The Collective
overtraining  -sort of- !
    Okay Collectivites “we” are back for another topic of discussion.  Based off some prodding (I did) on the Strength List I got some feedback that Overtraining is a topic that should get addressed.  I agree, as this is a tough area to navigate in our collective training efforts.  I am not a doctor or alphabet soup educated physical therapy guru or anything but, I am a lifter who has been doing this for some time and made ~waaaaayyyy~ too many mistakes.  I’ll blast off with some thoughts and such on the topic and hopefully it will be some information that can be of use to someone, somewhere. <g>
          Well first of all we need to know what is happening when we are “overtraining”, which is kind of a misnomer since you don’t overtrain as much as you under-nourish or under-rest.  As I understand the effects of overtraining and also based off some of my own experience with it (which I have plenty <g>).  Your body can handle tremendous amounts of stress (in various forms) without undue negative affect.  However, unless you supply the system with the necessary fuels (read: food) and also with sufficient rest then you get into a Catabolic state and all you wind up doing is breaking down all that hard earned muscle you have been building to that point.  What should you look for?  Everybody will react a little differently so I don’t know as though you can say this or that is a sure sign of being overtrained.  Some common symptoms that I have noticed and that others have stated are along the lines of insomnia, loss of appetite, constant muscle soreness, loss of weight, loss of strength, mental fatigue (constant), lack of focus (mentally on a consistent basis), and there are others I am sure.  The point is that this is a pretty subjective phenomenon. So ultimately you need to know yourself well enough and how you function to decide for yourself (that doesn’t help much does it? <g>). 

          The first thing you need to do if you start to experience these types of things is asking yourself honestly if you are really feeling excess symptoms.  That is more directed towards the newer lifters as most of the more experienced lifters are just the opposite.  I see two types of mentalities generally in newer and medium experienced lifters.  The old guys/gals have it figured out and tend to know their limits so you all just go on and keep lifting <g>.  For the newer lifters you need to learn how to push yourself and understand that you are going to feel discomfort and such but, this is okay as your body adjusts to the new stresses you are imposing on it.  There is a progression on learning to make your body perform at its maximum capacity too.  This takes time so you need to “push” on most occasions.  The problem here...and please take note of this, don’t believe everything you read/see/hear in magazines, on the Internet, from other lifters.  What the newer lifters ~need~ in their training is a _basic_ set up that is filled with big compound motions (read: simple, to set a can’t build unless you have a foundation, it is the _foundation_ of which you build off of...get it? <g>).  I am convinced that this is the best way to start as what you need, more than anything else, is to teach your body the ability/skill of performing maximally synergistically.  Once you start doing isolation or partial movements that are trying to address specifics you are going to overtrain an area that will cause some other area to pick up the slack and the circular failing is started and is very hard to stop.  Most people’s bodies are relatively balanced and when you start lifting it is pretty easy to knock that out of whack.  That is why you need to keep the motions big and compound so that you bring EVERYTHING up at the same time.  Once you have a few years under your belt you have pretty much established a foundation of muscle/strength and weak points are going to be evident as your particular style/groove etc. compliments and neglects certain aspects of the lift.  In the early stages of lifting you are taxing your systems so hard learning how to work together maximally that when you do something as simple as biceps work you are going to affect other more important motions. 

          Everybody wants big arms but you don’t need to work you arms (biceps) to get them big...they get worked and their function as stabilizers in the major motions is more important initially.  You waste the energy reserves in some of your other stabilizers just so you can “curl” will most assuredly affect your development.  Personal experience with this particular lift...I used to curl all the time trying to get big arms.  What it did was keep my shoulders so fatigued that I couldn’t get my BP or overhead stuff to advance.  It also affected my squats and deeds, as I didn’t have the stability in my shoulder girdle to sustain the loads I was capable of moving with my core section.  In the last 3-4 years I have put somewhere in the vicinity of 3-4 inches on my arms with NO direct biceps work...none...nada.... Nothing.  My BP is soaring and I have squatted and pulled decent numbers since then too. 

          Okay, I know I went off a little there but, the point avoid overtraining you need to keep your priorities in focus.  What is important to overall development?  Do you want to “look” good or do you want to “be” good?  I promise you that if you focus on the basic foundational movements then the ancillary systems in your body will keep up and your overall strength size and development will move much more swiftly and consistently than if you try to work all the minor pieces individually.  Leave the little things for later when you have the self-awareness to narrow your focus on them.  Even if you think you do, you don’t!  This is something that can only be achieved with time and training.  One characteristic of good lifters and successful athletes is that they are patient.  You can’t build your body takes time, consistency, and hard work to do it.  Even if you accelerate the process with drug use it won’t happen overnight (and there are numerous aspects that go along with THAT whole issue that is a whole series of discussion of their own!).

