By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief
Large amounts of stress, either acute or chronic, that outstrips the trainee’s tolerance for that stress and ability to recover can lead to exhaustion. In training terms, we tend to dub this state “overtraining,” accumulated stress that causes a negative rather than positive response to training resulting from an inability to recover. Crossing from productive stress to overtraining is much more often the result of accumulated fatigue. There are signs and symptoms that may signal overtraining. Paying attention to these can allow you to pivot and manage your stress before it becomes severe.
Exhaustion – Stage 3
“If the stress on the body is too great, either in intensity, duration, or frequency, the body will be unable to adequately adapt and exhaustion will occur. . . . In practice, this concern is most applicable to intermediates and advanced trainees—novices usually lack sufficient strength and stamina to work at intensities and durations that would produce these levels of stress . . . .” -Rippetoe & Baker, Practical Programming for Strength Training (3d ed. 2013)
I re-read these sentences and the discussion that follows them on overtraining while lying in the ICU. I had asked my very pregnant wife to bring me Practical Programming to read as I recovered from exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis. This wasn’t the first time I had read these words, but it was the moment when I really understood them.
Exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis (“rhabdo” for short) is the big nasty brother of delayed onset muscle soreness—what you probably a day or two after your first barbell training workout when you had trouble sitting down and getting up from the toilet because your legs were sore. That soreness is related to tolerable amounts of muscle damage when you train, usually associated with the eccentric, or “downward” portion of a movement. Rhabdo is intolerable muscle damage resulting in muscle cell death. It’s painful, and it’s dangerous because when the muscle cells break down it releases muscle enzymes into the bloodstream, including a protein called myoglobin. Enough myoglobin in the blood can lead to acute renal failure. Rhabdo from exercise is not common it takes effort and, absent some extenuating factors, poor training choices.
Like many others, I discovered barbell training, Rip, and Starting Strength through CrossFit. I had a pretty typical experience. During my first year, I become stronger, faster, and more generally fit than I had ever been. After the first year, I found that improvements came more slowly. But I discovered a seemingly proportional relationship between how hard I worked, how many times a week I trained, and continued improvements. So, I did more and went harder.
Again, I seemed to plateau a few months later. So, I decided I needed to train even harder. I joined the “competition” team at our gym to help push me. Over the course of six weeks, I had 8-10 workouts per week, where the goal was to go all out, as hard as we could every single workout. During this time, I lost about 10 pounds and ignored some signs of decreased performance. My lifts all suffered, and my times for relatively low-skill conditioning tasks like rowing and running also plummeted. This downward trend continued until a particular workout that had us performing high repetitions of heavy kettlebell swings and GHD situps.
Two days later, I was in the ER explaining to the doctor that the extreme muscle damage I was exhibiting was from a <20-minute workout. This was preceded by the worst DOMS I had ever experienced, visibly swollen rectus abdominis muscles, and rust-colored urine (from the myoglobin).
As I lay in bed reading Practical Programming, I was trying to answer my own questions about training. My goal had been “fitness” but anything that lands you in the ICU is pretty much the opposite of fitness. For me, Rip’s book explained exactly what happened, you could read it in my log—increasing stress, unexplained weight loss, nagging pains, apathy toward training. When I had been a “novice” and relatively new to every varied modality of my exercise program, going harder, doing more was fine. I wasn’t yet strong enough to hurt myself. As I got a year to 15 months into it, I was no longer a novice, I had conditioning and strengthened myself to where I could generate enough stress to chronically prevent recovery and to actually destroy my muscles. By ignoring the markers of chronic overtraining, I had reached stage 3 of Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS): Exhaustion.
What is Exhaustion in the training context
“Physiologically, the purpose of any training session is to stress the body so that adaption results. Physical training is beneficial only as long as it forces the body to adapt to the stress of physical effort. If the stress is not sufficient to overload the body, then no adaptation occurs. If a stress is so great that it cannot be tolerated, then injury or overtraining result. The greatest improvements in performance occur when appropriate exercise stresses are introduced to an individual’s training program” (Brookes, Fahey, Baldwin, “Exercise Physiology,” p.7 (4th ed 2005).)
Training is an intentional manipulation of the “Stress-Recovery-Adaptation” cycle. This comes from Hans Selye’s GAS principles in which he described the possible responses to a stimulus great enough to constitute a stress. Stress can be appropriate or inappropriate, productive or unproductive stress, meaning it can make you better, stronger, faster, or do exactly the opposite. Stress can be laying in bed for days on end when you are used to being active, or it can be a new activity or new environment.
But positive change or adaptation is one of two possible outcomes of significant stress. Significant stress disrupts your equilibrium—disrupts homeostasis in some way. The difference between a disruption that leads to beneficial changes and one that leads to exhaustion and overtraining is a matter of degree and tolerance.
Large amounts of stress, either acute or chronic, that outstrips the trainee’s tolerance for that stress and ability to recover can lead to exhaustion. In training terms, we tend to dub this state “overtraining,” accumulated stress that causes a negative rather than positive response to training resulting from an inability to recover. “The stress that results in exhaustion can be either acute or chronic. Examples of acute exhaustion include fractures, sprains, and strains. Chronic exhaustion (overtraining) is more subtle and includes stress fractures, emotional problems, and a variety of soft-tissue injuries.”
