Saturday, February 21, 2015

Overtraining - Is it real?

What's old becomes new again. Especially in training and nutrition.

There's the old "you can't overtrain, only under sleep and eat" bullshit making the rounds again.   This mantra is not new. It's been around for a long time.

It's a mantra celebrated by the phony "hardcore" crowd

If overtraining, or under-recovering wasn't a real "thing" then you could train balls out for hours on end everyday, and you'd simply make progress. You'd never get weaker, or have shitty workouts or feel fatigued.

But as we all know, this just isn't the case.

Now I'm not saying that feeling tired for one day is indicative of overtraining or under-recovery.  What I am saying is, if OT/UR is real, then there should be symptoms that manifest themselves in regards to that physical state.

In order to understand what said symptoms might look like, we would first need to define OT/UR in simple terms.

Overtraining, stated simply, would be a decline in performance or expected performance, due to fatigue.  

That's it.  That's all.  Well, sort of.

The second part would be to understand all of the components that play a role in creating productive training sessions, how they get tapped out during that time, and how they recover or get replenished so the athlete gets out of "fatigue debt".

Preface - 

I have to preface this long blog post with the fact that there could easily been tons more information involved, however what I want to do here is establish whether or not overtraining exists, and if it does, how we identify it and recovery from it.  It's not meant to be an exhaustive piece that covers every single facet of what I will touch base on.  I've read about 50 articles and studies this week to put this together, and I would prefer the reader grasp the "basics" of all the components.

I want to lay this out in layman's terms so that almost anyone could read it, and understand the processes, theories, and concepts behind overtraining.  There's nothing more annoying to me than these "science lifting" guys who try to appear smarter than they are by writing overly complex articles.  The more someone understands about something, the simpler they can usually explain it.

The CNS debate - 

I've covered this topic about a zillion times, and I still read on the net where people talk about "CNS burnout" or "CNS fatigue" from training.

The thought process is a few.

That if you do a movement too often, or too much, that you will "burn out" your CNS and your performance in that movement will decline.  You hear this a lot in relation to deadlifts especially.  Someone deadlifts 650, then a few weeks later can't get 550 off the floor.

"Bruh, your CNS is burned out."

The advice given here is usually to change movements, or to stop deadlifting as often, or as heavy.

Here is the thing.  If your CNS was "burned out" then you'd have more problems than pulling a big deadlift.

So are they right, or wrong?  And how is this actually related to overtraining?  Is overtraining just a state of mind, or is it an actual physiological process?

Order of fuels used in training - 

The first step in all of this is understanding the preferred fuels by the body for anaerobic training.  You know, lifting weights, sprinting, etc.  This will all make sense later, so bear with me.

Despite how many times you've read some piece of shit article on the net that tells you fat is the preferred source of fuel, that's completely wrong in every way imaginable to make as a blanket statement.

The fuel of choice to be used by the body for muscular contraction is determined by the kind of activity and the length of duration.

The body will exhaust fuels in a specific order to meet exercise demands.  The LAST fuel it will use for energy, is fat.  By "last" I mean when exercise duration is long enough that all of the "quick" fuels used are exhausted and fat is tapped into for energy.

I'm literally not going to entertain the argument of "well if someone is doing ketogenic, then..." blah blah blah.

I will tell you why.  Because the number of high performance athletes, strength athletes, etc using ketogenic diets are basically zero.  People who are using keto diets are almost always doing so for fat burning alone, and not athletic performance.

Also, since this is about overtraining related to strength training, we will deal with those fuels, and those fuels only.

During a weight training session, the fuels you will tap into will generally be the following -

  • ATP-Phosphocreatine - This is tapped into very quickly, but also is used up very quickly.  Think low reps with very heavy weight.  ATP-PC is recovered when you rest between sets.
  • Glycogen - Once ATP-PC is exhausted, our body uses glycolysis to break down glycogen in order to form more ATP.  Think medium to high reps with medium weight.
So to clear this up, if ATP-PC reserves are low, and glycogen reserves are low, then performance in the weight room is going to be severely impaired.  As you train, you deplete these fuels, thus the ability to generate very strong muscular contractions decrease.  

