Every coach in the industry that has read Verkoshansky and Siff’s “Supertraining” will always throw around the word supercompensation.
However, I feel like many of these same coaches do not have a good grasp of what that term means.
In the sports science world supercompensation simply refers to the period of time after a training block in which the athlete has adapted to training and has increased their performance. This may seem simple at face value, but in reality it is a rather complex topic.
Training affects every system within the human body. Each system also handles training in a very different manner. Each of these systems requires varying amounts of time for recovery as well. For example, muscle tissue recovers much more quickly than bone and tendons. After strenuous training muscle glycogen can take 48-72 hours to be fully replenished. Muscle glycogen plays a critical role in our energy levels as well as muscle mass. How training affects all of these systems is crucial for the coach and the athlete to understand.
The story of Milo is an often told story amongst coaches to explain progressive overload. The story is that Milo had a calf that he carried into town each day. As the calf grew larger into a cow, Milo grew larger as well. The idea is that if we continue to overload our bodies that our bodies will adapt and get stronger.
The problem with this story is that it lacks a lot of scientific backing. Due to the various recovery curves of each system within the human body, we cannot just continue to load our body like Milo did. This would have easily led to overuse injuries, due to the lengthened recovery curve of our tendons.
What we really need to do is alternate the volume and intensity of training on a day by day basis to accommodate these recovery needs. With that said, we should see an increase in training volume and/or intensity over the long term, but it needs to fluctuate within a smaller time period.
Higher volume days are programmed to stress the athlete to adapt, average volume days are programmed to maintain current fitness levels, and smaller days are programmed for recovery. An average day is the athlete’s Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). This is the most work that the athlete can perform and easily recover from before the next training day.
Many programs use rate of perceived exertion (RPE) to measure the intensity of their training. In a nutshell, RPE relates to the following:
- RPE 10- Could not perform 1 more rep
- RPE 9- Could perform 1 more rep
- RPE 8- Could perform 2 more reps
- RPE 7- Could perform 3 more reps
- RPE 6 and lower are warmups
The idea behind using RPEs is that the athlete can auto-regulate his or her training based upon how certain weight feels. Our body does not know how much weight is on our back, it only knows effort. If weight feels very heavy one day the athlete can lower the weight to keep it in the correct intensity range and if the weight feels light the athlete can increase the weight.
There is nothing wrong with using RPE as a measure of training intensity. Many coaches utilize it very successfully. However, it is not for the novice strength athlete and the strength athlete using RPEs needs to be very honest with themselves.
Many of the athletes that I know that utilize RPEs for measuring their training intensity, as well as many of those I see on Instagram, complain of joint soreness and constant nagging pains. These are typical signs of overtraining.
The strength sports require an athlete to teeter right at the line of overtraining. If the athlete stays too far under that line the body will not be stressed enough to adapt. At the other end of the spectrum, if the athlete trains over that line too often than he or she runs the risk of suffering an injury.
If the athlete is feeling tired and the weights are feeling heavy, under an RPE program they may decide to lower the weights. However, there are problems that can arise by doing this. By lowering the weights, the athlete may change the volume from a higher volume day to an average training day. This would not be enough to stress the athlete enough to force their body to adapt and become as strong as possible.
Due to dropping the weight on day 1 of the week, the athlete begins to feel better as the week goes along. Day 2 and day 3 were average days and the athlete was capable of hitting those numbers without any issues. Day 4 is a programmed small day for recovery. However, the athlete feels good so he increases the weight. If the weight is increased enough, this can also become an average day.
Now the week did not have a higher stress day to force adaptations, average days to maintain, and smaller days to recover. This athlete may have only performed 4 average days. Over a longer period this athlete will more than likely hit a plateau with their lifts.
Let us look at another athlete.
In most cases, this is the athlete that I see with injuries. This athlete is constantly pushing the envelope with their lifts. Everything is an RPE 9 or 10 in training, but they convince themselves it is a 7 or 8. This leads to many training days completed at a high volume without any days for recovery.
With proper nutrition and sleep, this athlete’s muscle tissue may be able to recover, but their tendons are lagging behind. This is when they begin to complain of elbow pain, hip pain, back pain, etc. You can get really strong, really quickly training like this, but it comes with some risk.
We need a balance between days that bring the athlete above baseline and days where the training stimulus falls well under the baseline. We don’t want this balance to get away from us, even in the short term unless we are performing a deload week.
This is perhaps the biggest piece of magic in a Sheiko program. In the 90 weeks that I have been training with him I have seen enough days that push me beyond my baseline, but a balance of days that fall well below my baseline. This has allowed me to steadily progress in training.
This may not be the fastest route to getting stronger. However, if I remain healthy and get better at each important competition, over time I can put up a very competitive total. A major part of success in this sport is attrition. This is how one accomplishes the best lifetime total that they are capable of.
Now, I am not saying that I have not had my share of nagging issues. My elbows have hurt at various points in my training. However, the elbow pain has always quickly gone away due to the frequent recovery days. Remember, tendons take longer to recover. This is an example of that. If you have joint soreness that is always there be sure to analyze your training and also your technique as this can play a role as well.
Using accommodating resistance can be used for recovery sessions as well as the chains and bands deload at the positions that are most stressful for the athlete. In fact, we utilize the Mark Bell Slingshot just for this reason on the bench press. The Slingshot takes pressure off of the pecs and front delts and keeps the athlete healthy while performing more work.
We get stronger by giving our body a stress to adapt to as well as time to recover. The overload principle does not mean that we need to do more every time we enter the gym. In fact, we need to fluctuate our overload. Some days should be higher volume, others average days, and there needs to be enough smaller load days programmed to keep the athlete healthy. Over the long term is where we need to see volume increasing.
Keep this in mind if you are a coach that uses RPEs.
Also, if you are an athlete that uses RPEs be honest with yourself.
You don’t always need to hit PRs in the gym for a given rep range and RPE.
This is when I echo words from Sheiko that he told me once “Are you training for yourself or the judges?”
The goal is to hit that PR on the platform.