Keep in mind that overtraining is not synonymous with injury. While overtraining can result in injury and injury can come from things other than training stress. Acute exhaustion can result in a fracture or strained or torn muscle. But those same injuries may be the result of dropping a plate on your foot. Exhaustion from training is when the intended stress overwhelms your tolerance. This makes acute overtraining most common in particularly grueling environmental or competitive environments.
Crossing from productive stress to overtraining is much more often the result of accumulated fatigue. There are signs and symptoms that may signal overtraining. Paying attention to these can allow you to pivot and manage your stress before it becomes severe.
The level of a lifter’s training advancement is one of the main organizing principles of programming. The minimum threshold for productive stress in someone who has never lifted before is very low. Novices get stronger with relatively low stress.
Novices also aren’t really strong enough to overdo the stress. For a novice, we can choose the most stressful lifts, those that use the most muscle mass over the longest range of motion, allowing us to lift the most weight, and use a relatively high volume and high-intensity program like the novice linear progression. Why? Because in this case “high intensity” is only relative to the person’s abilities, not their capacity or potential. This makes the novice linear progression a convenient training and data-gathering tool. By starting light, and gradually changing one variable—the weight on the bar—we can find the level at which the lifter adapts to training, and we can find the level at which they’ve begun to accumulate fatigue that lingers beyond a single workout.
During the novice phase of training, the lifter’s critical threshold moves steadily upward; it takes more stress to make you stronger the stronger you get.
Your tolerance for stress also changes with your level of training. We’ve discussed the body’s amazing capacity to return to homeostasis through different environments, micro-controls, and the use of energy. Your body not only adapts to survive stress, but it also adapts to recover from stress as well. So, as your critical threshold for stress moves steadily upward, so does your ability to recover.
The problem is your recovery ability is fluid and unique. How well did you sleep last night? How much protein did you eat? How’s your work life? How’s your marriage? What other hobbies do you have that tax your ability to recover? Sometimes it seems as if almost everything you do will draw on your overall recovery capacity. No two people will experience or react to the same stress in the same way. So, at the upper end of our training zone, we have to explore your ability to recover and be on the lookout for signs of excessive accumulated stress.
Fortunately, overtraining is not a problem for novices or even most intermediate lifters. Productive training stress isn’t like walking a tightrope. You aren’t either training just enough or too much. For novices, the zone is broad enough to not be of much concern unless the lifter has a significant amount of training history to draw from. Then, they are a conditional novice, but even then proper management of the novice program is preventative. The zone narrows as you become more advanced. The margins for improvement are narrow at the expense of a lot of training stress and both the ability and the risk of overshooting is possible for advanced lifters. You are working very hard for relatively small gains, you are strong enough and well-trained enough to exceed your own levels of tolerance.
For non-competitive lifters, the dangers of overtraining come from the recovery side, rather than the stress side, of training. We talked about this a little bit regarding the danger of “Burnout” with training. When you have outside or unproductive stress that affects your ability to recover from training stress you run the risk of physical and mental exhaustion.
Fortunately, a training log and a little bit of information can help you adjust as you observe possible issues. There are physical and psychological symptoms of overtraining that you should watch out for, especially if life outside of training has changed significantly. Below are a few recognized symptoms of overtraining. You should note, however, that each of these can come from other underlying issues that may require professional medical help:
- Increased resting heart rate: Some sources indicate that a prolonged increase of 5 beats per minute in your resting heart rate, is a typical sign of overtraining.
- Unexplained weight loss: For the competitive lifter who pays close attention to what she eats, unexplained weight loss is a sign that your body is no longer reacting to the stress of training in a predictable manner and can be a sign of overtraining.
- Prolonged or excessive thirst: Changes in your nighttime fluid consumption. And a lack of perspiration during workouts when you usually would sweat a lot are changes that should be noted.
- Alteration of sleeping patterns: Disruption of normal sleep can be both a cause and a symptom of overtraining.
- A “general psychological malaise”: It takes a lot of drive and passion to get to the competitive stage of lifting. If you are suddenly unable to maintain your training schedule or exhibiting apathy toward your strength training, this is a sign that all is not well. (Johnson, Thiese, “A Review of Overtraining Syndrome Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms,” Journal of Athletic Training Vol 27, No.4 (1992))
The best way to treat overtraining is through prevention. Minimum Effective Dose changes to your program over time are a great preventative measure because they keep from changing too many variables or changing the overall stress of your program suddenly and in ways that you cannot handle. If you have experienced recent increases in unproductive stress, however, and then exhibit the signs above, NOW is a good time to talk to your coach or self-assess whether your training is helping or hurting your adaptation to the stress you are experiencing.
Follow your own progress and identify when you may or may not be crossing into levels of stress that you aren’t able to handle. More is not always better. Stress increases over time, but you need to be conscious of those increases, measure and observe them and make good, minimum effective dose, changes along the way.
 Practical Programming notes another situation of acute overload: Previously trained athletes returning from a layoff:
“Athletes with even an intermediate training history have developed a neuromuscular system that is far more efficient than that of an untrained individual; this athlete can still recruit a high percentage of his available motor units, although they are not prepared to be used very hard. . . . Extreme cases of soreness, to the point of loss of function, disability, or even rhabdomyolysis . . . can and certainly do occur.”