How much can the CNS handle? [Stress]

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Awhile back, when I was talking about heavy daily training, I wrote a post about inflammation and how this contributes to the common feeling of ‘overtraining’ (which is probably better termed ‘staleness’). There’s a lot to be said about this topic. I’ve said a lot already, and there’s still plenty more to go.

Overtraining, overreaching, and the interaction between training and the stress response is a blurry area. Relating wider biological concepts, like stress, to specific instances, like workouts and training schedules, is no easy task. Contrary to popular belief, research doesn’t do that. Virtually all of our knowledge on ‘overtraining’ comes from observations in athletes or inference from neurological or biochemical effects.

The term “CNS fatigue” gets name-dropped plenty, and yet you might be surprised how many people truly don’t understand what that term means. CNS fatigue is not a code-word for feeling bad. Properly called central fatigue, this concept can be defined as a reduction in the output of the motor-control regions in the brain, which causes a reduction in performance.

Any time you move, the brain lights up with nerve impulses generated by chemical activity. A stream of these impulses flows from the brain to the working muscles, causing them to contract. We call this flow of nerve impulses ‘central drive’, which we can measure through various methods of arcane science. After some kinds of intense training, we see that central drive is reduced, causing a kind of fatigue even if the muscles are fine.

Neurologist Simon Gandevia has demonstrated that maximum attempts, in the form of sustained maximum contractions (isometrics) and sub-maximal sets-to-failure, both cause a brief drop in central drive. Training near or at maximum levels of output generates fatigue in the central nervous system, which temporarily reduces central drive and thus strength levels. This also affects speed, power, and fine motor control, which leads to sloppiness in highly technical exercises or movements.

Sports scientist Tim Noakes at the University of Cape Town developed the central governor hypothesis to explain this process. According to Noakes, the central governor is a protective mechanism, integrating numerous signals from the body to ensure that we don’t wreck ourselves during a workout. Feelings of fatigue and discomfort during exercise are part of the governor’s control, a behavioral correction that’s supposed to make you stop when you get near the safety margin.

Rather than maximum central drive, it’s the combined effects of muscular fatigue (including the heart), signals of inflammation, and other feedback systems that cause the brain to regulate physical activity within certain safe boundaries.

Noakes goes as far as to suggest that fatigue may be entirely a sensation or emotion, rather than a physical issue:

Hence the novel suggestion is that the conventional understanding of fatigue is flawed because it makes no distinction between the sensation itself and the physical expression of that sensation which, we suggest, is the alteration in the subconsciously regulated pacing strategy consequent on changing motor unit recruitment/derecruitment by the CNS.

When you become fatigued during exercise, your perceived difficulty increases — this is why RPE scores can so accurately determine how tired we are.

The central governor concept is further supported by Lucile Smith’s cytokine hypothesis of overtraining and the cognitive activation theory of stress (CATS) developed by Ursin and Eriksen at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Smith’s cytokine hypothesis suggests a mechanism for tissue trauma and inflammatory markers to trigger sickness behavior in the CNS. This is strikingly similar to Noake’s suggestion of a psychological, rather than physical, fatigue effect. Signals from the body create a neurological response that corresponds with feelings of fatigue.

Ursin and Eriksen suggest that stress is, in part, due to self-sustaining loops between our thoughts and physical stress systems, feedback loops which can be observed in conditions of chronic fatigue and muscle pain. Patients become used to exhaustion or being in pain all the time, and thus their thoughts become focused on exhaustion and pain. This preoccupation actually sensitizes the neural pathways generating the fatigue effect, so much that focusing on the stress makes the stress worse. Again, neurological functions are correlated with thoughts and feelings.

Given the evidence, it seems the central governor is sensitive to fatigue from both power and endurance activities — and that our conscious thoughts can affect it. The mind-over-matter effect can be positive, as with the placebo effect, or it can be negative as suggested by CATS. Our mental state has a very profound effect on the state of our body, in either case.

