At some point in our training lives, we will all feel run down and lethargic. The cause may be that you’ve not had enough sleep or you may have the start of a virus, or maybe you have entered a state we call over-reaching, or its big brother, overtraining. Over-reaching is sometimes desirable, but if you are not aware what is happening can cause you to stop progressing or even start to lose strength and power if not properly managed. Let’s start from the beginning and look at the causes of overtraining and how to balance training stress for optimal results…
Here’s a fact you may not be aware of: every movement you make causes stress on your nervous system. It will range from a tiny stress of walking to a huge stress of lifting your one rep max in the deadlift for example. The nervous system is made up of parts, the central nervous system (CNS), which is the brain and the spinal column, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is all the other nerves in the body outside of the CNS. The PNS has various sub-structures, but for our understanding in this context it is sufficient to think the following:
Signal from brain (CNS)
Transmitted down spinal column (CNS)
Transmitted through limb(s) (PNS)
Movement occurs in the muscle.
If you imagine the CNS as a battery and each muscle as a light bulb, you should start to see that the more muscles are used (compound exercises), the more drain there will be on the CNS, just as if you wire a series of bulbs to a battery it will drain faster than if you just connected one. Right, now the main boring bit is out of the way, how does it affect you?
If you are a beginner to weight training, training for increased muscle size or fat loss, you will probably be able to make progress for a long period without even thinking about training stress. This is because as a beginner you lack the neuromuscular efficiency to recruit a large number of muscle fibres, and also most people training for those goals train in a manner that is not overly stressful, despite perceived difficulty. For those individuals, the model of training (stress) > recovery > supercompensation (improvement) can be repeated successfully for a long period until plateaus are reached. For others who are more advanced trainees, or who also practice a sport alongside weight training, the training methods and stressors will need to be more carefully monitored to avoid stagnation.
As mentioned previously, all training will stress the nervous system. However, different methods will cause different levels of stress. The max effort method (lifting heavy weights to a 1-5 rep maximum) will cause great stress and need a long recovery period. The repetition method (standard bodybuilding, 8-12 reps with a relatively light load to short of failure) will cause much less stress and can be recovered from much easier, as would tempo runs (sprints at around 75% of max speed). Interestingly, explosive movements such as bodyweight plyometrics, sprints at max speed or the dynamic effort (DE) method of weight training are very high stressors due to the requirement to fire a high percentage of muscle fibres simultaneously to execute the movements. Knowing how much stress a certain method of lifting or activity imposes of the CNS is key to balancing training stress and continual ongoing improvement.
On top of training stressors, we must also consider outside stressors. Life in general these days is taxing on our bodies and nervous systems. If you have a physical job, the amount of work (movement) carried out during the working day must be taken into account when deciding how to train. If you work a busy shift in a warehouse you will obviously tire yourself more than working a desk job. Desk jobs are not stress free either though; if you are constantly worrying about an important meeting at work you will also be draining your battery at a higher rate! Also related to our stressful lifestyles today is that people often do not get enough sleep, which will be eating into your recovery, hence the expression ‘burning the candle at both ends’.
Now we have covered the stress part, let’s look at the overlooked part that recovery plays in training. As mentioned before, the basic model of training involves training, resting until fully recovered and improvements are made, then training again to make further progress. The problem with this method is when you get to a certain level the stress of training makes full recovery before the next session without detraining close to impossible. Methods of recovery including adequate nutrition, ice baths, massage, hot/cold treatment and certain supplements can improve your recovery rate, but at some point you are going to have to change something to be able to continue making progress.
Returning to our battery example, every training session drains our battery, and in between sessions it slowly recharges. Once we get to a certain level we are able to drain the battery with training faster than it can recover in between. The options now are to spend longer between sessions (not optimal for most people) or to intentionally manage stress so the battery drains down, then take some time off or at a lower stress level to allow the battery to recharge. Without further over-complicating this article, the aforementioned approach when applied to training is to intentionally over-reach, then ‘deload’ for a period of time to allow the CNS to recover to the level it was at before starting the training cycle. How long it may be before you need to deload is an individual thing, it may be months, it may be as little as 2 weeks hard training. Some ways to detect over-reaching are resting heart rate (will increase), muscle soreness (will increase), endurance (will decrease), blood pressure (will increase) and appetite (may decrease). There is also a tool called a tap test (number of times you can press a button in a set time) which can be used to track CNS stress.
“How do you deload?” you may be asking. Well, there are a few different ways to deload. If we consider things that will cause stress to the CNS, there is high volume, high load and high frequency. Therefore reducing one or more will achieve a deload. The question, which you may need to experiment to find the answer to, is how much do you need to drop off each factor to successfully come out the other side of your deload period sufficiently recovered. For instance, I personally train 4 times a week fairly heavy. To deload I will drop to 3 session a week (lowering frequency), cut my sets per exercise from 4-5 to 2-3 (lowering volume) and not strain on any exercise during that week (lowering load). I find this to be sufficient to allow full CNS recovery without detraining. Some people prefer to just take a week off training to deload, however this can cause detraining, which is when fitness begins to deteriorate and usually leads to much higher levels of soreness when normal training is resumed. I would rather lift light during a deload week than lose training quality at the start of my next training cycle due to still being sore from the last workout.
In summary, if you are serious about your training you must realise the stress of every training session and ongoing stress in your daily life, manage each part and know when to back off and allow yourself to recover. Think intelligently and organise your training into cycles allowing you to peak for competitions or performance tests (you will be stronger and faster right after a deload) and you will see much better results than going in a plugging away non-stop in the gym. The need to work hard to improve is common knowledge and often drilled into beginners in sports, but the need to know when to NOT work hard is as important in the grand scheme. Do not use this as an excuse for laziness, work hard when you need to, but realise you are not superhuman and allow your body to rest from time to time and you will reap the greater rewards.