Overtraining Doesn't Always Produce a Decline in Maximum Strength

Posted on 29 Jan 2009 20:57

Like Ground Up Strength on Facebook

Follow or Subscribe

By Eric Troy


Overtraining as a term is used differently by different physiologists. I think it is important to understand, however, that ‘overtraining’ and ‘overtraining syndrome’ are not the same thing. Overtraining is what you do..the stimulus. Overtraining syndrome is a list of physiological symptoms resulting from that. In other words, it’s manifestations.

This may seem like semantics but I assure you it is not. To illustrate this let’s compare overtraining to a virus. If you know anything about viruses then you’ll know that it is not their intention to produce specific symptoms in a host. It is not their intention to make you sick at all let alone to produce any specific reaction. If they have an intention (which of course they don’t) it would be to magnify themselves. Period.

So with any virus there is a list of general and specific symptoms associated with that virus. You need enough of them and in the right combination to be reasonably certain that you have “VIRUS A”. And even then it’s a crapshoot. Virus A may or may not produce a fever, for example.

The reason I’m making this comparison is because overtraining can be the same. That is why so many trainers make very conservative recommendations for deloading or time off. Just because there is no fever you can’t say for sure it’s virus A. And just because there is not a certain symptom of overtraining syndrome you can’t say it ain’t overtraining.

The funny thing is, due to these and many complications, viruses are rarely DIRECTLY diagnosed. Yet, the average arm-chair trainer feels quite qualified to pin a diagnoses of ‘overtraining’ on a trainee at the drop of a hat.

Overtraining, at least at first, MAY OR MAY not produce a decline in performance. Just like virus A may or may not produce a fever. I’m putting a wrench in things but I’ll try to fish it out as I go.

Nowadays, what we do is use the term overreaching. We use this to define the first stage of overtraining and sometimes to describe overtraining without a performance decline.

This goes back to the beginner, intermediate, etc. thing. I’ve been down on Starting Strength. Well the above is a big part of the reason why. You can open youself up to overtraining and some manifestations of that while “making progress” on a program like SS. Because you can begin to overreach without seeing performance decriments. You can increase load on the bar for a while DESPITE the accumulation of fatigue.

It is not correct to assume that progress means NO fatigue. That’s not how it works. Read my article on fitness-fatigue is you want to know what I mean. “Fitness” can accumulate too. Sometimes by the time ACUTE accumulated fatigue MASKS fitness you find out in unpleasant ways. Like injuries due to technical failure. I’m not trying to be an alarmist or ultra-conservative. In fact I am anything but. I’m just stating the A, B’s, and C’s.

Look at it this way. Doing TOO much TOO soon is a type of overtraining. Most people will accept this without question if you tell them. They may not stop doing too much but they’ll know you’re right. SO, you are going to tell me that we can define how much squatting is too much too soon because we have magically come up with the optimum set/rep range for a general population from which they can “recover” on a workout to workout basis sans “fatigue”. Yeah…

Again, the assumption is that apparent progress indicates recovery. This is not a valid assumption. In fact, poor performance in a resistance training context can manifest as low quality, sluggish and slow lifts or decreased inter-coordination of movement, all while progress as measured by load on the bar increases (although it should be plain to see that these increases will be short lived).

Understanding a bit about Sympathetic Overtraining Syndrome versus Parasympathetic Overtraining Syndrome may help to tease out and make sense of some of that. Basically sympathetic is increased sympathetic activity at rest. Whereas parasympathetic is increased sympathetic activity at rest and with exercise.

1. Baechle, Thomas R.; Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 2nd ed. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics Publishers, 2000.
2. Marcardle, William D.; Katch, Frank I.; Katch, Victor L. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance.4th ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1996.
3. Nieman, David C. Exercise Testing and Prescription: A Health Related Approach. 4th ed. Mountain View, CA.: Mayfield, 1999.

This page created 29 Jan 2009 20:57
Last updated 07 Nov 2015 18:20

© 2017 by Eric Troy and Ground Up Strength. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.