There are two issues in question. First, does CNS fatigue occur as an inevitable consequence of heavy, near-maximum lifting? That is, are we seeing the brain ‘get tired’, or are we seeing the central governor respond to stress signals from the body (which include our own mental stress)? Second, even if CNS fatigue is unavoidable, is it really the soul-crushing, career-ending bogeyman it’s made out to be (usually by Hardgainer-influenced thinking)?

Let’s get past the urban legends and forum-knowledge to have a real look.

Overtraining: A (Mostly) Mental Problem

After a very heavy workout — heavy as in using weights very close to maximum or setting a PR — it’s normal to feel exhausted. You might feel wiped out, like a dead battery with no juice left. Usually this happens along with feelings of lethargy and lack of motivation.

You’re most likely to experience this after a competition. Those of you who love to train on stimulants and who constantly try to beat last week’s records will be no stranger to burn-out. There’s no question that training to your absolute max at every opportunity is going to wear you down over time. Zatsiorsky called the burn-out of constant maxing ‘staleness’.

Here we run into a terminology issue. What is a ‘maximum’? The Russians defined a 1RM as your best in competition, the absolute best you could achieve on the platform, with all the stress of being in front of a crowd. By some accounts, ‘meet nerves’ could add a spectacular 10% to a lifter’s numbers.

The Bulgarians used a different definition, calling for the best you can do right now, casually. No getting excited, no adrenaline rush, no elevated heart rate. No sitting in the corner brooding over speed metal for 15 minutes before hitting the lift. You just go do it, calm as you can. If you can’t hit it without getting nervous, it’s over your max for the day by definition.

The difference in the two is so substantial that we distinguish between contest maximums (Cmax) and training maximums (Tmax). The dividing line is apprehension. By getting nervous, we switch on the stress response. By treating the lift as a potential threat (nobody wants to get caught under a max squat or bench), we add a new dimension to the problem.

Zatsiorsky acknowledged that staleness comes about largely due to frequent training with Cmax attempts. In comparison, the Tmax (or daily max) represents far less of a stress. Intriguingly, it doesn’t appear to be the weight that burns you out — rather, it’s your response to the weight.

When you recognize that bar sitting on the floor as a maximum deadlift, you get nervous. Stress systems come online, and the central governor knows something’s happening based on that feedback. But if the stress response never happens, will the governor react the same way?

Say it’s not a PR-attempt, but only a pull at 90% of your best-ever deadlift. You could easily argue that a PR is inseparable from getting nervous. But 90%, you should be able to hit that without getting meet-nerves. Will pulling 90%, calm, have the same effect on the central governor?

The common assumption is that lifting anything heavy-enough causes CNS fatigue. Yet there is virtually no evidence to back that belief. So I ask, why must CNS fatigue result from any heavy attempts? Is there any reason to believe this, besides the inertia of tradition? Why must it be the weight, rather than your psychological response to the weight?

I don’t dispute that a true contest maximum will involve psychological arousal and emotional stress. What I believe is that the arrow of causality is reversed. It isn’t that a new record causes CNS fatigue ipso facto; rather, we can’t separate a maximum performance from our own reactions.

I’m suggesting that, in training, we can separate the psychological stress from the physical stress; and with practice, we can learn to fine-tune our psychological reactions to control the stress response. It’s highly unlikely that central fatigue has an on/off switch, as opposed to a sliding scale. If we can learn to minimize the emotional stress, then we can dramatically reduce both the short- and long-term effects of CNS fatigue.

Adaptation to Adaptation

A beginner’s first week in the gym will be marked by extreme soreness. Because we know that this is a short-term effect which will vanish with a few weeks of consistent training, we tell the beginner to ‘deal with it’. The soreness from an exercise bout is temporary and with training it will diminish.

