How hard should we train (Part 2)

This is the question on everybody’s lips, are we doing enough? Are we doing too little? Could we be doing better? In some ways the answer is simple, in others it gets a bit deeper & definitely takes some longer-term monitoring to figure out. Think of this as a complex thing to work out as it is multi-factorial, but not necessarily complicated when you know enough.


Learning outcomes: Understand some practical ways of getting a grasp on whether how hard we are training is too little, too much or appropriate.


So, as a bit of a re-cap from the last article, we can now (potentially) think a little more conceptually about how hard we need to train. We know understand that it likely changes at different time points, between people & for different goals. The answer though is always going to be, hard enough. With hard enough being not really that hard at times, & at other times being as hard as we can (& sometimes so hard it becomes unsustainable).


I now want to expand into this article on how we can potentially monitor whether we are training hard enough, too hard, or just right (this article will cover too hard).


Broadly, when trying to establish how whether our training is appropriately hard, what we are looking to do so is to determine two things:


1.     Based on where I am at in my training, is my level of fatigue as expected?


2.     Am I making progress towards my goal at a rate that is to be expected?


These two statements are not easily measured (depending on your goal).


If we are talking about tracking progress in muscle gain, we can use pictures, we can use measurements, we can use performance & we can even use scans such as DEXA, but we must understand that these all come with their own margins for error.


When it comes to fatigue, again we can use various markers, we can rate muscle soreness, desire to train, RPE, performance etc. but again, these all come with their own margins for error & alone are undesirably inaccurate measures to stand by. We must use the strengths that each one has combined, rather than as a standalone, if we want to get the best picture of the situation.


In regards to the point above, the accuracy at which we want to ensure we are progressing towards our goals, will likely depend on the magnitude of our goals. For a competitive athlete, it is of the upmost importance to measure progress, & make sure that the training & nutritional protocol they are adhering to is as close to ideal as we can realistically expect. If you are a recreational gym goer, with very little experience, & goals that are lower down in the list of life’s priorities, you may not need this level of detail, & just keeping a very broad picture of hard enough in mind, so that your time in the gym at least brings you some benefit, is likely to be enough.


Back to the topic at hand. I am going to discuss in more detail some expectations & fluctuation, in the two seemingly important questions we need to ask to get a track of whether we are training appropriately hard. Those two questions were based on trying to objectively determine our levels of fatigue relative to our expectations, & our rate of progression in relation to our expectations. This article in its entirety is not enough to discuss every single nuance of this topic, & is out of its scope, but I am going to try to discuss & expand on them in a way that should allow you to hopefully extrapolate (tentatively, with the understanding of probability & with an open mind) to other related areas.


-       Signs we are training too hard


As a preface, fatigue is multi-faceted, & comes about from lots of different inputs. Stress is stress, & if a stressor is large enough, or cumulative enough, it causes fatigue that affects all the things we are about to discuss. As stated before, monitoring fatigue must be done so with the understanding that fatigue can be caused by stressors that lie outside of those that benefit our goals (of muscle & strength gain). In an ideal situation, to attain the highest net progress, we would minimise all external stressors, only sleeping, eating, & relaxing in between bouts of overloading training. This would theoretically allow us to have as little negative effect from external/non-specific stress as possible. We understand this is not possible for 99% of the population (if not more), so this section is to be read with this underlying understanding & not to be taken without this added for context.


Getting back to the question at hand. As stated previously, we should by now understand that we expect our levels of fatigue to fluctuate over time, based on where we are at in our training. When I say ‘where we are at in our training’, I mean, how our training has progressed since we last took dedicated time to reduce all/most of our accumulated fatigue (a deload or maintenance phase). This ‘progression’ of training relative to our last dedicated rest, includes how much volume we are doing now vs. then, the intensity of load & effort we are using now, how often we are varying exercises, how aggressively we are accumulating/progressing etc. I’m going to use a common programming style/methodology to illustrate the points above a little better, & allow us to discuss to things you may practically see.


A common programming style we like to use with some of our clients (not all, there will always be need for variation between people), is classical block style programming, with a dedicated accumulation period & then a deload/recovery period after this has concluded. The accumulation period consists of overloading training on average, that should incrementally progressively overload the individual over its time course. The deload/recovery period would comprise of minimal levels of training stress, which are enough to maintain our current level of adaptation whilst allowing accumulated fatigue from overloading training to reduce to minimal levels.


An accumulation will classically last for anywhere between 3 to 8 weeks (usually around 4 to 6 for most individuals, with the goal of improving their physique at a beyond novice level of advancement). As this accumulation period is comprised of overloading training, it must generate fatigue as a result. The amount of cumulative fatigue we have ‘onboard’ (colloquially termed) tends to rise with the progression of training variables. As this cumulative fatigue continues to rise, we will eventually get to a point (how quickly will depend on the individual, progression model etc.) at which fatigue accumulates to a level that overload that surpasses the prior week/s of training is no longer possible, & thus we have reached the appropriate time to deload.


