God I feel like shit. I feel like a bucket of smashed assholes. I feel like I got ate by a wolf and shit over a cliff. (One of the many little betterments of a Saskatchewan upbringing: a rich inner codex of evocative and earthy similes.)
And I hurt. Posterior chain thoracic seems to be suffering the worst. I can feel every sarcomere in my rhomboids squealing in protest at my every callous demand for scapular adduction. My lower back feels like I took a wrecking ball in the ass, and speaking of my outsized gluteal musculature, well, it aches a little. Twenty minutes of supine stretching was the entirety of this morning’s asana practice. But the main limiting factor there was the bellowing, foot-high, light-flashing plastic Apatosaurus doggedly marching into the side of my head as I suffered through three minutes a side of two-knee twists and reclining pigeon. Thank you, Chubs, for teaching my dharana. And thanks a bundle to you too, Uncle Phuoc. Awesome birthday present.
Getting back into shape at 46.
I weep for my degradation. I left Saigon in the fall of 2014 after almost four years of more or less full time practice, including such neurotic behaviors as three to four-and-a-half hours of balls-out power vinyasa classes daily, supplemented sometimes by high-volume weight training and always by a raging acroyoga addiction. Plus a few rounds on the heavybag here, a little circus school there, plus plus plus. I left Saigon a prowling beast, 220 pounds of functional muscle and feline proprioceptive grace. I was goddamn magnificent.
And I more or less maintained it for a year in Danang. And then Hanoi happened.
I don’t want to talk about the hows and whys, okay? I don’t want to risk the keyboard-fouling nausea that will likely result from reading my own excuses. But photos of me taken near the end of Hanoi make me cringe. After a year of little-to-no physical life, I was a drawn, emaciated, atrophied, sedentary middle-aged dad. And the air pollution in Hanoi was becoming world-class, and the whole family was sick all the time.
It was time to move, and the move that made sense to me was to take the girls to Danang, dump them on the grandparents, and fuck off to India and Nepal for three months. North India. The land of wheat, dairy, and [mostly] pretty tepid asana practice. Yeah, I said it. Fuck you, you don’t know me.
Anyways. I leveled up my meditation practice, chalked up what I believed to be a critically important pilgrimage, and ate a truckload of chapatis, butter naan, raita, basically every fucking thing my Cro-Magnon body doesn’t recognize as proper food (I’ll have the grilled mammoth fillet and pine nuts, please. Roasted cambium bark starter.) So I returned drawn, atrophied, and fuck knows how I managed this, but potbellied as well.
What spiritual development I logged in the subcontinent did not extend to amelioration of my pathological vanity, so I got to work. For the last couple of months, it’s been 90 to 150 minutes of vinyasa six mornings a week, a four-day bro split in the gym (hypertrophy parameters, except for legs day), and such stretching as can be snatched from the whirlwind. Five eighths of fuck all, compared to what I used to do. But still, arguably, too much.
The word “arguably” is highly operative there. We’re talking about overtraining, which is not universally recognized as a thing either down the local gym, or by academia. Further, there’s a distinction (or maybe semantic quibble) made at the academic level between overreaching and overtraining. The difference is one of degree and consequence, with the former netting a prescription of rest days and the latter rest weeks or months. This abstract expands a little.
I’m oversimplifying the shit out of this deliberately. I haven’t always found it the most rewarding of rabbit holes, except obviously for the discovery of CT Fletcher, the boulder-bicepped brute speaking in the first video above-pasted. He trained biceps every day for a year to build those things, smashing through barriers of pain, fatigue, and all received wisdom about the rest/training balance to extraordinary effect. In CT’s world, every set is to failure, and recovery parameters are set by will.
CT obviously knows what’s up for him and his own body, but I doubt that he’s right for everybody. My supersensitive yogi powers of perception detect the possibility that his endocrine system produces testosterone in a quantity significantly above the average.
My personal experience of resistance training has been very different. Most of the training plateaus that I’ve experienced, I’ve transcended by reducing my time in the gym. Over the years, the less I’ve trained, the more I’ve gained, and I’ve come to think of hypertrophy training in particular as a process of getting in, damaging the muscle as quickly as possible, and getting the fuck out to eat, sleep, and grow. But then, I don’t have biceps like CT Fletcher. But then again, I don’t want biceps like CT Fletcher.
I’m not arguing for or against CT’s biceps. They’re a proxy for success in physical training, that’s all. Let’s move on.
As for the academics, they don’t seem to have achieved either an iron consensus on definition of terms, a protocol for diagnosis (I even blundered across one study that used cognitive function as the indicator), or a model for the biomechanics of it all. As a layman roving through the abstracts, I even sensed a certain paucity of motivation on the part of the researchers. I felt like the scientists were rolling their eyes a bit, like the first draft of some abstract somewhere required an editor to delete the words: “So these guys are tired, huh? We don’t know. MAYBE THEY SHOULD FUCKING REST.”
