Supercompensation and Fitness-Fatigue
Two Prevailing Models in Resistance Training Theory
Embarking on a program of physical training takes thought and planning. The problem is that the unenlightened athlete does not know how to approach his training. He does not know what exercises to do, how or when to do them. Just as important, he does not know when it is advantageous to rest. These are factors he needs to work out before he begins his program.
Scholars, coaches and athletes the world over have searched for ways to define and describe the processes at work during training. Coaches have come to many conclusions through trial and error. They see how different training methods seem to work for their athletes. Each athlete notices the changes in his own body, and tries to make as much progress as possible. Scholars and scientists study what is already happening; they also devise experiments to gauge the effects of different types of exercise programs. Then, after all this thought and observation, they formulate a theory.
Two of the most well-established theories are The Supercompensation Theory and The Fitness-Fatigue Theory. Although these can be seen as two distinct theories, they are not exclusive of each other. Understanding the Supercompensation Model can lead to better understanding of the Fitness-Fatigue Model, which is simply a more complex and complete explanation of training.
When the Supercompensation Model or the Fitness-Fatigue Model is used in setting up resistance training, the result is a more orderly system of physical challenges. One goal, of course, is to perform better as an athlete. A host of intrinsic goals may be added, such as the satisfaction of being stronger, fitter or having increased stamina. The real question is: Which method will give the desired outcome?
The Basics of Resistance Training
The Supercompensation Model and the Fitness-Fatigue Model may be used in delineating a program of resistance training. Resistance training is a tried and true method of preparation for sports and other physical contests. The two models suggest different approaches to this type of training. Before looking at those differences, it is important to have a basic understanding of resistance training itself.
What Is Resistance Training?
Resistance Training has a very basic definition. It refers to a type of exercising where the muscles contract against an opposing force. Gravity might provide that force, through the heft of free weights, other objects that are lifted or moved, or even one’s own bodyweight.
The equipment used for Resistance Training varies from free weights to weights machines to resistance bands. When no other equipment is available, or when it is more convenient, makeshift weights can be fashioned out of water bottles, food cans, tires, bricks or any other objects that weigh enough to be effective for the exercise.
The point of Resistance Training is generally to become stronger, fitter, more toned and to improve endurance. By stressing the muscles correctly, the muscles break down and then build up stronger than before. That is why it is so important to have a well-thought-out training program in place rather than just jumping in without a plan. It is this need for an intelligent system of training that brought about the development of both the Supercompensation Model and the Fitness-Fatigue Model.
Who Uses Resistance Training?
Resistance Training is used by many people who want to improve their physique and muscular attributes. Those people include athletes, both individual and team sport players. Amateur and professional athletes alike use the method to prepare for their competitions. However, there are also many non-athletes who work with this type of training simply to improve their lives. They want to be better able to meet the physical challenges of life, and they choose resistance training as a path to help them reach that goal.
Athletes in individual sports use resistance training to help them improve their games. Individual sports include all the sports where one athlete competes against another athlete or stands alone against the scores of other athletes in the sport.
Of course, those in Olympic weightlifting and power-lifting will lift weights to get ready for their contests. However, they do not represent the only individual athletes that can benefit from resistance training. A few of the others include: skiers, snowboarders, ice skaters, gymnasts, runners, wrestlers, martial artists, swimmers, tennis players and golfers.
Group sports players can also benefit from resistance training. The exact type of training needs to be geared to the type of sport to be played, but the basics are always the same. The muscles are contracted against a force to improve qualities of strength, tone and endurance. Some group sports are naturals for resistance training.
Virtually all the group sports can be improved with these physical challenges. A few types of group sports players that can benefit are: football, soccer, baseball, hockey, rugby, volleyball and basketball players.
Periodization of Resistance Training
Periodization is generally a method of planning and conducting a training program for the purpose of achieving an athletic performance peak at a certain time – usually the time of a major competition. Basic periodization is a method in which different muscular attributes are trained in different blocks of time. There are usually 5 basic blocks of training. They are: 1) Anatomical Adaptation, 2) Hypertrophy, 3) Strength, 4) Power and 5) Endurance. Any of these attributes may be emphasized more in one particular sport than in another.
There is a variety of ways to set up a Periodization plan of training. One way, called Linear Periodization, is to set up the training in strict phases where each attribute is trained individually progressing from one phase to the next. The different attributes are trained by starting out using light weights and many repetitions. The programs then progress through the phases by increasing the weights and decreasing the repetitions.
In this way, each time period of the training is devoted specifically to setting up the body for change (Anatomical Adaptation), building muscle (Hypertrophy), gaining strength (Strength), increasing the speed/strength combination (Power) or developing endurance (Endurance).
That exact method is often now replaced by other forms of Periodization, such as concurrent or undulating schedules. These plans emphasize one attribute over another without completely ignoring any attribute.