A deload is important at this time, as it is a period of reduced stress from training (& potentially nutrition if you are in an energy deficit). This deload period, as stated previously, should function to allow the accumulated fatigue from the prior hard weeks of training ,to reduce to a low enough level so that the adaptations made during the prior hard weeks of training can be manifested, & applied in your next block of training. This is vital to being able to continue to produce harder & harder blocks of training on average, which will be the only way we can continue to get better in the long term. Deloads also function to manage fatigue in a way that it reduces our risk of injury/overuse as well.


As you can see, there are two distinct parts of block style programming. To make progress, we must first put in hard work, that is hard enough to cause disruption, to a level that the body needs to adapt, to reduce the affects of this stressor if it were repeated. This training, as a result of the short term adaptations that occur, must continue to get harder over time. Secondly, there must be a period of recovery/restitution that allows us to manifest the results of our hard work. This happens as a two part thing, firstly, the rest allows fatigue to reduce to a level that our absolute abilities to perform are ‘revealed’, & secondly it frees up recovery reserves (that would normally be spent on recovering from the weeks hard training) to support adaptations, & as a result, we have improved.


Now we will use this little bit of understanding around what we are looking to achieve in a training block, we are going to discuss some of the issues that may arise from inappropriate accumulation of fatigue. I will start this by saying, for the majority of people, airing on the side of a little bit easy is likely going to be the best start point, as you can always add on & you aren’t risking your long term progress as much as if you were to overdo it (although most people don’t tend to) & put yourself at higher risk for injury.


·      Accumulating too much fatigue too quickly


As mentioned prior, we are looking to produce blocks of training on average that  between 3:1 & 8:1 accumulation:deload paradigms (meaning accumulate for 3 to 8 units of time & deload for 1, with units being microcyles/weeks in most cases). The length of your accumulation is likely going to be related to a few factors. Some of those include, training age (newer individuals tend to be able to accumulate for longer productively without deloading vs. more advanced athletes all else held the same), gender (females tend to not accumulate fatigue at the same rate as males do on average), life stress (individuals with high external stress from work, family etc. will have to deload more frequently, as they will reach their ceiling for stress much earlier than those with more relaxed a lifestyle), progression size week to week (those that are much more aggressive with their progression from week to week will not be able to do so for as long as those with a conservative approach) & progression type (depending on what variable you are primarily progressing, will depend on how much fatigue rises through the weeks, with volume biased progressions i.e. increasing set numbers primarily, being more fatiguing as a general rule vs. intensity or load based progressions).


Example situation: What would you say about the training of a novice female lifter,  with little to no external life stress having to deload in week 3 of their accumulation, as their performance has dropped off significantly?


As long as there are no significant programming errors or life changes, this is likely a case of accumulating fatigue too quickly, & thus applying too much stress via training in too concentrated a time scale. Broadly, this is how we determine whether we are accumulating fatigue too quickly. The question we are asking is, “Are we having to deload much more frequently than we expect based on our rational expectations?” If the answer is yes, we are likely training too hard.


What markers can we use to determine fatigue, or put differently, how recovered we are?


·      Performance – This is going to be our main objective marker of recovery. As per its definition, recovery is the return to baseline performance/conditions specificed by a particular time scale (in our case a useful time scale is the next time we repeat this workout). If our performance is significantly dropping, we are accumulating fatigue at a rate that is faster than we can recover from in that time period, & thus we can’t realistically continue to overload. Remember though, that performance is multi-faceted. It’s not just load. It encompasses sets, repetitions, load, rating of perceived effort, range of motion, bar speed & potentially more.


Understand that these variables are all relative to each other, i.e. if you increase load, then repetitions will likely have to come down, all else being the same. This also means that if you’re technique was shit before, & you get a good coach to look at it & tweak it, you may have to reduce the load on the bar or how many repetitions you are performing. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are regressing though. It’s important to understand, that load on the bar is not synonymous with tension on our target muscle.


When it comes to progression throughout a block of training, we are likely looking to expect for most intermediate level lifters & above, to maintain performance across. This doesn’t mean that we are doing the same thing every week, it just means that we are increasing load, sets, repetitions etc. & we are only able to do this because our level of effort is increasing over time, which is important to understand as we have to leave enough room in our abilities to realistically push harder in the coming week/s.


Beyond beginner levels of advancement, we are looking to overload from block to block on average, not just week to week. This means that we start blocks with slightly elevated performance, & finish with new highs. We cannot really expect to just hit personal bests every week, otherwise, we really aren’t at the level of advancement we think we are.


