The Law of Sticking to a Program

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The Law of Sticking to the Program:

 

We are remarkably bad at evaluating our current state.

A trained eye, or a familiar one, is much better at that.

We are good at sticking to plans.

But we are really bad at making them.

Better to have someone else (help) make one.

 

That’s my “Law of Sticking To a Program” If you stopped reading here, you’d get all the wisdom needed to excel in the weight room and sports. But it’s never that easy, now is it?

Here’s how I arrived at the above idea:

Give us room to wiggle out and we will. And you know what? It’s not a sign of some lack of discipline. It’s usually (perceived) self preservation. It’s ourselves being kind to ourselves.

Most of the people I train, including myself, train hard. There are many days I think to myself, “there’s absolutely no way I am hitting the numbers on my squat program today.” I’ll be groggy, tired, out of sorts, and that’s the time I feel most nervous about doing physical things.

There’s also people who walk into my studio some mornings that look like the train rode them instead of the other way around. Their early warm-up sets look objectively terrible, but they slowly start to come to life after a few rounds through, and the moment the real workout begins, they show up and crush everything I outlined that day.

Had I asked them when they walked in if they were in the ideal training state, most would answer in the negative. That would have set a powerful tone. We spoke into existence the idea that today was going to be a bad session. That’s really bad for a few reasons:

  1. The problem with the ideal training state is that it’s remarkably elusive. If you’re a competitor, chasing the ideal competition mindset is like finding a pink unicorn. Instead, you learn to focus and create opportunity in whatever state you find yourself. You train repeatedly to make your worst day default to a state you’ve rehearsed over and over.
  2. If you’re a very thoughtful person about your training and overall health, you’ll be quick to want to preserve yourself. If you take enough of those days and look back at your training logs, you’ll realize you logged far too few workouts to get the results you were looking for. Ask me how I know...

The days that are hardest to get yourself out there are the ones that you need to be there. On these days, you simply need to progress (and not perfection, as Charles Poliquin would say), improve (and not prove, as Cobrinha reminds us often), and put points on the scoreboard (in Mark Bell's words). It's not about setting a PR every day. 

I’ve shared my rule before about dreading the workout vs. dreading the commute: where if I dread the workout more than the commute, I’m probably just being a coward. If the commute seems hard, that means I may be in some pain (how hard is it to drive or take a train somewhere after all?).

From the coach's perspective, this is one of the moments you have the biggest opportunity to show the power of coaching. If you privately identify some type of monkey wrench in the training efforts of a client early on, but know it's not a case of overtraining (or if you're convinced you aren't going to have to send someone home), you can actually do a lot to help the mindset and confidence of the individual by having them go through and excel in the workout. Doing difficult things while being unsure of your current state may be the best training stimulus out there. By the end, I am certain they'll remark how glad they were that they went through with the day's efforts. You'll have the quiet satisfaction of knowing you did the right thing, and their confidence moved up a few ticks on the meter.

I'd be remiss if I didn't say that one big takeaway from this all is the power and beauty of coach/player or coach/client relationships: you both do it together. The definition and context of these titles can change too, especially for the individual lifter or fitness goer. That person you consult on your training effectively has a coaching relationship with you. So when I say that we are bad at making plans- I actually believe that that it can be done by ourselves, but in reality, it's never by ourselves. Ask for help. Talk it out.

There are a lot of Insta-trainers and “novel thinkers” that would have you believe that you’re a “life hack” away from getting over the hump, but it’s not the case. Consistency in training, showing up and doing your best are really all you can do. And you know what? That is enough.

Be well, be strong,

Mark

Sleep is Sometimes a Logistical Difficulty

Every place you live has realities to it that make living optimally a little less… optimal.

Being far removed from an urban center makes certain training methods impossible because no one in the area has a gym. Try training jiu jitsu in the far reaches of a town 3 hours from the nearest semi-urban center. Maybe there’s no real gym within a few hours drive either.

Cold, far northern climates may have issues with diversity in food crop and livestock.