Anyone who has trained while dieting in a low carbohydrate state, probably knows that feeling of still being very strong on the first 3-4 reps (ATP), then quickly seeing their ability to "rep" that weight decline very quickly (glycogen).  

From an overall standpoint, a long and intensive training session will deplete the bodies reserves of both ATP and glycogen.  

There has been debate lately on whether or not things like pre-peri-post workout nutrition are of much valued importance, and a lot of the studies have shown that the difference related to muscle protein synthesis isn't significantly different.  My good friend and bodybuilding diva John Meadows has argued against this via his own anecdotal evidence with hundreds of clients.  There is a caveat that John sticks to in regards to when it makes a difference.  And that is, when the trainee is training in a very high intensity fashion, with a lot of volume.  

Essentially, if you're just going through the motions or getting in very average workouts, then it's possible that pre-peri-post workout nutrient timing may not be of utmost importance.  But if you are training balls out, very hard, using a lot of weight, sets, reps, etc then it may play a much bigger role in recovery.  

This study looked at athletes that were training multiple times a day, and the difference in performance where the group either had placebo, or had carbohydrates.....

For athletes completing multiple high-intensity strength training sessions per day, maintenance of muscle glycogen stores is critical. In a study by Haff et al. (1999), six resistance-trained men ingested a 250 gram carbohydrate supplement or placebo during a morning training session, rested for 4 hours, and then performed a second session consisting of multiple sets of light-intensity squats (55% 1RM) to exhaustion. During the second training session, the number of sets and repetitions performed were markedly higher with the carbohydrate consumption, and subjects were able to exercise for 30 minutes longer. The authors concluded that athletes engaging in multiple exercise sessions per day (ranging from mild to high intensity) will receive a performance advantage with carbohydrate ingestion via maintenance of intramuscular glycogen stores, due to greater glycogen resynthesis during recovery. In addition, the carbohydrate supplementation not only increased workout performance, it markedly increased workout duration.

So if you're not training very hard, or for very long, it's quite possible that all of the nutrient timing "voodoo" really isn't going to make that much of a difference.  But if you are in fact training very hard, for long periods at a time, it almost assuredly is going to make a difference in your performance and recovery.

So one can easily see why it is important to refuel these reserves after bouts of very intense training sessions.  These fuels are what essentially power us through those awesome workouts and help us to hit PR's, move bigger weights, and provide the stimulus for growth.  

So we've established the need and importance for being properly fueled for kick ass training sessions.  Simply being stocked up on ATP-PC and glycogen are the only factors involved in making sure our training sessions are going to be highly productive.  Right?

Well yes, and no.  

Tryptophan, serotonin, BCAA's, and dopamine - 

Understanding the role serotonin, tryptophan, BCAA's, and dopamine play a role in overtraining and training performance is quite essential.

Tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter in the body that regulates arousal, behavior, sleep, and mood. 

Dopamine is your "excitement" neurotransmitter.  High dopamine levels are what motivate us, push up towards reaching goals, and seek rewards.  

So here is the theory - 

When training goes on for prolonged periods, in high intensity fashion, serotonin levels rise and performance is diminished.  

Dopamine levels drop during this time.

When serotonin levels rise too quickly it is then that we see the decline in performance.  How do serotonin levels rise too quickly so that this happens?


When tryptophan is allowed to flood the brain then serotonin forms in rapid fashion.  The thought process here is that because BCAA's and tryptophan use the same receptors, that this can be offset by making sure that blood BCAA levels remain high.  


BCAA levels low = tryptophan doesn't have to compete for receptors = fast increase in serotonin formation = declined athletic performance.

Now before some jackass shows up to say "studies have shown that BCAA's make no difference" they are sort of technically "correct."  However even in studies they acknowledge that the theories still appear to hold merit and there is still data showing it probably does play a factor....