We understand this with muscle. What is it about the CNS and the stress responses that exclude them from the same thought process? As novel stress becomes familiar, so does its effect. Soreness vanishes after repeated sessions. Why wouldn’t CNS fatigue?

Let’s phrase this differently. When you want to adapt your muscles to training, you train them through a period of discomfort. Would it not stand to reason that if you want a robust CNS, you’d train it through a period of discomfort? We’re big on training the muscles to cope, but at the first sign of troubles with the nervous system we run and hide. Should we not train the nervous system as well?

I’ve recently had the chance to read through lecture notes from Ivan Abadjiev, one-time weightlifting coach for the Bulgarian national team and perhaps most widely known for his training system. With its frequent, maximal lifting, Abadjiev’s approach turns conventional strength-training wisdom on its head — and then kicks it a few times for good measure.

Abadjiev suggests that, with repeated exposures, the lifter’s nervous system and stress-response systems (basically the same thing) become better adapted and more tolerant of CNS fatigue. The lifter becomes more adept at ‘turning it on’ to hit a lift, and then turning it back off.

Abadjiev, unlike most, does suggest that we train the nervous system. I’m convinced he’s on to something.

If Noakes is correct about the central governor, that fatigue sensations are separate from genuine physical fatigue, then claims from John Broz about training through the ‘dark times’ become much more believable. The experiences that some of us have had, becoming more and more tolerant of frequent max attempts (to the point of getting almost addicted to daily maxes), can be seen in a new light.

None of this violates the inviolable sage wisdom of the unquestionable gurus of adaptation. It only suggests the one thing which never occurred to them: causing adaptation of the systems that cause adaptation.

We can separate the psychological feel-bad signals of sickness behavior from the genuine physical fatigue that limits performance. Symptoms we normally associate with ‘overtraining’, feelings of lethargy, insomnia, persistent soreness, and lack of motivation, can be seen as the brain telling you to back off. Orthodox wisdom says this is ‘overtraining’ and that you should rest more.

I say we look at the fatigue sensation as psychological DOMS — the symptoms of staleness are the brain’s equivalent of getting sore after a hard workout. Like muscle soreness, it will diminish with training. Like muscle soreness, we can sometimes train through it. And like muscle soreness, sometimes it adds up and we need to take a week off to refresh.

I don’t think anyone would suggest that you can maintain contest-level performances on a regular basis. I’m certainly not saying that. As there are occasions when you are too sore to walk and you might want to take the day off, there will be instances when you are genuinely too burned-out to lift.

My argument in this post is against the all-or-nothing thinking that says you can never and should never train through fatigue. I was stunned that it had never occurred to me to ask ‘why?’ Why shouldn’t I train through it? Well, everbody knows you’ll overtrain if you do that.

There is no conclusive research against the idea, which means you really have to try it for yourself to see what happens. Hardly anyone actually has tried it for themselves, and yet the orthodoxy is so sure that frequent CNS-adaptive training can’t work. I have to wonder why, because the evidence is all circumstantial.


“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
-Mark Twain

It’s natural to be skeptical of anything flouting the accepted truths. Coming from a more traditional meat-and-potatoes school of thought, hearing that you can thrive by training with maximum lifts every day is like hearing that you can fly by flapping your arms. It just can’t be. Everyone knows that.

Overtraining certainly exists, but the training methods and programming styles that make up the whole of Strength Training Culture will bring you nowhere close to it. What we assume to be ‘overtraining’ is more mythical than real, the teachings of overly-cautious thinkers with more fear than evidence.

My argument comes down to two premises, which I’ll restate here to avoid any confusion:

1. CNS fatigue is not an inevitable consequence of training with near-maximum weights. Psychological arousal is what causes the majority of the ‘overtraining’ symptoms.

If you only trained once a week, you’d expect to get sore after every workout. The CNS reaction is no different, being a kind of ‘mental DOMS’. Training heavy without psychological arousal and learning to be cool under heavy weights causes important adaptations in the nervous system. You can handle heavy lifts without burning yourself out.

