Hard-core training, either with two-a-days, sprints, or HIT with weights is a terrific way to get fast, visible results in strength and body composition. Programmed properly, these workouts are short but intense, and they provide numerous benefits for your efforts:
* You can pack on muscle mass while leaning up.
* You can get large strength and performance gains without compromising body composition.
* You can avoid stagnation and improve training drive with shorter more focused workouts.
To achieve these benefits you want to make sure you aren’t taking your commitment to success too far and causing harmful metabolic effects that you are unable to recover from.
This article will show you how to avoid this “overtraining” damage so that you keep challenging your limits and achieve something that gives you an overall feeling of awesomeness.
Problem #1: Sky-High Cortisol & A Catabolic Hormonal State
The goal of an effective training program is to overload the body so that it has to adapt in some way—for example, to increase protein synthesis and build muscle, or to use fat for fuel so that you lose body fat.
But, it’s possible to take it to an extreme degree so that you overly stimulate the catabolic hormone response and produce an unfavorable environment for desired adaptations.
This appears to be most common with longer duration, high-volume workouts that skimp on rest periods. In a recent study, sports scientists measured cortisol and lactate response to an “extreme” fitness program in order to see if it overly stressed the adrenal glands.
Trained male and female college students performed the bench press, deadlift, and squat with a pyramid scheme and no rest between sets. They did 10 sets starting with 10 reps and decreasing 1 rep each set. They lifted a weight of 75 percent of the 1RM load, which was decreased if a participant was unable to complete the desired repetitions.
Results showed very high cortisol and lactate responses to the protocol. Cortisol was much higher than values reported on all previous research that used the same intensities (75 percent 1RM), primarily because those studies all used rest periods of 1 to 3 minutes. Cortisol was also higher than what has been recorded from sprint interval training and aerobic exercise.
Cortisol remained elevated for an hour post-workout, but dropped to below baseline the following day, which could indicate the beginning of an altered cortisol curve.
If you only did the workout once a week, you could probably recover, especially if nutrition was spot on. However, if you trained this sort of protocol frequently, and certainly if you did it daily, hormonal imbalances and a catabolic environment would occur. You might lose muscle, cause persistent inflammation, and get sick more often.
How it turns into overtraining: When you push your body to the limit on a regular basis cortisol, testosterone, growth hormone, and other hormones regulated by the hypothalamus become permanently out of whack. Key indicators are inability to sleep, extreme exhaustion in the morning, and a drop in libido.
How to avoid it: Train intensely, but always allow for adequate recovery in terms of proper nutrition and rest days between killer workouts. Prioritize high-quality protein, but don’t skimp on carbs, fat, or calories either.
In terms of rest periods during workouts, use them! You need to be able to maintain the prescribed intensity without compromising technique.
#2: Ongoing Muscle Soreness & Inflammation That Doesn’t Go Away
Strenuous physical activity causes muscle damage and metabolic stress. This leads muscle size to increase and connective tissue to get stronger once the body repairs the muscle damage—a highly beneficial adaptation for athletes and people training for body composition.
But muscle development is actually a much more complicated process:
Both mechanical (microscopic tears in muscle and connective tissue) and metabolic (lactate and hydrogen accumulation) stress activate cell-to cell signaling cascades, which mobilizes inflammatory factors, growth factors, hormones, and various muscle proteins that, in simple terms, make you stronger, better, and leaner.
However, if you take your workouts too far, those same inflammatory factors can build up and keep tissue from regenerating and adapting. Instead of getting stronger and more muscular, you get weaker and performance drops off.
Until the rise in popularity of high-intensity training and CrossFit, too much inflammation was primarily a problem for endurance athletes. Inflammation was thought to be a result of the body producing large amounts of free radicals in response to the oxygen-rich environment created during aerobic exercise.
Strength and power athletes perform primarily anaerobic exercise that doesn’t use oxygen, and so they were largely free of this problem.
