What is Overtraining?
Bojack Horseman and 8.2% cider on the sofa. Brilliant. The world’s most underrated comedy series and hallucinogenic cider.
But I’m tired, I’m taking naps in the middle of the day, I’m overly cranky and sleeping like shit. My girlfriend also thinks I’m being an unreasonable arsehole, which I am, but I can’t work out why.
Then it hits me like a beautifully delivered right cross; I am overtrained.
I’ve pushed my body beyond it’s limits. I’ve burnt the candle at both ends and I’ve been eating either:
a) Not enough (impossible)
b) Low quality food (and not enough protein) for a sustained period of time
c) Lots of fried shit (highly plausible)
How Overtraining Occurs
A little exercise is good for you, more is most likely better. But the stresses placed on the body during high-intensity weight training means there’s a tipping point where more is worse.
The tipping point of this ‘dose-response relationship’ is known as OTS (Overtraining Syndrome) and it can lead to:
- Increased Fatigue
In the middle of longer programs (12+ weeks) it’s extremely common for this to occur. If you work full time, train and have additional responsibilities and hobbies, overtraining is imminent and it’s your job to manage it. Train too hard for a long period of time and you could actually regress from a lifting perspective.
Continue doing this and it will affect your relationship(s), work, sleep etc. It can be a vicious cycle and if you’re working hard, training and ‘living’ then you need to know the signs of overtraining and how to manage them.
You can listen to me talk about them here on YouTube:
I have found it much easier to overtrain when powerlifting compared to bodybuilding. Compound, full body movements week in week are immensely mentally draining, so it’s important you know the core symptoms of overtraining.
Does Overtraining actually exist though?
Anecdotally I would say yes, but you could attribute it to 2 other factors:
- Lack of quality sleep
- Lack of quality (and quantity) nutrition
Not getting enough deep sleep doesn’t allow your body to adapt properly and your immune system doesn’t get the support it requires. As your body struggles with fatigue and inadequate muscle recovery, the energy usually saved for your immune system is used on your fading muscles.
Typically it’s not hard to eat enough to stave off the above. As long as you eat a sufficient amount of protein (0.8g / g of bodyweight is enough) and get enough good quality sleep, theoretically, your body would never run out of steam.
But we all work, have families and suffer mentally from time to time. Life and training isn’t perfect and you’re going to miss meals or a few hours sleep every week. The little niggles you don’t pick up on until it’s too late is a prime example of overtraining in my opinion.
If you’re not a professional athlete or don’t have a coach then my friend you are going to overtrain and shit the bed every once and a while.
The Top 7 Symptoms of Overtraining
Increased Fatigue: Of course training breaks down your muscles and causes fatigue, that’s an inevitability. But properly designed programs are created to incite eu-stressors (training stresses that influence positive adaptations), not dis-stressors (stresses outside of training that negatively impact performance).
Pushing beyond your limits for too long will cause fatigue and OTS, covered in this need to know guide to becoming a weightlifter.
Decreasing Performance: The whole purpose of a periodised program is to manage your performance and create a peaking cycle, so that you build up to optimal performance over a period of months, breaking through previous PR’s before resetting and starting again at a higher weight. If previously easy reps are now grinders, that’s a clear sign of overtraining, so take a few deep breaths and a week off to let your body recover.
Agitation and Anger: You get too tired, then worn out, then ridiculously cranky. If you’re in a relationship, it’ll probably suffer and your better half will think you’re being a piece of shit. Which you are of course. Pushing yourself too far for negative adaptations that ultimately impacts your actual life is incredibly obtuse. Look at one of those good vibes only memes on Instagram and pack in being a tit.
Restless Sleep and Insomnia: I’ve had this a lot. Night sweats, waking up 3-4 times a night, powerful, lifelike dreams… all signs of OTS.
Nagging Injuries: My lower back is a chronic source of pain and being overtrained makes this a lot worse. Weight training can be an all-encompassing hobby and you need to manage it properly. Injury prevention is one of the most important tools in your arsenal, strengthen your weak points and take recovery breaks where necessary.
Mild Depression: Sounds excessive but you start to feel like everything you’ve ever worked for is pointless, what you do is a waste of time and a real sense of worthlessness is not uncommon. This is definitely at the extreme end of OTS but one to be acutely aware of.
Toilet Trouble: No one likes an upset stomach, or diarrhoea. Neither will the people you live with.
Can Overtraining stunt Growth?
In short yes. Overtraining is typically more common towards the end of a mesocycle or when someone is cutting rather than bulking or maintenance. When you’re in a calorie deficit your body doesn’t have enough energy to properly recover.