2. Feelings of fatigue are separate from genuine physical fatigue. How you feel is a lie, and feeling bad isn’t always an excuse for staying home.

We have a built-in safety margin for performance, and consequently the brain acts to keep us within that boundary to avoid injury. Even though you feel bad, you can still have great workouts. You aren’t ‘overtrained’. While overtraining does exist, it has little to do with short-term feelings of discomfort. Feeling bad, by itself, is not a signal that the body is physically overworked.

The human body doesn’t recover on a workout-to-workout basis, nor is it a fragile antique in grandma’s china cabinet. There is no magical switch that hampers recovery if you train outside your one-hour workout window. You won’t break if you have another workout before you’re ‘fully recovered’. Supercompensation is overrated.

If you look at the origins of the myth, the HIT and Hardgainer schools of thought, they can best be summarized as fear of training hard. You label yourself a genetic handicap and thus have an excuse for failure. Labeling is everything. What you believe about yourself is what you become.

Training through sickness signals doesn’t mean you’ll suffer from overtraining. Believing that you will almost guarantees it. You can literally think yourself into a state of fragility only one set away from collapsing into a pile of rancid overtraining.

I can’t imagine a more poisonous mindset.

Yes, you feel like crap for a few weeks if you train ‘too much’. But you adapt. You get stronger. Work capacity improves. The old cliches about the body — use it or lose it, form follows function — hold true. And since when were we ever guaranteed that lifting weights would be easy and comfortable?

This is not to say that you can step in from day one and squat to a max every day of the week without consequences. Building up the adaptive processes requires time and consistency. You must be patient with your workloads just as you’re patient with strength increases or muscle gains. Even if you aren’t lifting weights every day (and for the record, I think that’s a special case and not a fit for everyone), you can still surprise yourself with what you can handle.

It’s not important to me that I’m ‘right’ about every last piece of trivia. Right is contextual and unimportant. Leave being ‘right’ for the internet experts. Results matter — does it work? Utility matters — can I use this, or any part of this, to improve my own training? From where I stand, the answer to both is ‘yes’.

39 thoughts on “How much can the CNS handle? [Stress]”

  1. Enjoyed this. Nice piece. I'm going to remember all this going forward and try to avoid hitting the "panic button" so much.

  2. Could one of the reasons why deadlifting is generally so taxing be that it is harder to get used to the weight and stay calm when the bar is on the floor? For squats and benches you can wait a few seconds and get used to the weight and calm down because you are shouldering or holding the load. For deadlifts, it is harder to get a feel for the weight, so you have to get a little crazy in order to stay tight enough to get it up off of the floor (at least in my experience).

  3. Really good read.

    Just have one question with regard to the thought of surprising yourself with how much you can handle: from a bb'ing/muscle gain perspective, would it be advantageous to push as far as you can handle rather than just limiting yourself to the old 40-60reps 2x/week? Or is that starting to get away from CNS related fatigue and into muscular fatigue?

  4. That's a good question. I don't think this changes anything from a muscle perspective, as you say you're dealing with tissue-level (peripheral) effects rather than central issues. What I would do for muscle building is try to take a normal weekly volume and spread it out over more workouts — so if you're using the 80-120 reps numbers, then divide that over four, five, or six sessions. Over time, as muscles adapt and grow, you might be able to start gradually increasing the workloads.

    In practical terms I probably wouldn't train that way outside of short specialization cycles for specific parts, or brief loading phases like Costa's Serious Growth workouts (load up for 3 weeks, then take it easy for 2-3 weeks).

  5. The deadlift sits right at the center of several overlapping issues. It starts at the bottom, meaning there's no stretch reflex to get the weight moving up, like in squats or presses. Grip strength is very tied in with inhibitory reflexes in the CNS, so you can actually miss a weight through afferent feedback even if you don't "feel" like your grip was weak. Combine those with the fact that you'll handle very large weights and you wind up with a lift that is challenging in a unique way.

