By Patrick Striet, CSCS ProSource
Identifying and Preventing Overtraining While Making Every Workout Count
You know the feeling. Lately, your workouts just have not been "quite right". You are lethargic, your joints ache, you are struggling to get 8 reps with weights you'd normally dominate for 10 or 12, your overall enthusiasm for training just isn't there, and you look at your workouts as a "chore" instead of an opportunity to get closer to your goals.
We've all been there, and, when you experience the above symptoms, it's easy to throw your hands up and exclaim "I'm overtrained!" Overtraining is a term which is often overused by gym rats when they experience a bad workout or a string of bad workouts. But what is overtraining? How do you know if you are truly overtrained (or, more likely, over reached), and what action steps can you take to ensure you don't become overtrained to begin with?
What Overtraining "Is"
The following definition of overtraining comes from Lyle McDonald, an authority on sports nutrition and fat loss, and author of several books, including The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and The Ultimate Diet 2.0:
"Overtraining occurs when there is a long-term imbalance between the training load and recovery processes that, for a given athlete, leads to a decrement in performance from which it takes more than 2-3 weeks to return to normal."
If we go by the above definition, it is clear that TRUE overtraining is fairly rare. If you feel beat up, tired, are under-performing in the gym, or are weaker than normal, often times, taking a week off or a de-load week (more on this later) will allow you to come back just as strong, if not stronger, than you were before. This is NOT true overtraining. True overtraining, where you beat yourself into the ground, know you are beating yourself into the ground, and continue to grind it out, will take many weeks, if not months. It may sound odd, but few people actually have what it takes to become truly overtrained. Most fitness enthusiasts, in the face of feeling run down, will not have the resolve to continue pounding themselves into the ground and will intuitively cut back their training or just take a break altogether.
Keeping the above in mind, it is important to distinguish between true overtraining (rare) and over reaching (much more likely and common). Training hard and progressively, which is essential to making gains, will, at some point, lead to a point of over-reaching where training will need to be reduced or a break will need to be taken. What typically happens is that, after a de-load or break from training, you'll return to your previous performance in the gym within a week or two and often times exceed your prior performance. In fact, this can be described as "functional over reaching" where you intentionally train at a higher volume, frequency and/or intensity with the explicit objective of experiencing a rebound effect which leads to greater fitness and performance.
With regard to overtraining, here are some physiological indicators to monitor and be aware of. All of these MAY indicate true overtraining is on the horizon:
Higher Than Normal Resting Heart Rate: measure your resting heart rate first thing in the morning (ideally, get up, void your bladder, and then return to your bed before measuring). If you find your resting heart rate is 5 beats higher than normal (you'll need to have some baseline data and actually have a consistent idea of what your resting heart rate truly is), take an easy day at the gym. 10 beats above normal? Take the day off.
Decrease in Grip Strength: a decrease in max grip strength is an indicator over-reaching and overtraining is potentially setting in. You can use a dynamometer or a simple hand gripper, such as those from ironmind.com, to monitor your grip strength. If you find you are unable to produce as much force (your dynamometer readings are falling or you are unable to close hand grippers you normally would be able to), you may need to reduce your workload.
Performance Tests: a declining vertical jump or broad jump can also be an indicator you are approaching an overtrained state. I'd suggest testing one of these every couple of weeks to keep tabs on this.
Decrease in Sleep, Appetite and Mood: a common occurrence with overtraining is a disruption in things like sleep patterns (usually sleep is impaired), appetite (generally you lose your appetite) or mood (motivation suffers, you don't want to train). These are due to the inflammatory response from too much pounding on the body and can indicate a problem with the sympathetic nervous system.
There are other indicators, none of which are particularly practical to monitor on a consistent basis, such as blood pressure, poor heart rate variability, reaction time, etc., but the above will provide the typical gym rat with enough feedback to tweak their workouts and recovery accordingly.
What Overtraining is NOT
Let's get something straight: having one or even a string of bad workouts means nothing and doesn't mean you are overtrained. One workout means nothing. If you squatted 315 lbs. for 5 on your top set last week, but only got 3 this week, I don't think it's necessary to discontinue training and lie in bed for a week while watching reruns of Breaking Bad.
Everyone has off days or weeks. It's inevitable. Progress isn't linear. If it were, we'd all be benching 400 lbs. for 10 reps and pulling 700 lbs in less than 2 years. For the typical real world gym rat (job, family, social commitments, etc.), sometimes life gets in the way and isn't conducive to optimal training. Very few of us have the luxury of having nothing to do other than train and recover. You are going to have stretches where sleep isn't optimal (a newborn child for example), your boss is on your case to put in more hours at work, you are crashing for final exams, etc. All of this will negatively impact your training. It doesn't mean you are overtrained.
