Could overtraining be the reason you’re not making progress?
In most of walks of life you’re told that hard work pays off. If you work harder then good things will come. You’ll get a better job, earn more money, drive a faster car, or whatever it is that you consider to constitute success. But when it comes to fitness it’s not quite the same. Because overtraining is a real thing. And it could be the one thing that’s holding back your progress.
You’re hitting the weights hard in every workout. And those workouts are lasting several hours. And maybe even multiple times per day. Because you want to achieve your goals so bad that you’re committed to putting in the effort.
But no matter how much you keep toiling away in the gym you never really see the progress you expect. And worse still others around you seem to be making better progress doing a lot less. So what figures? Why is it these guys and girls are outstripping your progress. Relative to you, their slackers.
If any of that resonates with you then the next few minutes you spend reading this article could turn that around. Because you could be showing the classic signs of overtraining.
More, more, more does not always lead to more, more, more.
In this article, you’re going to find out all about the topic of overtraining. And how it can potentially impact how quickly (or slowly) you achieve your goals.
You’ll find out what overtraining exactly is, how to spot the signs, and most importantly what to do about it.
So let’s get into the detail and give you the knowledge you need to make sure you don’t fall into the overtraining trap.
What is Overtraining?
Firstly, true overtraining is actually a very difficult to state to get into. A couple of tough workouts that leave you feeling a little tired and sore does not constitute overtraining.
In fact, most people that think they’re overtraining are almost definitely not.
One thing overtraining is not is simply training too much. Unfortunately, it gets a little more complex than that.
Overtraining is a lot less common than people think. It’s actually pretty difficult to overtrain if you have some of the basics in place. For example, a typical person following an Iron Paradise Fitness coaching programme may do something like this:
- Workout 3-5 times per week
- Perform 3-6 hours of resistance training per week
- Do 30-90 mins of cardio per week (depending on goals and circumstances).
- Be in a calorie deficit of up to 20% (if losing weight)
- Follow a high protein diet
- Keep a balanced approach across carbs and fat
So far, I’ve not experienced anybody with true signs of overtraining following that basic set up
And let me tell you this approach definitely works.
In addition to that basic approach, every week I’ll be monitoring and tweaking programmes to ensure clients steer clear of any overtraining risks.
And that’s done through techniques that have a proven positive impact on overtraining. Habit coaching, rating / judging mood, and tracking data such as bodyweight and training performance are all great ways to help pick up the signs of overtraining. But the most important method is talking, which is sadly lacking in a lot of online coaching programmes.
The open and honest dialogue is crucial and sometimes FAR more important than numbers on a page.
The definition of overtraining
So at this point, let’s dig into the detail a bit further and look at the “sciencey” definition of overtraining.
“A general term for any practice of, or training for, a particular sport which is in excess of that necessary to effectively participate in the sport. Overtraining increases the physical stress on specific parts of the musculoskeletal system, and increases the risk of injury.” WebMD (link website here).
Ok. that was nice, but probably still leaves you wondering exactly what this overtraining thing is all about.
A better way to understand it is to look at some of the symptoms.
The 7 signs of overtraining
In my experience there’s 7 signs that could indicate you’re overtraining. And usually you’d be experiencing multiple things from the list if you’re truly overtraining. Because remember, overtraining is not feeling tired and having a couple of shitty workouts. That’s just the ups and downs of life.
So pens and pencils at the ready, let’s see how many of these you can tick:
1. Struggling with workouts
Your workouts might be feeling particularly hard (more so than normal). Weights you used to find easy are now a struggle and a massive pain in the ass. But don’t get that confused with the natural loss in strength you will undoubtedly experience on a weight cut. Only start to sit up and take notice when you have to drop weights by more than about 10%.
2. Can’t be arsed
If you’ve got a lack of motivation to train, this could be a sign that you’re overtraining. If you normally bounce to the gym like a kangaroo on speed, but recently motivation has hit rock bottom, then don’t ignore what your body might be telling you. That lethargy could be your body setting off one of the alarm bells.
3. Feeling depressed
The impact of overtraining extends beyond your time in the gym. And it isn’t confined to only things that are exercise related things. Because overtraining can negatively impact your mental state and well-being.
4. Permanent DOMS
Tough workouts are part and parcel of the process. And soreness in the days after those training sessions are perfectly normal. DOMS (or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness to give it the moniker) is that muscle soreness feeling you sometimes get c. 24-48 hours after training.
Basically, when you feel like you need a carer to ease you down onto the bog after a tough leg session, that’s DOMS.
But that feeling should last for a relatively short period of time. 1-2 days at the most is about normal. And if you’re new to training or implement some new exercises that periof of time might increase a little.