Performance does seem to be one of the main correlatives of fatigue. It’s pretty simple, if you are continuing to perform better (based on your expectations of improving) week on week, you’re not too fatigued & can continue to train as you are. This progression is also an indicator that you are training hard enough, as you are making progress as expected, thus training is appropriately overloading, & continuing to progress.


What can be useful are some assistance markers that will allow us to pre-empt or get an idea on whether our fatigue is rising outside of performance (there’s no real way to differentiate which of these markers of fatigue rise first & which rise later, it is just good to keep tabs on them). This is because we don’t necessarily just wait for performance to drop off, & then deload, as discussed previously, lots of different factors can contribute to cumulative fatigue, so we want to be able to tell if we aren’t applying recovery modalities correctly, or if it is simply training is beyond our capabilities.


Some surrogate markers that our fatigue is high & training is starting to get on top of us are the following:


·      Motivation to train & diet (higher levels of fatigue/stress lead to < levels of motivation relative to normal)

·      Flexibility & technique abilities (higher levels of fatigue/stress lead to < ability to perform technique to your normal standards & also use your normal range of motion)

·      Feelings of fatigue/lethargy (the relationship here is obvious)

·      Resting pulse (higher levels of fatigue lead to > resting heart rate)

·      Mood state (as fatigue increases our ability to ‘tolerate’ life stressors diminishes & we can become snappy & ‘feel’ more stressed than usual)

·      Irregular weight fluctuations (it seems that as fatigue & stress rise so too does the amount of water retention under the layer of our skin, making us feel bloated or a bit soft in some cases, although these seems to be much more anecdotal than evidenced by research)


Whilst useful, these are all quite blunt markers of fatigue & are subject to day to day changes. A lot of them can also be subjective in nature, so that is something we must contend with. What is of relief, is that they can be used together to get a better picture of your current state, averaged out over time. Example, if your motivation to train has been lacking for more than 1 week & for the same period of time your technique has been feeling progressively worse & your weight is fluctuating more than you’d expect, you may want to look at when the last time you de-loaded was, or whether you are applying recovery modalities as well as you could be (sleep, nutrition etc.).


Remember back to the two-factor model diagram that showed, fitness, fatigue & preparedness. The diagram showed a steady incline in both fitness & fatigue until a point at which fitness flat lined & fatigue over took it. This diagram doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story when it comes to fatigue. What really happens is that fatigue rises after we train & in the following days it drops until we become recovered. The harder we train at any one time, the higher the levels of fatigue rise, & the longer they take to return to baseline.


 If we are training the same muscle groups at recommended frequencies of 2 x per week or more, most individuals (beyond novices) will not fully recover from an overloading session before they have to train the same muscle group again. There will be a residual amount of fatigue present, not enough to prevent another overload, but enough to be significant & start to cumulate. What ends up happening is that week on week this amount of residual fatigue left over accumulates, leading to that residual fatigue eventually being ‘too much’, so as we cannot produce a training bout that is overloading, & thus training is no longer productive.


For individuals who are late beginner/intermediate, we are looking to coincide those final weeks with new personal bests in performance (sets, reps, load etc.) to continue to produce significant overloads over time. This is just theory from me, but it seems reasonable that combining progressive overload on average (each block for example) with progressive overloads at our peak, would lead to our best gains (that is if you subscribe to gym performance being the most effective proxy for muscle gain).


Why is this important? If we want to reach these new heights, the start of our block must be both in touching distance of the heights we want to achieve in our final weeks, & at the same time not so close that the first weeks of our block become unsustainable too quickly to actually reach these new peaks of performance.


If we balance these two, we can make reasonable weekly progressions that lead to these new heights. This means that if we train too hard, too early, we cannot accumulate for long enough to be able to reach these heights, & there is no real way around this issue of accumulating fatigue too early. If we try to come out of a deload & hit new personal bests to reach new peaks, we miss out on the average overload of a 6-week period. What will happen is we will overreach & accumulate fatigue way too quickly training like this, leading to 1 to 2 week accumulations for every week of deload. This is an issue because if you remember, there seems to be a benefit on both progressing our peak performances (within some constraints) as well as our average workload (again within constraints) over time.


Ask yourself the question, what is going to be more beneficial, 48 weeks of appropriately overloading training with around 6 weeks of deloading per year, OR, 30 weeks of your hardest training & 22 weeks of deloading?


I think I’d prefer the former vs. the latter.


This is where we conclude this part of this series. In the next part of the series we will be discussing determining whether we are training too easy, some of the implications & determining whether our level of progression is appropriate.


As always, we hope you enjoyed this article, & would love feedback on it if you have any thoughts or questions on the topic.


Thank you for supporting us by reading & spreading our content, we are ever grateful.



Aaron Brown