A short discussion about “pattern overload”

I'd like to talk a little bit about pattern overload today.

Fundamentally, pattern overload happens when too many repetitions of a given motion or exercise are performed. You don't necessarily have to be using a lot of weight to incur pattern overload; your own bodyweight can be more than adequate…as can a one-pound dumbbell if the number of repetitions is high enough. Even typing can become a problem if you fail to alter your hand, wrist, chair and/or keyboard position on a regular basis.

Generally speaking, pattern overload isn't too much of an issue because even with high-rep activities like running or swimming, each time your foot hits the ground or your hand slices through the water, your body is going to use a slightly changed "groove" when executing the movement. A highly trained athlete might be performing in more or less exactly the same groove for a time, but in the long run, as you begin to tire, your groove will begin to become looser and although this means that your efficiency of movement will degenerate, it's one way that the body tries to stop itself from incurring an injury.

However, some types of exercise can be relatively worse for pattern overload than others. And this can create discomfort in your tendons and fascia. One example would be exercising on gym machines to an excessive degree. People who work out using free weights have a significantly lower rate of pattern overload than those who work only on machines. The reason? When you're working with a barbell or dumbbell the weight moves in accordance with your body, but when you're exercising on a machine your body moves along the machine's predetermined and fixed weight-track. Even Smith machines, which incorporate a minor level of flexibility, are much more limiting and permit less natural "body adjustment" as you go through your sets than free-weight barbells and dumbbells.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Crossfit. It's not that I disapprove of Crossfit in and of itself. I think that the essential idea of Crossfit - do something different each day, and keep good track of your rest times - has a lot of merit, and there's no doubt that the training is stimulating and fun. But there are some drawbacks as well, particularly when you view Crossfit in relation to tendon injuries.

At base, a Crossfit workout involves choosing two or three exercises for distaff bodyparts, and then doing a lot of those exercises using a predetermined weight for a set time. The down time between sets is normally about ten seconds, and you rotate between exercises. As an example, one of the videos on the website shows three women doing bodyweight squats, then pull-ups/presses on gymnastic rings, then hang cleans with a barbell.

If you simply do too much of a movement, even if that movement is something totally "free", like swimming, you can acquire tendon and fascia issues if you exercise so much that the amount exceeds your body's capacity to recover. And this is where I have a problem with Crossfit. Yes, it's true that on their site they pay a lot of lip service to not doing too much, but the reality is that they use technically complex movements (like cleans) and push to the point where correct form totally breaks down. It's not the greatest idea for younger athletes, and for older ones it's an almost sure-fire recipe for injury.

Naturally, you need to push yourself to some extent if you would like to make your body better. But there is a question of degree. Without getting into a long discussion about exercise theory, the bottom line is this: the idea is to provide enough stimulation to create an adaptation response, but not so much that it becomes too difficult to recover from the workout. As the great Lee Haney said, "Stimulate, don't annihilate." All too often, Crossfit crosses that boundary.

So if you're suffering from fascia or tendon pain and have an exercise program (or doing some form of work) that incorporates too much pattern overload -- either through limited and unnatural movement or by simply having too much volume -- think about ways that will allow you to reduce or get around the problem. (You can take the free test on this page to see what sort of pain it really is.) You don't have to stop exercising, but you will almost certainly be better off if you find ways to change up your routine a bit.

Author: Alex Nordach

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One Response to “A short discussion about “pattern overload””

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