These days, you can't spend more than five minutes in a locker room, or read three pages in a magazine without coming across the term "overtraining." In a way, overtraining seems to be like sub-prime mortgages: nobody really knows what it is, but it sure is responsible for some bad things.
So today we shall analyze:
- What constitutes overtraining.
- If you are affected and how to fix it.
- How to use overtraining (or better said: overreaching) to your advantage.
What is Overtraining?
Basically, overtraining occurs whenever the volume and intensity of someone's workouts are exceeding their ability to recover. This means progress is coming to a screeching halt, due to delayed recovery and elevated cortisol levels.
You are likely to lose mass and strength in the process. Other symptoms include irritability, lack of appetite, sleeplessness, loss of enthusiasm and motivation. Even depression is in the cards for you. You are more likely to get sick and/or injured, and your little injuries will take longer to heal.
So, do you see yourself as having these symptoms? Yes, I am overtrained! Not so fast, I am afraid. I believe that true overtraining is extremely rare in today's gym world.
Muscles recover within 48 hours, which is when protein synthesis rates levels off. This is why Steve Shaw is such a fan of whole body workouts ( I also believe that the majority of gym goers is wasting their time with complicated splits and would be better off following a simple push pull routine, but that leads us away from the topic of the article.)
So in reality, actual muscular overtraining is rare if everything else is in place. By everything else I mean recovery and nutrition. In my humble opinion, most people are underfed and not sleeping as much, as opposed to overtrained.
A bit of personal history here: in preparation for the 2000 Olympics, we trained 20 times per week (or 3 times per day 5-6 hours daily). Yet, nobody was overtrained. Why? Diet and sleep were on point, no clubbing, no eating crappy foods, just the dull life of professional athletes.
So if you experience any of the above symptoms I would recommend a 48-72 hour hiatus from the gym with a solid calorie surplus and a daily nap. Within 3 days, you should be able to return to the gym and continue on your path to eternal glory and total awesomeness.
Cases of Severe Overtraining
Unfortunately, not all cases of overtraining are cured so easily. If the central nervous system (CNS) is overstimulated, the recovery process will take a much longer time. In those cases, the athlete often experiences a light to medium depression, loss of libido, elevated pulse rate and deep seated fatigue.
Very often, this condition goes hand in hand with adrenal burnout (those pre-workout stims have their down sides, for sure). Here the first order of business is: caffeine, yohimbine, ephedra etc out, passion flower, melatonin, L-tyrosine and ZMA in. Also, you will need to take a whole week or 10 days of from the gym.
This also includes a mental break. Try not to spend too much time at the muscle and strength website - just this once though! You can engage into other activities, just no weight training or spending time inside a gym. Additional recovery measures such as acupuncture, cryo therapy or massage can be extremely helpful during that time.
You should start taking your resting pulse rate in the morning, in order to have a baseline. Once it has dropped by five or more beats per minute, you can make an attempt to return to the gym - but you should cut your workload in half (at least for the first two weeks). From there on you can work your way back.
Planned Overtraining - Overreaching
However, for all the negativity surrounding the term overtraining, there is a way to use planned overtraining - or more precisely overreaching - to your advantage. The following program was developed by the Soviets and East Germans. It utilizes micro cycles. Beware, it is not for the faint of heart. In fact, most people will quit in the middle.
During this program you will be purposely overtraining for two weeks, then taking a week off. During the off week, you will most likely experience some serious growth. Once you are back in the gym, you'll be shocked how much strength you have added.
Here is an outline of how it can be done. The key is to treat every set as an all out set. Most likely, your performance will drop off during the week. Try to get as close as possible to your starting weights. Come Friday, you may build a voodoo doll with my face on it. If that helps you get through the last two workouts, so be it.
Workouts - Week One
Add as many warm up sets as you see fit. Squats every day, take Sunday off.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday
- 4x12 - Squats
- 4x8 - Stiff legged deadlifts
- 4x10 - Incline dumbbell flyes with a 90 degree elbow bend
- 4x10 - Pull ups (add weight)
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday
- 5x5 - Sumo squats
- 4x10 - Sissy squats with added weight if possible
- 4x8 - Standing overhead presses
- 4x8 - Kneeling rope rows
Workouts - Week Two
Monday, Wednesday, Friday
- 4x8 - Military press
- 3x20 - Leg press
- 4x8 - Bent over rows
- 2x10 - Uncrossovers
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday
- 5x6 - High incline parallel dumbbell press
- 5x10 - Pull ups (add weight)
- 4x12 - Hack squats
- 3x10 - Face pulls or rear delt flyes
Take week 3 off.
A word of caution: do not attempt this program if you are having any unusual stressors in your life at this point in time, be it a move, a big job project, teething baby, etc. Ideally, you take two weeks off to sleep, eat and lift.
