Do you want to know how to blast through muscle fatigue? Suppose you’ve been working out for any amount of time. In that case, you’re probably well acquainted with fatigue, that sensation of your muscles being “done,” “cooked,” and “toast.” The “please have mercy before the weight permanently traps me under it” or “you might just have to drag me off the track because I’ve collapsed” feeling.
We typically use fatigue to describe general sensations of tiredness and the accompanying decreasing muscular performance. Thus, we “hit the wall” and can no longer perform reps on a particular lift. Also, it means we can no longer run any farther or harder. Finally, we can no longer produce the “optimal” output of muscular contractions as we did at the beginning of the set or workout.
What Is Muscle Fatigue?
Fatigue is a complex phenomenon in which multiple sites fail during muscular work. The underlying causes of fatigue fall into two categories: central (neuromuscularóthe mind/central nervous system) and local (peripheralóthe actual muscle site).
The central nervous system (CNS) acts like an automobile engine regulator. Manufacturers make most cars with a regulator that causes them to “shut down” when the engine revs too high for too long. This mechanism protects the engine from “overheating.” In the same way, our brains attempt to protect our muscles from tearing by reducing the rate nerve impulses are sent to our working muscles.
In most cases, you’ll experience central fatigue before local fatigue. When you think you can’t do any more work because you’re so tired, what’s happening in your mind is telling your body (muscles) to shut down. But you’re probably able to continue for another couple of reps.
When you think you can’t do any more work because you’re so exhausted, what’s happening in your mind is telling your body (muscles) to shut down. Local fatigue is related to factors that limit the ability to perform muscular work. These include the energy systems (ATP-CP, glycolysis, and oxidation); the accumulation of metabolic byproducts (such as lactic acid); and the failure of the muscle fiber’s contractile mechanisms.
The energy systems act the same way as fuel in a car or a battery in a flashlight. However, humans are different in that we have three energy systems within the muscle’s cells that are called upon at other times depending on the intensity and duration of an activity.
The first energy system is called the ATP-CP system and gets used during extremely short and intense bouts of exercise (e.g., weight training, sprinting, and jumping). It works by repeatedly breaking down ATP (the primary currency of energy in the body) and rebuilding ATP using CP (creatine phosphate). During repeated maximal contractions, fatigue coincides with CP depletion.
The other two energy systems called into play during exercises that last longer than 30 seconds are the anaerobic (or glycolytic) and aerobic (or oxidative). These energy systems depend on the availability of glycogen (the stored form of glucose sugar). As with CP use, exercise’s intensity (i.e., how hard you train) controls the rate of glycogen depletion.
During sprinting, for instance, muscle glycogen may be used 35 to 40 times faster than during walking. Glycogen depletion and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) limit performance in activities lasting longer than 30 minutes.
Long-distance runners often speak of “bonking” or “hitting the wall.” Also, this refers to perceived fatigue, usually related to glycogen depletion. As a result, the body begins to use other forms of energy, such as fat and protein (which are not as efficient sources, thus making it harder to sustain energy levels).
During high-intensity anaerobic exercise, such as sprinting and weight training, our bodies produce metabolic byproducts such as lactic acid and CO2. As these accumulate in our bodies, our ability to maintain the duration and intensity of exercise diminishes. And when they finally reach a point of saturation, our muscle capacity comes to a screeching halt. Also, we refer to this as the “burn,” whereby the muscle feels like it’s on fire, signaling you to stop.
Got all that? We realize it sounds like some reasonably complex processes, which they are. So here are a few instances we are sure you can relate to that will help clarify how these energy systems work in your body. More importantly, how you can assist your body to increase its output and delay (or temporarily overcome) the onset of muscle fatigue.
How Can You Overcome Muscle Fatigue?
While we can’t wholly overcome muscle fatigue, we can certainly delay it. But, sometimes, this delay can be the difference between sprinters winning or losing in competition or allowing weight trainers to “push out” a few more reps (to produce new levels of strength and muscle gains). There are many strategies we can use to accomplish this goal, but here are a few I’ve found over the years to be particularly effective:
First, we must ensure your diet is optimized. Consuming an adequate amount and ratio of carbohydrates, fat, and protein is paramount. Typically, endurance athletes require more carbohydrates (between 40 and 60% carbs) than strength athletes but slightly less protein (from 30 to 35%).
In contrast, strength trainers (weight lifters) or weight trainers who regularly participate in sporting activities should consume equal or greater amounts of protein to carbohydrates daily (about a 40:40 ratio of carbs to protein).