NYC’s issue is sleep. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise for a city whose catchphrase is “the city that never sleeps.” The same goes for any large, first-tier city’s population: they’re under-slept.

I’ve been having this conversation with people for the past 8 years: I would deem the chronic lack of sleep that happens here (or doesn’t happen here) as the number one barrier to living a healthy, high-performing life in NYC 

I am no stranger to this. I dole out sleep advice regularly, and practice much of it, but if I had to pinpoint the number one thing I would change about my health and performance, it would be sleep.

One slightly disturbing image I often heard as a young 20-something who had just moved to NYC was the reports of people who had once lived here, but left. “It chews you up and spits you out” they would say. They were usually talking about rent, work and life though.

But I think that if they just slept a little better, they may still be here.

Let’s explore:

This whole conversation starts and ends with circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythm refers to your body’s ability to pick up on the time of day wherever you find yourself. This is important because it helps your body produce the right hormones at the right time, and ultimately regulate when you’re awake and when you get tired for the evening.

Little things like light pollution, low-hum (or loud) noise disturbance, and a lack of time in nature, can all contribute to you being kicked out a little farther from your natural circadian rhythm.

The one thing that cities, and even larger suburbs, have in common is excess light. It comes from light poles, buildings, shopping centers, traffic, and anything that emits light. That’s why it’s such stark contrast when you go to certain states or countries that have light ordinances or are just simply more secluded, and you can actually see the light that comes from the stars in the sky.

Regardless, the artificial light, especially if it’s of the blue variety, has a powerful effect on you. It can make you more sensitive to detecting the time of day, and thus, your body has a difficult time going through it’s normal hormonal rounds during the day.

I also believe that low level noise that isn’t therapeutic has an effect on us. If you understand the science and theory behind binaural beats, you could quickly surmise that there’s probably negative frequencies of sound that can have an effect on us. I often call the low level noise of traffic or street noise in the background of life in NYC/big cities the "negative binaural beat-" that even when you’re not paying attention to it or actively bothered by it, it is still causing a slight disturbance in your body’s ability to chill and find itself a little more parasympathetic dominant (which ultimately aids recovery).

If you care about your body and its performance, like I do, then you need to be serious about having healthy sleep hygiene. Otherwise you are literally digging a recovery hole that will be harder and harder to emerge from. Specifically, you're very likely to undermine the very mechanism in the body that helps you develop a healthy circadian rhythm. 

I don’t like to take things lying down. It became enough of an issue for me that losing an hour of sleep here and there (and also already having the deck stacked against me for every reason I outlined above), was enough to start actively working on it and make a list of solutions for the urban city-dweller who needs more sleep.

Here's what I am doing to change it:

Set a timer to go to bed.

I’m not starting with the ideal of 9:20PM or earlier. I’m simply starting to wind it back by 1 hour and will add 15-20 minutes to wind back more each week. Habits take time to build and you must make your environment conducive to accepting these new habits (more on that in future blogs).

It’s easy to lose track of time in the evening, so I have an alert set for 9:45PM each night to tell me to go to bed.

 

Ritual

I make sure my next day’s equipment/gear is packed earlier in the day, and not before I go to bed.  When I am sleepy, I don’t want to do anything. The act of preparing for the next day will wake me up.

 

Sleep Mask

I have always found sleep/eye masks remarkably useful on road trips and plane rides for sleeping. Before using them, I never was able to sleep anywhere besides my bed. However, when I use those things, I turn the lights out-- literally and figuratively

 

Black out shades

I grew up with these as a kid- they work, and you won't want to return to sleeping without them. Sleep masks are unnecessary if you have true blackout shades.

 

Airplane Mode on the phone.

Buy into it or don’t: but you should put your phone on airplane mode at night (and preferably out of the bedroom) to help kill some of the vibrations and sounds you’ll inevitably forget to silence. You’ll also be less likely to be on your phone and exposing your eyes to blue-light. There's also the whole electro-magnetic wave thing that may or may not be true, but I certainly notice a difference.

