When your progress in the gym stagnates and your performance starts to decline, your first instinct is to go harder or do MORE. Depending on your situation, that may be the answer, but oftentimes it's counterproductive.
The plateau or drop in performance may be because you've already pushed too hard and need to back off to let your body recover. When you push your body for too hard and too long, it's not just a matter of you getting tired physically and mentally. You put yourself in a suboptimal situation for growth adaptation.
Positive adaptation occurs when optimal stress is coupled with adequate recovery from that stress. A large imbalance between those two and you encounter issues. This study (although performed with rats) shows the effect of overreaching or overtraining and its repercussions on muscular adaptations.
A group of 9 male rats underwent 12 weeks of resistance training. They had them bench press, squat, and deadlift. Okay, just kidding. A weight vest was attached to them while they were in a bucket of water. They pushed off the bottom to the top of the water a bunch of times.
They used a load volume that was 15% more than was previously found to be optimal for hypertrophy (muscle gains) in rats and trained five days a week.
In short, the researchers overtrained the rats and then compared them to a sedentary group of rats. They measured their limb muscle cross-sectional area, IGF-1, MyoD, myogenin, and MAFbx. IGF-1, myogenin, and MyoD are anabolic. MAFbx is catabolic.
Bodyweight was significantly lower in the trained rats. Cross-sectional area of the plantaris muscle was significantly lower in the training group compared to the sedentary group. MyoD, myogenin, and IGF-1 all were significantly lower in the training group compared to the sedentary group. MAFbx was significantly greater in the training group than the sedentary group.
What This Means to You
The rats lost size in the muscle that was being trained. Overall they were catabolic based on the lower expression of MyoD, myogenin and IGF-1, as well as increased MAFbx.
Although this study was performed on rats, here are a couple ways to make sure you don't end up like an overtrained and undergained rat:
Be honest with yourself when evaluating if you're heading down the road of overtraining. For most dedicated lifters, when progress slows or performance begins dropping, the answer most likely isn't "do more." It's probably "do less."
The signs are usually pretty obvious. The story usually goes like this: abnormal or extra work or life stress, less sleep than usual (or chronically under-sleeping), and training hard everyday. Poor nutrition also ends up falling somewhere in that storyline too. These are all extra stressors. If your body passes that optimal amount of stress for growth that you're able to recover from, you get diminishing progress.
Know When to Back Off
Constantly pushing the limits affects more than just your energy level and arousal for workouts. If your hormones and protein expression turn to more catabolic than anabolic, you stagnate or go backwards, as in the case of the rats.
Working out should provide stresses that allow the hormones and genes to work synergistically for progression and muscle building. When you start overtraining, they no longer work synergistically and lose effectiveness. The harmonious balance of stress-to-adaptation turns to stress and maladaptation. If you get to this point you needed to deload a while ago.
Sometimes physically doing less work makes for mentally harder work. But if you're dedicated to progress and are heading down the road of overreaching and overtraining, easing up a bit until you bounce back may be your best option.
- Alves Souza, RW, Aguiar, AF, Vechetti-Juunior, IJ, Piedade, WP, Rocha Campos, GE, and Dal-Pai-Silva, M. Resistance training with excessive training load and insufficient recovery alters skeletal muscle mass–related protein expression. J Strength Cond Res 28(8): 2338–2345, 2014