However, it is difficult to distinguish between the effects of CHO on the brain and those on the muscles themselves, and most studies involving BCAA show no performance benefits. It appears that important relations exist between brain 5-HT and central fatigue. Good theoretical rationale and data exist to support a beneficial role of CHO and BCAA on brain 5-HT and central fatigue, but the strength of evidence is presently weak.

This is where I point out how limited that studies can be in helping us to understand everything.  If they use BCAA's to show an increase in performance, and none is found, then people suddenly say "BCAA's show no ability to increase performance."  However that sort of study may be missing the mark.  It could be that over a longer period that BCAA's stave off overtraining, and that this process has just not been observed yet.  All of the other theories involved appear to have enough evidence that this theory appears to hold water.  It just hasn't been tested thoroughly yet.   

The Coolidge Effect - 

While I was researching all this nonsense, the first thing I thought of was the "Coolidge effect."

In experiments with rats it has been observed that after vigorous copulation with a new partner, male rats soon completely ignore this partner, but when a new female is introduced, they immediately are revitalized - at least sufficiently to become sexually active once more. This can be repeated again and again until the male rat is completely exhausted.

This phenomenon has been called the “Coolidge Effect” after an American president. On a visit to a farm his wife had been shown a rooster who could copulate with his hens all day-long day after day. She liked that idea and asked the farmer to let the president know about this. After hearing it, President Coolidge thought for a moment and asked: ”Does he do that with the same hen?” “No, Sir” answered the farmer. “Please tell that to Mrs. Coolidge” said the president.

Not only has the Coolidge effect been observed in all tested male animals, but also in females. Female rodents for instance flirt more and present themselves more attractively when observed by new males than in the presence of males with whom they had already sex.

Another experiment indicates that the cause of this effect may be a rush of dopamine. When rats were taught to pull a lever to stimulate their own reward center, they would forgo eating and copulating, and just continue to stimulate themselves until they were totally exhausted.

The dopamine system is obviously designed to produce genetic variety by inducing us to mate with as many different partners as possible.

Now how in the hell does this apply to overtraining and lifting weights?  

I will hypothesize here a bit, so give me some room.  

Most things "new" in our life carry a higher level of dopamine associated with them.  

New job
New car
New toys when you were a kid (or adult, not judging)
New romances 
And training programs, or exercise selections.  

If you've ever been on a diet where you ate the same foods day in and day out, you probably reached a point where you said "I just can't stomach another fucking bite of chicken."

Theoretically, your dopamine association level with said food has plummeted and there is pretty much zero zest or excitement in regards to eating that food anymore or being on said diet.  

Because we see this across such a wide spectrum of things in our life, I have no doubt that we can and do see it in regards to training as well.  

When you start a new training program, enthusiasm is usually high.  You have fun, are motivated, and make progress very well (usually).  There is both a physical adaptation process that occurs with new training and new movements, and then a mental one as well.  But the "mental" one of course, is tied into how your body is responding to it physically.

In this article for Poliquin I talked about that very process......

The two processes we deal with here are both the physical adaptation to a new training program, and then of course the fatigue brought on later after that adaptation is complete.  However, missing from that article is what I am covering here.  And that is, the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the body in regards to training stress and how they relate to fatigue debt.

So when a new program is started, dopamine levels would be high, serotonin levels would be healthy, and in a best case scenario, things like BCAA, ATP-PC, and glycogen would be in good shape.  This would mean the environment for productive training would be in place and thus occur.  

The difference in overtraining and overreaching - 

I see a lot of videos now where guys talk about how they "overtrain" on purpose.  Or that they aren't scared of overtraining, and that people who talk about overtraining are pussies.

Then of course I never see them squatting or deadlifting big weights.  They are always doing a lot of curling and benching.  If they do squat, it's some god awful half squat where they clearly don't go hard in the paint.  But they proceed to do 50 sets of chest and 90 sets of arm work, and tell everyone they aren't scared of overtraining.  Well, what warriors you are.  Doing bench and curl all day.


Then of course there are people who think that you can overtrain very easily and they train infrequently, don't train very hard, and feel the need to take a week off every third week for fear of "overtraining".