In essence, carbs are to the body like fuel is to a car. They provide the necessary power to maintain or sustain energy levels during workouts.
Many athletes make the common mistake of failing to stay well hydrated. Of course, we are not talking about drinking when you’re thirsty (as you may know, thirst is a sign your body is already slightly dehydrated). However, you cannot overlook the importance of being adequately hydrated.
Dehydration can lead to significant performance decrements, not to mention the risk of sickness and, in severe cases, death.
For example, a three to four percent drop in body water levels (signaled by thirst and fatigue) can decrease your muscular contractions by 10 to 20%. To combat this, at least 10 to 12 glasses (eight ounces each) of water (excluding sodas, coffee, or juices) should be consumed daily, including during and after events when your body is sweating.
Adequate rest is essential for delaying premature fatigue. Conversely, inadequate rest during training (i.e., between sets) and between workouts can cause unnecessary fatigue.
A great rule of thumb for resting time between sets is long enough to catch your breath. Squats take a little longer to recover (maybe two to three minutes) because you’re training a large muscle group. For smaller muscles, like the biceps, you would need a much shorter restómore, like 45 to 60 seconds.
Another Quick Tip
Recent research that studied the effects of enhancing recovery between sets showed that keeping the intensity high after completed sets allowed weight trainers to perform more reps in later sets than those who passively recovered (sat) between sets.
But, of course, this means we need to keep moving during rest periods, so instead of sitting down to rest, walking around, or going to another exercise for a different muscle group.
Over-training is one of beginner and advanced weight trainers’ most common (and fatal) errors. Trapped by our “more is better” mentality, many think that if we train more prolonged, more challenging, and more often, we’ll multiply our results.
But unfortunately, nothing could be more detrimental to your efforts to put on muscle and gain strength than training muscle groups too frequently.
Over-training can significantly impede the body’s ability to recover and rebuild itself properly. Only through enough rest (which includes proper sleep) and an adequate number of days in between training will the body be able to recover and rebuild itself. The most common signs of over-training are lethargy, chronic fatigue, continued muscle soreness, insomnia, and decreased strength.
If you sense any of these coming on, try taking off a day or two more between training sessions and see how you feel.
Trapped by our “more is better” mentality, many think we’ll multiply our results if we train more prolonged, more challenging, and more often.
For adequate recovery times between workouts (of the same muscle group), consider this: the smaller the muscle group, the faster the recovery; the more intense (speed of training), the longer the recovery; and the higher the volume (i.e., the number of reps) and lower the load (weight), the faster the recovery, and vice versa of course.
In general, we usually suggest not training a muscle if it’s still sore, and then once the tenderness subsides, we say give it another day on top of that.
Many supplements can help today’s athletes postpone muscular fatigue. For example, endurance athletes may benefit significantly from carbohydrate/electrolyte beverages such as Revenge, Gatorade, Ultra Fuel, and a great new supplement called G-Push. These contain precise ratios of carbohydrates and electrolytes (vital salts and minerals) that can replace those lost during prolonged exercise and enhance the body’s ability to sustain long-term energy.
Nutritional stimulants such as caffeine (or its herbal counterpart, guarana) can help delay fatigue. First, it stimulates a cascade of hormones that cause a release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream, causing the body to burn fat while sparing carbohydrates to use as energy. Second, it affects the CNS, thus postponing central fatigue and decreasing the perceived difficulty of the exercise.
However, if you can’t handle the jittery, nervous-type feelings you get from stimulants (such as caffeine), you might try supplements like tyrosine or Ginkgo biloba. These supplements are not stimulants, so they do not affect your central nervous system (which causes nervousness).
Instead, they help increase your mental alertness and delay central fatigue (in the brain), thus helping to crank up your workout intensity.
Creatine as a Supplement
And, let’s not forget creatine monohydrate, which scientists proved to aid short-duration, high-intensity exercise, such as weight training. Also, this increases the body’s creatine phosphate stores needed to replenish ATP, thus delaying the onset of glycolysis.
In other words, creatine helps quickly replenish energy stores within the muscle cells, allowing you to work out longer and harder, leading to increased strength and muscle gains.
Last Words on How to Blast Through Muscle Failure and Fatigue
So there you have it. Nothing fancy here is enough to get you through that next workout with more flair and pizzazz! With this information, you can use practical, safe, and scientifically sound methods to overcome muscle fatigue.
As a result, you can train harder (possibly even longer) and become mentally and physically stronger, making every workout better.