Perhaps most importantly, talk to your spouse or partner about your plans

I didn’t expect my girlfriend to buy into everything I was doing wholeheartedly (as we are on different schedules), but it’s important that the people closest to you support you. She did, and is now even more on board than me in some ways! 

I started drafting this blog about 2 weeks ago, and can say that after 2 weeks of these changes, I am doing much better already. Try them out and feel free to share any of your own in the comments. 

 

Be well, be strong,

Mark

There's Growth in the Grind

The thing I love about wrestlers and grapplers is the concept of “embracing the grind.” In other words, wrestling and grappling can be so damn hard, so punishing, so bruising, that you almost can’t elevate your game unless you embrace it and just forget about how rough it can be. Your success is determined by how much more you are willing to put up with than your opponent. The ones who begin to enjoy the physical challenge and grind of practice/class start to become the ones who are most successful.

Sure, to many, this sounds extreme. But behind that rough description is a story of love and giving yourself the opportunity to flourish in something extremely difficult.

Changing your body and health are the same, and on a more humble, manageable scale. Which is why I believe for some people, it's a harder change. This is mostly because people don’t take it as seriously as the wrestler or grappler: they aren’t aware of the physical consequence.

Wrestling’s consequence is easy. You get pinned, you get worked, your body hurts, you’re miserable, and not improving. You NEED to get better. Maybe that sounds familiar... 

When it comes to health or humble performance goals, you may not immediately realize the consequences.

You may have no social consequences, because all your friends and family members are equally unhealthy. You also may not realize that the extra 10lbs you are unhappy with now isn’t a problem in your performance today, but in 5 years, you just fought an unnecessary daily +10lbs battle with gravity and will be feeling the consequences of it in your joints. Walks with your kids may not be as easy, workouts are harder, sports you enjoyed partaking in don’t happen as much- or worse, you were forced into early “retirement.”

You have to take a long term look at your diet and lifestyle to understand the consequences and how to fix it. 

Once you establish the consequences, you have one end of the spectrum. I don’t like to coach from a place of negatives, though. Fixating on the negative robs you of creativity in planning and execution. It is ultimately a waste of energy and a low-level mindset. Let’s talk about the other end of the spectrum: growth.

Growth

The other end is possibility; limitless growth and happiness that you can find in improving your situation.

In wrestling or grappling, this could take many forms: the obvious is winning. But maybe you’re a great training partner and not necessarily a high achieving medalist/winner. Those great training partners have opportunities to work with Olympians and other high achievers in their preparation for competition. That work may open up doors to coaching if you’re a good communicator. Or maybe it’s with some position we can’t even fathom. It may involve you even becoming a future member of a world champion's team, or Master’s class champion. It starts with the work though, and not sitting out of class because your ego wouldn’t let you come to class only to get beaten up a little that day: or worse, you have a (food) hangover.

No, you have to love the process and the greater vision.

The same is true of improving health markers in your life. You see that little changes like the extra two workouts per week are making: you feel a little stronger, and less out of breath while training. Imagine if 2 workouts changed this, what the possibilities are a few years from now are by simply attacking 2 workouts per week. What progress you'll have, what weight you’ll lose! 

The other secret here is that those 2 workouts will turn into 4, and a beginner’s mindset will develop as you spend a few extra hours a week reading articles on exercise, or pursuing a sport more deeply. This newfound hobby will take you to places you didn’t think of previously. Things I cannot predict.

All because you said to yourself, I have these two workouts in the bag- let’s keep this going.

You have to get out of your own way and show up though. You have to believe that you’re worth the effort and can achieve great things by simply putting one foot out in front of the other. Throwing out the junk food, stocking the fridge with quality meats, vegetables and fruits, and scheduling gym time are all shrines and overtures to you and displays of your confidence in yourself. It's you taking control and molding your world.

Without even realizing it, you’ve begun to embrace the grind. 

Be well, be strong,

Mark

 

An Ounce of Prevention... (Project)

  Image source , which is also a good article on the differences of glass and plastic

Image source, which is also a good article on the differences of glass and plastic

 

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Almost any goal you have that's worth achieving takes real work and more importantly, time. 

