Many of the people who come to me for a consultation or physical assessment lament being stuck in a plateau in their training. They use the the gerund "plateauing" as an action, when it is in reality a lack of action: it's going nowhere.
There are usually three causes to the lack of progress: a monotonous or unsuitable programme, undertraining and overtraining. Our role as coaches is not only to ensure programmes change often enough to continually generate adaptation, but especially to understand the individual we're coaching and manipulate frequency of training to obtain optimal results.
Most trainees overtrain. I see it every day: the people who left in the evening in drenched shirts are the ones who reappear 10 hours later for the same workout in the morning; the ones who take a day of rest every three weeks; the ones who want to do it all, because they're on a roll. They are the ones who keep snatching a 30 kg bar year after year, and the ones who have wanted to achieve a muscle-up for longer than they can remember, but alas it hasn't yet happened and it must be because the programme at the Crossfit affiliate isn't good enough. Maybe it isn't. Or maybe it isn't the right programme for their specific goals and abilities. Maybe what they say they want is not what they really want. But the one thing no-one likes to hear is: "You are doing too much".
Overtraining is one of the most unpleasant consequences of trying too hard. Symptoms go from decreased aerobic capacity and inability to complete workouts to loss of strength, persistent muscle soreness and fatigue, elevated resting heart rate, irritability, depression, inclination to viral diseases. The athletes who are most commonly affected with mononucleosis are triathletes, rowers and swimmers, who notoriously undergo huge volumes of work. The pleasant nature of exercise makes us often forget that exercise is, above all, stress; in virtue of its being a stressor it stimulates our central nervous system to respond triggering adaptations in the body. But how much stress can we handle? The stress of sports adds to the stress of work, relationships, nutrition (yes, even food stresses the body), sleep and all sorts of responsibilities. Lifestyle and individual characteristics should dictate our training regime. If several stressors are imposed on the body simultaneously (cross-sensitization) the effect may be more than the system can handle.
The good news is that workouts don't need to be long to be effective, and focusing on recovery as much as on intensity will guarantee progress and health in the long run. Nowadays most experts from a variety of physical disciplines agree that optimal time in the gym should be less than an hour, and I include Bulgarian weighlifters who are famous for their prodigiously intense training sessions. Workouts exceeding the hour lower the power of the immune system and are associated with decreasing androgen levels, which upset the testosterone-cortisol level. The level of testosterone peaks about 15 minutes into a workout and stays at that level for the following half hour, making a 45-minute workout optimal to maximise anabolism, maintain concentration and increase the ability to produce force at high speeds.
Training too often is a recipe for failure when it comes to improving strength and fitness. Exercise damages the muscles, and it's only with rest that we can give them an opportunity to repair and grow. Optimal frequency of training is tailored to the individual. Everyone responds uniquely to a training stimulus, and it might take a good coach 8 weeks to determine what methodology works best for each client. I often get the accusating index and surly eyes: "But you! You train all the time!" If you think that looking at my IG (@pescamoka) is going to give you insight on how I train, how I rest and live, you're under the wrong impression. Looking at what others do will not help you recognize what volume and intensity are more appropriate to you. What I perceive as training might be play to you, what feels easy for me could be a maximal effort for you. You don't know that. The ability to listen to your body will maximise your gains in the gym, and hopefully leave you more time for everything else you enjoy in life.
A higher training frequency can be well tolerated in cases of rehabilitation post-surgery or injury, when practising skills, and for beginner female trainees whose levels of maximal strength are initially lower (gender differences tend to disappear after about two years of training). Skills usually involve the development of specific attributes, such as balance, and should not fatigue the body. Having said this, even excessive handstand practice can lead to injury if joints, tendons and ligaments haven't been progressively trained to sustain that kind of stress.
Frequency of training should take into consideration the muscle groups worked, the type of exercises and the intensity of the workout. Large muscle groups and muscles with a high percentage of fast-twitch fibers recover slower than small muscles mainly composed of slow-twitch fibers; exercises that involve a small number of motor units (such as calf raises) can be performed more frequently than exercises that make greater demands on the CNS (deadlifts, for example). Intense workouts emphasizing low repetitions will require longer rest periods than high-rep workouts.
Ultimately, there is no general rule. The greatest advantage of following an individualized programme based on your unique strengths, weaknesses, lifestyle, abilities and goals is the peace of mind to let someone else take over your interests to determine what training method and training frequency is best for you and you alone. Sometimes less is more. We want to be able to keep growing and making progress for many years into the future, and imposing unreasonable amounts of stress on the body at once will not benefit us with sustainable results. It's a good chance to turn gym mates into mates and perhaps sleep that little bit longer that will improve your energy levels and overall happiness.