Stop Being So Fragile: Push Harder and Overreach

You may not be overtraining, you might just need to work harder.

I grew up, strength-wise, when, “no pain, no gain” could be said without irony or ridicule. I came of age believing that more really was better, and that progress started where my comfort zone ended. Along the way I picked up some of the injuries you might expect, but I also made a ton of progress.

For better or for worse, we’ve all gotten “smarter” than that. Somewhere along the line we read an article about signs we were overtraining and thought we saw ourselves in the mirror: poor sleep, increased illness, low energy, and decreased motivation? Yikes, I must need to back off!

You might just need to train on the edge. [Photo credit: Pixabay]

It’s Just Overtraining, Right?

The problem is that most of us aren’t elite, competitive athletes. We’re not training twice a day, or trying to balance practice with a full course load and lifting sessions. And those symptoms we read about could all be signs that we’re just modern humans; over-caffeinated and under-recovered.

Compare these two (partial) lists of symptoms and decide for yourself:

Overtraining Syndrome

  • Insomnia
  • Loss of motivation
  • Fatigue
  • Weakened immune system
  • Joint Pain

Adrenal Fatigue

  • Insomnia
  • Loss of motivation
  • Fatigue
  • Weakened immune system
  • Joint Pain

Look at some of the data: the average American drinks just over 2 cups of coffee per day; energy drinks grossed more than $9 billion in the US in 2015; 68% of American adults are overweight; and we spend nearly as much time watching television as we do sleeping. All this, and still that glossy magazine has a story about overtraining rather than adrenal fatigue and under-recovering.

Just so I don’t bury the lede, I’m going to argue that overtraining is not your problem. In fact, I’m going to argue in favor of pushing right up to the edge of actually overtraining, and give you some science for why that’s going to be good for you. It’s time to live on the edge a bit more. This consists of two specific strategies: push yourself to the point your body has to change and work just as hard at your recovery and regeneration.

GAS Theory and Overtraining

Whether you train for hypertrophy, strength gains, body composition changes, or improvements in speed or endurance, you can rely on a simple formula for that improvement:

Sufficient Stress + Sufficient Recovery = Improvement

Originally put forward in the 1950s by Hans Selye, the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) theory states that the body improves in response to a perceived threat to its survival. This simple but enormously fundamental idea is the first evidence that we need to live on the edges of our training.

In its simplest form, Selye’s GAS theory describes three stages of reaction to any given stressor:

Stage 1: Alarm

During the alarm stage, the body recognizes the stressor for the first time (be it an invading organism or an increased workload) and labels it as either mundane or a threat to survival. In the case of the more severe threat, a cascade of stress-driven hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released. In acute doses, these hormones allow us to respond to threats of all kinds, and we see the body adjust itself to release and conserve energy for the fight to come.

Stage 2: Resistance

As the body enters the resistance stage, it begins to shift its priorities from responding to the immediacy of a new threat to repairing the damage caused by the threat. In the case of training, this includes replenishing glycogen stores and repairing damaged tissue. While the focus has shifted, the body is still effectively on-guard, particularly if the stressor has not abated.

Stage 3: Recovery or Exhaustion

The third stage of the GAS model represents a fork in the road. If the body has effectively overcome the stressor through adaptation or elimination (or if we remove an external stress such as training) it returns to a new level of homeostasis; one that has adapted to better handle this new stress. If, on the other hand, the stressor continues unabated, we reach the exhaustion stage.

During the exhaustion stage, the body’s adaptive resources have been effectively tapped out, and the stressor begins to win, with illness, injury, and even cell necrosis (death) being potential outcomes. Taken too far, the exhaustion stage is overtraining syndrome.

But what constitutes taking things too far? What happens if we go down that path, to the edge even, but not quite over it? Enter the idea of overreaching.

Crack Yourself Just Enough

Where overtraining offers us illness, cellular necrosis, and injury, overreaching offers us the potential to rebound with a vengeance.

Allow me to borrow an analogy from the twisted mind of Pat Davidson: the body’s adaptive resources as told by the story of Humpty Dumpty. The role of your body and its musculature, fascia etc. will be played in this story by Mr. Dumpty himself. The role of your brain will be played by the King, while the roles of your immune and endocrine systems will be played by said King’s horses and men, respectively. Got it?

