By Rob Clarke Driven Sports
Why does doing too much for too long cause problems? Why can’t you train excessively and continue to grow bigger and stronger ad infinitum?
In part three I quoted coach Dan John that every program works for about two weeks. However in part two I also described the whole “confusion training” concept of switching up workouts every time you enter the gym as being illogical due to the neural adaptation aspect of repeating the same movement frequently. While these two things may appear to be at odds with each other, they really aren’t. The two week thing is not an invitation to switch up your workouts twice per month. You should still focus on progressively stressing the muscle over time with higher loads or higher repetitions, within your means of recuperation. Let’s focus on what the latter part of that sentence means.
The generalized theories of training
In his book, Vladimir Zatsiorsky (the Olympic coach mentioned in the previous instalment who trained athletes with hyper-frequency) explains the one- and two-factor theories of training. The one-factor theory is about the effects that weight training has on the depletion of what he calls certain “biochemical substances”. Obviously this includes things like glycogen, which is expended during workouts. The theory states that as this depletion occurs a restoration process occurs which brings the level of the biochemical substances beyond the level they were previously at. This is called supercompensation. It sounds a lot like muscle recovery and growth, right? Right. It is far from ideal to disrupt the supercompensation effect. This is why I cannot stress the importance of rest days enough. Not “no-weights-just-cardio” days. Rest days.
The two-factor theory is also called the fitness-fatigue theory. Essentially, you take the productivity of the workout (the “fitness”) and subtract the muscle damage and exhaustion (the “fatigue”) that you accumulated achieving said productivity. However there is a concept that arises from this that fitness is “masked by fatigue”, or words to that effect (it is usually referred to as “fatigue masks fitness”). What this means is that it is difficult to assess the productivity of a workout because the fatigue you accumulate is more obvious. But the phrase actually goes deeper than this, and it is traced back to the neural reinforcement discussed in Friday’s article.
The law of diminishing returns
The law of diminishing returns describes the point at which output begins to decrease despite further input. In other words the point where more does not mean better, and in many cases where more is actually worse. In this case the input could refer to intensity, volume, or frequency. The output here, is your gains.
An intensity level that may cause you to over-train right now may not have the same effect in several months time if you casually build up to it. Those Olympic athletes with eighteen workouts per week did not just jump straight into them. Like them, you can condition your body to the stimulus over time, and the body is such a resilient beast that can withstand a lot of what you throw at it. In the same vein, a short-term overreaching program may not over-train you right now providing you stay on it short-term, but when used long-term it may ultimately lead to burn out.
In other words you can accumulate quite a lot of fatigue for a short period of time while still gaining fitness, but eventually you will hit the point of diminishing returns - the point where fatigue massively outweighs any fitness and you begin to regress. When this point occurs varies amongst individuals but the more astute of you that read yesterday’s article will recall that it’s usually “about two weeks.”
This doesn’t mean that after two weeks you’ll be suddenly over-trained. It simply means that most people will find themselves start to go backwards from this point. Unless, of course, they strategically map their training programs into phases of “highs” and “lows” over a longer period of time. What I’m getting at is something most of you will not want to hear – hell, I don’t even like to write it – because in your mind you want to train 110% all the time. Even more so when Craze™ is involved. Unfortunately this is not the case. At least it can’t be if you want to succeed with your goals, and assuming that you aren’t of the genetic elite.
Training cycles: overreach, then compensate
Regulating your training into cycles of highs and lows, as much as the lows may suck mentally, is a sound programming concept. It can pay off in spades, particularly when you notice your strength gains really taking off in the long run. This effect is typically called the “long-term delayed training effect”, a phrase discussed by Mel Siff and Yuri Verkoshansky in the strength bible that is ‘Supertraining’. In the book the authors essentially state that strength gains come around 2-4 weeks after a specific overreaching period. The best programs have designated periods of overreaching followed by specific periods of supercompensation to take full advantage of this phenomenon.
Not everyone has the psychological ability spend time going to the gym but not push themselves to their extreme. A week of deloading can feel like a week of lost progress. I know this from personal experience, but thankfully that experience has also shown me that the deload phase is necessary for further progress. Pushing yourself progressively each workout is important, but sticking with a weight for a longer period (or even reducing it) can reap dividends. A great sentence was thought up by writer Matthew Perryman when he said you should “consider the benefit of letting a weight mature as you handle it across repeated sessions. Strength is not only measured by your best. It can be measured by speed and confidence with a weight. It can mean getting familiar with a weight.”
We know that it is literally molecular differences between people that allow the genetically elite to succeed in programs that would grind down other individuals. These are the people you see when you watch sports of TV – athletes at the top of their game. The final article will take a look at these and my own personal experience with one.