Okay, if I’m completely honest, I wrote this article 100% for myself to give me peace of mind that taking ~10 days off training would not lead to muscle mass, strength or performances losses over the Christmas period. So apologies if it’s a little nerdy.

Classic understanding of training periodisation was founded upon Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).

GAS states that a system will adapt to any stressor it might experience in an attempt to meet the demands of the stressor (Selye, 1974). When we look at training periodisation, this can be categorised into three phases:

  • Alarm/Reaction Phase – this is where you’ll experience stiffness, soreness and a small drop off in performance due to increased fatigue levels. This is often seen at the start of a new training programme.
  • Resistance Phase – this is where the body responds to the stressor by adapting to the new stress with less soreness, stiffness, more tolerance and improved performance.
  • Exhaustion Phase – this occurs when the size of the stressor exceeds the ability to adapt resulting in deconditioning and overtraining (see last week’s Dedication to Education post).

However, there’s a potential area to exploit between phases 2 and 3 called ‘functional overreaching’ (FOR). FOR is defined as a short term decrement in performance as a result of increased training stress. In return has the potential to further enhance adaptation and gain superior performance results – this term is coined ‘Supercompensation’.

You’ll typically see this process is many strength/power sport athletes looking to maximise muscle growth and strength. I.e. progressively increasing the training volume or intensity throughout a mesocycle to a point of FOR prior to deloading. This is speculated to further enhance adaptations and performance via supercompensation of the muscle.

If you’ve been in the strength/power sport circles for a while, you’ll know this process works for many, however the research is very much lacking in attempt to explain why it happens…until now.

Bjronsen et al (2018) examined how the muscle adapts to short term, high frequency blood flow restriction (BFR) training causing FOR.

This study had individuals perform 2 x 5 day blocks of BFR training with 10 days of complete rest between each block to ‘reset’ the responsiveness to the training stimulus. Each block consisted of 7 training sessions, of which they only did BFR leg extension to complete muscle failure.

Needless to say that the training stimulus was adequate and that FOR would be expected – one individual dropped out due to ‘severe muscle soreness and weakness in the quadriceps and could not walk without crutches for two days after conducting the first BFRRE sessions’ – possibly developing rhabdomyolysis.

Interestingly, the high training stress during the first block caused significant muscle soreness and atrophy (breakdown) due to exceeding the muscles ability to recover.

It wasn’t until 10-20 days of detraining (post block 2) where they saw increases in satellite cells (precursor for muscle cells), muscle growth and strength increases, which is evident of FOR and delayed supercompensation.

This study also shows how powerful the repeated bout effect is with regards to adapting to a stimulus. When looking at the marker for muscle breakdown (creatine kinsase), they saw large elevation during the first block with almost zero changes during block 2. This is perhaps in line with subjective muscle soreness and muscle growth.

Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that you must run a FOR phase to gain muscle and strength. It does however suggest that having a week or so completely off training is not going to be detrimental. In fact, it’s highly likely going to support muscle growth and strength through pronounced adaptations to the muscle.

Plus, when this is combined with decreased soreness and increased freshness, you’d expect to see performance and positive feedback markers go through the roof!

In this study however, some individuals were ‘responders’, some were ‘non-responders’ and some didn’t change at all, despite this large training stimulus followed by adequate rest. Therefore, a one-size fits all/cookie cutter programming probably isn’t the best approach if you’re looking to maximise muscle growth and performance…who’d have thought!?

It’s also worth noting that this study was specific to blood flow restriction styled training and perhaps may not be entirely applicable to higher load training. With a few caveats thrown here and there, I can draw the conclusion that having ~10 days or so of complete rest from training probably isn’t going to cause any harm.

So, Merry Christmas everyone, enjoy some high calorie meals and have a well-earned stand-down period from training – you probably need it.

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