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Is overreaching hurting your strength and muscle gains

Training for strength, power, and hypertrophy is an intricate balance of exertion, recovery, and consistency. While training hard is essential, it's crucial to always consider the implications of each individual session within the long-term progress and overall muscle growth picture. With this in mind, let's look at your training program and whether you might be overtraining or under recovering.

Training sessions are like bricks in a wall

Imagine that your year of training in the gym is like you have built a wall with bricks. Each workout is an individual brick.

  • If you train 3 times a week, that's about 150 sessions or "bricks" in a year.
  • Each session/brick contributes 0.67% to your year's total training.
  • Say you miss one session, you still have 99.33% of your brick training wall intact.

The mortar that binds these bricks is your recovery.

Just as well-distributed mortar between the bricks is crucial for a wall's integrity, recovery periods between sessions are vital for training consistency and progress.

Two brick walls one clean - representing a good VBT training plan, the other messy representing low performance training
Which wall better represents your training year?

The balancing act

While it's tempting to give 100% effort and go all-in on each session, we can’t let the over investment in one of the bricks in the wall outweigh the overall integrity of the wall as a whole.

It’s essential to consider the bigger picture of your training week/month/year as you go about each session individually.

The impact of overreaching on your training week

Over time, consistent training to failure leads to an accumulation of stress and residual fatigue.

Continuing with the example of training three times a week, we have an average of 55 hours of recovery between sessions, which might seem like plenty of time for recovery, but not if your exertion levels are too high and you take things to the point of failure.

55 hours is plenty of time for the muscles to recover, but for a nervous system that has just been pushed to its absolute limit, 55 hours falls short of the 72-96 hours needed for full recovery of strength and power capacity.

As a result, fatigue will accumulate across the training week, and instead of supercompensating and hitting each workout in slightly better physical shape than we did last session, we hit that workout in a state of chronic fatigue - leading to worse performance and even more accumulated fatigue.

Fatigue accumulates in an expoential way the closer you train to the point of failure with each set. As measured in RPE or velocity loss
Velocity loss and RPE scale with the effect that set has on the amount of stress and fatigue created in training

Train hard and train smart

One strategy would be to reduce training frequency down to 2.5 sessions weekly, creating 70+ hours of recovery between workouts. That might look like the following:

  • Train to failure in some fashion every workout, hitting an average of 9.0/10 exertion.
  • Let’s say you can just keep up with the strain thanks to the extra recovery time so you arrive at every training session just recovered, with a capacity of 100.1% (on average) compared to the session before.
  • Hit 93% of your planned workouts for 117/125 total bricks in the wall.
  • Finish the year at 112% of where you started.

This doesn’t sound like much fun to me, and given you are getting slightly worse every session, and that is assuming you can keep up with this gruelling schedule (most research says you can’t, and also says you will hate it too).

I think we can do better.

Instead, let’s find an approach where you can train more frequently, but train a little smarter. Consider this high-performance program instead:

  • Leave a little in the tank each session, working short of failure most workouts, aiming for an 8.0/10 average exertion.
  • With less strain, this program has you arrive at every training session just a tiny bit better recovered than the full exertion program, with a capacity of 100.2% (on average) compared to the session before.
  • Hit 140/150 sessions a year also building 93% or more of the wall.
  • Finish the year at 132% of where you started.

Finding a way to train more frequently without burning yourself out is magic here - an extra 20% of compounding gains all thanks to just holding back a tiny bit (8.0 instead of 9.0).

This is while enjoying the training process more (less monotony) and training in a way that is sustainable over the much longer term (we haven’t even talked about injury or wear and tear yet!).

Does overreaching hurt muscle growth?

A prevailing belief in training circles is that training in proximity is essential for achieving significant muscle growth. But is this belief backed by science?

A landmark study by Hickmott in 2022 sheds light on this topic. The findings revealed that when training volume was matched, a 20% velocity loss proved to be just as effective for hypertrophy as going closer to the point of failure with training done above 30% velocity loss. This challenges the widely held notion that training to the point of absolute exhaustion is essential for optimal muscle growth.

I think this highlights the significance of training frequency and the need to prioritise volume in your training ahead of chasing sets that hurt. Remember though, proximity to failure is a continuum, working to 40% velocity loss or 9.5 RPE every session is a low performance strategy for both strength and hypertrophy development, but only ever doing sets with 15% velocity loss or 6.5 RPE is equally ineffective.

Plenty of challenging-but-managable training around 20% velocity loss (8 RPE) seems to be the sweet spot according to Hickmott’s research and many others. Quite conveniently this 20% velocity loss marker also seems to be the sweet spot for developing strength too, and who doesn’t want both?

The long-long game with weight training

I like to hope I will still be lifting weights when I am 80, as a results I am often pretty conservative when it comes to how aggressively I push my training. Sure, I am probably leaving a small amount of gains on the table now while I am in my 30s, but having spent time training with older athletes and mentors two quotes are always in the back of my mind as I carefully warm up and prepare for a training session:

“Under 30 and you are in the free-trial period of your body.” - Dr Mike Young

Train smart, young whippersnappers.

See also how to measure and track exertion: Risk-reward of training to failure →

See also: Training with velocity loss targets →

Metric VBT - Track trends and set velocity loss targets

One of the best ways to better understand proximity to failure and better program your training is with a barbell velocity tracking app or device like Metric VBT.

Metric offers automated trend analysis to see if you are carrying any residual fatigue along with real-time, audible velocity loss feedback to help keep you on target in your training.

You can download Metric VBT and start tracking bar speed for free on iOS →

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References and resources

  • Tufano, JJ, et al. 2016. Maintenance of Velocity and Power With Cluster Sets During High-Volume Back Squats
  • Peterson, 2005. Applications of the Dose-Response for Muscular Strength Development: A Review of Meta-Analytic Efficacy and Reliability for Designing Training Prescription
  • F. Pareja-Blanco et al, 2016. Effects of velocity loss during resistance training on athletic performance, strength gains, and muscle adaptations.
  • Izquierdo-Gabarren et al. 2010. Concurrent endurance and strength training not to failure optimizes performance gains.
  • Gonzalez-Badillo, 2016. Short-term Recovery Following Resistance Exercise Leading or not to Failure.
  • Hickmott L, 2022. The Effect of Load and Volume Autoregulation on Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

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