          Okay, let’s shift to the medium and, to some extent the older, experienced lifters.  This is a tough time because you need to shift some focus to smaller areas to address what the big motions haven’t addressed sufficiently.  The problem is that by this point you have tempered your drive and are “gung ho.”  The result is that they tend to ignore the symptoms and decide to just “push” since it takes hard work to gain, right?  It doesn’t take very much to address a weak point, some direct work will bring the area up in time but again here is the patience issue.  More is better right?  I can hit it with this big motion and then do one or two minor movements to help and it will be up to snuff in a few weeks!  Wrong!  You are going to go into that circular failing again.  If you overwork a weak area then realistically what do you think is going to happen?  It is going to fail even sooner and something else is going to have to try to compensate which will fatigue that sooner and another redundant system will try to compensate, etc. etc. etc!  Keep in mind too, these secondary muscle groups that are trying to compensate aren’t in the best orientation to work the joint, or stabilize, or whatever so they tend to fatigue faster than normal since they are working harder to stabilize/move something from a disadvantaged position.  See a pattern forming here?  This all comes down to energy reserves, recovery, and ~balance~.  

          So what is the point here Wade?  Well, no matter what stage of your training evolution you are in, you still need to keep the major focus on the big compound work.  So many articles and discussions are centered on these minor tweaks that they somehow get brought to the forefront of everyone's attention and thus realize a position of mass importance in the scheme of your training system.  This is NOT the case!  The focus always needs to be on your strengths IMO, which will be the big major motions and compound activities.  Secondary focus goes to addressing a particular area that is lagging.  It won’t take much to bring them along either...they get work in the major motions but, they just need a little prod to help them along.  Part of the trick is to give it that “prod” at a time that won’t adversely affect your major motion work.  That is probably the most important point in avoiding overtraining.  WHEN do you address a lagging area? 

          More than anything else, I believe that overtraining is a result of poorly planned coordination of exercises.  What is the general idea behind bringing up a weak area?  Let’s use triceps as an example.... Mostly what I see is people add an exercise on tricep or bench day to help bring them up.  What you have just done, in essence, is stress a muscle even harder on days that they are struggling to keep up on in the first place?  Why not address them with an extra motion on a day mid way between your BP or tri work day?  Like on a squat or DL day and just toss in some tri motion when the muscle is rested and will also have a chance to recover before it is utilized as a prime mover again?  Doesn’t that make more sense?  Here is a common argument against it...well, then it won’t recover in time for my next workout which is only a day or two away.  True, IF, you go nuts and destroy it.  You won’t need to do a full blown tri workout...just do one motion to get some work on the muscle and see if that doesn’t make a difference in a month or so.  Think of it like this...if you are convinced you need to get an extra 6 hours of sleep a week to function properly, would the best course be to sleep an extra 3 hours on the weekends?  I would say no, take an extra hour each day and spread it out over the course of the week.  When you try to do the extremes or “catch up” type of approach then you open yourself up to way too many variables.  What if you don’t have a chance to get the catch up?  Now you are really screwed because when your body is dependant on getting the extra sleep/work/whatever! It isn’t going to get it! 

           If you choose to toe the line of your recuperative ability then you are _going_ to cross over it since very few people have a lifestyle that is stable enough to allow them to always run right along that line.  Life tosses too many variables at you on a daily basis to not have some type of cushion for your recuperative ability.  This is another MAJOR factor in the gym...what is your daily activity like?  Maybe your workout is reasonable and such but consider the other factors that are going to influence your workouts!  BALANCE, BALANCE, BALANCE!  It goes far past just what you do in the gym.  Synergy, you gotta’ take everything into account...unless you are willing to do this then you are going to get stuck at some point or you are going to overtrain. .