    I think that if you had the patience, you could get good at frequent heavy deadlifting. I know a guy right now who trains them heavy 4-6 days a week, but he's also taken several years to build up to that workload.

  6. Excellent article. The human body is incredible, but the mind is even more so. Simply having the right attitude and mindset about how you train is almost as important as moving the actual weight.

    I've always been one of those traditional thinkers in regard to maxing, but after reading your article, I'm curious to see the results of such training. You back it up with sound logic. How would your recommend actually implementing this though? Do you have a sample workout or how many times a week a certain lift should be done? You mention somebody who deadlifts heavy 4-6 times a week, but how might someone build up to that?

  7. Makes sense, thanks.

    I will experiment with short (3-4week) blocks interspersed into my usual routine. I can see the boost in strength, and just some fun&variety, really helping out.

  8. Really nice post. I've been training >90% of my 1RM on Deadlifts for about 6 months running now, every 7-10 days I pull for 12-15 reps over all. That may comprise of 10 singles and a triple or 5 sets of triples. But I've yet to encounter CNS fatigue.

    I prefer doing low rep work because I feel LESS tired after doing it. If I went into deadlift sessions doing 5×5 it taxes my cardio system incredibly, I have to take long breaks just to get my heart rate back to rest levels and I feel shattered after. The thought of doing 4 sets of 10 reps on squats makes me shudder but keeping reps below 5 feels easier, even though I'm training heavier.

    So I think that it just depends on what you perceive to be difficult. I think training heavy deads is a breeze but doing 10 RFESS is PURE torture.

  9. Matt… I've to tell ya, this is some of your best writing/thinking in my opinion. Great stuff. Question for you that's semi-related:

    How does this tie in with the typical crazy female dieter who sets so many mental hurdles up for herself regarding .25 lbs of weight gain, reaching 1,000 miles of cardio per week, not eating anything "dirty", etc. that she's drowning in anxiety? It would seem that her psychological processes are causing physical stress which makes it a very difficult go at losing fat/weight for whatever reason, have it be reduction in metabolic rate, increased water storage, or whatever.

  10. Good stuff. This topic has always been so confusing and mystifying to me because of all the debate out there. I agree with you though and this makes me less inclined to worry about overtraining. I think it's also highly individual. People will recover at different rates based on multiple factors, including dietary habits, sleep, and recovery methods. I think a lot of hardgainers are inadequate in those departments, so they take longer to recover or just don't reap the benefits of their training, resulting in the CNS/overtraining theory turning into a scapegoat to be avoided at all costs. With better programs and lifestyle habits, like eating better/more, I think these same people would realize better gains and the ability to do more (if they want). For those of us who like and want to do more than suggested 3x/week plans, figure out how your body responds and what it needs and go for it. If it's something you love and it's important to you, do it as much as you can, right?

  11. Absolutely. The CATS stress theory I mentioned has a whole lot to say about how one event can kick-start a vicious cycle of stress disorders. There's a few papers suggesting 'cognitive activation' as a cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, which covers a whole slew of related stress-hormone dysfunctions, including our old friend 'adrenal fatigue'. Some types of personalities, the high-strung nervous anxious types, will be susceptible to this, and there's almost certainly a correlation with individual neurochemistry.

    Either way, stress feeds stress. These people who can't ever 'turn it off' will compound any real physiological problems they might have.

  12. Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University researches 'allostasis', which is how the body keeps itself in a functional comfort zone (allostasis is another way of saying 'stress systems'). When those allostatic systems function poorly, tissue trauma and fatigue start to accumulate. McEwen calls this 'allostatic load'.

    I'll get around to summarizing his points one of these days, but he's published several papers discussing how getting at least eight hours of quality sleep and a good diet are the two most critical factors in reducing allostatic load. If you aren't covering the basics to manage your stress, there's not a lot that MegaPump 5000 and BCAAs, or any workout on the planet, are going to do to help.