Like most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Overtraining is really something, from all appearances, that happens over a longer period of time.  Where training depletes energy and fuel reserves too often and too intensely, that the recovery of these things can't happen fast enough to keep up with the demands of training.  This isn't something that is going to happen in a week, or possibly even a few weeks.  It certainly isn't going to happen in a single training session where guys espouse "we overtrain chest."  I don't even know what the fuck that even means.

Overreaching however, is sort of the precursor to overtraining, and is something that can be a useful tool in order to peak for performance.  It is something that has been used for decades and does in fact, work very well.

Overreaching is the process needed for something called supercompensation.

This is achieved by training very hard in an already adaptive state and intentionally inducing fatigue. After a planned rest period, the body responds by holding a temporary peak in performance.

We see this in athletic events across pretty much every spectrum.  Distance running, powerlifting, swimming, whatever.  Over a periodized cycle you train using some form of higher degree of intensity more often, or with more repeated efforts, so that you find yourself on the cusp of performance declining.  Instead of pushing training further over that cliff, you then rest to recover, and a greater degree of performance can be achieved after this rest.  That higher degree of performance of course is limited in time, so planning all of this out for a competition all depends on the qualification of the athlete, and what they are capable of.

For example, an elite level strength athlete will need more recovery time than a novice or less qualified one.  A guy that squats 700+ will probably need a longer recovery time before competition than one who squats 315.

The difference in overreaching and overtraining is that in overreaching, it is part of a process that includes recovery to reach a state of supercompensation.  So don't confuse the two.

Localized Recovery and other stressors (life) - 

It's important to note that overtraining is a systematic condition and not a localized one.  So much so in fact, that in spite that I read eleventy billion articles and studies on this, it's still not completely understood in every facet.

Localized recovery is more related to microtrauma at the cellular level.  This is a much faster recovery than a systematic one.  In fact, you can often recover faster in an area that is incredibly sore by simply training the same area the day following an intensive training session.  So overtraining isn't really something that applies to a bodypart.  Like the idiots who say "we overtrain chest" keep espousing.

Because overtraining is related to serotonin and dopamine levels, and those things are related to training stress, you can't exclude stress in general.  That means life stress as well.

I recently talked to a friend who was going through a very rough period in his personal life and had a god awful training cycle in preparation for his competition.

In fact, life stress and training stress can and do often cause someone to exhibit similar symptoms....

the athlete feels sick, and there are several indicator signs and symptoms, such as: anorexia, loss of body weight, sudoresis, headache, lack of energy, increase in the basal heart rate and in the blood pressure, irritability, insomnia, inappetence, difficulty to concentrate, arrhythmia, increase in the acute response to the catecholamines, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, etc.. It is a prolonged response to the stress that precedes the exhaustion.

The above symptoms could just as easily been seen in someone who does not train, but is dealing with a tremendous amount of life and personal stress over a long period of time.  

So I don't feel as though I am reaching when I say that when life stress is high, and gym stress is high, they will overlap each other.  The symptoms that manifest from this combined stress, especially if they happen over a longer period of time, would indeed induce a state of "overtraining".  

So it's important to realize that if training is suffering during a period that life is very difficult, then adjusting both somehow is probably needed.  The athlete also may need to realize that until life stress subsides, then performance may be inhibited regardless of how many modifications they make to training.

How to combat OT/UR and get out of it - 

Now that I've written the longest article in the history of man, I'd like to start shortening it up so that one could understand how to potentially avoid overtraining, and if they find themselves in such a state, understand how to get out of it.

1.  Periodize Training - The training year should include phases of training.  I see lots of powerlifters who try to train heavy year round, even hitting PR's weeks before competition, then fail to understand why they can't perform at their best during competition.  Training should be periodized throughout the year so that one can work on building their "base".  There is absolutely no need to train heavy all the time, and anyone that tells you that is selling you a bag of bullshit.  Training heavy has its place, but so do long periods of training submaximally, with varying degrees of volume and frequency, and focusing on things outside of the competition lifts.  There should be periods of hypertrophy prioritization, periods of technique perfecting, and periods of competition preparation.  For bodybuilders, periods of focusing on improving different areas of the body, while maintaining strong points.

