The other day at the gym I was resting between sets and overhead a guy tell his trainer that he thought he was overtrained. He’d read an article on the subject and said that he was displaying most of the signs- he was tired, unmotivated, felt weak, etc. Sadly, his trainer did not dispute the claim, but simply asked if he felt alright and if he wanted to abandon the session. At this point I stopped listening and went back to my training, because continuing to hear this gibberish would inevitably result in me causing a scene. Let me explain…
Wikipedia defines overtraining as:
A physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual’s exercise exceeds their recovery capacity. They cease making progress, and can even begin to lose strength and fitness. Overtraining is a common problem in weight training, but it can also be experienced by runners and other athletes.
For the most part this is an acceptable definition, save for the part about it being a common problem in weight training. I’ve been going to the gym 4 days a week for the good part of a decade. I train for strength and compete at a high level in strength competitions, so my workouts are typically on the high end of the spectrum for volume or intensity. In other words, I train harder than most people who don’t lift things for a living. The number of times that I’ve been overtrained? Zero. And this includes the early years when I wasn’t smart about my programming and should have become overtrained given the definition above.
The part of the Wikipedia description that needs to be highlighted is “recovery capacity”. The concept of training is that of breaking down the body. The concept of recovery is the combination of activities done outside of training to repair the body and make it stronger. Overtraining is very difficult to achieve; under-recovering however, is very easy to accomplish. Back in my mid-20s I often felt worn-out but it wasn’t because I was overtraining, it was because I wasn’t eating properly, I didn’t have regular sleeping patterns and I was partying far too much; I was under-recovering.
Is it possible to overtrain? Absolutely it is- but you’ve got to have a pretty exceptional lifestyle to make this happen. Unless you are an elite athlete, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that you are overtraining. The human body is an incredible thing and under the right circumstances can adequately handle an amazing amount of stress.
In order to overtrain, you’ll need to first have all other aspects of your life in check:
- You have regular sleeping patterns of at least 8 solid hours of sleep per night
- You eat a nutritious diet, full of whole foods and adequate vitamins and minerals
- You increase your calories according to your workouts, replenishing amino acids and glycogen stores post-training
- You mobilize and take measures to help your muscles recover on off days
- You have little-to-no stress in your life
If you meet all of these criteria, but are experiencing fatigue, disinterest and compromised performance, you are likely overtraining. If you do not have these criteria covered (like the rest of the world), you are almost surely under-recovering. Please don’t go to the gym 6 times per week, eat like a slob, sleep 4 hours a night and claim to be overtrained. There are many variables in life that can hold you back from achieving your peak training performance, but overtraining is at the extreme end of the scale. I would actually venture to say that the majority of people who go to the gym 3-4 times a week (and actually push themselves) under-recover to some degree; life is busy, we have stress, it’s tough to eat right and get 8 hours of sleep every night. Just please don’t tell me that physical activity is causing your problems!
The idea is to tailor your physical training for your lifestyle. If you can’t get 8 hours of sleep per night, you probably shouldn’t have intense workouts every day. If you can’t maintain a proper diet, you can’t expect your muscles to adequately recover. I’ve found that as long as I keep my nutrition and sleep patterns in check (for the most part), I can train like a madman 3-4 times a week and continue to see results. When my schedule gets hectic and my nutrition and sleep patterns are compromised, my training takes a hit. I try to see this coming however, and tailor my programming to have lower intensity/volume workouts during these weeks (aka deload weeks).
Long story short, overtraining should most often be seen as under-recovering, and instead of taking time off from the gym, try to concentrate your efforts on intelligent programming and improving your diet, sleep patterns and recovery techniques. Sure, it’s easy to find ambiguous excuses like “overtraining”, but excuses won’t lead to progress!
For more information on how to improve recovery or how to program for sustainable results, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!