Is Overtraining Oversimplified?
“Overtraining” in fitness has become a complicated and debated topic worthy of more specific clarification and discussion. Traditionally, “overtraining” has been generally defined in the fitness realm as “a state of intense exercise void of appropriate recovery.” But what is considered a ‘state of intense exercise?’ That answer, I believe, is relative to the individual, experience, time, factors which must be acknowledged.
We are taught to believe “overtraining” leads to decreased physical performance, lowered immune system function, exhaustion, catabolic state (when your body is breaking down instead of building or repairing tissue), loss of appetite, disrupted sleep patterns—lots of bad stuff! And guess what, it does!
I’ve experienced it a few times myself. I was lifting weights too frequently, in lengthy duration, my diet not dialed-in enough, and my sleep/recovery not adequate. In those instances I gradually lost my appetite, my strength declined, training enthusiasm waned, and the only solution was rest. I went from excessive training to requiring weeks of just… nothing.
This is what most people would think of when they hear “overtraining.” However, I believe this version should be more appropriately referred to as “chronic overtraining” based upon its association as more of a habitual lifestyle, insufficient to the demands of consistent and demanding physical training.
There is another type of overtraining gaining notoriety in the fitness community. It rebels against conventional wisdom and unfortunately is also called “overtraining”, but I don’t see this as equivalent to what I consider “chronic overtraining.” Because distinguishing the two is appropriate and necessary, I propose we call this “Acute Overtraining.”
So what is “Acute Overtraining”
“Acute Overtraining” differs from “Chronic Overtraining” in that while you are purposely overtraining muscles with more reps, heavier poundages, less rest, or whatever gruesome set you have devised, you are also importantly supporting this style of training with the appropriate, almost perfect, lifestyle.
This “acute overtraining” is calculated, programmable, and the goal is definitely to push your body to new limits by doing more. If you are used to 4 sets, why not do more? If you finish a set of ten reps, instead of just resting and sitting patiently with energy to spare, why not keep going, get a few more reps, drop the poundage, keep going, continuing as desired. The challenge isn’t so much a marathon workout for three hours as it is to push your body to new limits and expectations.
Conventional (Fitness) Wisdom gives us many recommendations. Don’t work out longer than 45 minutes, all you need is “X” amount of sets per body part during a workout, rest “X” amount time between sets or workouts…But again the problem is this: we’re not all the same.
Before implementing Acute Overtraining
If someone is an advanced trainee, their stamina and body may GROW into and adjust to training for longer durations than the average gymgoer! Be realistic in where you belong!
Just because you decide to implement Acute Overtraining principles into your training doesn’t mean you will achieve the results of others. First acknowledge several truths such as:
1) Some people are born genetic freaks. They pick up a weight and muscle grows easily.
2) Some people are on PEDs containing banned substances. They can train with greater intensity, recover faster, and build/repair muscle faster than you.
3) PED-free or not, some lifters have spent years, even decades not just building their physiques, but developing the mental fortitude to train at a higher level of intensity. Their threshold for “pain” is higher than yours, and their ability to push themselves is at a level that well…takes years, even decades to develop.
So does this mean you can’t use Acute Overtraining? Absolutely not! Anyone is capable. One more rep, one more second, one more set can challenge your body past its expectations enabling you to grow considerably, but there are some considerations.
My advice for implementing Acute Overtraining into your workout
1) Start small. Acute overtraining doesn’t mean you double your workouts in length and performance output Day 1, or even Month 1. Acute overtraining must be practiced and developed. Do too much before you’re ready, too often…traditional “Chronic Overtraining” will occur.
2) As your training advances, so must your diet and supplementation. The diet of someone training with weights 4-5 times per week will need to become more advanced than someone lifting 1-2 times per week. Accordingly, supplementation to support and promote recovery, repair, and growth will grow more advanced as well.
3) Be realistic. You most likely cannot train just like an advanced lifter on PEDs unless…you are an advanced lifter on PEDs.
4) Practice knowing your body. This skill allows advanced lifters to know what their body is saying. Sometimes it’s saying, “You KNOW this is the last rep before failure, right??” And in the case of physical performance, by knowing their body a lifter can push themselves “extra,” know when to ease up or take rest, know when a nagging twinge means to rest before the further injury, or simply, when to end a set or workout. Practice listening to what your body tells you because training instinctively is key to effectively using Acute Overtraining methods. If you have something left in the tank, a lifter should know that!
5) Practice “pushing” yourself. Few lifters begin with this skill mastered. It’s developed over months, years, and decades. It grows from the right motivation, mindstate, and from a willingness to developmental fortitude. Every day of training is an opportunity to hear the voice in your head that tells you to quit while exercising, ignore it, and (safely) push yourself towards the greater physical output.
6) Fake it until you believe it/make it. Play mind games. There are a reason bodybuilder and weightlifters psyche themselves up. Ronnie Coleman is renowned by many gymgoers not just for his many Olympia titles, but for his catchphrases such as, “Y-e-a-h BU-DDY!! LIGHTWEIGHT!!” When he’s whooping it up in the gym, of course, it’s definitely not “lightweight.” CT Fletcher is known for, “I COMMAND YOU TO GROW!!!” or “I LOOK FOR YOU PAIN!!” It isn’t just for show, it’s that “Fake it until you believe it/make it.” Arnold Schwarzenegger has another famous quote, “The mind always fails first, not the body.”