          At some point you are going to have to do it...overtrain that is.  Probably a few times, otherwise you aren’t going to know what your limit is.  The key is to recognize when it happens and adjust your training schedule before you do too much regression.  Take my word for it...the single most frustrating thing in lifting is covering ground you have already been over 1,3,6 mos. or more previously.  It is time doubly wasted, as you have to regain the strength you lost but also you lose the potential gains you would have made in that time due to the regression.  Now earlier I mentioned the under nourishment and rest issue.  When you begin to workout or you increase you volume of work (or are peaking) then you need to also increase what is going in to fuel this change.  Add an extra 30 minutes a day to your sleep; add a little extra to each meal.  Back to a point I keep harping on...balance.  What you expect to get out of you body you have to put in.  Now, cutting weight is a different scenario but, you have to be careful with this as anytime you run in a deficient state you are, at some point, going to reach the maximum of what you can tax your system before it shuts down to protect itself.
          Okay, I guess I have rambled on about this long enough.  Probably not the approach you initially thought when you read the title but, it is a vague area and IMO it is misinterpreted and the solutions put forth are too narrow in their scope to effectively address the problem.  So if it happens what are you supposed to do?  What kind of reasonable program is best utilized to avoid it?  This is a pretty subjective area and I don’t think someone can tell you exactly what to do (unless they are very familiar with lifting, you, and your daily lifestyle).  I do think there are some general things that you can keep in mind and maybe give a try to help avoid/recover from this though.

  1.  If you experience the types of symptoms listed ~way~ up at the top then BACK OFF for a week or two.  Take it easy and let your system recover.  It is basically functioning in “emergency” mode since it is being taxed too heavily.  Give it a chance to recover.
  2.  Try structuring your workout to address weak points on days opposite of when they will get directly worked (aside from their normal workload).
  3.  Keep smaller assistance motions limited to one or two per muscle group.  Get the most work in the big motions and then use the assistance motions as just that...”assistance!”
  4.  Temper your drive on the assistance motions.  I am a little opposite of WSB in my opinion here...I don’t try to set records on my assistance everyday (this is done at certain times when I feel a little stronger, done _occasionally_).  I try to set records on my primary motions and use the assistance motions as assistance.  It is not the focus of what I am trying to achieve so I won’t put my focus on it.  IMO, this is where most people overtrain at...they push the assistance so hard that they don’t have anything for the big motions and they get caught in that circular failing I mentioned earlier (redundant systems trying to compensate from disadvantaged position).
  5.  Leave a little in the gym!  This will give you some cushion on your recovery system to accommodate life’s little curveballs.  Not only that but, it also keeps you hungry mentally for the next workout.
  6.  Err on the side of too little.  I can’t stress this enough...start easy then slowly increase to see how your system adapts.  It is easier to add than it is to reduce...when you are forced to reduce it is usually because you are overtrained.  This brings a number of other factors, which will take time to recover from. 
  7.  Focus on your strengths.  Address weak points but, not at the expense of your strengths.
  8.  Eat, eat, and eat.  Rest, rest, rest.
  9.  Don’t panic into believing you are overtrained if you have a few consecutive bad workouts. 
  10.  Being overtrained is not the end of the world.  It is a set back but, it is fixable and it will make you a better lifter.  Don’t get discouraged.
  11.  Overtraining is simply doing TOO MUCH on a daily/weekly basis for your recuperative ability.  This can be related to the overall general health you are in.  Some mild cardio on a regular basis is a wonderful addition to help increase the amount of work you can handle daily/weekly. ***KEEP IN MIND*** Initially this will affect your work load so compensate somewhere to reserve the energy to include it.  Don’t expect to just add cardio without adjusting for it somewhere else.  Everything has a price and this is no different...your body operates on a finite amount of energy/work capacity and if you over step will pay by getting shut down (i.e. your body will quit being “anabolic” and “catabolic”).
  12.  The catabolic state is simply your body's reaction to TOO MUCH work being demanded of it.  To respond it continues to break muscle down since muscle, is much more energy dependant to maintain/work.  If you body doesn’t have to maintain/control as much muscle it will be able to handle the increased work load YOU are imposing on it (basically, in a rough least to my understanding that is kind of how it functions <g>).
  13.  There are no number 13. (heehee)
  14.  Review points 6, 5, and 8.
          As I mentioned earlier, probably not the approach you would have guessed when you started reading this but, I have never been all too conventional. <G> This is far from the end all, be all write up on fact, there are probably areas that are legitimately disputed.  Based off my experience and discussions on the subject this is what I have come up with and they are, for the most part, the premises I operate under in my own training.  I welcome further discussion on it since it is something that is very broad and fraught with numerous variables.  The more I can identify then the more I can avoid in my own quest for greater strength.  Hope this is helpful, and if I can answer any questions I will certainly try, further discuss it, and set my big butt straight on how off base I am.... Whatever!  Send me some e-mail and lets talk about it! <G>

Until next time....good liftin’

-wade of BORG