There's really no way around this. No hack, no shortcut. Don't ask if there is one, or get me started on that...

But if there was one thing you could invest small amounts of time into for a bigger ROI later, it's eliminating things that do not serve you and ultimately can rob your goals long term. Not present day "thieves," but slow, siphoning vampires. How's that for a visual?

This is most definitely a concept of minimalism, which should guide you in fitness and health.  Marketing of "health" products is often based on "addition" and ultimately accumulation. Eventually, accumulation becomes too much. You have too many products, pieces of equipment, supplements... and body fat too. Strive for reduction. This is what the early years of my solo training career were characterized by in my work with Steve Maxwell. This is the philosophy he lives his life by and is often admired for.

The How

The first thing you can do is create healthy rituals. I have discussed this before in regards to morning and evening best practices to help ease you into your day, but also into your slumber. 

For me recently this has taken the form of a few things.

I was turned on to the EWG database by Charles Poliquin and did a little plugging in and deeper research of skincare/daily care products I use a bit, but don't think of readily all the time as potentially problematic. The obvious ones that I corrected years ago were ditching anti-bacterial soap and obvious lotions with nothing but chemicals.  This time around, the culprits were more in the realm of smaller, but common items: dish soap, toothpaste, etc. I encourage you to check out that site and do the same. 

Here are my big two:

New toothpaste 

I have long understood the link between oral health and nearly everything else in the body, but wasn't too stoked to find out that the conventional brand I was using had triclosan in it. 

Since July of 2017, I've been working on hypertrophy and healthy weight gain while keeping my body fat as low as possible. I've also kept a close eye on important hormonal markers for men- and this product undermines that.  

Now, I'm trying out Dr Bronners and a few other brands of toothpastes sans fluoride and triclosan.

 

No more plastic bags 

I learned from a Poliquin article recently that one of the most common places you'll find BPA is in plastic bags and receipts. We switched a few years ago to using reusable grocery bags and generally just use plastic bags for garbage, but now I no longer use plastic bags for dirty clothes or change of clothes after training or jiu jitsu and have switched to wet/dry bags. This is a great solution if you have to keep wet, sweaty stuff in your bag or car for many hours before being able to wash or air out your clothing. They make ones large enough for gis and bigger items and sell them on Amazon.

 

Hedging your bets for later

This is all done, like I said above, as a way of preventing problems down the road. A single interaction with a plastic bag probably won't hurt, but if you transport things in them daily for 10 years and we later find out they were seeping with BPA or some undiscovered chemical- then we certainly can say there was a high risk exposure.

Also, I find it's best to never approach this from a place of paranoia, but rather check it off your list as a marker of progress or a supplemental marker of helping you make progress elsewhere. The reason being: paranoia is a negative state of mind- you'll be unable to be your most creative self in that state, and biologically speaking, I can't imagine there is a positive hormonal response to living in paranoia (in fact, I know there is not).

I'll expand next time on the idea of all these little things being congruent with the "big things" you hope to accomplish.  

Be well, be strong!

Mark

 

Project posts are a regular series on personal projects I am working on, and my own insight based on what I discover. Check back each week for them!

The Stan Lee Principle

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The Stan Lee Principle:

Every comic book is someone's first issue. 

Every max effort workout is someone's first.

Whether it's Spider-Man, which is thousands of issues deep, or some brand new hero/heroine, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics always started the comic with a quick sentence or two that describes the story and who the hero is. Because even if millions people knew who Spider-Man was, someone out there did not. 

Context is everything.

Your workouts should be no different. You need to understand why it is that you're moving the way you are moving in order for them to be effective. 

The Russians had a word for it, as I learned recently from Mark Bell, called the "Principle of Awareness." If they didn't know why they were working the muscle, or the movement, it hindered their ability to make the mind muscle connection. Most importantly, it makes us all students.

It also contributed to higher morale if you knew why you were doing something, which increases compliance. When you have athletes or trainees who don't comply with a program, you have the biggest problem in a training program's effectiveness... 

