You see the imagery everywhere. It happens in our gym and others around the country. People laying on the floor completely annihilated, covered in a pool of sweaty chalk, bruised and battered ready to go home and piss excellence. The images more closely resemble something out of the Hostel chair scene than a workout.
A lot of folks feel that if they’re not plastered to the mat after a workout then they failed, the exact mistake I used to made repeatedly. I will never knock someone for maximally exerting themselves. Ever. It takes balls to get yourself to that state. But is that continued display of exertion excellence? Do you really become stronger, fitter, more athletic, etc. this way day in and day out? While you may acutely survive it, are you really improving by unleashing complete hell on your body five times per week to the point where you must immediately assume a horizontal position after every single workout?
The answer is most likely ‘no’, and often times stalling and even reversal of gains can be occurring right under your nose without your noticing it before it sneaks up and bites you in the ass.
Routinely pushing yourself is one thing. Committing Samurai seppeku on yourself during every workout is another.
We are all guilty of it to some degree in the fitness industry as both trainers and trainees (I am both). My partner and I played high level sports so the notion of going as hard as possible is somewhat inherent in our DNA, as it is a lot of you who are competitive with yourself and others. It’s human nature to a degree, but not necessarily our good nature.
Hell, the image of people pushing hard sells. No one’s joined a gym after seeing someone perform a casual seated row. People want to associate themselves with the very best, those who push to the brink, run fast, lift heavy and perform superhuman feats that most of us are not genetically capable of achieving.
But, is it productive? And sustainable long term?
Since when did fitness become one giant race? Last I checked, the tortoise beat the hare, didn’t he?
At Performance360, because so many of our members like crushing themselves we are constantly trying to slow folks down rather than speed up. Range of motion over speed, proper rest between strength sets, taking a minute to breath if it means reps six, seven and eight will be quality. Resisting the urge to go from A to B to C as fast as humanly possible. Focusing on your own clean reps and not the speed of they guy or gal next to you.
It’s all based upon the ultimate question.
Does training to complete and total failure more often than not, hitting the accelerator and going 100 mph until you run out of fuel improve or retract from your results?
The Science of Failure
Unless you consider calculating the exact amount of treats I can get away with in my diet without going backwards a science, then a scientist I am not. I never had the smarts for lab studies, preferring to reach my own conclusions in the gym with a barbell and a notebook.
So, I want to recommend two articles that do an excellent job of the science that lay the foundation for this article.
In the training world, my eyes were first opened to the concept of efficiency over long duration in 2001 by our then new college Strength & Conditioning coach Jim Roney, who as a competitive power lifter could squat 650# and deadlift 585# from a 165 pound body (google him). To date, the best coach on any level or any sport I’ve ever had.
He brought a power lifting background to baseball-specific movements, shortened the workouts from 60 to 25-30 minutes, trained what was needed and allowed no wasted movements. It was based around a single heavy movement of the day like a squat with complimentary work such as box jumps or GHDs. P360 folks, does this sound familiar? (Yes, believe it or not these exercises did exist prior to CrossFit.)
I mean, this crazy asshole was so range of motion obsessed he had a device we strapped around our knee that beeped when we broke parallel on squats. If it didn’t beep, no rep. Felt like were in Charlie Sheen’s living room. And you wonder where I get my R.O.M. obsession from.
We went on to set the school record of 53 wins, won an NCAA Regional, achieved a top ten national ranking, had multiple All-Americans, a Golden Spikes finalist and made it further than any Richmond team in school history.
The previous year we barely broke .500 with almost the exact same players.
Now, here’s the amazing part.
The frequency of our strength training? Two times per week.
Um, YEAH. The programming worked. More importantly, the increased efficiency and reduction in training hours worked. We weren’t training to be good at training, it had purpose.
Muscle failure = training to the point where a muscle can no longer contract concentrically
Simply put, he avoided constant muscle failure and applied the Minimum Effective Dose to our training, as defined by “the smallest dose to produce a desired outcome”. This idea was popularized in Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Body based on the idea of as little as needed, not as much as possible. It’s a concept used by top strength track & field coaches around the world and more popularly brought from theory to practice by the mad Russian Pavel Tsatsouline who never takes his athletes to failure. And his athletes are bad mother fuckers.
I absolutely love the simplicity of this graph from Whole9Life.com as it’s very self explanatory and very accurate. Too much stress does not equal too many results.
Coach Roney prescribed exactly what was needed to make us substantially stronger and more explosive, while not overdosing into what would restrict us on the field. Only years later did I realize what an unbelievable coach he was and the reason he remains the biggest influence over our programming ten years later.
When you constantly take your body to failure the following occurs on an acute level.
- You fry your Central Nervous System. Like giving the quarterback a concussion. He’s knocked out of the game and must sit the next few days on the sideline.
