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“Am I overtraining?”
As a serious lifter, you’ve probably had this question once or twice before. And it is a good question to ask yourself, especially if you feel beat up.
The good news is, with the wealth of information we have today, it’s easy to learn about anything you wish.
And the access to information has its perks:
You no longer need to eat all your carbs before 6 PM for fear of getting fat.
You no longer need to take every set to failure if you want muscle growth.
And you certainly don’t need to spend 3 hours at the gym, doing high-rep workouts to get huge.
Yet, there is one truth out there that many perceive as a myth, and we need to clear it up.
The myth: overtraining is a lie told by the lazy people.
The truth: overtraining does exist, and it’s as real as the protein in the chicken breast you had for lunch.
So, in this post, you’ll learn everything there is to know about overtraining and what to do to never reach that state again.
Let’s dive right in!
Overtraining is a state you reach when the stress from training overcomes your body’s ability to recover and adapt. When that happens, you start getting signs from your body that it’s time to lay off the grind for a while.
There is a thin line between ‘training hard and making progress’ and ‘training hard and overtraining yourself’. And we often cross that line.
We grind out set after set, spend a decent amount of time in the gym most days of the week, and often push ourselves into having a ‘good workout’.
What do I mean by this?
Well, sometimes you feel like crap. Your performance is bad, strength is low, motivation is low, and so on. This doesn’t mean that you are overtrained. It means that it’s not your day.
And what do most people do?
They push themselves, despite their body telling them to take it down a notch.
And by pushing the body to its limits for months at a time without any rest, they become overtrained. They get weak, lose motivation to train, lose appetite, and sometimes they even get depressed.
Need I say it? Yeah, bad stuff you want to avoid.
“But.. but.. you said..”
Yes, I know. I kind of contradict everything I wrote above, but hear me out:
Overtraining means you’ve likely done too much for what your body can handle. But it ALSO means you’ve put enough effort into your workouts, for long enough, to get there.
The average lazy asses can’t overtrain themselves. Hell, they will look at the way you train and call you crazy.
But if you’re disciplined to push through your workouts week in and week out, don’t feel bad about yourself if you overtrain a little.
Being willing to put in the effort to get somewhere with training is not something everyone can do. But you can!
And that matters.
Talk to any serious lifter about this stuff and he will most certainly tell you that they’ve overreached a few times.
Talk to most of the average gym goers and they’ll either lie, telling they have, or admit that they’ve never pushed themselves hard enough to overtrain.
And that is the difference between those who get jacked and strong and those who look the same for years. The willingness to see where your limits are and go a little further.
After that, you’ll have a much better understanding of your body and how much is too much.
Now, I don’t recommend overtraining yourself all the time to prove something to the undedicated. I’m stating that everyone who is serious enough about lifting has or will likely get overtrained at one point or another.
Let’s get into the 7 most common signs your body would give you when you do too much and overtrain.
Getting odd aches all over your body is a good sign that you should ease off the gas a bit.
Unlike actual injuries, these pains usually pass in a matter of days if you let your body recover. So, if you’ve been getting a high number of pain-points lately, take it as a warning sign.
Getting sick more often (or being unable to shake off a cold for a long time) is another good sign that you’re overtraining.
Because you’re putting your body through a lot of training, there comes a point where it starts pulling off resources from other places to meet the high demands of recovery.
Hence, your immune system could weaken in favor of nerve, muscle & joint recovery.
Training acutely raises your epinephrine and norepinephrine levels. These hormones, known as the “fight or flight” hormones are responsible for things such as:
Awesome stuff when you’re trying to rip off 500 pounds off the floor..
..or run away from a bear.
But not so much when you’re laying in your bed, trying to fall asleep.
If you’re having trouble recovering well from training, these hormones may not have the chance to get back to normal resting levels. And this could leave you wired and unable to fall asleep (or stay asleep) at night.
Sleeplessness can be caused by a lot of other things such as consuming caffeine later in the day.
Take a look at your day-to-day life before saying “THAT’S IT. I’M OVERTRAINED!”.
Yet another sign that could be linked to overtraining. When your body can’t handle the external stress caused by training, it puts less priority on eating and digestion.
Since food digestion forces your body to put some resources into it, it could be difficult to do so and could cause diarrhea and a loss of appetite.
Loss of appetite and diarrhea can also be caused by other things like viruses, so look out for other symptoms such as nausea and high fever. You’re not necessarily overtrained just because you don’t feel like eating.
Your body’s main goal is to keep you alive. Period.
In fact, it is very good at doing that. And when it has to deal with more stress than it can handle, reproduction goes down on the priority list for a while.
