I’ve been trying to “follow my instincts” for a while now, because as a kid, I always laughed at how I would second guess my instincts and end up with the wrong answer or the like. With my 6.5 years of anaerobic training in the gym, I realized early on that if I trained with a set schedule, I would feel burnt out in about 8 weeks. The tried and not so true three times a week of intense MWF (monday, wednesday, and friday) strength training would lead to overtraining. Before I explain that more, let me explain what this post will be about: in this post I will share my own experiences with adrenal issues caused by inappropriate recovery from an unbalanced exercise regimen and most importantly, what you can take away from it.
As I said, after about 8 weeks, I felt burnt out from a typical MWF set schedule. Three days a week doesn’t sound like a lot when you consider that some people run every day. But it’s a lot when you look at the overall amount of stress hormone the athlete churns out to cope with the training.
In strength training, the goal is to increase the amount of weight the athlete can lift. In powerlifting and olympic weightlifting, athletes must also maintain a certain weight. Usually this weight is achieved shortly prior to the competition, and the strength is obtained more steadily earlier in the season. There is often a bulking phase then a cutting phase when the athlete attempts to lose weight but maintain the strength he or she accrued from the bulking phase.
Regardless, the training sessions often involve near maximal activity that is a lot different in the nervous system than running or doing martial arts. The type of training would be more analogous to sprinting with weights, not jogging. My body often feels like sprinting, running, boxing, and doing body work activity, but lifting weights requires stronger activity (that’s the best way I can describe it as I haven’t found any exercise physiologists describe this anyway). After my adrenals started feeling burnt out, my tolerance for heavy weightlifting plummeted as I will shortly describe in a little more detail.
My sport was neither olympic weightlifting nor powerlifting, or bodybuilding, sprinting, football or any other anaerobic sport. I had one single goal in mind, and that was to jump higher and dunk a basketball (got to 38” vertical and dunked a dodgeball but haven’t attempted basketball because I didn’t hit 40” yet). I was inspired by my performance in the long jump in high school one track meet and I became absolutely obsessed. The type of training I was supposed to do according to my research was a mix of plyometric work (how high jumpers train) and olympic weightlifting with powerlifting (squats and deadlifts). My goal was to maintain my 150lbs endomorph frame at <12% body fat and gradually increase my strength to body mass ratio.
I definitely increased my strength a lot, but retrospectively, I realized how rigid my beliefs and my training were. I frequently posted my workouts on an online forum with other very dedicated young men with the same exact goals. But unlike them, I never tended to follow a program. I hated following the instructions of personal trainers (but became one myself years ago), so I devised my own programs. It was called, lift as heavy as you can, as often as possible. Secondary to that, I was supposed to follow my instincts during the workout and stop once I was tired enough; this meant I only stopped once I felt like my muscles had had enough. If I chose a weight with which I could grind out three reps, like the 100lb dumbbell lunges in the picture, I would do sets of three until I felt like I couldn’t do another set of three (so I would end up doing between two to five sets of three usually).
Athletes who do this type of training are advised to take a deload week: during this week the athlete is supposed to avoid heavy lifting and partake in recreational activities. Any weightlifting must be performed with a lighter weight and with high reps. It feels so much easier than lifting heavy weights. The lighter weight just doesn’t seem like a threat to the nervous system, so fewer fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline are released.
I didn’t listen, and eventually I got used to the feeling of always lifting pretty heavy (I preferred to use upwards of 80% of my one repetition maximum, performing between 2-5 reps, but my favorite was lifting above 90% because I felt like I would become stronger faster). Overtime, the constant adrenaline-heavy fight-or-flight training in the gym left me feeling a caliber below my usual self, in all areas. I would fall asleep more easily in class, my feet were colder (and are cold), I wouldn’t sleep as deeply or wake up as refreshed, and I would feel less motivated. This took a few years to really accept.