The way a program is structured will depend on whether the coach and athlete subscribe to the Supercompensation Model or the Fitness-Fatigue Model. To understand the difference, take a look at the basic tenets of each model.
Defining the Body’s Responses to Training
Both the Supercompensation Model and the Fitness-Fatigue Model define the way the body is thought to respond to the stress of training. They each try to show how training can be manipulated to provide increases in performances at optimal times. They each also attempt to demonstrate what would happen if the workout program was discontinued. The Supercompensation Theory and the Fitness-Fatigue Theory are related, but very different in some ways.
The idea of Supercompensation has been around a long time. Hans Seyle talked about his theory of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which he presented in 1956. In this theory, the body begins at an even or homeostatic level. When stressors occur, such as a new workout program, the body goes through several steps in adapting to the stimulus. This is the foundation upon which Supercompensation Theory is built.
Single Set of Outcomes
In Supercompensation Theory, the response to training is defined as a single set of outcomes. When training begins, the athlete’s muscular abilities decrease. If training continues, the athlete’s body will adapt until it reaches that homeostatic level where it started.
If the training has included just the right amount of challenge, performance will go above this level into a phase of Supercompensation. This is a state where the body has improved over the original state. However, if training continues beyond this point, exhaustion is the next step. The only way to avoid this is to rest from training at the crucial time.
In the Supercompensation Model, each step if considered as a completely negative or a completely positive stage of training. The stages are divided up and labeled in this fashion:
- Alarm Phase – negative
- Resistance – positive
- Supercompensation – positive
- Exhaustion – negative
Types of Stressors
Furthermore, the Supercompensation Theory makes no distinctions at all in the kinds of exercise that are done during a workout. They are all seen as having the same effect as stressors. The Supercompensation Model does describe the general way training can lead to improvements in performance. However, it does not show how the positive and negative aspects of training interplay to produce an overall effect over time. That is an advantage of the Fitness-Fatigue Model.
The Fitness-Fatigue Model was set forth in 1982 by E.W. Bannister to more fully describe the effects of training. The Fitness-Fatigue Model builds on the Supercompensation Model. It replaces the single set of outcomes with two sets – the fitness outcomes and the fatigue outcomes. It then shows how the two sets of outcomes go together to create the overall outcome that will be observed with training.
What Is Fitness?
Fitness can be described as the ability to thrive in a demanding environment. For athletes, it means being able to go onto the field of play and to perform well there. For any athlete, there are several factors that go together to make up this state called fitness. They include muscle abilities, cardiovascular strength and a variety of sports-specific skills. Fitness for one athlete may be different from fitness for one in a different sport.
Fitness Factors for Sports that Demand Strength and Power
In sports that demand the most from the muscles, it is natural that the muscles themselves should be the main focus of the training. The muscles must be improved in terms of their protein composition, the enzymes they contain and the shape of the muscle.
Fitness Factors for Sports that Demand Endurance
Endurance athletes have to work on their muscular abilities, but they also have to have a high level of focus on their respiratory and cardiovascular system. When long-distance runners do their sport, they have to use their muscles to move. Still, they will not get far without the added bonus of a highly developed cardio-respiratory system.
Fitness Is a Positive
Fitness is the positive part of training. In general, it is the level of muscular and cardio-respiratory abilities an athlete begins with before training. It goes beyond that, though. It is also the positive factor leading to the progress the athlete makes during his training program, and the reward he gets over time. Fitness is the first part of the equation in the Fitness-Fatigue Theory.
What Is Fatigue?
Every athlete recognizes the feeling of fatigue – it is nothing new. Athletes work hard on the field of play, as well as in their workouts. It is no wonder that they would feel fatigued from time to time. Under closer scrutiny, the subject of fatigue is a fascinating one. There are many different aspects of physiology that play into the feeling of fatigue. What is fatigue? It is probably more complex than most people would ever imagine.
Models of Fatigue
There are many ways to think about fatigue. Often, people just think of the feeling of being tired and being unable to do their best at physical challenges. In the science of fatigue, there are many other ways of looking at it. These include looking at the abundance or scarcity of oxygen, the abundance or scarcity of energy, failure of the nerve/muscle connection, and heat related fatigue.
Oxygen and Fatigue
One theory is the Cardiovascular/ Anaerobic Model. Its basis is in the inability of the muscles to deliver oxygen through the blood to the muscles. It is also a problem when the blood is not able to remove the waste that accumulates in muscle naturally and as a result of exercise.
Athletes who have more fully developed oxygen delivery systems through training will show fewer signs of fatigue during an endurance competition. The accumulation of blood lactate, a waste product, is one factor involving oxygen and fatigue. This occurs when the body is short on oxygen needed to complete the task at hand. The muscles begin to work in an anaerobic state (without oxygen), which causes blood lactate to build up. Higher levels of lactate in the blood are associated with declines performance and increased fatigue.