The drop in testosterone levels is the main reason this occurs but there might be other factors.
Having low sex drive and inability to hold an erection are good signs that you have too much stress in your life. Especially so if you’re in your teens, 20’s and 30’s.
The most surefire way to be certain that you are overtraining is by monitoring your performance at the gym.
If you feel weaker than normal and the tendency only goes down over time, it’s likely a sign that you need a break.
Symptoms of decreased performance include:
This should not be confused with having one bad workout. It takes some bad workouts in a row to draw conclusions.
Also, if your nutrition and sleep have been crappy lately, this could also be the problem, so take care of those.
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a normal workout feeling drained and asking yourself:
“How the hell am I going to finish this? I’m only halfway through!”.
Feeling this once is not a sign of overtraining. Sometimes we build up more stress in a normal day and our performance in the gym takes a hit.
But if you consistently feel drained in the middle of your workouts, this could be a sign that you need a break.
Now that we’ve covered the most common signs, I want to say a few extra words about them:
Although each of these symptoms can be caused by overtraining, it’s unlikely for any of them to appear on their own.
If you reach a state of overtraining, depending on how severe it is, you are likely going to experience a blend of all the symptoms at the same time.
As I mentioned a few times already, overtraining shouldn’t be confused with being plain tired that one day.
Lots of things can contribute to having a single bad workout. Such are:
Life happens sometimes and we can’t always follow through with things perfectly. If you find yourself having a bad workout that one time try and figure out what actually caused it.
Never assume you’re overtrained because of that. We all have them. It’s a part of training. Get over it and lift some more.
Reaching a state of overtraining is not that easy. You’re more resilient than you think. But, there still is the possibility.
Luckily, there are ways to make sure you never get there. And I’m going to give you my top 6 tips:
We all have different work capacities and levels of tolerance when it comes to training stress.
Some guys recover well from high-frequency, high-volume training. Others can’t deal with that much training every week.
Factors such as genetics, age, training history, job (or lack thereof), and lifestyle all affect how well you can recover from your training.
Because of that, how you train can’t be exactly the same as other people.
Following some cookie-cutter-get-ripped-in-3-weeks program won’t do you any good because of that fact. You need to either:
a) Follow a good and proven program and make small tweaks over time to suit you;
I’ve written more in-depth about deload & recovery weeks here.
A deload/recovery week is one designed to help you recover after weeks or months of hard training.
During this week you either completely skip the gym (recovery week) or go in but do easy and effortless workouts (deload week) just to get some blood flowing.
You can choose to have a deload week scheduled every 6-10 weeks or go by feel and take one once you start feeling overtrained.
I prefer the first option as I like treating such a week as preventive medicine. I use it to avoid getting overtrained, not to cure myself once I’m exhausted.
The human body needs calories to grow and repair itself so it is important to respect that.
When most guys struggle to put on size and recover from their workouts, it often has to do with just that – poor nutrition.
They put a lot of emphasis on training but their nutrition sucks. If you are like that, you can probably relate to what I’m saying.
There’s no way around it – you need to get your diet in check if you want to recover well and make progress.
Here are the 3 things you should do:
If you want to put on muscle mass, you should eat in a small 150-200 calorie surplus. That way, you can gain muscle and recover from your training without getting fat.
But, if you’re looking to lose some fat, understand that while in a caloric deficit, your recovery is going to be somewhat impaired. There is no way around it.
I also urge you to consider mostly whole foods as a base for your diet rather than junk. Sure, both can help you reach your caloric needs for the day, but the quality of the calories matters even more.
The rules for macronutrients are pretty simple:
1. Eat 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Eat on the lower side if you’re at a higher body fat percentage and/or eating in a surplus. Eat on the upper side if you’re pretty lean and/or eating in a caloric deficit.
2. Eat 0.4 to 0.6 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight. Fats are essential in regulating many different processes in your body and a bare minimum should always be consumed, no matter what.
3. Dedicate the remaining calories to carbohydrates. Also, aim to eat about 10 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories you consume.
The benefits of drinking water are far too many to list here. Here are 8:
For about 5 years now, I’ve had the habit of drinking enough water every day. No matter what.
What I’ve found was that not only does water enhance you in many ways, but now my body reminds me to drink water without me having to think about it.
Should I go longer than an hour without drinking water, I get thirsty, especially during the warm months.
As for how much water to drink, there are certain guidelines to follow. It all depends on how much you weigh, how active you are, what is the climate you live in, and your age.