  13. Awesome man. Really loving the material lately, especially as it seems like whatever new training process I'm currently playing around with, you write about, hahaha.

    You've previously mentioned Poliquin's idea of accumulation and intensity training, and it got me thinking about your analogy of the body as a sink (water going in is anti-stressors like calories, protein, sleep; water going out is stressors like training). Would improving CNS and work capacity, or as you said "adaptation of the adaptation process" be analogous to increasing the size of the sink? At first increasing the size would make the water in it seem low (accumulation) but once you back-off the stressors (water out) the newly large sink fills with more water, allowing you to use heavier weights (intensity). If this way of thinking is on target, then the bigger sink would allow more stressors before it got depleted, but also more time to recover the water. Or would training the adaptation process be more similar to increasing the diameter of the faucet, allowing more water to flow in? You can handle more stress because your body can add water in faster.

    If that were the case, it would seem similar to the idea that beginners, having a small sink, can deplete it in one workout, but recover it in a day or two. Once into the intermediate phase, the sink has grown and now a larger sink requires more stress to deplete it, but also more time to recover. Training to widen the base of the pyramid, like you're proposing, would be like increasing the amount of water that could be added back in. Not sure if this part applies, just thinking out loud.

    The stuff you write about is pushing the boundaries in the weight lifting world. Keep it up man.

  14. "We have a built-in safety margin for performance, and consequently the brain acts to keep us within that boundary to avoid injury."

    This is the other side of the coin. The Russians never thought that daily maxes couldn't work, they just didn't like the injury rates. The Bulgarians could (originally) toss their injured lifters to the side and get more. Now they can't do that and they are floundering. This is Broz's real challenge. He has very few lifters, if one gets injured there is no backup.

  15. With sink analogy, I think you're building a bigger sink and better fine-tuning over the drain. You can handle more by increasing the workloads and you develop better awareness of your stress response to stay cool.

  16. That's a good point to consider. Any programming you undertake has to juggle a whole lot of factors, and the relationship between productivity and injury is one of the most important (the other being practical or social-life considerations, IMO). In my experimenting, I found that frequent maxing (provided it was genuine conservative go home when I'm done daily maxing) made some of my soft-tissue problems feel better. I wrote it off as a kind of ad hoc mobility work, only using weights to put those areas through a ROM.

    I'm fully aware that there are plenty of people who couldn't, and shouldn't, try taxing schedules of this nature, and I hope I'm not giving the impression that anybody can just drop into a full-bore routine of squatting to a max 5-6 days a week without any consideration of external variables. I'm trying to make the point that it can be done, and that it's really not nearly as big a deal as common thinking suggests.

  17. I should add that I do like this article. Years back I used to argue with people about the dreaded "CNS fatigue". They would come up with some crap about "you wouldn't go to war with the general out of commission would you?" It never made sense to me that the most critical element to physical function would also be the most vulnerable.

  18. Matt — I'm not sure how you'll take this, but I have to say, your work here looks a lot like what Thibaudeau is systematizing in his own way over at T-Nation. Yes, I know not to take seriously all the silliness that goes on over there, but CT is a legit coach who has some ideas worth consideration. His "High Performance Mass" is a bit different than the Bulgarian-derived methods you've been playing with, but the basic idea of frequent, high-intensity-but-not-grinding weights is right on point. Have you read anything he's written? Any thoughts on the similarities/differences between Bulgarian v. HPMass?

  19. James, I have to admit that I'm only loosely aware of the things Thibs has been writing about (I'm not a big reader of T-Nation). I'd have to read what he's putting out to comment. I will say that I'm not a fan of the needlessly overcomplicated programs that come out of that site. As long as the principles are there, I suppose if it works, it works.