Thus, I train by what I call the Stan Lee Principle and always explain in just a few short sentences to people why they're doing the exercise they are doing. You don't need to be a know-it-all or condescending (also- use normal words, not kinesiology text book jargon). When you do that, you build better clients and athletes because they are also being educated. They'll start asking better questions and use better training practices on their own. 

Results will improve. 

Be well,

Mark DiSalvo

Is 10,000 Steps a Day Really a Thing?

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Is 10,000 Steps per day really “a thing?”  Is it really better for your health and burning fat than copious amounts of cardio on machines and treadmills?

That’s a question I’m asked a lot, and the simple and complex answers are both yes. I do believe (and observe) that walking is quite essential to overall health and works very effectively as a weight loss aid, all which aid performance and more importantly, have you living a happier, healthier life. 

Let’s explore all these points a bit more in depth:

Weight Loss

I have seen more people lose weight, keep it off, and just feel better through taking leisurely walks. It’s my number one piece of advice for weight loss. In fact, when I am asked by clients if they should do elliptical or treadmill work in conjunction with the training we do together, I often say “no, unless you like it” (remember, I’m not talking about competitive athletes here, I’m talking about people who want to be healthy and manage their weight).  The "cardio" issue is a point of contention for many. The big issue is, if you don’t like running and it stresses you out, then we really aren’t doing anything to help you. In fact, we’re probably hurting you. Stressed people don’t breathe. People who don’t breathe are tight, easily agitated and stressed. Those people have a difficult time losing weight. It’s a vicious circle.

My mentor Steve Maxwell has a system of weight loss and breath work that involves zero running or interval training (in conjunction with a proper diet of course). I’ve seen it work on me and scores upon scores of his clients and mine. Mark Bell has his #10MinuteWalks movement, where he goes on 10 minute walks each morning and throughout the day. He famously lost A LOT of weight by going low/no carb (ie: altering his diet) and simply working in more time for walks, particularly in the morning (more on this below).

Weight loss is a multi pronged effort, but it’s not a complex one. Often times, we put so much stress, emotion, and thought into our weight because there’s so much identity behind it. That’s the very reason you need to go outside and walk. It’s the best stress reducer and thing to keep you sane. Which blends perfectly into the next main benefit:

Walking as Meditation

Meditation is such a loaded word for so many people, and is too often associated with quietly sitting in a room on a carpet with your eyes closed. It doesn't have to be that way for everyone: walking can be your form of escape that can provide you the same benefit of someone with the discipline to sit quietly in a room by themselves.

Walking can very easily become meditation and an instant stress reducer; it’s an escape from whatever anxiety you have going on, that may otherwise cause you to reach for food or stimulants. If you’re feeling a bit anxious or habitually hungry, take an inventory: you’ll probably find you’ve been sitting too much that day, or are emotionally stressed over something. Instead of reaching for anything to eat or drink, go for a walk instead: see how you feel and if the short walk didn't change your mindset a bit.

Walking also helps with problem solving. I learned from working with a client once who was a PhD in Adult Education and learning techniques that we often associate and commit things to memory better when it’s associated with some type of movement. She was was particularly excited to see that kids were carrying around fidget spinners everywhere, because it's helpful for them to do that while reading or studying.  While I don't use the fidget spinners myself, I often find that if I’m stuck on a problem, it helps to walk out of my apartment or studio. By the time I’m at the corner of the block, I have new insight, or I no longer care as much about whatever issue was stressing me out.

 

Walking for Health

It’s fairly widely accepted that walking 10,000 steps per day equals around 5 miles traveled. It’s pretty safe to assume most Americans (and westerners more generally) are not getting this type of mileage in a day. The very act of increasing your step count to 10,000 from your current total will mean that you are going to simply be moving more throughout your day, and less likely to be sitting for longer periods of time. It’s the sitting that presents almost as many problems as the lack of steps. Poor posture, tight joints and other mobility issues arise in a matter of weeks of spending time primarily sitting.

