‘Training balance’ is not only the skill of standing on one leg, walking across a plank, or better yet doing these with your eyes closed; its one’s ability to operate a balanced training regime. So what is the relationship between work and rest and the premise of overtraining?

Firstly, I think it is important to understand what is happening to your muscles when you exercise. During any exercise you are putting your muscles under a degree of stress. When you lift, or for that matter, ‘stress’ any muscle under non-familiar movement, you cause micro-tears in the muscle fibers (for related reading check out the sliding filament theory and the structure of skeletal muscle). The largest causes of such micro-tears are found to be during the eccentric phase of a movement (downward motion) i.e. running down-hill, squats, slowing the bench press in the eccentric movement stage (returning to your chest). Such tears can be somewhat likened to pulling apart dough; while it remains connected the muscle (or dough) under stress has developed lots of little tears within its fibers.

No pain, no gain…. sound familiar? If understood correctly it can be the making of some people’s performance gains and for others it can be their complete deterioration. It is important for people to stress their muscles in order to grow them. The pain that people experience is known as DOMS – delayed onset of muscle soreness. While the exact science is not fully clear, it’s related to the break down of our muscles equating in muscle tears, caused by putting our body under stress. From this moment an inflammatory response endures, causing a small bleed in the muscle aggravating the body’s nerves, subsequently causing pain. DOMS – muscle pain and stiffness typically lasts 12-72 hours post exercise.

Common mistakes are people hitting the gym and believing that DOMS are something you should only experience weeks 1 & 2 of your fitness journey and never again, or you are ‘unconditioned and weak’. As we said above, muscle under stress causes micro-tears, and it is these tears that allow for a greater build-up of our muscles in our repair and recovery stage i.e. you want to be partially unconditioned to your movements to promote greater muscle tears, to allow for greater growth and recovery. We can say, muscle under tension leads to more muscle tears; more tears lead to larger recovery and rebuilding, and so larger muscle gain. Many people feel they plateau in their fitness journey way before they are even close. Remember the body is great at adaptation, and if you continue to go to the gym and do the same routine with only very small variations; should that be small variances in weight or reps, its unlikely that you will be stressing the body enough to cause any major increase in performance, size or endurance – you will simply become conditioned to your movement.  

Another common mistake is people who are completely unconditioned to do so hit the gym 5-6 times a week after their first 6 months in fitness. Typically these are individuals who are already leading a stressful lifestyle working 40-60 hours a week in the office, and are known as weekend warriors. They are observed to only stress their bodies even further and are unknowing to the fact that they are not actually eradicating the stress they really think they are. Their bodies initial reaction to this is to adapt to the increased demands releasing increased adrenaline and cortisol in an attempt to manage the increased stress levels. Typically, at this stage they would tell you they are feeling great for the next two weeks and say things like ‘yeahhh man I feel like I can just go go go!’, next thing you know they are suddenly hit by an injury or complete body fatigue. It’s usually these individuals who are experiencing the deterioration phase of ‘no pain no gain’. Probably more accurate to say, ‘much pain, no gain’ and a great examples of over-training.

So if it’s not clear as of yet, I should mention it’s important to maintain balance within the demands of your life’s activities. It’s these weekend warriors who are commonly misled by ‘all the gains are made in the gym’ and this is not true, this is probably a good descriptor or precursor for over-training. Muscle size, enhancement, performance, endurance or whatever you are aiming to achieve, is actually achieved during the rest and recovery stages of muscle growth. The body under stress enables the break down of the muscle fibers, which is only made stronger or repaired faster through post-workout fuel, a balanced diet and plenty of sleep.

Who successfully trains 5/6 times a week and twice a day… pro-athletes, and I can tell you that all they are doing is eating, sleeping and training - the word successfully is also somewhat questionable. Their life expectancy is often not as high as one might expect, and the results they push to achieve can see some of them greatly deteriorating before even becoming an OAP (old age pensioner) and for some, booking an early appointment with the funeral director!

Ideally, fitness enthusiasts should be looking to achieve ‘true health’ through their movement, food and living all under a balanced regime – those who do not, are usually motivated by other underlying factors: money, fame, or losing 30 kg in two weeks flat. Their lifestyles are typically unsustainable and cause hindrance to their health in the long-term.

So how can you be sure your not over-training, and operating a balanced training regime? Below are a few guidelines:

  • If you are completely new to fitness i.e. first timer, train every other day with an extra day off during the week.
  • If you are somewhat conditioned i.e. trained previously maybe had a break, or been training for 6-12 months or more, start easy and / or, train no more than three days without one full day rest before resuming.
  • If you are conditioned greater than this and wondering what’s next; this article should not be news to you!
  • Keep your training to one hour, unless you are experienced and conditioned to do more.
  • Ensure you are sleeping adequately each night 7-9 hours a night.
  • Ensure you are eating a healthy balanced diet to meet the demands of your training regime – remember your training is surplus to your day-to-day activities.
  • Record your workouts – not just how heavy you lifted, but your mood post and pre workout, your energy levels and any signs of fatigue or injury.
  • If ever in doubt then seek professional advice and partake in private training!  

 - Coach Lloyd