  20. Check out the "HPMass" program. It was framed as a deliberate reaction against needless overcomplication. You might actually like what you see. Especially given that you and him sound suspiciously on the same page about nearly everything, aside from the details of program design. Check it out:

  21. That's pretty interesting. Some neat ideas there. Thibs is a smart guy, T-antics aside, so I'm not surprised he's been paying attention to the frequency bandwagon.

    The program is still a bit complex and exercise-heavy for my liking; I really prefer to keep my workouts limited to two essential lifts and then one or two easier assistance movements. I'm also not a fan of the rotating emphasis, but I'll add that both these complaints are nitpicks based on personal preference. I like to get in, hit my sets, and go home without having to think too hard. For me, the lack of musts and shoulds is a big selling point of daily training.

    I do like the eccentric-less training idea. Glenn's brought up that a few times on his forum as a way of building conditioning and size and it's worth investigating if you find that daily squatting is too much.

  22. Matt:

    Can you discuss your thoughts on strategies to help the CNS prep and recover? Ideas that come to mind include visualization and meditation techniques… but there are bound to be many more methods (just as there is ice, massage, stretching, warming up, etc.) You discussed the stress of competition and the use of music to warm up the central nervous system. I could see the use of meditation and breathing techniques, to keep psychological arousal down. Thoughts?

  23. Awesome. People ask me why I don't write more. I don't because I can't come up with gems like this article.

  24. this is badass article Matt. Thank you for this. Really timely for me. I've been getting frustrated with linear progression lately and have been taking to heart some of the lessons from Broz, Pendlay, and Dan John. Basically, stop thinking and go out and move weight every single day. In the past week, I've PR'ed on my power clean, clean and jerk, and deadlift triple. Crazy.

    Not sure if you've come across this, but Jon North did a great interview with his teammate Max Aita. Really insightful how they say fuck programs/analysis and instead just go in and work their balls off towards a goal every day. A lesson a lot of people could learn.

  25. Matt, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the idea that weightlifters can't really "overtrain" because the cumulative stress load on their peripheral systems is insufficient to trigger that state? I've long believed that "overtraining" (for sake of simlicity, let's use Meeusen's definition) is the result of insufficient recovery relative to a given stress load. Since strength training offers relatively limited cumulative stress – because peripheral systems reject further abuse so early in the activity?) – it seems more than possible that your ideas of Noakes' central governor are dead on.

    I am an endurance athlete, not a strength athlete, so admit to more than a bit of ignorance here. But I've represented the US in international competition in five different sports, coach two world champions in two sports and read a ton of sports science literature, so I'm damn curious. Particularly since I've used heavy resistance training as a core to my endurance training/coaching for nearly twenty years (thank you, Zatsiorsky), and particularly since I agree completely that one of the keys to elite level endurance competition is what I call "stubbornness training". My mountaineering friends call it "brain training". Essentially, coaching the mind to ignore the signs and symptoms of overreaching in order to trigger the adaptations we all seek. As we get fitter/stronger/faster, the amount of stress required to trigger increases and hence the amount of mental durability required to access that stress increases in parallel.

    But my question is this: it seems to me that the potential for catastrophic failure in strength training is massive, particularly if one is on the edge between over-reaching and non-functional-overreaching. I mean if we accept the premise that OTS is real (which, having been hospitalize because of it, I am inclined to do), than we must also accept that there is some valid line between appropriate over-reaching and… too much. If you are a runner and you push this edge for too long, you feel shitty for a period of time. If you are a strength athlete and you push this edge for too long, do you get crushed under a max squat? (I've seen those horrifying videos on YouTube. Scary.)

    I suppose that the core of my question is this: is it inherently more dangerous to explore the limits of CNS fatigue in strength training than it is in endurance training, in both psychological and physiological terms? If the answer is "yes", that I'd cautiously suggest that this article needs to have a lot of caveats wrapped around it….

    Overall, a provocative and worthwhile line of query.