The other thing I often discuss with clients is a great point that was made by Paul Chek in his book How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy. When your body is doing an activity that doesn’t raise your heart rate much, it won’t overly activate your sympathetic nervous system. Movements in that category set your body into peristalsis, which is essentially a pumping/clearing movement that has the effect of moving waste through you body (literally and figuratively).  Paul gets into that topic and also explains it more here.

What does this look like for you?


Your health depends on you moving a minimum of 30 minutes per day: from a physiological point of view (peristalsis), as a stress reducer, and as a weight loss mechanism. This doesn’t mean intense exercise, and it doesn’t include the training you do to achieve your other goals.

Hedge your bets and always make a practice of moving 30 minutes each day. When all else fails, or if injury pops up, 30 minutes of gentle movement, or 10,000 steps is exactly what will keep you healthy.

I recommend walks, light movements, and if you’re stuck inside because of weather or travel, treadmill walking will do (heck, even walk in circles). But remember, your steps don’t have to be intense to matter. In fact, it’s probably better if they aren’t.

Who is Asking?

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I was asked a question last week about insulin and adrenal hormones, and why you wouldn’t want to spike them before your workout.

I field a lot of intelligent questions like this: from clients, training partners and people who write to me, to friends and family.  The answer to so many questions like it is: who is asking?

Many people who read well intentioned or even largely true training advice must keep in mind who is dispensing the advice and who their intended audience is. While there are universal training truths, you must remember the old adage: Sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul.

What do I mean?

  • In times where you hope to increase muscle mass, you’ll be sacrificing training for strength (in intermediate to experienced trainees).

  • In times where your goal is to burn fat, you probably won’t be gaining muscle (novice trainees might, but intermediate and advanced will not).

  • You do not want to take in sugar or carbohydrate to spike your insulin before you workout because it will come with performance detriment, but a wrestler or grappler who is doing two-a-days and has a strength session may actually benefit from increasing their blood glucose levels with GOOD sugars before a workout or training session.

 

I think I’m making my point. There are only so many masters you can serve, and simultaneous goals you can achieve. That's why you must establish your priority and be realistic about your situation to get better results. It comes back to the big question: Who is asking?

Often times, you have to be aware of situations where you “don’t know what you don’t know” (to borrow another old phrase). This is where professionals and coaches are critical: they help you identify who you are, what group you fit into, and how to best address your question. More importantly, they can help you prioritize your goals. Sometimes you don’t even know what questions to be asking. That’s why anyone serious about their training needs coaching in some capacity.

From the side of the professional, the coach, the trainer, the therapist: this is where we need to band together and establish good networks: if I am being asked by an olympic lifter how to “clean up” their clean and jerk for competition, that is not something I can offer finer nuance on, and I am acutely aware of that. We can work your clean, front squat and mobility to get you a bit better, but if you have very little time, and it's all mechanics of sport: I want to refer you to the best sport coach. If you ask me about conditioning, strength and mobility for grappling, then I can help you quite readily, and if a yoga teacher was asked about grappling, I would expect he/she to do the same.

I digress and offer the simple advice we opened with: if you or your client can better identify the priority in your current program and reality of the situation, you can better identify the big question:

Who is asking?

 

How Do You Know if You're Over-Training?

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Overtraining is a funny topic, because it’s so profoundly misunderstood. It’s misunderstood at levels that get people feeling like they’re lazy if they don’t train that day; or on the other end of the spectrum: feeling like their workout allows them to sit the rest of the week out in hopes that they "hit it hard enough already."  Neither are correct. That's more neurosis than simple objective feedback from your body.

I sometimes even hesitate to dwell on this topic in any sensationalist way because, while it's incredibly important, I never want to come off as the "told ya-so" disciplinarian parent, nor do I want to coddle and excuse what could simply be a lack of effort and discipline on the part of the trainee. Both outcomes are negative and lead to the athlete simply tuning out to what could be good advice.  So for the athletes and coaches reading this alike, I encourage you to be very aware of how to deal with overtraining in athletes and the signs of it, but trust that you have the knowledge, education and intuition when the problem arises. Don't stress; the stress is much worse.

Overtraining quite simply is the state you find yourself in after chronically overreaching in your training effort. Much can be mitigated by recovery efforts, but even the best laid recovery practices can’t outrun a body that can’t recover, adapt, and come back stronger.