You need to look at long-term trends and not a single day or workout. Again, true overtraining will take longer than 2 or 3 weeks to recover from and you will see a sharp decrease in strength and performance over an extended period of time. Just because you have not been able to add 5 lbs. to your overhead press over the last 3 workouts does not indicate there is a real problem.
How to Prevent Overtraining in the First Place
If you are smart about your programming and you listen to your body, you can prevent overtraining to begin with. Here are my top tips:
Warm-up: if you don't have time to warm-up, you really don't have time to workout. Take the time to perform self myofascial release (SMR) with a foam roller, static stretch, and perform dynamic mobility and activation drills (in that order) prior to your workouts. Furthermore, perform several "ramp up" sets prior to your heavy work sets on your first big exercise of the day. This is especially important the longer you've been training.
I've found performance decreases which are often attributed to overtraining are typically a result of a crappy warm-up. You need to prime your body and nervous system in order to train heavy. This doesn't mean 2 minutes on the treadmill, a few arm circles, and blowing snot out of each nostril.
Get Your Nutrition, Sleep and Supplementation "On Point." You should be fueling your body with lean protein, good fats, and plenty of fruits and veggies. Shoveling processed crap down your pie hole does not lend itself well to recovering from your workouts or building muscle.
Furthermore, I cannot overstate the importance of sleep. Aim for at least 7 hours if not more. Try to go to bed and rise around the same time each night and morning…even the weekends. Turn off the damn electronics before bed, get it dark as hell in your room, keep the thermostat between 65 and 68, and only use one pillow.
Finally, don't forget proper supplementation. Make sure you take your fish oil, Vitamin D, a greens supplement, beta alanine before your workouts, and valerian root prior to bed.
Just as importantly, bodybuilders must consolidate their gains post-workout by shutting down catabolism and engaging the recovery process as quickly as possible. Here, the way to go is with an ultra-rapid-action mass builder like BioQuest's MyoZene, which contains an elite-quality whey hydrolysate fast-acting enough to deliver essential aminos to muscle tissue in the critical one-to-two-hour anabolic window post-workout.
Don't Neglect Recovery Modalities: I mentioned things like foam rolling, stretching and mobility drills as pre-workout warm-up activities, but all of these things need to be a part of your recovery strategy away from the gym. Keep a foam roller in your living room. Roll out problem areas during commercials while watching TV. Stretch, meditate, and practice proper (belly) breathing techniques before bed. Also, things like contrast showers (alternating a couple minutes hot and a couple minutes cold) and a weekly massage have helped many.
Take a De-load Week Every 5th Week: You can't train "balls out" all the time. After a month of progressively hard training, it is a great idea to cut the volume, frequency or intensity of your workouts (or some combination of those) in half for a week. Personally, I prefer to cut volume while keeping intensity high. For example, if I was performing 4 sets of 6 with 200 lbs. at the end of a 4 week training block on a main exercise, I'd simply drop down to 2 sets of 3 with the same 200 lbs.
Take a Complete Week Off Every 8-10 Weeks: Nothing else really needs to be said here. If you simply cannot or will not do this, at least spend a week doing nothing but extra stretching, foam rolling, and corrective exercise for weak or banged up areas. If you choose to ignore this, don't say I didn't warn you.
Program According to Your Fitness Level: if you are a beginner, don't try to copy the program of an elite strength athlete who has 15 years under the bar. These folks have built up tremendous strength and work capacity because they've put their time in. Trying to mimic their programs from the get-go will drive you into the ground and keep you there. Get your ego in check, start with a basic program, and add volume, frequency and intensity slowly over time.
Consider Heavy, Medium and Light Days: personally, I find 2-3 heavy days/week is plenty. If you are training 4-6 days/week, you cannot realistically expect to make each of those workouts super extreme and make long term progress without running down. Consider cycling the volume and intensity of your workouts. More experienced trainees who are very in tune with their body can auto regulate on a workout by workout basis. If you are feeling really good, go after it. If you are feeling a little off, cut things back a bit. It doesn't have to be very difficult, especially if you've had some time in the trenches.
Finally, consider the wisdom of using a pre-workout supplement to amp up a listless workout. In cases where overtraining isn't the problem, a solid performance enhancer could be just the ticket.
In summary, true overtraining is very rare, and certainly is not indicative of feeling a little tired, having a bad workout, or even a string of bad workouts. Pay attention to some of the signs of impending overtraining I listed earlier in the article, and if you find you may be at the tipping point of becoming truly overtrained, take a look at the tips and strategies I covered for preventing overtraining, and see where you could stand to improve. Smart programming, nutrition and recovery will likely be all you need to fend off true overtraining.