Training with Purpose: Limiting Stress

TAGS: supercompensation, Playing Your Cards Right, overreaching, Training with Purpose, Gabriel Naspinski, stress, overtraining, recovery

The purpose of this article is to build on the past few about the adaptation process as well as take a look at how to use overreaching as a tool to either break plateaus or use before a planned layoff from training. This article will also give some examples, mostly from my own experience, of what not to do during the possible layoff to actually get a desired effect from overreaching. Remember that anything speculated here is individual and may or may not be appropriate for everyone.

Supercompensation, overreaching, and playing your cards right



To put the theory of supercompensation simply, it is the theory that the body will adapt to a higher level after repeated stressors. It's a cycle that follows this progression:

  1. Physical load is imposed on the body.  Initially, this causes fatigue and a reduction in performance.
  2. Recovery from the load brings performance back to the pre-load level.
  3. Following the initial recovery to the pre-load level, further increases can be observed (i.e. the supercompensation phase/peaking).
  4. Following the supercompensation phase of increased performance, a return to the pre-load level is made.

Initially, it was proposed that every training session should occur in this phase of supercompensation. However, this meant that recovery would be needed between every individual workout to allow time for the cycle to reach the third step listed above, limiting the number of sessions that could be done to maybe two to three total sessions per week. It didn’t take long to figure out that this type of programming would only work with novice and mid-level athletes who didn’t require as much load. For more advanced athletes, this isn't a viable option because the loading will be insufficient to produce the desired training effects. The first two models in the figure below show this theory.

For higher level athletes, supercompensation needs to be looked at on a larger scale. Basically, fatigue is accumulated over a period of several workouts. Because of this, a downward trend may be noticed. After a certain length of time, a decrease in loading is used to allow recovery. After this period of recovery, the increase in performance can be observed. This is known as a delayed training effect. This can be seen in the fourth model in the figure below. However, if adequate recovery isn't reached, supercompensation can't occur, which will keep performance on a downward trend as shown in the third model in the figure below.

If the programming is too conservative and there is infrequent or insufficient stimulus, supercompensation will be kept at a minimum or won't occur at all. This is what eventually causes stagnation. At this time, more frequent loading, higher volumes, or higher intensities need to be implemented to continue to provide stimulus.

Overreaching and systematic use to your advantage

First to define overreaching, I will discuss some things in reference to overtraining.  This is the thing that many people are always avoiding like AIDS.  Overtraining is a long-term imbalance between stress and the ability of an organism to adapt.  This is chronic and occurs after extended periods of loading that is in excess of what the body can cope with.  Overreaching, on the other hand, is acute, meaning that it is a short-term period of loading that is above the current level of adaptability.  What is the difference in time, you might be wondering?  I can't necessarily throw out any certain number of days, weeks, months, years, etc.  However, I will say that if you decrease your loading for one to three weeks and experience a return to pre-load levels or an increase over these levels, you were overreaching and not overtraining.  Overtraining is a long-term process but many people equate any drop in performance to this.  This is problematic because this is where we have those that continue to use similar volumes and train with similar frequencies year in and year out only to continue to remain stagnant.  If anything, they will think they are of all things overtrained.

Overreaching can be useful in breaking through plateaus that have been experienced.  However, this is only if it is done systematically with a set plan.  Many people will talk of the programs like Smolov and these massive gains that they saw in their squat and be in awe.  I can't understand why this would come as a surprise, since the program is a concentrated loading of squatting over a set number of weeks.  Granted other stressors are accounted for outside of this, how could squatting with high frequency, volume, and intensity do anything but account for gains in the squat?

If one is to look at the premise of block periodization, it is in essence a systematic use of overreaching.  With each concentrated block, a drop in performance is observed before loading is decreased to allow recovery.  The key here is that this is planned, and volumes, intensities, frequencies, and means of training are carefully selected.  The idea is to tear down for a period, decrease the loading, and experience the supercompensatory effects.

To use my own training as an example, for about six weeks I have been systematically increasing loading to overreach.  My reason for this is I have a period of close to two weeks where I will not be able to train much if at all.  The week of my wedding I will maybe get into the gym twice.  On my honeymoon, it is questionable if I will train at all.  Over the six weeks, I have gradually increased intensity, volume, and frequency to the point where I have been doing some form of squatting, benching, and pulling every time I enter the gym.  During this period, I have still been able to move the weights in the intensity zones that I have planned, but the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) toward the end of this period has gotten higher.  As I am writing this, I have finished the last day.  While I am fatigued, I definitely can tell that my performance has only dropped slightly.  I also have used some basic methods of assessment (finger tap test, resting heart rate) to gauge my fatigue.  I have done this in the past when I knew there may be a period of extended layoff (to me, more than one week) of intensive training.

However, what needs to be understood is that this is not something that is sustainable for long periods of time.  The reason I used it here is because I wanted to push myself to a point where I need the time to recover.  The other thing to be considered is the individual and their adaptability to stressors.  For someone who isn't used to high volumes and frequencies, periods of concentrated loading may be too much to recover from or even complete.  This type of training works well if the stressors in your life outside of training aren't high.

For myself, I work as a public school employee and coach, so other than the planning of my wedding, the months of June and July were pretty low in stress.  This is why this was a good time for me to run a brief period of this type of loading.  If you are working a physically or psychologically demanding job for extended hours, have a family, and are constantly stressed outside of training, this is probably not a good option.  Also qualification comes into play as well.  I am in the middle of the road as far as qualification so volume/frequency has been paying dividends.  Novices do not need to use a concentrated system to induce overreaching.  While the highest levels of athletes can do this and at times do, these athletes also may be the most prone to actual overtraining, injury, and may need more recovery time.



This actually depends on the purpose of the overreaching. In the case of a planned period to break a plateau, it isn’t necessarily advisable to do nothing. Something to consider is stabilizing your loading during this time or performing a maintenance level of the stimulus you used. In other words, perform the same movements with a reduced frequency, intensity, volume, or combination of the three. The reason for this is that too sharp of a decrease in loading causes undesirable changes (this will be discussed more in depth in a later article). The best way to think of this is similar to an addict and withdraw. If you shut everything down and do nothing but foam roll and stretch, you have effectively removed the drug from your system. Because of this, your body throws a shit fit biochemically, not entirely dissimilar to what addicts have the first few days of rehab. It's better to keep some level of stimulus but at a decreased magnitude.

If your reason for overreaching is similar to mine, attempt to stay active and do something during your layoff. If you're on vacation, possibly do some things you haven’t done whether it be body weight movements or working out in a hotel gym. Of course, be smart and just get some movement to generate blood flow. In addition, limit the stressors that will detract from your recovery. While this may be difficult if your layoff is work related, try not to let the stressors affect your ability to recover.

Keep in mind that the body doesn’t differentiate between stressors. If you get shitfaced every single night of the week and you're supposed to be recovering, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. I'm not the moral police on this subject because I'm speaking from experience here. A large portion of my training in my early twenties was probably less productive than it could have been because of this.



From a standpoint of supercompensation, it is imperative to remember that in order for increases in performance to be realized, there has to be a period of recovery. Loading is simply the stimulus, but the recovery is what allows the gains to be realized. Additionally, overreaching is something that can be manipulated to break a plateau and push to the next level. When it comes to recovery, use a well thought out plan and also make sure that you are indeed recovering. Stress is stress and it's important to limit it on all levels.



  • Issurin V (2008) Principles and Basics of Advanced Athletic Training. Ultimate Athlete Concepts: Michigan.
  • Verkhoshansky YV, Siff MC (2009) Supertraining. Verkhoshansky, SSTM.
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