I made mention a few weeks ago in my article on The Athlete of Over 30 Best Practices, that you should alter your training plans for the day if you’re feeling over-trained. But how do you know if you’re overtrained? Let’s discuss…

 

Did you over-reach in the past 2 days?

 

Overreaching in strength and conditioning circles refers to the temporary over-exertion of yourself to reach a certain short-term goal. Maybe it was you going the extra round in jiu jitsu (past your normal capacity), or having multiple consecutive two-a-days.

In the gym, it may mean that you went for your PR in a squat or deadlift in the past 48 hours. Maybe you had a two-a-day: sprints in the morning, strength training in the evening. The actual practice of this isn't "bad," but the chronic repeating of it can get you in trouble (why do you think so many programs have "de-load" weeks and times where you alter your volume and intensity?)

You can conceivably overreach for a number of sessions in a row to produce a desired training effect, but you’ll be in slippery territory if you do this unsupervised or chronically. Sometimes, high level athletes will overreach to achieve a certain goal. 

Whatever the case, you've dealt a slightly larger than normal blow to your nervous system that your body is recovering from and adapting to in order to come back stronger.  While this is happening, you’d be wise to move, but somewhere in the 60-70% total exertion/effort range max for the immediate 48-72 hours after. This could include longer duration cardio/running/biking, practicing your technique for your lifts by doing higher volume and low weight sets, drilling in jiu jitsu, etc.

To be clear, you are not overtrained at this point. However, if you chronically trained in this fashion, you’d probably be pushing into over-training territory. Precisely how much is a personal approximation and number, and is in part, measured by some of the small giveaways listed below. To figure it out first though, you must take an inventory of your body.

 

reflect, but don't get too "heady"

There are many reasons a mental malaise and brain fog can onset that are not a result of physical fatigue. Stress, distractions from work, life, family or otherwise, and simply not being present can easily disrupt your focus, and have physical manifestations. You’ll feel tired, cranky, or just physically drained.  Should you train on those days? That depends…

It’s hard to distinguish between this “attitude fatigue” and actual physical over-training.  A quick way to tell which is which is by thinking to your last 4 training sessions. Are you usually happy and enthusiastic to go and knock it out of the park? Then you may be actually in need of that extra rest day if you're feeling sludgy. Conversely, if you’re always hemming and hawing the whole way to the gym and don’t really get focused until your first set, then you’re probably simply psyching yourself out… in the bad way. In this case, training would probably be a good idea.

It simply comes down to being disciplined. You won’t always feel like training, but you should. Compliance and how much you show up and complete what’s outlined is what’s most important.

So if you’re certain it’s not an attitude fatigue incident, let’s explore these four clues:

 

Find a “benchmark exercise”

Everyone has an exercise they’re good at and simply have a higher aptitude in relation to other exercises. My personal one is the Farmer’s Walk. Besides simply being a strength and strength capacity building exercise, the Farmer’s Walk gives me a good indication to my balance that day, basic coordination, and how tense or tight I am feeling.  On most days, if I pick up a heavy kettle bell, dumbbell, or any thick-gripped implement, I feel ready to move with it. However, there’s some days where I am simply off and even grabbing a 16kg or 20kg kettle bell to do a simple warm-up is asking a lot. Moving is tough, coordination of my legs while walking is off (more on that below), and everything just feels heavier than it should.

Simply put, if an exercise is hard that you know should be easy, you may want to reconsider training that day. Take a longer warm-up, get into some harder working sets to see what happens, but don’t be surprised if you need to alter your workouts.

The same goes for combat sports, particularly grappling. If you’re feeling really sluggish and a lack of sharpness after 10-15 minutes of warming up and a few times through your favorite pass or sweep, you may want to stick to drilling that day.

Check your breathing

If you are sore, tight, stressed, or simply not having a good day, the chances that you are dysfunctionally breathing are quite high. You're probably breathing through your mouth, and/or possibly infrequently, and sighing and grunting a lot. If that's you, simply take a few deep diaphragmatic breaths and see what happens. I wager you'll find a lot more calm.

