Power Training Burnout

Ol’ Vince Lombardi has been credited with saying, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” I hear different. I mean, it wasn’t Vince who said it first. It was General Patton. Vince, you see, was an avid fan of Patton. No matter, though. They were both wrong, wrong, wrong!

Phooey! I spit on fatigue!
Fatigue is the spark which ignites.
It is the means to greatness.
It is the vehicle to success.
Fatigue only makes cowards of the uncommitted.

Lest thou goest off half-cocked or scratching your head over another of those infamous Dr. Squat diatribes, let me explain why I feel that way. First, let me tell you about fatigue. Too much fatigue, you see, can cause that dreaded scourge of powerlifters everywhere — burnout, overtraining, staleness, plateauing. There are several such related names the scourge goes by. Whatever words you use, this “general” (no pun intended) syndrome is of the sort that makes second place finishers of us all. That makes us uncommitted, stupid or ignorant. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re cowards.

If you’re uncommitted, you won’t take the time to find out what causes this sort of burnout syndrome. And, as a result, you won’t be able to take the necessary steps to avoid it or overcome it. If you’re stupid or ignorant, you’re probably not interested anyway. So, I guess I’m writing this for those powerlifters who are both committed and intelligent, right?

There are a lot of mechanisms believed to be responsible for fatigue (long-term as well as short-term). By cursorily reviewing the mechanisms of short-term fatigue (the kind Lombardi and Patton no doubt alluded to), we can gain a more complete perspective of the dynamics of long-term fatigue — burnout. You will see that short-term fatigue can involve any or all of the various mechanisms involved in movement, from the thought process to the final contraction of the muscle. Follow the process in Figure One.

Back in 1978, exercise scientists in England divided short-term fatigue into two groups: 1) central fatigue and 2) peripheral fatigue. The causes of central fatigue include diminished motivation, impaired transmission of nerve impulses down the spinal cord, and impaired recruitment of motor neurons.

The causes of peripheral fatigue, on the other hand, involve impaired function of the peripheral nerves serving the individual muscles, impaired transmission of electrical impulse at the neuromuscular junction, and impaired processes of stimulation within the muscle cell (including metabolite changes resulting in depletion of ATP and thereby the function of the contractile machinery of the cell).

It’s clear that central fatigue only happens among the uncommitted. Ain’t none of those around here, right? So, let’s finish up with a more useful understanding of peripheral fatigue. Those same British scientists sub-divided peripheral fatigue into two groups: 1) high frequency fatigue, and 2) low frequency fatigue.

High Frequency Fatigue (Electromechanical fatigue):

In power training, where you perform sets of reps involving rapid movement patterns for over 60 seconds, force output losses are the result of failure of action potentials (the ability of the membrane to conduct electrical impulses) along the surface membrane (sarcolemma) of the muscle cell. It’s the sarcolemma (observe Figure Two) that transmits electrical impulses into the tiny openings on the muscle cell’s surface (called t-tubules), and on to the individual actin/myosin filaments deep within the muscle cell. The failure of the action potentials is believed to be due to a buildup of potassium both inside the t-tubules and between the actin/myosin filaments. It is not believed to be a result of lactic acid buildup or too little oxygen.

High frequency fatigue (electromechanical failure) typically occurs most readily in “cold” muscles, although maximal and repetitive movement over about 60 seconds duration is also believed to cause such nervous system fatigue. It probably has little bearing on short- or long-term fatigue of the type seen among powerlifters.

Low Frequency Fatigue (Mechanico-Metabolic Fatigue):

Now, we’re getting somewhere!

In this type of fatigue, low frequency force output is limited despite adequate electrical stimulation. Everyone knows that it’s the buildup of lactic acid that causes this sort of fatigue, right?

Not necessarily! Back in 1981, Ciba Corporation’s (remember these folks? They manufactured “Dianabol”) foundation funded research which showed that short-term fatigue can be experimentally induced among individuals with metabolic defects which influence energy pathways and lactic acid accumulation. So, what is the most important mechanism causing fatigue? Cellular damage!

Whoa! Conjures up all sorts of wondrous theories, doesn’t it? Now, here’s where it all gets interesting from the standpoint of how short-term fatigue (of the low frequency variety) is the principal cause of long-term fatigue, or “burnout.”

It’s quite simple, really. It is believed that low frequency fatigue (especially involving eccentric muscle contraction as opposed to concentric) results from tearing and rending of those very cellular structures which carry the electromechanical impulses to such a degree that (not unlike a torn or frayed electrical wire) the electrical impulses are considerably weakened. If you’ll look at Figure Four, you’ll clearly see that the decrease in force output happens faster following eccentric contraction.

Long-Term Fatigue:

Here we are to the “burnout” stage. Here’s what happens.

First, the microtrauma resulting from eccentric contraction (and to a lesser degree with concentric contraction) begins to accumulate because you’re not taking proper restorative measures between workouts, or you’re engaging too heavily in eccentric work, or both. The “cumulative microtrauma,” being disruptive of the electromechanical impulses that “drive” the contraction process never get to the actin and myosin in sufficient intensity (twitches per second) to generate maximum force.