That brings me to my next point: do not attempt to diet while on this routine. You will wither away. A calorie surplus is critical. I recommend taking BCAAs during your workouts, as well as taking liver tabs during the day. Both would be a good idea.
The above mentioned recovery methods can and should be implemented here as well. Lastly, try to sleep your eight hours a day. If you can nap during the day, even better (that's how Arnold did it).
That's about it for today, I ll be curious to hear who is brave enough to undertake this 2 week program.
Great article. Very helpful. Still leaves me wondering a little though. I'm on a push pull routine that is every other day with Sunday as a rest day. The routine is 3sets/8reps of 6 or 7 different workouts that target each group (depends on the day whether its 7 push exercises or 7 pull exercises). Sometimes if don't feel exhausted completely after, I'll do another entire cycle of it again. Is that over training or am I just not using enough weight? Just curious so I'm not wasting time. I don't have any of the symptoms of over training, just want to make sure I'm maximizing my routine if that makes sense. Any feedback is appreciated, thank you.
I always goes overtrained Why? I do 3 split a week I am a 17 year boy ( weight 40 Kg ) I think I never gain mass & strength
Im a high school swimmer, 6-7000 yards a day. I omly eat about 2500 cals a day, whocj I think is too little. However I still have a VERY skinny-fat . Soft musclea unless I flex and all that. Also I have been lifting and not gettong faster, or stronger... could you help?
I am 28, 177 cm height, 89 kg wt. I have grown approx 15-18 kg and all fat. Now I look too fat. I used to do Gym 2 years back , on and off. I did it extensively for 6 month before leaving, I was good in shape apprx 72 kg, taken good diet( no supplement). Once I left I started felling ill on regular interval , mainly fever, viral and stomach ailments. I started having disinterestedness,low in energy, reactive, shhort tempered and had indigestion,GERD etc.
Later my doctor did check ups and I was severely down on Vit D( 8.8 ng/ml) level and even B12 was not in good range(was on lowerer side).
I was on medication for few months and now I have my Vit D level at 20 ng/ml and Vit D at 414pg/ml Now I want to start my workout back.. Should I go ahead and start a light workout and then take a steady pace or I can go and hit the gym right a way.
im getting the sleep, and my nutrition is spot on for everyday except 2 or at most 3 meals in the week (cheat meals) but I still feel some of the symptoms of overtraining you mentioned. 1 being depression/loss of motivation during some workouts, another is getting sick easily. These could be due to other factors though
trace, check your vitamin d levels.
You gave me clarity around what I thought was overtraining.
In the past, I've not gotten enough sleep nor proper nutrition.
Thanks for this great article Maik.
John, yes to all questions. rest interval is as you chose. 2 min minimum.
Sam, thanks for your note but I respectfully disagree. Bodybuilders used to train 4-5 h a day, now the focus has shifted away from training toward drugs. As I said, most people undersleep and -eat, for short period of times anyone can do high volume as long as diet and sleep are in check.
Great article, I plan on trying the overreaching program in a few weeks when I switch from my push1,pull1, push2, pull2 4 day workout to a 3 day fullbody 1,2 &3 (like to rotate between the two types of splits). Want to make sure I am clear: you say try to keep with your starting weights, so if I start week one Squats at 200, try to do 200 for every set each of the 3 days with squats, and so one for every exercise? also, is there a difference in standing overhead press and Military press? Please clarify Uncrossovers, im picturing two arm cable side lateral raises, am I correct. Finally, rest times you would recommend, i am thinking 2 minutes
Great article! I do a double 3 day split routine. Push, pull, legs, push, pull and legs again. The seventh day is a rest day thrown in anywhere I need it. No performance enhancers, just a solid diet and never enough sleep. Thorw in a full time job and kids, I'm one busy dude!
you have a point by saying that it takes a lot before your body is overtrained. I've bin in the militairy for some time (i'm a personal trainer nowadays) and know how far your body can go. But don't forget that when you trained for the olympics you did not do bodybuilding.
Bodybuilding is verry diffrend from other sports, the total training is based on creating damage on the muscles just enough so that your body wants itself to improve. If you would do weighttraining training 20 times per week (or 3 times per day 5-6 hours daily), there is no question about overtraining, you are overtraind within a week! This is not the right thing to write down in an article in my opinion. The comparison isn't the right one to make.
There are way to much people who train to much, a lot more then those who train not enough. A trainingsschedule for natural bodybuilders should not be with so much volume. i would say 2 days rest between a fullbody routine and a 4 day training routine when doing split, with one extra day of weak muscle groups and injury prevention. its fun to train 6-7 days a week, but not verry effective in my opinion. Next to that not only your mucles need rest, also your nervous system needs enough rest once every 3 days.
I like on the other hand that you discripe how to make advantage of overtraining. Never seen that before and i'll certainly going to try that.
rest more days for overtraining.