When we talk about overtraining, there are generally 2 camps where one side is arguing that no such thing exists and that you should always give your 100% every single workout and anything less than that is just not acceptable. While the other camp is arguing that overtraining is a real thing and that if you do not deload every 4 weeks you are at a serious risk of injury. Who should you be listening to? As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Let us first start off with understanding what an over-training is. Overtraining is an increase in the fatigue to a level that impairs your performance over the medium term. I am not talking about fatigue during the workout which is completely normal, I am talking about the fatigue that carries over to the next workout and impairs your performance.
The fatigue that we are interested in is neuromuscular fatigue, and it can have two origins, central and peripheral.
Central sites include brain and spinal cord while peripheral sites include muscle cells.
Peripheral fatigue originates from disruption of contractile and metabolic processes in the muscle which leads to a decreased force and energy production. The pump that you feel after doing a high rep set in the gym is called metabolic stress, and it is simply an accumulation of metabolic waste and lack of oxygen in tissue during an exercise. At this point, your body is unable to produce more ATP and your force production drops.
This type of fatigue occurs in the brain and the spinal cord. Basically your muscles are in a perfect condition but the signals coming from the brain to activate those muscles are weak. Think of it as heaving a car in a perfect condition for a race, but the driver is completely tired and not fit for the race. In this case, your muscles are the car and your brain is the driver.
While it is commonly believed that high intensity workouts where you use extremely heavy loads with low rep can completely fatigue the central nervous system it is actually not the case. It is the lower intensity higher rep work that is more fatiguing for the central nervous system. Typically endurance sports are more taxing to your central regulator, while high intensity exercises barely have any.
To back up this claim Howatson et al. (2016) did a study on elite athletes where he measured the recovery rate and central fatigue. These were elite athletes that were squatting more than 190 kg and running 100 m in 10.44 seconds. During the study session, they performed a workout consisting of a barbell squat of 4 sets with 5 repetitions max, the split squat and a push press with total sets of 12. All of the exercises mentioned are very demanding and one of the most difficult.
There was no central fatigue.
There was a significant neuromuscular fatigue which is completely normal but the nervous system muscle activation did not decrease at all. Those muscles were just locally fatigued due to the extremely tough workout.
There is another study that was even more extreme than this.
Latella et al (2016) found that 5 sets of 3 (94% 1RM) of bicep curls achieved a significant central fatigue where it decreased muscle activation ability by almost 50%! How long did this last? It took only 20 minutes for the CNS to fully recover.
Basically CNS is something that you should not worry about as in the work case scenario, it recovers within few minutes. Most of the fatigue that you have after the workout is only local in the muscle group that you trained, and you should schedule your workout plan according to that to fully optimize muscle recovery.
How do you over-train?
While true over-training is actually rare, a lot of people might use it as an excuse, especially nowadays, since there is so much information available on the internet, people are overthinking everything and after having a single bad day in the gym they think they are over-training.
First of all, you should not have good and bad days if your workout program is optimized. Your performance should be consistent in the gym workout to workout. If it is not, it is most likely that your circadian rhythm is disrupted or that your form is not good.
To effectively over-train, means that you are unable to achieve super compensation before the next workout and your performance therefore suffers. So a drop in performance could be a sign that you are over-training, but it could also be a sign that you are under-training and that your program is not advanced enough anymore. What worked in the past does not have to work in the future as your physique progresses as well.
On the other hand, if your strength is going up all the time, you can be sure that you are not over-training.
Now lets look at the two factors that can cause over-training:
1. Volume over-training
2. Intensity - volume over-training
If you increase your volume enough and keep it that way, you are eventually risking over-training. Same can be said for super high intensity with enough volume. Keep in mind that this needs to be extremely high, for example performing 1RM squats every day for 2 weeks!
To understand how to effectively use volume you have 6 different categories.
1. Under-training: not enough volume and you do not progress.
2. Maintenance: doing just enough volume to keep your muscles.
3. Effective training: optimal amount of volume for progression
4. Excessive training: you are only able to just recover workout to workout, there is not enough time for supercompensation and your strength does not increase.
5. Overreaching: you lose strength workout to workout
6. Over-training: you develop a true over training as a result of prolonged overreaching. This has a medium to long term consequences.
As you can see, you do not simply reach over-training over night, you get there over time. There are different stages that you need to pass to finally over train at the end. In most cases, your connective tissue will degrade before you even reach there and you will get injured.
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