On the bright side of this practice, you'll have focused and altered your state in a very positive way for your training session. The relaxed demeanor and increased mobility of your tissue will allow you to fully utilize everything you have for the training session.

On the other side of the coin, if this still reveals some fatigue, you'll have taken the first step to putting your body in a "healing" state by blunting your sympathetic nervous system, and moving yourself into the parasympathetic realm, allowing your body to start healing better.

Grip strength

I notice amongst athletes and avid gym-goers alike, that grip strength is one of the first things to go as they approach overtraining and chronic overreaching territory. This observation is only valid of course, if people have a standard warm-up or some exercise that they’re used to using a heavy gripping effort for that we can compare it to session-to-session.  

We usually notice this at the beginning of a workout when someone is going to pick up a dumbbell or kettle bell they’re used to handling for warm-up purposes, or if they go to hang from a bar. Invariably, when they’re a little overly fatigued, it feels heavier to them than it should.  This has a lot to do with your nervous system readiness, that is, how quickly your body and brain are communicating to execute what you’re asking of it. The physical therapists I work with often equate grip strength issues to core issues as well; so if you're overly sore and damaged through the torso, and your grip isn't up to snuff, then we may have a reduced training load on our hands.

I particularly like to do a shoulder warm-up series with kettle bells to warmup before workouts. On the days in which I am a little over-trained, I find myself a little slower to process the grip of the thick handles, and it simply feels more difficult than it should to work with 12 or 16kg. 

Balance

Tripping on the mats? Doing a farmers walk and having issues staying under center? Not unlike grip strength feeling weak, your balance and all the systems that dictate it (vestibular, etc) can be the first to go when your body is shuttling its resources elsewhere. Often times, it takes a set or two to get your body and balance in sync, but if it’s going past the initial warm-up, you’d benefit from scaling back that day.

 

PROGRESSION AND PERIODIZATION ARE REAL THINGS

I find there’s two ends of this spectrum: people who very obviously have a lot on their training plate and are feeling burned out, and people who train much less frequently, but still feel burned out.  Both individuals are making mistakes of programming and periodization.

Don’t get discouraged if you’re feeling a bit over-trained and it’s coming from just a few workouts per week. You should already be logging your exercise (if you take it seriously), so go back and see what your total number of workouts was in 1 month. Increase that number by roughly 10-15% the next month to help build your capacity. Secondly, heed the next bullet point (more on that below. Spoiler alert: improve your recovery habits).

However, maybe you’re the opposite; maybe you’re burning out and it’s because you’re training TOO much. Remember, give yourself 48 hours if necessary between strength training bouts, and don’t expect to be king of the ring/mats the day after a hard strength training session either.

 

Identify Your Recovery Errors

The best laid plans can be easily laid to waste if your recovery efforts are tainted. The tried and true advice of proper sleep, diet and stress management go a long way. If you feel like you do everything perfect, but are chronically stressed and subsequently, under-slept, you WILL suffer. There is no way around this and I see it ALL the time. Stress management can derail all your training efforts and increase your chance for injury, blunt your progress, and make you retain unwanted weight. This is not an exaggeration and it's something I deal with almost weekly with clients and athletes (I live and train in NYC, after all...).

 

don't worry...

The worst thing you can do is worry. Remember, all these markers and symptoms are objective feedback from your body that something is off. They aren't a statement of judgement about you as an athlete.

Start becoming more mindful of everything above and you'll give yourself a much deeper window into your recovery habits. If you are indeed overtrained, you will be able to diagnose and appropriately respond to keep yourself healthy. It bears repeating that the majority of people reading this article may not need this advice now, but being mindful of these things can actually enhance and help you train harder and smarter later, as you can proceed full speed ahead if you are covering the spread and having no ill effects. We didn't cover everything, because that could be a book in itself, but I hope this got you all thinking about the topic.

Be well,

Mark

 

ps- If you have any rituals or signs you notice in recognizing overtraining, leave a comment below.