Here’s how it goes:
(ml/kilogram of body weight)
Young adult 16 — 30 years
35 — 40 ml / kg
Adult 31 — 54 years
30 — 35 ml / kg
Adult 55 — 65 years
30 ml / kg
(fl oz/pound of body weight)
Young adult 16 — 30 years
0.54 — 0.6 fl oz / lb
Adult 31 — 54 years
0.46 — 0.54 fl oz / lb
Adult 55 — 65 years
0.46 fl oz / lb
If you live in a warmer climate, sweat more, and are generally more active, you can drink a bit more than the recommendations.
But, if it’s cold where you are, you don’t sweat much, and you’re mostly sitting during the day, you can drink a bit less.
A lot of people today sacrifice a part of their sleep to have more hours left for work, studies, and more. But the irony is, sleeping less lowers your performance and any extra time spent awake is more or less wasted.
This is because the lack of sleep accumulates over time in what’s called sleep debt. The more consecutive nights you sleep less than you should, the more your sleep debt increases.
This puts you in a state of underperformance, lack of focus, decreased athletic abilities, and more.
According to most studies, the average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night to function at optimal levels. 8 hours is a good mark to aim for. If you’re still a teenager, sleeping more will do you more good.
Not only does sleeping enough help you learn & perform better, but it also improves your athletic abilities.
Still, there is a small percentage of the population that can get by on less sleep due to genetic variations. But that number is low and you’re more likely down in the pit with the rest of us mortals.
One of the best tips I can give anyone new to lifting is to control their fatigue on each set. What I mean by this is to leave some energy in the tank at the end of the set.
What this does is it helps you perform better for your later sets and workouts.
When you take a set to failure, you give it all you have. You cannot control & move that weight anymore. And that’s tough on your body.
The amount of time it would take you to recover from an all-out (or AMRAP) set is way longer than your rest period. And this is where the problem occurs.
Because a set taken to failure exhausts you, all your remaining sets suffer and are less productive.
Imagine this scenario:
Person A and Person B walk into the gym together to do some arm work.
Both take turns doing sets of close-grip bench press as a first exercise.
Being equally strong for the sake of this example, they load up 100 kilos on the bar and start doing sets.
Person A does 4 sets, each taken to failure. On the first set, he manages to get 14 reps. But that takes its toll. His next sets go roughly as follows:
Set 2: 7 reps
Set 3: 5 reps
Set 4: 4 reps
Total repetition count: 30 (he could get slightly more or less, this is a rough estimate).
Now, person B is much more methodical with how he trains. He understands that managing his fatigue is much more important than showing off or feeding his ego.
He gets 9 reps on each set, stopping short of failure on each set and only reaches failure on the last set due to the accumulated fatigue.
Total repetition count: 36 (again, he can get slightly more or less, this is just an estimate).
From what we can see, person B does a whole 6 reps more than person A with the same load.
Big whoop, right? Who cares?
Well, I do. And you should, too.
You see, training volume is one of the most important factors in muscle growth and strength development. As we said already, generally doing more work will net more results. But to do more work, you can’t go all out on each set.
That would be stupid.
That is why managing your fatigue like our fella above is a much better way to build up more volume.
A single set won’t give much of a difference. But in the span of months, the extra volume will get you more gains while having a lower risk of injury or frying your central nervous system.
As a last tip, I’d like to give you guys something easy and intuitive to work with. It goes like this:
Feeling good and making progress? Do a little more.
Feeling crap and stagnating? Do a little less. Or deload.
It’s simple and reliable to listen to your body. Even when following the best-written programs, bottlenecks will happen. And it’s your responsibility to acknowledge them and take a step back.
But, when you feel great and you’re smashing all your PRs at the gym, you can afford to do a bit more work. The most reliable way to make progress in the gym is to do more work over time.
Still, what you should do is find the sweet spot of volume and not do too much or too little.
First things’ first. What exactly is work capacity?
Work capacity refers to the total amount of work your body is capable of handling, recovering from, and adapting positively to.
Work capacity has 4 main factors affecting it:
1.Muscles, tendons, joints – can they handle the work you’re putting on them without you getting injured?
2.Aerobic (momentarily) – can your aerobic system produce enough energy required to push through a workout?
3.Metabolic (long-term) – can your body prevent muscle protein breakdown and stimulate muscle protein synthesis for muscle growth?
4.What is your life outside the gym like? – Life stress, nutrition, sleep.
Generally, the less life stress you have, the more food you eat and the more you sleep, the better your tolerance for stress in the gym will be.
If you sleep 5 hours a night, worry about 1000 different things, eat mostly junk food and don’t hydrate yourself, your work capacity will decrease. That’s how it works.
Work capacity might not seem as important to you but understand this:
There will come a point where the least amount of work required for you to make gains will surpass your work capacity. This will lead you to either hit a plateau or reach a state of overtraining.
