One of the characteristics of the training of higher-level athletes is an increase in the volume of training. This principle applies to almost all aspects of training. A recreational athlete who starts a jogging program can improve their mile time by jogging a mile a day, several times a week – to a point. A beginner in the weight room can improve their bench press max by using a 3x5 program twice a week – to a point. Eventually both the runner and the weight trainee will have to increase the amount of work they do if they want to continue producing personal bests. The question is, how do you know when you are doing too much and reaching a point of overtraining?
Before discussing several practical ways to monitor overtraining, I need to discuss the other major component of training: intensity. As volume is a measure of how much work is performed, intensity is a measure of how hard someone is working. Using our two examples, a distance runner can increase the intensity of their training by running faster, and a weight trainee can increase the intensity of their training by lifting heavier weights in relation to their one-repetition maximum (1RM). Although intensity plays a role in overtraining, I’ve found that it’s the volume of training that tends to be more responsible for overtraining, more so that intensity. Overtraining by intensity is hard to do, as the nervous system will simply shut down the recruitment of the motor units. Doing too many sets at a given intensity is what is going to get your in trouble.
When designing in-season workouts, one of the most common ways that strength coaches try to prevent overtraining is by reducing the intensity of the training. Going on, as they say, maintenance cycle. One of the characteristics of a maintenance cycle in weight training is to lift lighter weights, usually in the 70-80 1RM range. My response to this approach is, “Why train your body to be weak?” An athlete’s strength will decrease, their performance will suffer, and they will increase their risk of injury. In fact, a colleague of mine told me that about 20 years ago the head football coach of one Division 1 college program told his players that in-season training was optional; that season the team suffered 11 ACL injuries!
Rather than training lighter, my approach is to simply do fewer sets but still go heavy. What you’ll find by doing this is that, provided the athlete has a base of sufficient volume, they will be able to increase their strength levels during the season. Such an approach will be especially apparent during the playoffs, and at times will enable teams that had less talent than their competition at the beginning of the season to have an edge when it matters most. This approach also works with aerobic endurance. Supported by a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1982, an athlete can significantly reduce their training volume but still maintain their aerobic capacity (VO2 max) for several months as long as their intensity level is at a high level.
After looking at overall program design, the next step would be to look at ways to monitor training during workouts. The most practical method to do this is weight training is called the critical drop-off point, a method espoused by most elite coaches, like the elite track coach Charlie Francis. Francis believed that a coach should never increase the quantity of a stimulus to an athlete at the expense of quality. As such, when Francis trained a sprinter, if he noticed that the quality of the workout was declining (i.e., the athlete was running slower), he would stop the training session as the workout was only taxing the athlete’s recovery ability and providing no useful training stimulus. Another way to explain it came elite swimming coach Paul Bergen: garbage mileage equals garbage results.
In weight training, the critical drop-off point occurs when the resistance must be reduced to the point where there is insufficient tension on the muscle to elicit strength gains, such that the only lower threshold motor units are stimulated. The accumulative effect of continuing such a workout is that excessive strain is placed on the nervous system, energy stores and neuroendocrine response.
The threshold for the critical drop-off point in maximal strength training is a 5-7 percent drop in performance. The 5-7 percent translates into have to reduce the load by an equivalent percentage to maintain a selected rep range, or by not being able to perform the repetition range. For example, let’s say on a Monday workout an athlete could bench press 100 kg for 5 sets of 4-6 reps. On Thursday the same athlete performs the first set of 100 kg for 6 reps, but on the second set only manages 3 reps. That athlete reached the critical drop-off point of the exercise, which indicates it’s time to terminate the exercise and move on to another exercise.
Practical Methods to Monitor Overtraining
In addition to careful program design, and monitoring workouts with the critical drop-off point, an athlete needs to take steps to determine if they are entering an overtrained state. The key here is that these steps must be practical – drawing blood on a daily basis and taking it down to the local sports medicine laboratory for analysis is not practical. Examples of popular methods used to determine overtraining is monitoring an athlete's appetite (such that a decrease in appetite is a sign of overtraining by volume), altered sleep patterns (such that you feel you can’t get enough of it), and monitoring an athlete’s mood. On this last point, monitoring an athlete’s mood is better than any hormonal parameter because the nervous system reaches overtraining well before there are any indications of muscular overtraining. All these suggestions are fine, but I believe the best and most practical methods to determine if an athlete is overtrained is to test morning grip strength or their vertical jump.
To test your grip strength you need a dynamometer, a hand-held device that measures gripping strength; it is often used in the medical field to evaluate individuals suffering hand dysfunction. However, grip strength is tied into the condition of the central nervous system, and as such the device is ideal for determining if an athlete is overtrained.
You must perform the test in exactly the same manner every time to get an accurate measurement. For example, the nervous system is more strongly activated from a standing position than a seated. You can test this fact by gripping the dynamometer from a seated position and then do the same test from a standing position – you’ll find that no matter what position you use, you will get a higher measurement gripping the device from a standing position.
To perform the test, stand up and grasp the dynamometer in your dominant hand -- if you’re right handed, this means you would hold it in your right hand. Move your right leg back slightly, and lift your dominant hand over your head to extended arms, in line with your head. Squeeze the device as hard as possible and, keeping your arm straight, slowly lower your arm – when your arm is parallel to the floor your measurement should be the highest.
How to you evaluate the results? First, you need to establish baseline levels. This requires the athlete to use the device during periods during the year when they are not in a period of hard training. Let’s say that an athlete has a baseline grip strength of 40 kilograms of force. A dramatic decrease in strength, such as the same athlete producing only 37 kilos of force, suggest that this athlete’s nervous system is overtrained. In this sense, a critical drop-off point for grip strength can be determined with a dynamometer.
Another test for central nervous system recovery is the vertical jump, as jumping ability is also an indicator of the condition of the central nervous system. As with the grip test, normative data must be established and the test should be standardized. If an athlete is at home, the most practical test is a Sargent Jump Test, which involves placing chalk on your hands and seeing how high you can leave a mark on a wall. I prefer a system where vertical slabs of wood of decreasing length are suspended with nylon strings from an horizontal. Since you how far the slab is from the ground, and each one has a different color,you can immediately access if your vertical jump is regressing.
For both the grip and vertical jump test, it’s best to test in the morning when the athlete is fresh. If not, testing an athlete before a workout is the next best option.
Trying to bring an overtraining athlete back to optimal condition is extremely difficult and can take a considerable amount of time. A better option is to avoid overtraining altogether by carefully planning your workouts, using the principle of the critical drop-off point, and use either grip testing or vertical jump testing to monitor an athlete’s condition.