- You’ve completely torn down muscle tissue. It takes days for this recovery process to complete, not 24 hours. When you up and train the same muscles on a previously failed body you are training at roughly 50 – 60%.
- You’ve decreased power. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the first point of the CNS, but constant hammering of the body will acutely and chronically reduce your maximal muscle contraction, or “burst” for athletes.
- You build up lactic acid faster than you can flush it out. You end up callin’ dinosaurs.
By the way, wanna know why you blow chunks? It’s not the Barbell Gods entering your soul and exorcising weak demons. You are building up so much lactic acid from muscular breakdown that your body can’t pump it out fast enough, so it literally pukes it out. Dehydration is also be playing a role and lack of blood flow to your GI tract since your body is sending the blood elsewhere for immediate repair.(1)
Simply put, you’re in a state of complete and total acute meltdown.
Our collegiate and professional athletes will throw up maybe once per twice all offseason when training for the rigors of team sport, and it’s only on intense conditioning days, never for lifting. For every day people who want to be at their peak it’s just plain unnecessary.
Over time repetition of those acute side effects can cause chronic damage in the following areas.
- Continuous taxing of joints and ligaments.
- Promotion of fat storage. Training to failure repeatedly can ultimately throw your testosterone:cortisol hormonal balance out of whack, decrease insulin sensitivity and tell your body to continue to store the fat around your belly rather than burn it as fuel (2). This is a big one and the number one way people tend to reveal overtraining.
- Permanent decrease in strength and athleticism. Training on a weaker version of your body every day will eventually achieve a self fulfilling prophecy.
The above articles I linked to discuss the other side effects such as sleep deprivation, immune deficiency, lack of training motivation and other unsavory characters.
So What is that Minimum Effective Dose?
I have no fucking clue and any attempt to pontificate would be pointless. There is little concrete data yet tons of empirical research on both sides of it. To be honest I believe people can train harder than science gives us credit for and the reality is that it’s a completely unique range based on a host of individual factors.
For example, beginners can likely continue to trend upward at a frequency of five days a week for six months before seeing any of these side effects, sometimes up to a year. Those more advanced folks who have more time under their belt should be more goal-specific and focus on those workouts for goal.
You do not train at the same day and frequency at all stages of your development.
You have to find what’s right for you and typically it’s going to live somewhere around three to four days per week, give or take.
Personally, I try and stick to the following.
- ~8o% output 4x/week.
- Avoid three days consecutively.
- Every 4-6 weeks reduce volume to 2x/week, specific to goal.
- Every 12 weeks take 7 days off.
We take overtraining training VERY seriously at our gym and try our best to program accordingly. Here are some basic programming guidelines of ours that you can implement to your own plan.
- Avoid heavy lifting on consecutive days. Heavy squats on Monday and heavy hang cleans on Tuesday can still compete with each other since CNS is not particular to body part. We rarely program big lifts back-to-back regardless of muscle group.
- Sprint no more than twice per week. Sprinting is excellent but more taxing than you might think.
- Short & sweet. A 30-minute workout would typically represent a marathon in our world.
- Infrequent maxes. Make them strategic, not out of bravado.
- Periodization. Have a plan and schedule of progressive reps for your goals (Yep. RFG, P360 folks). I
The goal is to challenge but not completely fry the circuit. You know the feeling.
A workout should leave you energized, not exhausted. That is the first and only litmus test you need to pay attention to post workout.
“If you ain’t first, you’re last” mentality is absolutely counterproductive.
Simply have a plan and cycle goals. Train smarter. Not harder. Don’t try to be the best at exercising. Once you’ve passed the massive gains you make as a beginner your first six to eight months, hone in on a specific goal and avoid days that interfere with it.
You WILL NOT go backwards by trimming non goal-oriented days off your routine.
Typically speaking I think the breakdown should be as follows.
- Months 1 – 6 = 4 days per week as you build up a proper base level of fitness.
- Months 6 – ? = cycle goals that last anywhere from one to three months and focus on those workouts. If it’s strength, attend all strength classes with a complimentary light weight circuit class here and there.
If you don’t care about specific goals and just want to be all-around fit, then don’t sweat the frequency. This article is not meant to scare you into overtraining hypochondria, just to raise awareness. I’m not saying don’t work hard, just to pump the breaks a bit and dial it back if you’re an all or nothing kind of guy or gal.
Just like Jameson, the Kardashians and babies crying, we all have different tolerances to training stimulus so listen to your body and pay attention to the curve of your results.
If your current program or routine is working for you then by all means don’t overhaul it. If you are fatigued or stalled, cut it back a day. It ain’t rocket science. Just human science.
Apply your energy in the focused areas you want to improve, work hard but keep it sane, get plenty of sleep, eat diverse healthy foods and you’ll be setting yourself up for true long-term fitness.
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