Some of the medical literature is accessible to a sparsely-lettered baboon of average-to-middling intelligence and subnormal attention span, and some isn’t. Biochemistry switches my lights out faster than the more intelligent works of J. Krishnamurti, so I shall demur to comment on that body of literature other than to cite this pleasingly dumbed-down piece here. I’ll also throw up a more broad-view joint that seems to be something of an old chestnut, judging solely by the number of citations reflected on Google.
And to round out this disgracefully (and predictably) terse review of academic literature, I provide this illuminating little gem of scholarly accomplishment, documenting to my permanent and immitigable certainty that doddering venerability is entirely immaterial to the discussion.
What we all, doctors and researchers and trainers and gym rats alike, can agree on is some symptomology typical of sustained intense physical training. Fatigue, insomnia, depression, compromised immunity (in particular upper-respiratory tract infection), injury, and worst of all for the competitive athletes, reduced performance, comprise a non-exhaustive lineup of the little nasties we all know and hate.
But the crux of the argument, the single point on which the debate turns and turns, is whether these symptoms are a brick wall that definitively obligate the affected to pull back and rest, or whether these symptoms are temporary doldrums that you can just slog through, and at some point begin picking up gains again on the other side. There’s even the view that it’s precisely when you’re exhausted, when you think you have no exertion left within you and you still crank out one more (workout, rep, mile, whatever) that the greatest gains are made.
The debate, in my experience, tends to undervalue individuation as a factor.
Defining terms is great. But it’s reasonable to characterize overreaching, non-functional overreaching and overtraining as a continuum. In any particular moment in any particular athlete’s life, diagnosing their position on that continuum is difficult, and identifying appropriate treatment and prognosis even more so. The constellation of relevant factors is dauntingly vast and intricate. The human body is a complex bit of kit, and the human psyche is a tricky, potent, and (speaking only for myself) capricious little fuck, too.
So. Speaking of any given hypothetical athlete in any given hypothetical circumstance of experiential training fatigue, maybe that athlete can push a little more, and maybe that athlete needs to spend a few days getting hot and heavy with a foam roller and not much else. It’s an ad hoc decision. Always. It’s on you. A bit of a lame duck as advice goes, but there it hangs. Be your own lamp. And I’ll be saying that again another day, too.
Incidentally, there are plenty of people who exert themselves to and beyond exhaustion professionally and are intimate with the phenomenon. They live their lives pushing through aches and pains and insane cookie cravings and superhuman efforts of will in crawling out of bed. Infantry soldiers, professional athletes, and especially competitive fighters, live with fatigue and master its refusal. It might be the fighters who ride closest to that edge; for them, logging less work than your opponent is a highly predictive variable in the incidence of receiving beatings you remember every time you look in a mirror or try to dial a phone number from memory for the rest of your fucking life.
They are reasonably motivated to push the boundary of overtraining.
Me, not so much. I think I’m going to dial it back a little.
More warmup in the morning practice. Two thirds the surya namaskars. Half the flow, and some nice yinny mobility work for the last third, I think. Lay off the compound sets in the gym, mix up the parameters a little more and every fourth week a deload.
And not just to reduce the fatigue, not just to soothe the muscle stiffness, not just because I got a throat infection halfway through writing this and spent two days sulking on amoxicillin and codeine.
But to try out these rumors of a new way, an allegedly smarter way. It actually isn’t a new new way, there’s a reference somewhere to a nineteenth century strength training treatise that insists, and this is a near quote, that the one thing the seeker of strength cannot afford to do is exhaust himself. (I feel like a total choad referring to a piece I can’t cite, I’ll have a poke around and see if I can figure out where that came from for you guys. I suspect it was referenced in Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard, and if you haven’t read that yet, minimize this bullshit immediately and go find it. Or just start where I did, with Starrett’s appearance on Rogan here. Seriously, you guys. The dude is a life-changer.)
Ed: I had that poke around, meaning I typed that exact phrase into Google. Pavel Tsatsouline and his “Power to the People: Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American” popped up, and that had been my next guess for the secondary source of the quote. It might be in there. Whether it is or it isn’t, the book is a must-read for anyone into movement, whatever their movement paradigm is. The content is insightful and challenging, and the prose is wonderfully, inimitably Russian. Not like Dostoevsky Russian, like menacing Vladivostock dockworker Russian. Go read it.
Anyways, the story goes that you don’t have to bust your balls, that in fact it isn’t optimally productive to do so. Never train to failure, whatever you’re doing, is the rumor, and it’s garnering some knowledgeable adherents. Here’s a video of Joe Rogan talking to professional kickboxer and MMA fighter Joe Schilling about it.
How bewitching a concept, eh? You don’t have to leave it all on the floor of the gym or the dojo or the shala. You can go about your day possessed of workable energy levels and a degree of physical comfort, and develop faster than you did when you crushed yourself with every damned session. No hideous hamstring spasms every time you try to get in or out of a car. No stops for a good long wheeze at the top of two flights of stairs. It sounds too good to be true. I’m calling bullshit. But I’m trying it anyways. And, dear reader, you can count on me to faithfully report my results.
Namaskar, my brothers and sisters. Take ‘er easy out there.