Written by: Kevin Cann
Exercise science is a science. With that said, I reserve the right to be wrong from time to time. This article is going to clear up something that I was wrong about in the past. The subject is overtraining.
If you had asked me a year ago how often one is capable of training, I would have said 3 days per week in the gym, and doing something physically active the other days like riding a bike, going for a walk, or playing recreational sports is enough. Anymore and you risk throwing your stress levels through the roof.
We are under constant stress with poor sleep, poor nutrition, sitting in traffic, money problems, and so on. This is not untrue, and there is a limit to what the body can handle. The outline I just laid out is great for someone just exercising for better health. However, it falls far short of those looking to be more competitive in the strength sports.
The whole thought of overtraining comes back to Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome. Our body encounters a stressor and responds physiologically by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, circulating glucose, and so on. This is known as our fight or flight response. Our body does not know the difference between the stresses of sitting in traffic compared to fighting off a mugger.
It is easy to see that we are under a lot of stress, and adding too much intense exercise would only crush us even further. The problem is that we are capable of handling much more than we give ourselves credit for. The human body is an amazingly adaptive machine, and we can utilize this for our strength.
Over the course of the last year I have slowly increased my volume to over 800 competitive lifts in a 4 week period. You may look at that number and wonder how I am still standing. I actually have never felt better (knock on wood).
In the beginning I was constantly sore and doing a plethora of soft tissue work. Now, my soft tissue work is very minimal and my warmups actually only take about 10 minutes to complete. How can I go from feeling like I have been hit by a bus, to increasing volume and end up feeling better? The reason is that I adapted.
Hans Selye only discussed homeostasis. Robert Sapolsky explains homeostasis as returning to a baseline with the focus on one system. For example, when we exercise we burn glucose, so exercise tends to spike hunger levels. What homeostasis fails to recognize is all of the other systems, such as our immune system and digestive system, doing things to save glucose for the working muscles. This is known as allostasis.
One of the systems that are affected during exercise is our brain. Central fatigue has been associated with an increase in serotonin levels and a decrease in dopamine. Serotonin is responsible for making us feel lethargic, where dopamine gives us focus and energy. We want these two neurotransmitters to be balanced, but when the ratio gets thrown off we run into problems. One of these problems is with our mood.
One of the signs of overtraining is not feeling like you want to train. Increased muscle soreness is also a sign of overtraining. I have felt like this many times in the last year, but I was able to train and hit all of my numbers with no problem. I have even hit a PR on my deadlift when I was sore and tired from testing my squat and bench the day before. My deadlift test is also superseded by some volume benching.
Loss of performance is also a sign of overtraining. If we are still hitting PRs are we really overtraining? Even with that sign of overtraining it misses the mark. Strength gains do not always move in a linear line. Sometimes weight decreases before it increases.
3 months before I pulled that deadlift PR I had a scheduled test day in my program. I was not able to pull what I had pulled at my previous meet, and actually had to grind out 30lbs less than my best lift. I had begun working with Boris Sheiko after my October meet last year. This was a few months into working with him and my body was not adapted yet to the programming.
I was not over trained, even though I felt sore, tired, and weak, and my performance was declining. I was undertrained. My body was not adapted to the new program. I continued to train through this and ended up putting 100lbs on my total in 6 months. As I am writing this today, I have never felt better while participating in any sport, and my volume has only increased since we started.
This does not mean we can just start lifting heavy every day of the week. We need to allow our body to adapt. The amount of volume we do needs to be carefully selected. Too much volume and you will get injured, too little volume and you will not adapt as well. I was wrong in estimating how much volume we are capable of handling.
In powerlifting not all of the lifts are considered equal. The deadlift is the hardest lift to recover from, then the squat, and then the bench press. I currently deadlift 1-2 times per week, squat 2-3 times per week, and bench 3-4 times per week. Often times I have double sessions of the same lift on the same day.
I train 4 days per week and my volume fluctuates between 170-225 lifts completed within those 4 days. In this 4 week cycle of training I have 823 competitive lifts scheduled. Think I will get stronger if I performed each lift 1 day per week, or had a split setup like I explained above where I deadlift 1-2 days, squat 2-3, and bench 3-4? I am a firm believer that the latter will yield greater results.
There are plenty of people who get good results from less volume, but I would argue that they could have better results with more volume. Now, this does not mean we just start loading on the volume. Technique in the lifts is very important. Physics plays an important role in our ability to lift maximum weights.
With that said, the majority of my sets have fewer than 5 reps and the majority of the work is performed at 80% of 1RM or less. The technique of the lift and the total volume for the day dictate the intensity of the lift. For example, I tend to program a lot of deficit deadlifts for my clients to help improve position and strength off of the floor.
For 2 similar clients, I may want to be around 18 total lifts for this variation on a given day. The rep schemes will remain the same, but one client may use 65% and the other may use 70% of 1RM based upon their ability to get into position and execute the lift properly. They need to show the ability to own 65% before we move up to 70%. Once they own 70% we will use 75%. The deficit also increases the intensity of the exercise, so we tend to use lighter weights than we would for a deadlift from the floor.
I also let technique dictate the total volume of lifts. If technique breaks down too much at the end, it is too much volume. If there are no breakdowns and they cruise through the training session, it is not enough volume. This takes a well-trained coach’s eye to see.
The take away of this is do not be afraid of overtraining. It is very unlikely that you will get there. The body is an extremely effective adaptive machine, and we tend to not give it enough credit. If you are just looking to exercise to feel better, 3 days per week in the gym and doing active things on the other days is more than enough. If you are looking to compete in the strength sports or CrossFit games, take a look at your program and be honest with yourself. Are you doing enough work to truly maximize your potential, or are you doing less being scared of overtraining?