There is no one term to describe these symptoms, but I guarantee you I’m not the only one who experiences this. Another common symptom that co-occurs with the aforementioned ones are a loss of affect, or emotion; fewer highs, fewer lows, and a blunted emotional response to things. Haven’t looked up any research articles on that, but if you know me then you may know that I highly value the anecdote and the qualitative aspects of peoples experiences. Collectively, they can be meaningful, as you may see in the book coming out.
So today, I wanted to share this experience of mine, to alert you to the fact that intense fight-or-flight training can eventually lead to a type of burnout. If you take adequate rest (which isn’t defined strictly and depends on you), properly manage other stresses in your life, sleep well, and add variety to your training, you may never experience this issue. I still have no idea as to what the statistics are in the CrossFit community, a very prone one to these issues, but if you have any clues let me know.
This year, in 2014, I finally took a stab at letting go of my rigid exercise goals, and my incorrect training philosophy which involved lifting near maximal weights during every single workout, for weeks on end. In 2013 I finally started eating normally (instead of avoiding all “empty” calories, sugars, salt, and processed foods) which helped a little but not enough. As I mentioned in passing, I just felt like I would get stronger faster if I lifted in a lower rep range (I usually preferred 2-3). That’s totally wrong. The 5×5 approach seems to work best for people, and that involves a much lighter load than the ones I was lifting.
Initially, meaning 6.5 years ago, maxing out gave me this adrenaline rush. But today, I don’t get the same adrenaline rushes. The ability of my body to have those rushes has been impaired, and I finally realized that I needed to stop lifting heavy weights to get that back, and it did work. As soon as I took a few extra days off, I felt more of a rush during the day, and a greater ability to focus and have energy. But if I went to the gym and lifted heavy, instead of feeling a rush, I felt down, and my brain felt foggy.
So today I tried going and doing one lift for my legs, and I got the classical symptoms I’ve been getting for the past several months: a foggy brain feeling accompanied by very mild dizziness and fatigue with no desire to continue. I call it a depression, versus the stimulation I received before. I remember when I was 17 and I did my 3×3 (three repetitions for three sets with a very heavy weight with which I could only do three reps with) I would feel a surge of adrenaline and testosterone following the workout. Today I wouldn’t even be able to work like that because any heavy leg exercise gives me a subtle but noticeable depression of the nervous system that makes my brain feel constricted in an odd way.
During my senior year of college (2013) my friends noticed how red my eyes got following my maximal squat workouts. Here I also maxed out with multiple sets of two to three reps for several months until I reached my goal of 2xBW (squatting a mass greater than two times my body mass). I believe weightlifting increased the intraocular pressure due to the breathing pattern it causes (valsalva maneuver versus steady inhalation and exhalation) which reduces the supple of oxygen in my brain. That’s a total guess but it sounds like what I’m feeling today when I can’t be in the gym for very long until my brain just tells me to go home.
It’s pretty obvious for most people, but most people also sometimes look up to the people for whom it is not so obvious. In other words, most people think it’s crazy to be dedicated like the people they sometimes look up to in the fitness world, but those dedicated people are the ones who will develop the problems, and currently have them, due to their hardcore attitudes. My hardcore and rigid attitude made it extremely difficult to let go of my training goals, it was an identity crisis. During those years, I felt more passionately about my training than anything else. Now I have been able to let go successfully but I still go to the gym and have worthless exercise sessions and realize I need to recover still.
I don’t know what the correct medical term would be for the odd type of feeling I get these days when lifting, but I know it will go away with time. I have been addicted to the adrenaline rushes I would receive in the gym while listening to screamo and other intense music and now I am working on repairing that system and making keen qualitative observations about my wellbeing.
I think a lot of people in the fitness world aren’t ready to admit they have this problem, but I also think a lot of people will find this obvious. What isn’t so obvious to me, is how healthy weightlifting is. They said it’s healthy, but I wonder how the stress response differs among person to person, and how some people (angry men) experience stress rather than stress relief from activating their sympathetic nervous system so much in the gym. I’ve trained hundreds of people in gyms, and I eventually had to accept that maybe there was something noteworthy going on in people’s bodies when they intuitively didn’t want to lift heavy weights (especially women). It’s a research question that I’m not sure has been adequately studied.