But to be in the classification of overtraining those need to be prolonged and sustained.
Lingering soreness is the alarm bell you need to be aware of here. If you train legs and are still feeling soreness several days later there could be a sign that something’s up. And don’t be the fool that goes ahead and trains anyway. Because that’s just going to make the problem worse!
5. Lack of sleep and always tired
If you are constantly pushing your body to its limits day in and day out then there’s the potential for the nervous system to become over stimulated. And the evidence suggests that the lack of proper rest can cause overtraining syndrome. So if you’re wide awake when you should be sleeping. Or waking up in the middle of the night, then it could be your training volume and intensity that needs to be called into question.
Additionally, symptoms of overtraining can manifest themselves in a different way in relation to tiredness and rest. Because even if you’re getting enough sleep, overtraining can cause you to feel perpetually tired during the day. This chronic level of tiredness is a sure sign that you’re overtraining.
6. You ache like a 90 year old Grandma
Heavy weight training doesn’t come without risk. If you’re not careful you can drop a significant amount of weight on your face, which probably wouldn’t be the best idea you’ve ever had.
And outside of those more extreme risks, there’s other aspects of weight training that you need to be aware of. Because several weeks of lifting heavy can take its toll on the body.
Your joints can ache and you can get pains that aren’t the type you would expect from your normal training. For example, I know it’s time to dial things back when I get joint pains in my shoulders. I like to incorporate lots of heavy pressing movements into my programme, which need to be managed correctly over time.
Those aches and pains are a warning sign. And again, like the other symptoms I’ve mentioned, don’t blindly ignore the warning signs. Do so at your own peril. And trust me when I say it’s not pleasant. In the past I’ve had to take months off training because I didn’t listen to my body. And I don’t want you to make that same mistake.
However, I should say that you shouldn’t confuse these types of aches and pains with those caused by bad form and a lack of flexibility. Paying no attention to proper technique and lifting weights badly is not a sign of overtraining. More often than not it’s a sign you’re favouring ego over what’s right.
7. You’re always ill
Getting ill more often than normal could be a sign that overtraining is having a negative impact on your immune system.
So if you find yourself trying to squeeze your training in between bouts of sickness you need to take a step back and evaluate things. Trying to push the body to breaking point will eventually result in it doing just that.
Are you the main cause of your overtraining symptoms?
Do you just love to train?
And I put myself in this category. You train because you like the way it makes you feel. You love the gains, but you also love the process.
And that’s great in one respect. Loving the process means you’re unlikely to get those dips in motivation. Getting your ass through the door of the gym isn’t going to be a problem for you. The gym is a bit like a drug.
But this search for the “gym fix” can lead to its own problems. Being addicted to the gym can lead you to indulge in behaviours that will stagnate and even regress your progress.
Training excessively, pushing yourself too hard, too long, too often might give you something to boast about on Instagram. But it’s probably doing you more harm than good.
#nodaysoff is an attitude that does nobody any favours
And then you look at your favourite fitness or bodybuilding model on IG. Maybe they boast of epic training sessions, no pain no gain, no days off.
Or maybe they post a meme like this. [insert meme image] “rest day? what is the rest muscle and how do I train it?”.
All sound humorous on face value, but it can create the wrong mindset and end up damaging your progress.
And it’s worth pointing out that those “epic” training session your favourite model is boasting of are only epic because they’re probably injecting themselves with a few milligrams of something you won’t see on offer on your favourite supplement website.
So be careful of following these types of programmes and this advice.
Ultimately, you could be your own worst enemy. Your desire to smash yourself to oblivion could be your downfall. And your inability to take a day off and rest is only compounding the problem!
What else causes Overtraining symptoms?
Cortisol: The stress hormone and its role in overtraining
Overloading your nervous, hormonal, and immune systems can also cause symptoms of overtraining to manifest themselves. Paul Carter quite aptly calls this the ‘Workout Hangover’.
For example, overloading the hormonal system can lead to the production of too much cortisol.
And what’s cortisol you ask? Well, Cortisol plays an role in the body. And it’s production is triggered as a response to stress in the body. Cortisol helps break down glycogen and fat stores for energy (that bit sounds good, right?).
But it also breaks down muscle proteins (not so good). But that’s not really the issue to concern yourself with right now. Because good pre and post workout nutrition will mean you have pretty much nothing to worry about.
The bottom line is that you don’t want cortisol levels to be high. Because if they are, there’s a knock-on impact to other hormones in the body that are beneficial for building muscle and losing body fat.