Energy and Fatigue
At one time or another, most athletes and non-athletes alike are bound to come to the conclusion that fatigue is related to a lack of energy. It seems so obvious – when the body machine runs out of fuel, it can go no further. In reality, the process is a little more complex than that.
In the Energy Supply/ Energy Depletion Model, fatigue is seen to be caused by either 1) an inadequate supply of ATP in the body where needed, or 2) the carbohydrate-based energy stores being used up during exercise. In either case, the idea is that energy is depleted, causing the muscles to lose their fuel.
The Nerve/ Muscle Connection and Fatigue
The muscles supply force in training and competition. At the same time, it is important to remember that they cannot work without the aid of the nervous system to control them. The Central Nervous System provides the key to activating the muscles. When there are problems keeping this activation from occurring efficiently, the athlete experiences a feeling of fatigue. Even though he may be doing less work, he will feel more tired.
When exercise lasts a long time, the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin increase. This causes the muscles to go into a phase of relaxation and to be less ready for activity. This is the Central Activation Failure Theory.
Another theory, the Neuromuscular Propagation Failure Theory, describes the way muscles begin to lose their ability to react to electrical impulses. This is relevant because 1) the nervous system is an electrical/chemical system, 2) the muscles cannot be used without the help of the nerves, and 3) the muscles will begin to lose their ability to respond to electrical stimuli when in a state of fatigue.
Heat and Fatigue
Most athletes understand from experience that heat is related to fatigue. People become tired quicker when they work out in the heat. Even in normal room temperatures, the body temperature will become elevated as the athlete works out. As it turns out, heat may be not merely a by-product of fatigue-producing exercise. It may be a cause of fatigue all in itself.
When the body is subjected to too much heat during exercise, a host of problems can lead to fatigue. They range from nervous system failures to energy supply disruption. Here is a small list of the things that can go wrong when the body reaches too high a temperature during exercise:
- The Central Nervous System becomes less effective in producing muscular reactions.
- The energy supply is lowered, and what there is may become unavailable for use during the exercise.
- Waste products can no longer be disposed of efficiently. They accumulate in the body to cause problems in the muscles.
- Stress is increased in the respiratory system and in the circulatory system. Heart rate is increased more than it would be in normal exercise conditions.
Fatigue Is a Negative
In the Fitness-Fatigue Model, fatigue is considered a negative quantity. It represents the results of the stress the athlete has placed on his body through exercise and training. Although it is a negative value, it does not negate all positive results, which can be shown in charting the training wave.
Wave Form Depictions of Training Responses
Wave forms have been used in understanding different models of training for athletes. The biggest difference between the wave forms of the two main theories is that Supercompensation may be charted as a single wave, but the Fitness-Fatigue Model is described by using three waves. In both models, the waves begin at a baseline that represents the beginning fitness level of the individual. The changes start at the point where training begins.
The Supercompensation Wave
At that point, the Supercompensation wave will dip into the negative range of outcomes while the body is put into an unfamiliar routine. Over time, the body will begin to adapt. As it does, the wave will show an upward slant at least until it gets to the baseline where training began. The hope is that the body will go into Supercompensation mode, where performance exceeds the baseline. After that, the wave drops downward again and the body moves back toward the baseline, and possibly toward exhaustion.
The Fitness-Fatigue Waves
Three waves are used in describing the Fitness-Fatigue Model. They are: 1) the fitness wave, 2) the fatigue wave and 3) the overall training response wave. The effects of the first two waves are considered together to devise this third wave. When the three are viewed together, a comprehensive perspective on the training response is formed.
The fitness wave is a gradual upwards curve which is long-lasting over the course of the training. The fatigue wave is sharper, plunging quickly below the baseline. However, it also has a greater change at the later part of the cycle, where recovery takes place fairly rapidly.
The third line is the combination of the two first lines. It shows a drop below the baseline in the beginning, a rise above the baseline in the middle, and a return to a level near the baseline towards the end. The hope is that the workout program will set a new, higher baseline as the training cycle begins again.
The Fitness-Fatigue waves, when taken together, reveal the sum total of the training experience. They display how the athlete progresses in fitness and the toll the training takes on him. They also show how the athlete experiences some level of both fitness and fatigue at the same time in any given part of the training.
Another interesting facet of the Fitness-Fatigue waves is that there may be many different waves to chart for each. That is because the Fitness-Fatigue Model recognizes that there is more than one type of training stressors present. This model can show each of the specific training types on a different line for both fitness and fatigue. To get the overall effect, all the lines must be considered together.
