have been around the game a little while have heard of the concept of overtraining.

Overtaining is a state caused by chronically working out beyond the body’s capacity to recover, and it results in prolonged soreness and a decrease in training performance lasting more than two weeks, despite proper recovery time (1).

This is not quite complete, however, because what that actually means is up to a degree of interpretation. On one hand it seems to suggest that gymgoers should be wary of really pushing themselves in case they get weaker, and then on the other hand it brings forth the idea that one cannot possibly overtrain provided recovery is taken care of.

Thus, it seems to suggests that so long as you eat and sleep enough that you can handle – and progress from – any amount of training stress.

Can you?

Bodybuilder barbell biceps curl

Unfortunately that is not the case and overtraining is definitely real, affecting over 10% of American college swimmers and elite endurance athletes despite their rigid eating and recovery routines (1). With that being said, here I’m going to argue that it’s not something that most gymgoers need to worry about, and in fact most gymgoers would benefit a hell of a lot from actually training with a little more intensity.

Sure, If you’re getting loaded on pre-workout and hitting repeated heavy sets of squats and deadlifts at 10RPE (100% intensity with ground out reps) day after day then yeah, overtraining may be the problem, but typically the issue actually lies elsewhere.

Optimal progression

Those looking to gain muscle in the gym need to cover two bases in order to be successful: they need to consume a diet that supports their goal, and they need to train in a manner that elicits progressive tension overload for a significant length of time. Progressive tension overload (lifting heavier weights over time) increases the manual stress placed upon a muscle - it challenges it - and it forces it to grow. In fact, while getting a sick pump and feeling the burn both do have benefits in terms of causing muscle growth, it is the increased manual tension placed upon a muscle which is the primary driver for those sweet gains (2).

Now to achieve progressive tension overload, one has to train pretty damn hard. In the first few months of lifting you just need to put a little effort in and your strength will increase pretty quickly, but when you get much beyond those first 6 beautiful months of rapid progress things get a lot slower, and the effort required increases pretty dramatically. In the beginning it’s a case of turning up and straining against load a little before going home and turning up again a week later to add a few kilos to the bar; but before long it becomes necessary to add in a little programming and a lot more effort. Real, gut busting effort followed by proper recovery.

Training

Programming need not be difficult. Choose your main lifts then cycle through four weeks in the following pattern, for example:

Week Effort
1 Easy
2 Harder
3 Hard
4 Really, really hard

You then add some weight and return to week one. That might mean increasing the weight week on week, then reducing the load to a little higher than it was before, before starting again. For example:

Week Setup (VIF)
1 5x5 at 80kg RPE
2 5x5 at 85kg RPE 7.5
3 5x5 at 90kg RPE 9
4 5x5 at 95kg RPE 9.5

Drop back and add weight

(RPE is Rate of Perceived Exertion, a score out of 10, 10 being max effort)

Week 5 – 5x5 at 82.5kg RPE 6

Or it could be increasing then decreasing volume

Week Setup (VIF)
1 2x8 at 60kg
2 3x8 at 60kg
3 4x8 at 60kg
4 5x8 at 60kg

Drop back and add weight

Week 5 – 2x8 at 65kg

And so on.

Note that four weeks is arbitrary and it could have been three, six or something else, and also note that programming gets a bit more complex than that as you get more advanced.

Regardless of the specific method you use though, the purpose should be to push yourself to and then slightly beyond your limits, then take yourself back into recovery mode ready to go again. Think of it as two steps forward and one step back. The point here is that muscle gain requires digging deep and really testing oneself, and then it also requires backing off and spending time to monitor recovery.

And this is where most come unstuck.

you need to completely recover in order to supercompensate and improve


There are two kinds of people who aren’t making progress in the gym – those who aren’t training hard enough and those who aren’t recovering hard enough.

Toddler dumbbell shoulder press

In my experience the former is a far, far larger group; in fact I’d go so far to say that over 75% of gym members are stagnant when it comes to gym progress due to one or more of the following issues:

  • They don’t put the effort in because they are genuinely a bit lazy
  • They are so worried about overtraining that they undertrain and always cut sets short
  • They are too distracted in the gym to actually try during their sets
  • They just move weight without paying attention to the working muscles
  • They spend too much time on isolations
  • They do too much volume in a session, meaning that their intensity declines
  • The just go through the motions, they workout rather than turn up to train

The rest are stagnating due to under recovery, resulting in the exact same issues as undertraining. If that doesn’t make sense allow me to explain. What I often see in trainees is a desire to train hard all of the time, but simultaneously a fear of pushing ‘too hard’ and a fear of deloads because they think they are going to lose gains, or because deloads are boring.

