mobility

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.

 

How I Got Stronger & Healthier with Less: Minimalism in Training (A Primer)

I can never blame anyone for being confused about training, strength and conditioning, or just simply “working out.” It’s a maze of information, misinformation, well-meaning advice, sensationalism, sales pitches, and smoke screens. Like all things, it’s a spectrum, though. It’s why a personal mission of mine has been to really get to the core of what really constitutes effective training. I’ve gone back and looked at the earliest forms of modern physical culture, asked some of the best minds I know, and I’m beginning to see a trend: minimalism.

Minimalism in training is nothing new, nor a stone previously unturned. Mastery of your own body and the practice of calisthenics has probably existed as long as people have been interested in maintaining and maximizing their physical health. However, outside some niche circles, it’s seldom used or advocated much as modality all of it’s own; with trainers usually opting to use it as little more than a warm-up or throw-in.

What got me here?

Since I was around 12 years old, I’ve spent long hours in gyms and used everything from the Nautilus & Hammer Strength machines to traditional barbell power lifts, cable pulleys, and every trend to boom and bust in the 15 years since. While all of these different methods of training certainly had their benefits, there was something always glaringly lacking with each. It wasn’t that I wasn’t getting a benefit from them: I certainly had periods where I had gained muscle, lost weight, got stronger, or any other desirable results you'd hope to achieve. There was always something missing though; and never was it more obvious than on a day where I’d needed to do something in my every day life that I physically could not, despite absolutely killing it that morning on the bench.

It was also funny to me that at the time, that I could be so good at using barbells, machines, and equipment of all types, but still be so poor at bodyweight movements and things like pull ups. I knew something wasn’t right, even back then. I may not have known how to fix it at 16 years old, but I certainly knew something was off.

It wasn’t until recently, with the help of Steve Maxwell’s insight and many years of meditation on the matter, that I realized what was missing for me in those days. More importantly, it became very apparent that what I was doing was getting good at Hammer Strength Machines, cable wood choppers and barbell deadlifts. The same way you get good at a submission in jiu jitsu, a throw in judo, or a jump shot on the court, was the same thing I was doing with all these movements and equipment.

SKILL VS STRENGTH - WHICH ARE YOU TRAINING?

All workout modalities, training systems, and pieces of equipment are always in danger of is becoming a skill all in themselves. It ends up resembling recreation more than it does a health system. Now, there’s nothing inherently evil there, nor is it always “one or the other,” but being mindful of this is probably what will save you from plateaus and stagnation (in an upcoming blog, I may expand on this idea).

So what is the best way to make sure you don’t master your equipment and turn your workouts into a skill session? Ditch the equipment!

Minimalism

There aren’t many circumstances or sports in which a mastery of your body, your awareness of space, and a maximization of mobility aren’t applicable. By maximizing control, strength, and mobility of your body, you give yourself the best chance to excel in anything you do physically.

There’s also a tremendous benefit in minimalism in training, as many methods of bodyweight mastery are less destructive to connective tissue, joints, etc (with some exceptions of course). Ask any kettlebell veteran to tell you about their shoulders, and many will tell you they wish they gave up the KB Snatch years ago. 

Understanding how to utilize your limbs while maintaining complete stabilization of the core, having the ability to change your level & assuming a new position from that level change, and just being more nimble and strong: that translates to... everything.

How to Train Minimally

I've found through recent experiences, that the most effective way to re-build and rapidly improve everything we've discussed thus far could be broken down to these three points: 

1. Work on Your Mobility

The best advice I can give is to give yourself requisite mobility.

The most important distinction here is to understand the difference between mobility and flexibility:

Flexibility is merely the range of motion available to you. Mobility is your ability to move yourself through the range available to you. By extension, you can use a solid mobility practice to expand and strengthen yourself through new ranges of motion. 

If you’re a completely new to this and the concept of mobility, I suggest you check out my YouTube channel and any posts I’ve written on mobility via my Instagram, as these practices can be combined to make up a nice little mobility routine for you each day. I'll also plug my email list/newsletter, as I send out different mobility videos, tips and workouts frequently, and they're only available to the subscribers. 

2. Strength Training with Isometric Exercise

Steve Maxwell demonstrating a hip bridge isometric holding exercise in his latest video download.

Steve Maxwell demonstrating a hip bridge isometric holding exercise in his latest video download.

From there, I’d encourage you to look into isometrics. Steve Maxwell recently put out a tremendous collection of isometric exercises for the whole body in a concise, excellent video download. This would be a great starting resource.

If you've never been exposed to isometrics or static holds, it simply is the practice of assuming and holding positions until muscular failure or a predetermined time interval.  It's a great practice for those with compromised joints or other lingering injuries, especially those often attributed to "aging." The trauma is low, and results in a more economic shock to the body in the form of strength training. 

"Time under tension" is often most attributed in studies, anecdotes and gyms around the world as a great tool to build muscle (hypertrophy), and also is a way to train a solid baseline level of strength (or maintaining current levels). Learning where you're weak, especially in these positions, will tell you a lot about where you should work and focus your training, and also is a very low tech and minimalist form of strength training that can literally be done anywhere. 

3. Supplemental Strength Training (with the bare bones of "equipment")

Minimalism, particularly relying on solely bodyweight calisthenics with no equipment, leaves much to be desired in the vertical and horizontal pulling movements. For that, I would suggest acquiring a suspension device (like the TRX, or any homemade system). A good friend of mine, Scott Burr, recently wrote a great eBook on how to use perhaps the most efficient low-tech tool of all time. It's available via Amazon/Kindle.

While the suspension device may be the most portable, one of the most effective "pulling modalities" to build up to is the "pull up bar." I've never found a movement in the vertical pulling department that will teach you as much about your body, breathing, and strength as the old fashioned, pronated pull-up. 

The other beauty in the pull up, is that you don't even need a bar in the traditional sense. You need only something above your head that you're (SAFELY) able to make a grip on. In fact, as you progress and become proficient at the pull up, you may even want to add a little chaos of something a bit harder to grip.

Minimalism Training Philosophy in a Few Words...

It's only appropriate to end this "primer" as no frills as the training I'm musing on:

Make your body mobile and strong, with your body.