What can you take from these great lifters? Sometimes you have to “fake it” to track and push your body to achieve new levels. You can do it, and the only caveat is that as a fitness trainee, you do so with advanced knowledge to do so responsibly, effectively, safely, and sustainably.
How do you “Acutely Overtrain” sustainably?
Admittedly, this method is at the very least challenging, and at its worst, debilitating to the body and its central nervous system.
Suggestions for more safely implementing Acute Overtraining:
1) You have to live a lifestyle that provides enough recovery. Your lifestyle has to match your goals. Excessive drinking, junk food, partying, late nights and little rest are not the lifestyle of a successful “acute overtrained.” Those you see benefitting from Acute Overtraining make the necessary sacrifices.
2) Supplement. As your training progresses. Often supplementation is seen as a magic potion for gains. Really, supplements are most beneficial in allowing the body to recover and repair the body. A regular diet sometimes needs a “boost.”
3) Avoid “Pattern Overload”. If you perform the same movements excessively, your body can become overly developed, tight, and imbalanced. Train opposing muscle groups, stretch and even think about incorporating other movements and regimens, like yoga.
4) Training the same muscle group every day is not a good idea. I’m sure there are some that can get away with this as there are exceptions to every rule, but it’s most likely not you.
5) After training, be sure to rest those muscles! Support those challenged, overworked muscles with a proper diet, rest, and perhaps supplementation. You could possibly acutely overtrain every day of your training, but that involves systematically training various muscle groupings while resting others.
6) Know when to take time off. Maybe you need to know when enough is enough. End a set. End a workout. Take a rest day, maybe two. Maybe it’s time to take an entire week off from training. There can be too much. Find balance and instinctively listen to your body.
7) Use proper form. What do you think happens when you perform more sets and reps with the poor form? Injury! Boom. 2 months out of the gym.
8) Make sure you’re properly warmed up. This may also represent additional sets to your workout, but they’re needed. So yes, your sets and workouts may lengthen past “conventional wisdom” but they offer a chance to practice coordination and skill in a movement.
FAQ’s when implementing Acute Overtraining:
How long should I rest?
Time is nothing but a number. Any definitive answer is arbitrary, so how long you rest is up to you. Sometimes you need a little more, sometimes you feel ready to go with a little less. Listen to your body. If you need rest, take it— and then make it count as you make it up in performance. There are benefits to both. The idea is that you don’t let a specific number or time period dictate your workout or how long you rest. It’s your responsibility to measure how you feel.
How many reps or sets?
Again, that is entirely up to you. Sometimes you’re going to feel strong, maybe you should blow past your expected rep range. Maybe you just need a few seconds rest and you can continue. Or maybe you can keep going, as long as you drop the poundage a little. One set could easily end up containing 3-10 “minisets” totaling 50-100 reps! In that instance, do you think it’s more important to challenge your muscles or to complete your planned “four sets of ten?” Your one real, seemingly endless set might be all you need. Maybe you want to take a rest and try that giant set again. Just don’t feel like those numbers run your workouts!
Do you need a spotter?
No. Exercises can almost always be modified or selected for safety. For example, instead of using the barbell bench press, you can use dumbbells to safely reach exhaustion.
How much weight should I use?
There is no ideal poundage. While you may warm up at lighter weights, you will probably continue until you reach a rep range that you feel satisfies “challenging” and maxing out your body. For some, they might rep something all out, and complete 10 reps. Then, they might either rest briefly or immediately lower the weight and keep going, beginning their “acute overtraining.” Others may differ and prefer to get closer to their one rep max, feeling more comfortable beginning their “work” set that limits them to 1-3 reps and from there begin “acute overtraining.” The big idea is, you’re not doing it wrong if you decide on either. The goal is simple. Overload your body compared to previous expectations, and force it to respond, get better, get stronger, and build more muscle.
And FYI, the end of any set involving acute overtraining usually isn’t pretty. Upon completion, acute overtraining can involve poundage at or below your warmup. It might not be 300lb, but it might still feel like 300lb! Which is all that really matters. Your body can’t tell if the load is 30 or 300lb, it just knows when it’s being challenged.
“Weight is relative. Your mind knows numbers and poundages, your body doesn’t. You don’t always need crazy heavy weight, you need to (crazy) challenge your body to perform to its max.”
Overtraining does include supersets, pyramids, stripping, rest pause, and any method that includes continuing to push your muscles to perform PAST their comfort level and outputs. But it does not mean every set is to failure. Remember all those warmup sets?? And you still rest the muscles before training again, days in between, not necessarily training the same muscle every day. And the rest of your workout? It can involve other, fresh muscles. And again, the manner and amount you choose to implement “acute overtraining” are up to you.
“EVOLVE INTO YOUR STRONGEST YOU” Article by Mario Singelmann”
Great post Mario!