2.  Supplement with creatine - This sounds so cliche but the fact is, creatine really does work, and it's been studies fairly extensively at this point.  Yes, there are creatine "non-responders" but generally those are underdeveloped athletes who don't have enough muscle to store more creatine, thus the desired effect is not seen.  In other worlds, if you're a novice, you probably don't have to worry about it because you're too weak to induce a state of overtraining and you don't have enough muscle to worry about using creatine in the first fucking place.  You're that buck-55 pound runt I see in GNC loading up on supplements that doesn't need all of that shit.  Eat food, and give it a few years.  Like, five of them.

3.  Control life stress as best as possible - I covered this already.  But you need to understand that if life stress is very high, that training stress may need to be lowered for a while until your situation improves.  Now there are some people who thrive in the gym when life sucks, but I can't account for every different type of individual.  I'm saying if you are the kind of person who sees their training go into the shitter when life stress is high, then deal with the one type of stress that you have complete control over.  And that is your efforts in the gym.  It may mean lowering intensities for a while and just getting some basic work in.

4.  Overtraining takes a long time to set in - Overtraining isn't something that occurs in a week, or even two.  It generally takes months of "overreaching" without rest, before it becomes problematic.  If performance has been in a declining state for a long time, then you may need an extended rest or deload to see yourself climb back out of it.  The good thing is, you will probably see a marked increase in performance after this if you go about resting, and then resuming training in a proper fashion after the break.

5.  Replenish glycogen stores adequately post training - As noted before, if you aren't training hard, then pre-peri-post workout protocols may not be something that makes a very big difference in your training.  However if you are busting ass for longer than usual training sessions in the gym, they are probably going to make a significant difference regardless of what some study reported on guys that did 3 sets of leg extensions.

Conclusion - 

This is an almost 5000 word article, and I could have been even more exhaustive about it than this.  However I got tired, and essentially ended up reading a lot of the same data over and over again.

Overtraining appears to be a very real thing.  However it is not something that should be feared if one is taking proper steps to avoid it.  Not only that, it appears to be a more chronic condition, and not something related to "CNS burnout".

To tie in an earlier point about "CNS burnout", that appears to tie in more with the exhaustion of the fuels needed to perform at an expected level.  This is why you may have four or five very productive training sessions, then suddenly have a sharp decline in performance for a singular training session.

Don't confuse being overtrained with simply being fuel depleted.  One happens over the period of a longer period of time (overtraining) and the other one on a much shorter time scale.

To end, we still don't know anywhere near as much as we would like to know about all of these things.  There are so many physiological factors and individual differences that we can only continue to theorize and observe various outcomes at this point, so that we can understand this issue better.

In the meantime, it certainly won't hurt to adhere to the recommendations above to keep training productivity at a high.

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  1. Very comprehensive and well written. Assuming one wants to gain mass, what do you think about eating a generous amount of carbs after every second or third workout instead of after every workout? More specifically, do you think one of your moderate/intense workouts uses so much glycogen that you'd have to replenish before your next workout to meet your performance expectations? Especially considering you have more glycogen "storage space" so to speak? I train with fairly high volume (not as high as some if those mountain dog workouts), but I found eating carbs to replenish glycogen after every few workouts didn't push the scale up as fast, but doesn't seem to affect performance either.

    1. This is not a bad idea at all. One of the things Trevor has me do is eat a lot of carbs one day a week. Always on my biggest training day. so you're on the right track.

  2. Great post. Thanks for all the info you provide.

  3. Great post, maybe the best I've seen on the issue.

    Based on your experiences and dat science, what do you think one should do when the shitty training sessions come up, say a few -10% sessions in a row? No-deload deload or just scale it away back and get some pump work in?

  4. Great post and great blog. I find that by sticking to 2 to 3 weight lifting sessions a week and playing around with intensity and volume that all the gains and maintenance can be achieved for a drug free lifter with other life commitments. Going heavy all the time beats the body down so theirs nothing wrong with listening to the body and having training phases