You Are Not Overtraining: Unless You Believe You Are


Written by: Kevin Cann


I put up a very quick post about this yesterday and it garnished a bit of attention.  Due to that attention, I want to write it all out for a better understanding since we should not just be quoting Instagram.


I have always struggled to understand overtraining in the strength sports.  I have played sports my whole life.  I did far more work in those sports than I do in the gym as a strength athlete.  On top of that, we still went to the gym and trained hard!


I believe those sports set up my expectations and beliefs in a way that I am not afraid to work hard, and I will work through some pain.  Powerlifting in America is unique as it becomes attractive for those that don’t play other sports, or those that weren’t necessarily competing at a high level.


They may be lacking this same cultural experience that I was fortunate enough to have.  This can lead to some misunderstandings about training that actually lead to decreases in performance and even an increase in injury risk.


There is this unwritten understanding that lifting heavy tires out the central nervous system (CNS) and higher rep stuff tends to be more metabolically tiring.  This just does not hold up in the scientific literature.


There is a good amount of research that shows that duration induces higher levels of central fatigue than high intense short bouts of effort.  Interestingly enough when you look at the evidence in its totality it seems that CNS fatigue is very difficult to achieve.  In fact, many studies were unable to even show CNS fatigue.


The markers tested in this research tend to show no significant changes.  It is purposed that CNS fatigue may actually be a factor in perceived exertion. Think RPE here.  The ability to perform is still in tact from a central fatigue perspective, but psychologically we may begin to perceive the effort as more difficult despite no changes.  In some cases there was even upregulation of the CNS.  This is the opposite of fatigue.  The theory here is that the central pieces are making up for peripheral fatigue within the muscles themselves.  This will likely be proven incorrect at some point.


This sounds like the body has a framework to control effort in a manner that would disallow any type of overtraining to occur.  We still possess the physical capabilities, but a feedback loop somewhere along this chain is making us perceive effort as more difficult.  This is why an end of session score is important to me.  This shows me the perceived effort of the lifter.


In studies where they show that CNS fatigue occurs the recovery time happens very quickly.  By very quickly I am talking 20 minutes! Many of the other studies showing no CNS fatigue occurred, if they tested after the exercise they may just have missed the window.  Perhaps those subjects were already recovered?  This is why putting that end of session score down right away is important. RPEs should be recorded immediately after the attempts.


Seems that the drop in performance that we see is more peripheral than central.  This means within the actual muscles themselves.  In an entry in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2016 by Contessa, et al. suggested that central fatigue may not exist because all of the “symptoms” of it can be explained by peripheral fatigue.


Many reading this will then say, “Well maybe peripheral fatigue is responsible for overtraining?” Not so fast.  If peripheral fatigue results in decreased muscle contraction, which results in decreased performance, and this is coupled with the CNS perhaps increasing the perceived effort, how is that possible?


Performance is dropping and we are perceiving it to be more difficult.  This seems like a nice little built in defense against overtraining system within the human body.  We usually decrease weight and volume to “deload.”  This seems like the body has this well under control.


These measures are trainable.  As long as we don’t have any nagging things going on why would we decrease training effort in this scenario?  Psychophysiological pieces are perhaps more important than external loads for increases in performance.  As long as effort is still high, we can get some really good training here.


Training that builds the resiliency as well as the total for the lifter.  The body will control that perceived effort and the performance based off of what it is capable of under these conditions.  Now I am sure the question becomes “What if I am experiencing some nagging pain?”


Great question and one that we need to discuss often.  First, we need to deal with our cultural beliefs about pain.  Pain does not necessarily mean something bad.  However, we had this cultural shift to believe that at some point.  This requires a good relationship between the coach and lifter and the coach educating the lifter on some pain science.  This is a big conversation for another time.  I have talked in depth about these concepts on my podcast, Boston’s Strongcast.


My theory behind this pain is that there are layers of feedback loops within the human body. Perhaps within some of these peripheral fatigue feedback loops we get the physiological experience of pain. These feedback loops contain our emotions, beliefs, experiences, and cultural upbringing.


An interesting anecdote here.  I have never experienced elbow pain while benching.  Lately I have had a couple lifters that we made some adjustments for on bench due to some nagging elbow pain.  With 50 lifters this is expected.  Nothing major, we dropped some frequencies, changed some angles, and carried on.


However, me dealing with this may have led to me experiencing elbow pain.  My elbow pain started around the same time as I was dealing with some with the group.  Even though I understand how these things work, there are subconscious pieces at play. I find this coincidence very interesting.  My volume has also been higher.  Perhaps load management here is not the only piece necessary for me to experience pain, but it is the totality of the information sent to the brain from the feedback loops?  Impossible to know, but very interesting.


We have these cultural beliefs and emotions regarding overtraining.  I theorize that these are the reason in which people experience “overtraining” symptoms.  We can all relate to how our feelings create physiological responses within the human body.


Ever have your palms sweat or heart race before a heavy squat?  Your anxiety is leading to those physiological feelings.  Ever experience the same feelings when you see your significant other? These physiological feelings are consistent, but yet different in many ways.  They can be a result of positive or negative emotions.


The pain experienced here from training can be very similar.  If we view it as a negative, we can create this scenario where it lingers around.  If we view it as a result of our hard work and not being anything to worry about. We adjust things if needed, or train through it wisely and it tends to go away pretty quickly.


In the absence of deformity, there is probably not structural damage being caused to tissues from lifting weights.  This is even true in acute onset of sharp pains, such as back pain.  This does not mean the pain is in your head.  You are experiencing physical pain at the place you feel it.  However, it is most likely psychological in nature.


By that I mean, tied into our emotions, past experiences, and beliefs.  Load management is definitely something to consider here as well. These types of things absolutely happen when you are working for performance.  This only becomes a long-term problem if you catastrophize it into one.  This is also a very long story for another day.


Those are my thoughts on overtraining from my experiences as a coach and athlete and my understanding of the current literature.

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