Truthfully, however, those who find deloads boring and who hate having them tend to fall into the first group – the 75% that aren’t putting the effort in. If you spend a week overreaching your recovery capacity (I’ll return to that in a minute) then you’ll cherish taking the next week really easy because you’ll be sore, tired and feeling generally a little bit beat up.

What this means is that some are training really hard all of the time – meaning they put in maximal effort – but their performance is poor because of residual fatigue and so they are actually not able to train has hard if they would, had they thought things out a little more. They probably push themselves really hard when they get a routine, but instead of deloading they try to keep that up and over time the intensity drops, and they then spin their wheels.

As a bad analogy, if you stay awake all of the time so you can work more your productivity will dip because you’re tired. Sleeping for 30% of your time (7-8 hours) actually means you get more shit done during the week, even though you’re not #grinding all of the time. This group of people need only to start planning their training out, pushing really hard sometimes and then backing off – you can check out the Sports Guide for Bodybuilding or Powerlifting if you’d like somewhere to start.

But that leaves another category of people. It leaves those who are training hard, who are putting the effort in and who are following some kind of program that is progressive and that affords proper deloads (while also having a sensible amount of volume), but who are not able to progress due, much like the last group, to the impact that residual fatigue has on performance. Perhaps they train really hard, deload, then come back while still not feeling 100% fresh. After two or three cycles of that they will stagnate. These are the people that need to improve their recovery practice, and here’s why…

Resistance training works by applying an amount of stress to the body, with training literally causing a reliable and dose-related stress response, meaning the more you do, the more stress is added (3). Stress is dealt with in a very general manner in the body, and your ability to recover from and adapt to stressors is referred to, fittingly, as general adaptation. General adaptation suggests that your body has a finite amount of recovery capacity and so everything you throw at yourself takes up a little bit of that. The ideal situation would be for you to, therefore, do something similar to what I’ve noted above:

Week Effort
1 Way within recovery capacity
2 Within recovery capacity
3 Pushing it
4 Beyond your ability to recover
5 Way within recovery capacity – residual fatigue from week 4 dissipates

This then causes something known as supercompensation whereby your recovery capacity increases a bit and so next time around you can add on a bit more stress – do that over time and you get stronger – excellent. The issue is, however, that your body is not so linear and easy to work with and because your recovery capacity is a finite resource being tapped in to from various angles, you need to pay attention to stuff other than training in order to make sure your recovery is where it needs to be – with the most obvious example being lifestyle stress. Lifestyle stress adds additional stress into the mix, and so while you should theoretically be raring to go after a deload, if you’ve had a particularly difficult time at work or elsewhere you might notice that you’re actually still not ready to start pushing yourself again – and this isn’t just a psychological thing.

One study on the topic (4) highlights this effect exceptionally well. Two surveys were sent out to over 1000 individuals: one that identifies the number of stressful life situations that an individual has encountered, and one that identifies how stressed someone subjectively feels in general. Those who scored exceptionally high and exceptionally low were recruited and enrolled for a training study after some strength testing. The session involved multiple sets of very (relatively) heavy leg press to failure, resulting in a huge decrease in strength post workout.

Stressed out man illustration

After the test, the results were very interesting – while the low stress group was back to full strength within two days, it took twice that for the high stress group to recover! Clearly the amount of life stress an individual is under makes a great difference to their ability to recover from acute training sessions, but what about long term?

Another study in undergraduates (5) involved a 12 week program of twice weekly progressive resistance training. Participants were introduced to the program for two weeks before undergoing stress and one repetition max testing, then engaged in a 12 week program that sought to increase strength. Not too surprisingly, the low stress group increased their bench press and squat maxes far more than the high stress group – even when social support was taken into account.

And that’s not to mention poor sleep. One study in cyclists found that just one night of sleeping for almost four hours instead of almost eight hours resulted in a huge decrease in training recovery, which if prolonged would be almost certain to have an equally huge effect on their progress over time (6).