    (Full disclosure: I am a co-founder of company that recently introduced the world's first non-invasive fatigue monitoring system, and we have done a ton of work with endurance and endurance-oriented strength & skill sports, but have very little experience dealing with elite strength athletes.)

  26. Glad to hear it Tom. Most everybody I speak to finds that lifts show an immediate and usually rather drastic improvement when shifting into higher frequency. The trick, I think, is learning how to make it sustainable over the long run. Any method can create gains in the short term, simply through variation of stimulus. In my previous experiments, the strength gains really never stopped coming even 5-6 months in. Some of the guys that John Broz and Glenn Pendlay turn out are leading me to believe that this may really be a consistently useful long-term plan — but as with anything, try it and see what happens.

    If nothing else you can use daily training cycles as short loading phases between more 'normal' programs.

  27. This is really interesting. Went to max on front squat and back squat singles yesterday then hit a 4 rep PR in BS today. I've heard Glenn and Donnie talk about going after maximal weights but not in a way where you psych the crap out of yourself, basically as a way to control adrenaline like you mention in the article. That's the way I've been trying to approach it.

    I think a lot of it is just getting comfortable with having HEAVY weight on top of you all the time, whereas if you work up slowly with 5's or 10's over months and train with low frequency, you don't completely get used to it. When the body and mind learns that it can actually handle those loads, you can take it to a new level.

    Hope you keep posting about your own training experiences and how this works for you over time. I'd be interested to hear it.


  28. Matthew,

    I like that term "stubbornness training". That's very in line with what I'm trying to express in these recent postings.

    As for your question, the answer is 'yes' but a very qualified 'yes'. I do believe that OTS is real. What I'm not so sure about is whether short-term fatigue feelings, aka overreaching, have any bearing on real OTS — or put another way, I don't think that strength athletes could become *genuinely*, full-bore, clinically-diagnosed Overtrained without extraordinary workloads.

    When you compare what the Chinese lifters are reported to do, or hell even what Abadjiev's guys did back in the day — we're talking the better part of an eight-hour day spent training with snatches and cleans and jerks and squats etc. — to what I'm suggesting here, which is basically lots of 30-60 minute sessions, you see that there's training loads, and then there's training loads.

    As far as the potential for catastrophic failure in lifting, again a qualified 'yes'. If you just show up and push to real psyched-up max lifts each day, without paying attention to the effort and speed and technique ('lifting mindlessly' as many would), then I'd say you're absolutely right. But I don't suggest that at all. I've been very carefully describing a way of grading effort by hijacking the same feedback system that delivers the signals of fatigue. Paying attention to those signals gives you an accurate picture of how tired you are and where a given weight sits relative to your immediate best. The point is to lift heavy, get some time with really-heavy loads each day, but not to push into conditions that risk a big 'uh oh'.

  29. Tom that's exactly it — get used to heavy weights. When the heavy becomes a normal event, you remove the psychological and emotional reactions as well as the physical. In other words, you do what you want to get good at.

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  31. how does training each bodypart 4 time a week say two weeks for reps of then two weeks for 3 reps with week 5 being only a deload week doing only one full body workout for higher reps basically i would be doing four fullbody workouts with about9 to 11 sets all together ?

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  33. How very fitting is this piece on a day like today.

    I started a new conjugate training cycle two weeks ago and I've never trained as hard as this before. Last night I was suddenly overcome with 'fatigue' and my entire body started aching from head to toe, although it was a strange pain that felt disconnected from my muscles.

    I didn't sleep well and this morning I felt so bad, I took a day off work convinced I had the flu.

    Tonight I spoke to a mate who said it's no flu, it's CNS fatigue. After reading this article, it makes 100% sense!!!

    Next time I will be prepared and go and try some lifting rather than spending the day in bed!

  34. oh crap I've been doing it backwards! Gotta listen to classical instead of metal when working out. Mozart instead of Mudvayne? All kidding aside great article.

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