This is what the British scientists refer to as the “Catastrophe theory” of fatigue. Drs. Gibson and Edwards (the British scientists) explained that, in aerobic exercise, the marginally deficient rate of ATP supply resulting from such electrochemical deficiency may indeed go unexplained. This being the case, cumulative microtrauma is never tended to, and restoration is never complete, a situation which may indeed result in an overtrained state over weeks of time.

But among anaerobic athletes such as powerlifters, it’s a bit different. Gibson and Edwards explained that after, say, an isometric contraction; the recovery of both ATP and excitatory capabilities of the muscles is rapidly restored. If high frequency fatigue is stimulated, again recovery is instantaneous (ruling out metabolic fatigue and supporting the lowered excitation explanation).

According to Gibson and Edwards, what’s left as the most tenable explanation for fatigue is the catastrophe theory. But they never really looked at the long-term effects of continually eliciting countless miniscule “catastrophes” inside the muscles, day after day, workout after workout, for months on end.

Let’s do that now.

Burnout & Overtraining Among Bodybuilders:

Folks, listen up!

There are two ways to cope with cumulative microtrauma. You can avoid it, or you can treat it. You avoid it NOT by avoiding lifting or by avoiding a small amount of (normal) cellular destruction, but instead by not letting microtrauma accumulate! You do this the same way you treat cumulative microtrauma:

  • Sensible, scientific weight training which always employs “periodicity” or “cycling” of intensity
  • Sensible, scientific application of the many therapeutic modalities at your disposal (especially whirlpool, heat, ice, massage and neuromuscular re-education)
  • Sensible, scientific nutritional practice (especially maintaining an adequate amino acid pool which must be high in the BCAAs, to effect protein turnover, adequate energy foods to replace those depleted during intense training, and a minimum of 5 meals daily)
  • Sensible, scientific nutritional supplementation (especially the branched chain aminos, glutamine, adequate protein intake multiple times daily, vitamin and mineral intake, and other state-of-the-art supplements and herbs designed to aid tissue recovery and healing)
  • Using good technique in your lifting and skills (especially avoiding excessive eccentric contractions (“negatives”) and uncontrolled ballistic movements (controlled ballistics are reserved for special training during various periods of your training cycle for maximum stimulation of the fast-twitch muscles, but not excessively)
  • Getting plenty of rest both between workouts and at night (try to get at least 7 hours per night, plus at least one or two short 20 minute “cat naps” during the day)
  • Taking advantage of various psychological techniques that promote restoration (especially meditation, visualization training, hypnotherapy or self-hypnosis techniques).

So, it all boils down to a simple plan. The plan is to do things the best way that science can provide! The above list ought to at least get you thinking along some reasonable pathway in that regard.

Remember that there is no decidedly “wrong” way to train. If you are a raw beginner just getting into powerlifting in a serious way, anything you do, provided it doesn’t kill you, will probably help.

But only for a while.

If you get the power bug, and begin training at least daily, you’re bound to overtrain eventually. And, if you’re an inveterate lifter, you’ve probably been operating at least a minimal state of overtraining for your entire career (that is, unless the points outlined above have been adhered to religiously).

So, “good, better, best” is how things go in the gym. Which do you prefer? If you’re committed (there’s that word again!), there’s only one way to go.

‘Nuff said!


Possible Fatigue Mechanisms

Adapted from Gibson, H. and Edwards, R.T.H., Muscular Exercise and Fatigue, Sports Medicine, March/April, 1985, quoting Edwards, R.T.H. Biochemical bases of fatigue in exercise performance: Catastrophe theory of muscular fatigue: In Knuttgen, et. al., (Eds.) Biochemistry of Exercise, pp. 3-28 (Human Kinetics, 1983).


Illustration of how a muscle cell is constructed. The t-tubules which go deep into the muscle cell are extensions of the outside surface — the sarcolemma — of the cell.


Comparison Between Force Output and Twitches Per Second Between High Frequency Fatigue and Low Frequency Fatigue

Note the fact that in high frequency fatigue, there’s a direct relationship between force output and the number of twitches per second. In low frequency fatigue, however, there’s a shift to the right in the curve, indicating a fall in the ratio of force generated by low frequency stimulation as compared to high frequency fatigue.

Adapted from Gibson, H. and Edwards, R.T.H., Muscular Exercise and Fatigue, Sports Medicine, March/April, 1985, quoting Chapman, et. al. Practical application of the twitch interpolation technique for the study of voluntary contraction of the quadriceps muscle in man. J.Physiology 353: 3P (1984).


The difference in low frequency fatigue between concentrically and eccentrically contracted muscles.

Note that greater low frequency fatigue occurs after eccentric contractions, an indication that cellular damage caused the fatigue.

Adapted from Gibson, H. and Edwards, R.T.H., Muscular Exercise and Fatigue, Sports Medicine, March/April, 1985, quoting Newham, et. al. Pain and fatigue after concentric and eccentric muscle contractions. Clinical Science 64:55-62 (1983).

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