Note: This is a guest post by Vince DiPrimio, C.S.C.S (this means he's a smart dude)
Have you found you’ve plateaued in all of your lifts? Is your body constantly feeling beaten down? If this describes you, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re far from it. Most people and workout enthusiasts believe they need to lift heavy almost every day to see fantastic results from strength training. The truth of the matter is far more complicated than that. Here are some reasons to back off the intensity/volume occasionally if you want to see improvements.
Overtraining syndrome is very real. The mechanism, though, is actually rarely from doing too much exercise. Simply put, overtraining syndrome is the symptom but not the cause. Under-recovery is almost always the mechanism that leads one to being in a state of “overtraining.” Take a step back and look at your life. Do you have kids? How about a full time job? Monthly bills? School? A significant other? A farm with 20 chickens and 10 horses? On top of all that, “do you even lift bro?” These are called stressors.
These stressors (both good and bad) release a hormone called cortisol that performs catabolic processes (tissue breakdown) within the body. Assuming a person has a good stress management system (good diet, sleep, relaxation, etc) in place, cortisol levels will only be elevated for short periods of time, allowing our anabolic hormones to take hold and have a positive effect on the body. When stress management is bad, though, cortisol levels remain elevated for long periods of time throughout the body. This leads to excess inflammation, sickness, fatigue, lifting plateaus, etc. If you have a lot of stress in your life, frequent and intense exercise sessions will only increase your amount of stress and probably inhibit long-term progress.
Try and develop a good system of stress management. Drink more water. Meditate. Focus on breathing 5-10 minutes a day. Take a walk. Get plenty of sleep. Eat good food. There are a thousand things you could be doing to improve recovery. Find the ones that work for you and implement them.
Now that we’ve established that most people have moderate to high stress levels in their lives we need to focus on trimming the fat. Trimming the fat is about being ruthlessly efficient with your exercises and programming. What do you want to accomplish? Get a better squat? Get bigger arms? Run a faster mile? Prioritize your goals and program accordingly. If your goal is to increase your squat, the countless reps and sets of curls, tricep extensions, and overhead presses are useless and only taking away from your recovery capacity. Think of your recovery capacity as a glass full of water that magically refills itself every day. Everything you do throughout the day, not just exercise, takes water out of your cup. Do too much and your cup is not only empty but starts with less water the next day to make up for all the work you did the day before. Do this long enough and you’ll soon have a very little water left to go around. Don’t waste your recovery capacity doing things that aren’t going to help you reach your goal.
Now that we’ve trimmed the fat from your exercises and programs it’s time to get back to the bare necessities. When you exercise you should ALMOST ALWAYS perform the least amount of work needed that elicits a response. In an ideal world you’ll follow this approach with 70-80% of your workouts in a week. This should leave room for 1-2 days of intense workouts per week. Find the bare minimum needed to maintain your current strength levels. Then gradually, and I mean gradually, increase the volume or intensity each week. Try to increase either the weight by 2.5-5lbs each week or do one more rep. This is a very simplistic approach but you get the idea. After a while and progress has been halted, take a deload week to allow supercomensation to take place. Then start again. This method ensures you never exceed your recovery capacity and aren’t hurting your long-term progress for short term gains.
Hopefully this post highlights the need for overall life stress management and why less work can lead to move improvement. Backing off your exercise volume/intensity/frequency is one area of your life where you can mitigate some stress. By doing so, you’ll allow your body to recover better, which inevitably leads to more exercise, feeling physically better, and improved performance.