Consequences of Theory Choice for Resistance Training
Learning about the Supercompensation Theory and the Fitness-Fatigue Theory is all very interesting, but there is a purpose beyond entertainment. Coaches and athletes can use this information to help them design more efficient, effective and safer workout programs and strategies. Using the theories correctly, elite athletes can reach a higher level of performance for competitions.
Most coaches will find an advantage in thoroughly studying, understanding and following one theory more than the other. Making that decision can bring with it many consequences in the way the coach and athlete think about training. Ultimately, it will likely change the results the athlete achieves in competition. Therefore, it is essential to make a considered choice.
Overreaching vs. Overtraining in the Two Theories
Overreaching can be a very helpful method in Periodized Resistance Training. This simply means going above the level the athlete is accustomed to in order to cause the body to change and adapt to a new level of fitness. This is done in short blocks, with adequate recovery and rest in between.
The Fitness-Fatigue Model can be used to design the program, with the new block starting as soon as fatigue is at a low level. Since fitness persists over a longer arc, the cumulative effect is a positive one. As long as overreaching is done in a systematic and controlled manner, it does not lead to overtraining. Instead, it results in progress over time in the performance abilities of the athlete.
Overtraining is often associated with careless use of Resistance Training. This happens when training intensity, volume or duration is overdone for too long without rest. Because the Supercompensation Model is based on a single set of outcomes, the temptation is to keep going until the end of the cycle. The Fitness-Fatigue Model encourages rest periods during the cycle because it is mindful of both the fitness and the fatigue factors at all times in the cycle.
Fundamental Training Ideas Related to Fitness and Fatigue
In order to create a well-designed workout program for an elite athlete, a thorough study of the Fitness-Fatigue Model makes sense. Taking advantage of knowledge about this theory will go a long way in helping athletes reach their performance goals. A few basic ideas will get the coach and athlete off to a good start.
- Follow the fitness and the fatigue waves to help determine when to do which exercises. When the athlete is at the beginning of the program, he should do the most fatigue-producing exercises. As the fatigue wave drops from those exercises, he can gain in fitness while doing less fatigue-producing exercises.
- Be aware of which exercises most greatly affect the fatigue wave and which are more noticeable on the fitness wave. Volume is more related to fatigue while intensity is more related to fitness.
- Rest is essential in any workout program. The beauty of the Fitness-Fatigue Theory is that it provides cues to follow in determining when to rest and when to get back to work. Rest needs to come at a time when the fitness curve has peaked and is going down again. The difficult work should never begin again when fatigue is still high.
- The fitness and fatigue curves can be used to predict the time of peak performance. It will occur when the fitness curve is high and the fatigue curve is somewhat low. By knowing this, the coach and the athlete can devise a training plan which takes advantage of the information to peak at the time of competition. Athletes can also benefit from a time of tapering in which the long-lasting fitness curve will remain high and the short, sharp dip in the fatigue curve is over.
- The complexity of the Fitness-Fatigue Model is a positive attribute of the theory for many reasons. It helps show exactly what is going on at every stage of training. It encourages reevaluation all along the way. It takes into account different types of training. Many coaches and athletes thrive with the help of the Fitness-Fatigue Model.
- An intelligent coach can use the Fitness-Fatigue Model as a guide before, during and after a training cycle. It can be used before the cycle to plan for training, after the cycle begins for reevaluation, and at the end of the cycle to determine when and how to start the next cycle. It is a very useful tool.
The Supercompensation Model and the Fitness-Fatigue Model have each been devised to explain how training affects the body. The two theories are set forward to describe the way workouts and long-term training affect the human body. Both models have supporters within the athletic community, although there are significant differences between the ways the two can be applied.
The two theories have some factors in common. For instance, they both recognize the fact that training has an initially negative effect on the body. Both account for gains in fitness after the initial dip in performance. The representation of the Supercompensation curve on a graph is similar to the representation of the total training effect of the Fitness-Fatigue Model. Yet, the two Models have many distinctions.
The most important difference is that the Fitness-Fatigue Model tells more of the story. It gives coaches and athletes more to go on in devising workout programs and evaluating progress. The Supercompensation Theory may have merits as it stands, but it leaves out a great deal of information that the Fitness-Fatigue Theory supplies. Therefore, it is the Fitness-Fatigue Model that offers the most help for elite athletes.
Loren Z.F. Chiu, MS, CSCS and Jacque L. Barnes. The Fitness-Fatigue Model Revisited: Implications of Planning Short-Term and Long-Term Training. National Strength and Conditioning Association: Volume 25, Number 6, pages 42-51.
Ahmed Munir Che Muhamed. Physiological Models of Fatigue During Exercise. ISN Bulletin: Volume 1, Number 2, 2008.
“Resting for Performance” Strength and Conditioning Fact Sheet.
Paige Kinucan and Kravitz, Ph.D. Overtraining: Undermining Success?