So, in that case, most guys can’t figure out what’s happening. They plateau, get frustrated and look the same for months at a time. The goal in this situation is to raise your work capacity and go from this:
There is no way around it. You need to increase your work capacity if, of course, you want to make steady gains over time.
Reaching your genetic limit involves the inability to increase your work capacity further.
Since work capacity is such a crucial element of long-term progress in the gym, we all should work on increasing it as time goes by.
There are 3 main ways to go about it:
There are 3 main ways to program your training:
In this category, your training blocks (cycle, usually 2-4 weeks long) are each dedicated to a certain repetition range. Here is an example:
Week 1-4: 10-12 repetitions
Week 5-8: 6-10 repetitions
Week 9-12: 1-5 repetitions
Keep in mind that this is just an example. The repetition ranges can be changed to whatever you want. This is just a variable in the programming scheme.
Block programming is where you dedicate an entire cycle(2-4 weeks) of training focusing on just one thing. Here’s an example:
Week 1-4: Muscle growth focus; high volume approach, working with smaller % of 1RM(<75%), more repetitions, more sets, less rest between sets, reaching failure appropriately, drop sets, supersets, etc.
Week 5-8: Strength gain focus; high-intensity approach, working with higher % of 1RM(>75%), fewer reps, longer rest periods, use of lifting belts & straps.
Week 9-12: Power & explosiveness focus; working with 40-60% of 1RM, focusing on moving the weight as quickly and as explosively as you can, 1-3 rep sets, 8-16 total sets, very short rest between sets.
c)Daily Undulating Programming(DUP)
DUP, unlike the above 2 types has you focus on a different thing every workout, hence the name.
With it, your training is highly dynamic and no 2 workouts in a row that ever feel the same. I find it the most engaging and easy to follow.
Here’s an example of what it looks like, using a push/pull/legs training split:
Day 1: Push/Hypertrophy(10-12 reps, moderate intensity)
Day 2: Pull/Power(1-3 reps, low intensity)
Day 3: Legs/Strength(4-6 reps, high intensity)
DUP is great because it allows you to focus on many things (strength, power, growth) within the same week while helping you progress more and stall less.
This type of periodization applies to both powerlifters and bodybuilders because you can vary the ratios between H-P-S. It doesn’t need to be 1:1:1.
For example, say you bench press twice per week and are a bodybuilder.
You can alter the ratio to whatever you prefer and you can drop the power work if you wish in favor of more strength & hypertrophy workouts. The choice is yours.
Now, if you want, you can follow a proven strength program.
The popular myth that cardio is sabotaging your gains can’t be further from the truth. It is true that cardio burns calories, which when not compensated with more food, will lead you to plateau and not being able to get bigger.
But there is a simple way to counter that: on days when you do cardio, eat a bit more food. Depending on the duration of the session, eat 100-500 extra calories and voila. You’re good.
A good cardiovascular condition is crucial for long-term progress in the gym.
Your aerobic capacity could be sabotaging your training and gains. This is especially important for higher repetition work, drop sets, supersets, etc.
Your aerobic capacity can influence how many repetitions you can do in max-effort workouts and AMRAP sets.
Your program calls for an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set on the squat. You do a few repetitions, but you go out of breath on the 12th rep where your legs and back could have handled 8 more reps.
In this scenario, you’ve shot yourself in the foot by leaving those 8 extra reps on the table. And, more importantly, the gains that could have come with them.
Say you’re doing a high-volume arm workout and are super setting your biceps and triceps to save some time.
If the first part of the superset leaves you gasping for air, how can you know that you’ve effectively hit the second muscle on the second part of the superset?
Your lungs could be getting more work than your triceps!
Over the years, I’ve seen all types of people in the gym and I’ve noticed a common trend among a lot of them:
They’ve got no endurance.
I’ve seen a big dude gasping for air mid-set on a dumbbell row exercise and resting as much as a whole minute and a half before catching enough breath to finish his set.
If you find yourself getting out of breath on normal sets like that, and you’ve had to cut a set short because your face got blue, then you sir need to get your ass on the treadmill for 20 minutes, 3 times per week.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing about forcing your body to adapt to stress and increasing the volume you put yourself through is no different.
Adding more work to each workout is going to make your body adapt and get better at handling that stress.
There are many ways to go about it:
Being able to do the same amount of work in less time is a form of progressive overload and that is a key component of progress.
There are a million things you can do in the gym to improve. But, none of them matter if the rest of your day is spent poorly. By poorly I mean stuff like:
Things like that are often the reason why you could be struggling in the gym. It’s important to take care of yourself if you want results.