At its most basic level cortisol, testosterone, and oestrogen are all produced from pregnenolone (another hormone). So if cortisol is high, then you’ve got less pregnenolone left to produce testosterone.
And that’s not ideal. Because testosterone is a key driver for building lean muscle.
The net effect of all of increased cortisol and reduced testosterone is this;
- less muscle
- more fat
- increased water retention
- lack of sex drive. Yes boys, morning wood disappears and you have no desire to satisfy the woman in your life (if you have one).
In summary, from a hormonal perspective you’d be wise to avoid overtraining at all costs.
How about going ‘balls in’ instead of ‘balls out’ all the time?
Training at maximum intensity ALL the time can take its toll.
Getting psyched up for a lift, tensing every muscle and sinew before you hit that set might help you eek out that extra 2-3% but it could be at a cost. All out efforts require more recovery than holding a little in reserve.
It’s not necessary to train all out like you’re in a powerlifting competition every workout. Yes, train hard, but know that there’s a time and place within a well-constructed programme to do that.
Tension throughout the body can help force production and help you lift more weight. But you need to strike that balance.
For example, from time to time when I’m bench pressing, I like to keep my head and neck as relaxed as possible during the lift. And I select a weight that I know I can lift well. It’s this approach that really allows me to focus on technique.
Just check out some of the best strength programmes and powerlifters out there. They build to a competition. They don’t do max training all year round. And neither should you.
Focus on muscle contraction, technique, speed of the movement, and you’ll get a really good amount of muscle growth. There’s a time and place for the balls to the wall training. It just isn’t every minute of every workout.
How to prevent overtraining
Preventing overtraining is a lot easier than dealing with after the event. Because getting over proper overtraining can take months. It’s not simply a matter of taking a couple of days off. More often than not there’s psychological as well as physiological issues to address.
So here’s what you can be doing right now to prevent overtraining become a beast that you have to tame.
Get some sleep
You’ve already seen that sleep is an important part of the process, so don’t be tempted to neglect it.
Getting around 8 hours of high quality sleep will do you the power of good. Your body can rest, recover, and repair. Ultimately it can turn the potential for progress into reality.
And to get that good quality of sleep, limit the use of devices emitting blue light, ie phone, tablets, and laptops at least one hour before bed. In addition to that make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible and set the temperature to a coolish 15-20 degrees.
Eat as much food as possible
So I don’t mean you can eat 10,000 calories a day just to prevent overtraining. No. What I mean is that you should be eating the most amount of calories possible for you to achieve your goals.
For instance, if your goal is fat loss then you’re going to be in a calorie deficit (at least you should be). And that calorie deficit could be anywhere from 10-20% depending on your circumstances.
So if you can achieve your goal eating in a 15% deficit then do that. Don’t needlessly drop your calories to a 30, 40, or 50% deficit. Because it’s not going to lead to exponentially more fat loss. In fact, it’s probably going to fuck you right up (that’s my scientific term for it).
And on top of that, make sure protein is high. Because this is going to aid the recovery process significantly and give your body the fuel it needs to recover and build more lean muscle.
Basically, eat like a normal human person and don’t starve yourself for no reason.
Chill the fuck out
Now this is easier said than done. Because there’s a whole bunch of reasons why you could be stressed out. Work stress, family problems, and financial worries are all common. And adding these things on top of everything else can lead you into that state of emotional meltdown.
Find ways to destress and switch your mind to a more positive thoughts as much as possible. Personally, I’ve found that being ruthless in these scenarios really help. For example, if you have so-called ‘friends’ bringing negativity into your life, then remove them from your life. And before someone smacks me with a lawsuit, I clearly mean don’t be friends with them rather than take a hit out on them. This is a fitness article, not a script for The Godfather Part IV.
Ultimately, you need to find what works for you because it’s different for everybody. One piece I’d give you is don’t allow yourself to stress about your body image. Achieving your goals is going to take time. So stressing about trying to shift 10kg in 4 weeks is not the right approach.
Now that all got a bit deep, so let’s peel you off the psychiatrist’s couch and move on to the 4th and final point.
Take a holiday from the gym
Yes it might sound like crazy talk, but a bit of time away from the gym on a regular basis will actually do you a massive favour. Your precious joints can take a well earned rest from all that heavy lifting. And then there’s the mental break. Often overlooked but still crucially important.
And if the thought of a full week out of the gym is bringing you out in a cold sweat, I’ve got two things to say to you.
Firstly, have a word with yourself. A week of not lifting won’t kill you and it certainly won’t cause your muscles to turn to mush.
Secondly, you could try a deload week. And that’s basically where you dial the weights you’re lifting by 50%. Essentially, you’re keeping the muscles moving, which gives you the feeling of being active, but the intensity and stress is minimal
What role do supplements play in dealing with overtraining?
