overtraining

Why changes in both volume and intensity should dictate recovery

I was recently reading through some programming information provided by a textbook that I purchased during my undergrad degree, and was slightly surprised at some of the information in there.

There was a pretty large chapter on the nitty gritty of exercise programming, with specific mention to both sets, reps, and recovery. Within this chapter there was a fairly lengthy explanation on rep ranges and intensity, which ultimately outlined the following:

                High Intensity = 1-5 RM
                Moderate Intensity = 6-12 RM
                Low Intensity = 12+ RM

It was further explained that heavy training periods should utilise high and moderate intensity training loads, while deloads (AKA recovery periods) should utilise low intensity lifting.

While this appears to make sense on a couple of levels, there is a fairly large flaw to their thinking.

Anything that requires maximum repetitions (RM) is not submaximal and therefore should not be considered low or moderate intensity. This holds true whether you are hitting a 3RM, 12RM, or a 20RM.

You see, while a 3RM while will elicit more mechanical stress (due to the heavier load) than a 12RM, that does not make it any less maximal. In fact, I would argue that a 12RM is likely to have a longer recovery period than a 3RM because it would elicit a significantly greater amount of metabolic damage (even despite lower mechanical stress).

So if your training program looks something like this, I have a bit of bad news:

Week 1: Moderate Intensity 8RM
Week 2 and 3: High Intensity 4RM
Week 4 (Deload….): Low Intensity 12RM
Repeat:

At no point are you actually allowing your body time to rest and recover. And in all serious, at no point are you working at anything less than a high intensity.

This is because every week you are still training to failure, irrespective of the rep range used.

A high volume kettlebell workout does not count as an active recovery - no matter how light the load is.

A high volume kettlebell workout does not count as an active recovery - no matter how light the load is.

 

So what can we do instead?

A good deload should allow the body opportunity to recovery without running the risk of losing strength. This means that training is recommended, but it should be done in a way that doesn’t stress the physiological systems of the body.

Arguably the best way to do this is by manipulating volume and intensity of a given training week.

By dropping volume significantly and intensity slightly one week out of every 4-6, we can provide ourselves with an opportunity to recover from our accumulated training fatigue in way that won’t affect our progress.

So an example of that may look something like this:

Week 1: Moderate Intensity 4 sets of 6 at 80% 1RM
Week 2 and 3: High Intensity 6 sets of 4 at 90% 1RM
Week 4: Deload using 3 sets of 4 at 70% 1RM
Repeat:

By letting volume and intensity dictate our deloads rather than maximal rep ranges, we can give ourselves a genuine opportunity to recover, while still receiving a small training stimulus.

This will ensure that we are fresh and ready to go for our next block of training, while also reducing our risk of overtraining significantly.

 

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Do we need to deload?

When discussing training and the potential of overtraining, there appears to be two very individual and opposite camps within the fitness industry.

The first camp appear certain that any individual, no matter their training status, is at risk of overtraining. As such, they recommend you deload every couple of weeks, and go further to suggest that you should train a single muscle group any more frequently than once every 6.75 days (or something like that).

On the other hand, we have the ‘overtraining is a myth’ camp. These guys train balls to the wall every single session, often with a high training frequency. These are the guys who will frequently run training programs such as smolov (or some other form of brutality) to elicit a training response.

So which group is right?

 

Recovery, Adaptation and Overtraining

All in all, the training process is a relatively simple one.

When we train, we place the body under external mechanical, neurological, and metabolic stress. This external stress causes a short term response (AKA a sweet pump, some hormonal changes, followed by DOMS) and long term adaptations (AKA bigger and stronger muscle tissue).

These small stressors put the body in a state of overreaching, where ultimately we push our body past its current training limits. The body then adapts to this state of overreaching.

It is these longer term adaptions that describe the training response.

The kicker?

That these adaptations only occur if there is adequate time for recovery.

If there is a lack of recovery, and continued training stress, we fail to adapt. It is this failure to adapt (in conjunction with further training load) that turns overreaching into overtraining.

Ultimately, during this stage, we continually break down and further fatigue already damaged and fatigued tissue. This can lead to a host of issues, as explained in the diagram below.

But is overtraining really worth worrying about?

Well, like anything, it depends.

 

The Risk of Overtraining

Now, I will tell you that overtraining exists.

Of that, there is no doubt.

This is a fact.

BUT.

Overtraining may not be as common as what some people make it out to be.

In a population of elite athletes, there is a considerable risk of Overtraining. These individuals train at a high intensity each day, participate in competition regularly, and often have to deal with additional life stress as well.

For these people, balancing training and recovery is like walking a tightrope. If they move one way too far, they may not get a training result, and performance will suffer. BUT, if they move too far the other way, they may train too much without adequate recovery, which can lead to overtraining (and again performance will suffer).

But for most of us, this isn’t as applicable.

We may train often, but rarely is it enough to result in a state of overtraining. Even if our life stress is high, reaching this state is still highly unlikely.

This is because we spend very little time actually training, and a lot of our time at work recovering.

 

So do we need to deload?

In short, yes.

While I have just suggested that most of us have very little reason to worry about overtraining syndrome, there are a number of reasons that we should still incorporate deloads into our training schedule.

Firstly, training creates significant stress on both muscle tissue, and the passive support structures of our joints (ligaments and tendons). Physiologically, tissue remodelling occurs at a much faster rate in muscle tissue than it does in these passive support structures.

As a result, if we do not undertake the occasional deload, we run the risk of causing negative degenerative tissue changes in our tendons and ligaments. This may lead to overuse injuries and joint issues.

As such, by undertaking a deload every now and then we provide opportunity for these passive structures to recover, reducing our likelihood of developing an tendon or ligament related injury.

Furthermore, a light week can often provide some time to refresh mentally, getting us excited for upcoming blocks of training. Consequently, deloads can play an importnat role in keeping us not only healthy, but motivated too.

 

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