So yes, it’s extremely important to make sure that you are training hard enough, really pushing yourself and forcing your body to get stronger. It’s also crucial that you have programmed in periods of overreaching your recovery capacity and then other periods where recovery is the primary goal. Without doing that you’ll end up stagnating because over time your intensity will necessarily drop off. That’s not the end of the story, though, and while a week of lifting lighter loads will put a big dent in your overall residual fatigue, you need to completely recover in order to supercompensate and improve and that means look at stuff outside of the gym.

Stress

Stress can be alleviated in a number of ways including:

Stress minimisation

Avoid things that cause unnecessary stress like online arguments. Don’t neglect to take care of issues when they are small, and wait for them to get bigger over time. Plan your schedule, get a diary and stick to what you plan to do. De-clutter your immediate environment. Work towards employment that will meet your financial needs and reduce unnecessary spending if you are feeling the strain

Stress management

Find an outlet other than lifting weights, including talking to people about your problems. Do stuff that is meaningful other than lifting weights, such as a musical instrument, gardening or any other hobby you can think of. Maybe onsider meditating, stretching, yoga or some mindful inner and self reflective practice

Sleep

As for sleeping, the two avenues of attack are environmental and temporal. The latter point is simple, if you want to get 8 hours of sleep you need to schedule your day so that you can fall asleep 8 hours before you need to get up. That means you should start getting ready 45 minutes or so before that time, so that you can be in bed ready to go 15 minutes or so before you need to be out – this point sounds crazy, but if you find yourself sat for the third night in a row watching Netflix at 1am you have only yourself to blame when you’re so tired you miss your deadlift PR.

The environmental issue is a little less obvious in places, but the typical advice we give is:

  • Switch off electronics an hour before bed. This minimises artificial light but also allows your brain to ‘switch off’ rather than watching exciting stuff on TV or arguing about the ketogenic diet on Facebook
  • Make sure your room is real dark. Get blackout curtains and make sure stuff isn’t left with a standby light on
  • Use some white noise like a fan or a dedicated music track (I listen to rainfall on YouTube) – it usually helps, especially if you live by a road
  • Keep your room cool, being too hot will keep you up and won’t promote REM sleep
  • Make sure your mattress and bedsheets are comfortable, that one goes without saying

You could also invest in a small notebook and pen to keep by the bed. Jot down a to do list for the following day so that you can forget about the things you’re worried about as you lie there – you can relax because you know you’re going to do it tomorrow. This can also be useful if you’re the type of person that has good ideas then forgets by the following day, or generally has some level of anxiety about the day and whats coming, and writing it down and jounaling about it is a very effective and quite form of self therapy.

All in all this stuff isn’t necessarily so exciting as planning out 16 weeks of training so you can hit a PR. It’s not as fun as planning heavy singles and nice, relaxing deloads and it’s certainly nowhere near as thrilling as grinding out a hard rep in the gym, but if you’re the kind of person that is putting the effort in and planning stuff out properly, then it might be the catalyst you need to ensure you are recovering well, and not just grinding through and then hitting another platatue when things get tough.

References

  1. Whyte, Gregory; Harries, Mark; Williams, Clyde (2005). ABC of sports and exercise medicine. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 46–49
  2. Schoenfeld, B. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), pp.2857-2872.
  3. Leite, R., Prestes, J., Rosa, C., De Salles, B., Major, A., Miranda, H. and Simao, R. (2011). Acute effect of resistance training volume on hormonal responses in trained men. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 51(2), pp.322-328.
  4. Stults-Kolehmainen, M., Bartholomew, J. and Sinha, R. (2014). Chronic Psychological Stress Impairs Recovery of Muscular Function and Somatic Sensations Over a 96-Hour Period. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(7), pp.2007-2017.
  5. Bartholomew, J., Stults-Kolehmainen, M., Elrod, C. and Todd, J. (2008). Strength Gains after Resistance Training: The Effect of Stressful, Negative Life Events. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(4), pp.1215-1221.
  6. Rae, D., Chin, T., Dikgomo, K., Hill, L., McKune, A., Kohn, T. and Roden, L. (2017). One night of partial sleep deprivation impairs recovery from a single exercise training session. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 117(4), pp.699-712

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