If you’ve read any of my articles before you’ll know I’m not the biggest fan of dosing up on supplements. And there’s going to be no change to that right now.
A good diet that is high in protein is going to aid your recovery and reduce the risk of overtraining. If you add on top of that good quality foods for the majority of your diet, ie lots of fresh meat, fish, and vegetables then your body will be getting the right micronutrients it needs to keep your engine purring.
But having said that, there’s a couple of supplements that could help you avoid the overtraining scenario
- Creatine – Helps reduce muscle soreness.
- Whey – For that convenient, high quality protein hit before and after training (not essential though, because you can just eat regular food).
- Multivitamin – Not essential if you have a balanced diet. But as they’re usually low cost you can have them just to be sure.
- Fish Oil – Omega 3 fats are proven to assist in the reduction of inflammation. So if oily fish isn’t part of your diet then consider supplementation.
And that’s it for supplements. I’m sure there’s several thousand supplements out there that claim to help with the symptoms of overtraining. But my advice is to stick to the basics. Simple as that.
The final word on overtraining
If you’re training harder and harder but the gains aren’t coming. You’re smashing every workout in the gym. You’re there for hours, sometimes twice a day. And you’re doing a ton of cardio on top. Your nutrition is spot on, but you’re not seeing the results. Then it’s worth assessing if you could be falling foul of overtraining.
Overtraining isn’t a simple case of working out too much. It’s an amalgamation of physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental, and chemical stresses. A multitude of things contribute to that feeling of overtraining
However, even if you’re not overtrained (by the strict definition), you can still suffer some of the effects. Most of which will be the result of a crap training programme and shitty diet
An article on T-Nation describes it as being “Overtaxed” (nothing to do with the Inland Revenue). And here’s a bullet point list from that article showing the signs.
Signs of being Overtaxed
- Lack of morning erection or marked decrease in sex drive and performance
- Sudden increase in subcutaneous water retention
- Flat-feeling muscles
- Noticeable decrease in grip strength (the bar will feel thicker or heavier)
- Decrease in explosiveness (vertical jump goes down)
- Weights feel heavier on your joints
- Lifting movements feel less precise, out of the groove
- Increase in resting blood pressure
- Itchy eyes
- Lingering soreness
- More frequent or long-lasting illnesses
- Takes longer to “get started” upon waking up
- Feeling like the day after a night out or having a hangover
Whether you’re overtrained or overtaxed the main point is that there’s some basic things you can do to start getting yourself back on track.
Getting back on track
- Set up your diet properly to aid recovery (high protein and balanced carbs and fat).
- Keep calories as high as possible to achieve your goals.
- Focus on good pre and post workout nutrition
- Get enough high quality sleep
- Take rest days. The gym will not miss you.
- Build in regular deload weeks into your programme. Dialling things back for a week will allow you to train harder in the long run.
- Supplement with creatine and omega 3 fats to aid recovery and reduce inflammation.
- Review your training programme. And reduce volume and intensity if needed.
Follow these guidelines and rules and say goodbye to the overtraining Demagorgon (brownie points for getting the reference there (#geeksforlife).
Taking the stress out of the process
Some of you might be sitting there feeling stressed. You’ve seen that overtraining can limit your progress, but you’re not entirely sure what the hell you need to do to get on the right track.
Spinning your wheels in the wrong direction and making no progress doesn’t like fun to me or you.
So if you’re sat there thinking that this all sounds good, but it’s all a bit of a headache to think about, then here’s what you need to.
Iron Paradise Fitness Online Coaching
If you like the idea of having everything mapped out for you, including training and nutrition, then take control of your progress and check out the Iron Paradise Fitness online coaching programme.
I can take the headache and time out of getting everything set up for you. All aspects of your training and nutrition are taken care of and done for you. Ultimately it’ll save you time. And more importantly it will save you money and the stress of not knowing whether or not what you’re doing is right or wrong.
And don’t forget, each element of your programme is truly personalised. So you’re not getting something off the shelf and generic. Every programme is 100% unique and generated from scratch using information you provide
In addition to all that, you’ll also get my guidance throughout the process. I will personally be monitoring, tracking, and programming your training on a weekly basis. And I’ll be in regular contact with you to check for those sign of overtraining, as well as keeping you motivated and on track.
Ultimately, accountability is a critical element of achieving your goal. Having me to report to on a weekly basis will really help focus the mind on the task in hand and make sure things happen.
So if you want to find out more information and see what else is included in this comprehensive programme, then just click this link for more info.