As an adolescent you should never be missing out on calories, especially if you’re training hard. Not getting proper nutrition in your core growing phase would technically count as malnourishment, so don’t restrict your future self’s potential.
Now Read: How to Bulk for Beginners
Can Overtraining make you Fat?
Doing more exercise and eating less food can ‘technically’ make you gain weight. Unless you’re doing something severely wrong this is very unlikely to happen to you. When your body goes into starvation mode (restricted calories over a long period of time), it can start storing fat and burning muscle.
A high enough protein intake can help you combat this. A low protein diet leads to an accelerated loss of muscle and the body begins burning muscle as well as fat, causing the muscle cells to shrink.
Can Overtraining Cause Anxiety?
Stress causes an increase of hormones including epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol (the primary stress hormone). Cortisol increases glucose levels in the bloodstream and this enhances the brain’s use of glucose and the availability of substances that repair substances.
Training releases stressors into your system. Eu-stressors drive positive adaptations that force progress. As you continue to train and the weights get heavier and more mentally draining, these positive adaptations can become dis-stressors, which can even make you weaker. Stay in this zone for too long and your anxiety levels will hit the roof.
Can Overtraining make you Sick?
If you are legitimately ill you shouldn’t be lifting heavy weights. Period.
And lifting with too high a volume or intensity for an extended period of time can lead to all the above ailments. And make you sick as a dog.
The stress on your CNS can upset your stomach (directly linked to your brain) and cause stomach upsets. If you continually pick up coughs, colds or sore throats and struggle to lose them, it tends to be your body’s way of telling you to slow down and recover.
Training is incredibly stressful and whilst your body will adapt there’s a balance you must find that allows you to recover under your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume).
How long does Overtraining Syndrome last?
This depends on a few factors, so there isn’t a definitive answer.
For the average punter (most likely you) overtraining will last for around a week. Flu-like symptoms, stomach trouble, lack of energy and the like should disappear after a few days of rest and recovery.
If you take training more seriously then overtraining symptoms may last a little longer. You certainly won’t be back to full strength after a week of rest, so you need to work your way back up to it slowly.
But that’s the beauty of proper periodisation. Proper programming mitigates the risk of pushing yourself beyond your MRV (maximum Recoverable Volume). It does so by keeping volume and intensity sufficiently high enough to drive positive adaptations, but low enough to maintain it over a significant period of time.
If you push yourself too hard you can put yourself out for a few weeks, then you’ll become frustrated.
How do I stop Overtraining?
Stop training. In the short-term at least.
Take a deload week and give your body time to recover. When delaoding I still do some light(er) cardio and a few reps of core compound lifts at sub-70% of my 1RM.
I find doing nothing for a week + increases soreness and hampers the next fortnight of training. Keep active to increase the flow of nutrients round the body so impacted areas can recover.
How to Manage Overtraining
Rest and Recovery
You need proper sleep. Overtraining causes disrupted sleep patterns and a lack of REM sleep. If you’re also staying up later than usual or burning the candle at both ends you need to make a decision about what you care more about; going out or working out. Either is absolutely fine, but for long-term progress and a happier life, you need to find the right balance.
Eat. Seriously, eat. 2,500 calories a day is not enough to get strong for the average man. To get stronger and gain size you need proper nutrition. Get your calories primarily from the right sources and make sure you enjoy it; eating should never be a chore for the average person!
This study on exercise induced injuries highlights the importance of proper nutrition on recovery. At the more serious end, higher protein intakes of up to 2.5g/kg/day are useful for recovery and there is preliminary evidence to suggest omega-3’s can play a beneficial role.
Now Read: Is Whey Protein worth it?
A deload week is one of the most important tools in your programming block. Without a deload you can’t break through plateaus effectively (at an intermediate level) and it helps free your mind from the gym. Week in week out, consistently training with an ever-increasing intensity is mentally draining. Don’t be afraid of taking a week off, it’ll help you improve. An example training block would be:
- 6 weeks on
- 6 weeks on
- Test week
Reassess your Training Program
Are you following a truly periodised program? Is it setup to provide adequate breaks or provide a reduction in volume where appropriate?
If not this guide to Periodisation will help, but you must understand how important it is to take breaks, reduce volume, increase weights and drop accessory exercises at the right time.
For Olympic weightlifting in particular, speed is important. If reps grind and look even slower, it’s probably time for a break.
Most importantly in my opinion, look after your mental health. I’ve played a lot of sports over the years and I’ve found powerlifting the most emotionally draining. If you feel over-anxious about lifts, I would recommend doing some volume work instead or utilising a variation. Jonnie Candito discusses this in his overtraining video and I would say he’s spot on.
Have you found yourself overtraining? Let me know in the comments how you felt