But, recent studies show that high-intensity workouts can kick you into a pathologic, inflammatory, over-trained state. For example, in response to the muscle-thrashing pyramid workout described in #1, trainees demonstrated a great amount of structural tissue trauma and had elevated inflammatory markers after the workout.
There was a gender difference in muscle damage. Men had high inflammatory levels of IL-6, myoglobin, and creatine kinase that lasted much longer than the women. The female trainees had a larger immediate inflammatory response in all markers, but they recovered faster.
How it turns into overtraining
The accumulation of inflammatory factors like IL-6 and CK can produce a cascade of changes that cause stagnation and result in less than expected body composition results.
Glycogen stores get depleted for the long term, the immune system is compromised, and the neuroendocrine system is affected. Hormone imbalances, such as high cortisol, and low levels of reproductive hormones become a problem.
How to avoid it
Programming your workouts to get just the right amount of overload is key. If you like to train hard every day, avoid high-intensity short-rest workouts in favor of body part splits or traditional training with carefully prescribed rest between sets.
For example, due to something called the repeated bout effect, you can actually reduce muscle damage and improve recovery by training more frequently. This won’t work with a German Volume Program of 10 sets of 10 deadlifts every other day, but it can work with 8 sets of squats with moderately-heavy loads, low reps and 3-minute rest periods multiple times a week.
#3: Low Energy Stores & Poor Immunity
When you train anaerobically, there is a lack of oxygen getting to the muscles, which triggers a metabolic chain reaction. The body starts burning a byproduct of carbohydrates called pyruvate. Pyruvate turns into lactate, which leads to the
release of metabolic waste products such as hydrogen ions. Your muscles will start to “burn” and it’s hard to maintain intensity and keep going.
If you keep training, the metabolic waste products cause the muscle pH to decrease, and the muscle loses its strength capacity. Eventually exercise intensity suffers.
At least that’s what normally happens when people train hard with weights, do all-out sprints, or compete in strongman or sports like boxing. But it is possible to push yourself too far.
The drop in muscle pH causes acid to buildup in the blood, which has to be neutralized. The body stabilizes pH by pulling glutamine from the muscle to neutralize the acid, causing muscle breakdown in the process. If you thrash yourself in the gym frequently, glutamine can come depleted.
This is a problem because glutamine is the most abundant free amino acid in the body. It is used extensively by the cells of the immune system to defend the body against cancer cells, pathogens, and other harmful stuff that we’re exposed to on a daily basis.
How it turns into overtraining
Low glutamine is why endurance athletes often get sick after an event, but it also affects strength and power athletes because it plays a role in DNA synthesis. Glutamine influences muscle tissue regrowth and can lead to prolonged post-workout muscle soreness or DOMS.
Glutamine also affects the body’s ability to replenish muscle glycogen and burn carbs during exercise, making it a major limiting factor to peak performance.
“Rhabdo” is another way exercise can be harmful. You may have heard of CrossFitters ending up in the hospital because the drop in muscle pH from balls to the walls training causes severe damage to muscle tissue. This results in a breakdown of myoglobin, the muscle protein. When too much broken down myoglobin enters the blood stream it causes rhabdomyolysis, which is harmful to the kidneys.
How to avoid it
It’s common to think that rest periods are for the weak, or that their only purpose is to avoid passing out. But there’s actually a method to the madness that will allow you to maintain exercise intensity and avoid factors that shouldn’t be limiting your performance like reduced glycogen and glutamine stores.
Program your workouts to include work intervals that are truly hard AND rest intervals that allow the body to regenerate energy and deal with waste products so that you can give it hundred percent on your next work interval.
You can also try supplementing with glutamine multiple times a day to raise muscle stores and help the body regenerate. Although it hasn’t panned out as improving muscle gains in healthy trainees, studies show glutamine is very beneficial in overtrained athletes or when the immune system is compromised.