As told in its original form, Humpty Dumpty is really a story of overtraining syndrome:

“All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

But imagine we scaled this egg’s fall back a bit. Humpty falls gently and cracks a bit, but manages to keep his yolk to himself, so the King sends a squire or two. The result? Nothing changes. But what if we managed to push Humpty from just the right wall? He cracks and sends bits and pieces everywhere, but it looks worse than it really is. The King’s willing to spare all of his horses and all of his men, and Mr. Dumpty walks away better than ever. That’s the promise of overreaching.

In his landmark book Triphasic Training, Cal Dietz does us one better, flat-out stating the following:

My goal every May is to have as many of my hockey players sick with a cold or the flu going into finals week. I know that sounds terrible, but a sick athlete is an early warning sign of an overtrained athlete… During finals, there is a ten-day period when I’m not allowed to train hockey players at all. Therefore, I overreach them going into finals… Coming out of finals, however, when they get back to training… it isn’t uncommon to see 20-30lb increases in most of their major lifts.

If you can put 20-30lb on my bench press, you can give me a cold.

What both Pat and Cal are telling us is something we should know but seem to have forgotten: we only change when stressed. The body is a beautiful, efficient, but ultimately lazy machine. Given the choice–any choice–it will choose the path of least resistance and the comfort of homeostasis. Therefore, any efforts to induce change hinge upon the amount of stress heaped upon the body and the resources marshaled in response to this manufactured threat. Subtlety doesn’t play well when the goal is enhanced performance.

The Bounce-Back Phase

Assuming we’ve subjected our body to adequate stress, even a little too much stres, we need to recreate that ten-day period Dietz talks about in order to reveal the change. Dietz doesn’t touch his athletes, but that’s due to NCAA restrictions, not his own choosing. In our case, an intelligent deload combined with a strong regeneration and recovery plan is best. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend starting a cycle aimed to push you into an overreached state unless you’re already solidly in control of your nutrition, sleep, and tissue quality. Self-care becomes pretty do-or-die at this point, so don’t plan on figuring it out as you go. Get it right, then get after it.

During my deload, training intensity and volume both drop for a few days. I keep my caloric intake where it was during the cycle, and spend some of the extra time on additional recovery, from ice baths to contrast showers to massage and meditation. Once I’ve gotten over that first wave of overall fatigue and soreness, I’ll add the intensity back in but keep the volume down for a few more days. I won’t take sets to failure, and I’m not quite as aggressive with my rest intervals, but it looks a little more like my normal workout. By the time I’m through with this, I should be itching to train, and ready to see what kind of progress I’ve been able to make. It’s this seven to ten-day stretch that really makes use of the previous 8-10 weeks, and I can’t overstate its importance.

Don’t Be Afraid to Overreach

Unless you’re genetically gifted or chemically enhanced, odds are you can probably push through one or two planned overreaching phases per year without getting into trouble. Any more, and you’re pushing it. I absolutely want you to work harder, but you can be smart at the same time.

If you’re seasoned enough to try this, then you should have some sense of what pushes you onto your physiological warning track. But I want to provide a few examples to spur your thinking. Here are some of the ways I’ve toyed with pushing myself into that overreaching state:

  • Increased training volume
  • Increased training frequency
  • Increased intensity (without the usual reduction in volume)
  • Increased use of drop sets, supersets, and forced reps
  • Decreased recovery time between sets
  • “Priming” a pattern with plyometric work
  • Cluster sets within plyometric work
  • French Contrast Training
  • Circuit training
  • Full Body Training
  • HIIT
  • Stato-dynamic training
  • Two-a-days
  • Combining several of the above

As you can see, it quickly adds up to a murderers’ row of movement. My own rule of thumb is that if I don’t curse, often out loud to myself, for whatever’s written in front of me at least once or twice, I’m probably not pushing quite enough. Another is that just prior to my planned deload I should be losing a little strength, and maybe even having a little trouble sleeping well.

You Will Make Progress

We are not as fragile as we think we are. We are made of the same stuff as Olympians and Navy SEALs. The difference in capacity between you and the pinnacle of humanity is measured in inches, not miles. Humans have climbed Everest, swum the English Channel, and survived some generally terrible stuff due to their capabilities. A few extra sets or reps over the course of the next month or two won’t suddenly put you on bed rest.

Write something scary for your next training block. Remember, adaptation happens when we have to respond to threats to our survival. Curse me all you like, but with some intelligent planning you’re going to make better progress than you’re making now.

Know your training warning signs:

Understanding Overloading, Overreaching, and Overtraining