Don’t get me wrong, I definitely do high frequency workouts for many weeks every once in a while. However, there is one part of these type of routines that you need to watch out for. I’m not talking about the usual muscle fatigue that should already be watched out for. If you are still incredibly sore by the next time you work out the same muscle group, then obviously you have to change something; there is no need to overtrain as that will not get you any stronger.
Instead I’m talking about a different type of fatigue that we may not take into account very often: neural fatigue!
But before I get into that lets talk about what I mean by high frequency workouts:
Basically, a high frequency workout is one in which you are either
- Performing a TON of sets, all or most till failure, when you workout a particular muscle group. (Technically, high volume)
- Performing a normal amount of sets, all or most till failure, but you are working that muscle group every 48 hours or less.
These are just guidelines, and this article can still apply to other styles of lifting, but you get the point.
Most of the time, people judge when the next time they should lift a certain muscle group by how it “feels”, ie. whether or not it’s still sore.
While this can be good in many ways, so you do not overtrain, it can be bad in others.
When you lift, there are two things going on simultaneously. Your muscle is contracting and the fibers themselves are getting micro-rips (the simplified version), and your nervous system is pumping electrical signals to your muscles telling them exactly how hard to contract. If your nervous system does not push 100% of the electrical signals to the muscles, then they will not contract with as much force as they could, even if they are fully recovered.
Therefore, you should take your nervous system recovery into account when you lift, and while this does not have the same feeling as soreness does, you can still sort of tell whether or not it is recovered, but it might take some getting use to if you’ve never paid attention to it before.
When you take many sets to failure, besides tearing your muscles, it also fatigues your nervous system. In general, the heavier the weight and lower the reps, the more it fatigues your nervous system.
However, this can still happen if you are lifting with normal reps too if the frequency is too high. In this case, your muscles would recover, but your nervous system would not (or perhaps, vice-versa, depending on the individual and his training). So, you would “feel” fine going to lift the same muscle group, but since you would not be lifting as heavy as you could if your nervous system was 100%, then you will not be able to go to failure in terms of your muscle fatiguing. Your nervous system would fail first, which would short-circuit your set and cause you to fail too soon. This, in turn, would make you never really challenge that particular muscle enough to induce significant growth and the result would be stagnation.
YOU WOULD PEAK AT THAT CERTAIN WEIGHT, NEVER BEING ABLE TO INCREASE IT.
This is a big concern and one of the main reasons why muscle growth stops after a while. It is also why if you take a break from lifting for a weak, you might come back stronger than before your break: your nervous system has recovered.
In order to tell whether it’s your nervous system causing you to peak or not, you could try taking a week off, especially if you haven’t done so in a very long time. Then when you come back, really focus on how the weight feels.
Does it feel differently before? Maybe easier in a weird way? That’s your nervous system being up to par!
If you do not come back stronger, then perhaps your stagnation was not neural/overtraining, and you will need to consider other factors of your diet and workout.
On a side note, taking creatine will probably decrease the amount of time you need to let your muscles recover, though it is more useful for longer lasting sets than short, strength-oriented sets. Creatine has been shown to speed up recovery in pretty much all aspects and it is virtually the only supplement that I take on a consistent basis.
Next time your in the gym, maybe focus a little bit more on your nervous system. Its not always the reason for stagnation, but it is definitely a factor to consider.