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How Overtraining Happens, and How to Prevent It

Physique Transformation, Training

On the heels of my articles on the “base hit” approach to training intensity, I think it is necessary to follow that up with an article going more in depth on overtraining.

Overtraining can creep up on someone quickly, and it can take a long time to resolve. The sad part about overtraining is that it is also a result of trying hard, and doing so consistently. It seems almost “unfair.”

This is — again — an area where Coaching and proper program design and application can make a big difference.

At the same time, overtraining is easy to understand when you realize what it is, and what leads to it.

Types of Overtraining, and How Overtraining Happens

Your training program manipulates both the volume and the intensity of training. This means that trainees can experience either volume-induced or intensity-induced overtraining — sometimes even both. As an overachiever, I was guilty of BOTH at times in my physique career.

Overtraining is the cumulative result of excessive high-volume or high-intensity training, or both, without adequate recovery.

This results in the exhaustion of the body’s ability to recover from training stress and adapt to it.

The primary diagnostic indicator of whether you are overtraining or not is a reduction in performance capacity that doesn’t improve with an amount of rest that would otherwise normally result in recovery.

People with metabolic damage know this scenario all too well. If this goes on for too long, interest and enthusiasm for training goes right out the window.

If the stress on the body is too great, either in intensity, duration, or frequency, the body will be unable to adequately adapt, and exhaustion will occur. It may sound cool on internet forums to report how your trainer buried you today or made you puke, but that ego stuff has nothing to do with tried and proven ongoing physiological adaptive response.

Extended periods of excessively relentless maximum work should be avoided. That doesn’t mean you dog it in your training. But it does mean train smart. Training smart is all about following solid programs.

Rest and recovery are key components to making progress. If you are serious about making real progress then you can’t just be all about the training. You have to be mature and respectful of rest and recovery. These things should be part and parcel of your program design. Recovery Capacity is part of the 5-part training model.

How many of you identify with the following?

You aim your workouts toward “failure,” or forcing your body to give up and be done in.

You've perceived total exhaustion from training as a good thing.

Fascinated by the immediate effects of working out, yet without a plan or personalized program, you worked at your top voluntary intensity every time you trained, always attempting to maximally disrupt body functions, the goal always to train harder today than you did yesterday, and to train harder this week than you did last week.

Max soreness was something you also perceived as a target to aim for in training.

All of this can be labelled “ego training.”

But you also likely didn’t follow a “real” program, or certainly not as it was written to be followed. This means you would change exercises constantly, attempting to “confuse” your body, because you want to prevent it from “getting used to” your workouts. Because “muscle confusion” is a metaphor, but it is NOT a real training principle.

You read over and over again in articles on popular industry sites that you can’t let your body get “used to” exercises and training sessions. So you change aimlessly, regardless of whether the exercises were useful or dangerous.

This is not what real adaptation is. It is not what planned, progressive, personalized programming looks like.

Do you identify with the above? I know that was certainly me in my younger years — at least, the years of stagnated effort and frustration.

I wore a “no one trains harder than me” badge of honor on my chest, and yet I certainly didn’t have the results to show for all my effort.  

Unfortunately, all this nonsense is getting more prevalent in this age of Cross-Fit and boot camps and all the rest of the “hardcore nonsense” out there. It's all the same thing: Ego training, or training marketed towards ego.

Newbie Mistakes that Lead to Overtraining

If you are of average training genetics, and if you were to perform two heavy workouts in a week (in terms of max loads) then your neuromuscular system would be heavily taxed and you might break down more quickly as a result.

This is a classic newbie mistake. It is a mistake I made early on in my training career as well, going to the gym and trying to “max out” every workout.

When you constantly employ repetitions lower than 5RM, so you can answer questions like “how much do you bench?” overtraining tends to occur quickly. Lifting heavier more often is seldom the recipe for improved results, and in fact usually produces the exact opposite of “real” results.

This is one reason why my Hardgainer Solution Program is so popular, and trainees get so much out of it — they are finally using the rep ranges that work, and they are finally using a program that intelligently taxes the muscles without over-taxing the hardgainer's body and CNS, so that they can build up their workload capacity and recovery capacity.

Yet the myth remains: “train for strength and development will come.”

When the real truth is this: “train for development… and allow strength to come as a result of that.”

This latter expression ended up being my “secret sauce” to developing a world-class physique back in my day.

Nothing will stop your progress in your quest for strength or for development faster than when you aim to lift too heavy, too soon and too often.

If you don’t know the difference then get help and guidance in the form of “real” Coaching, hopefully from someone who is also an expert in program design and who can expertly fit a program to you, rather than expecting you to fit the program. See this post, which I consider effectively a “guideline” of what to look for in a real Coach.

Advanced Trainees and Overtraining

The more advanced a trainee becomes, the greater the importance of understanding the stress/recovery/adaptation model, and its approach to balancing two of the most important aspects of constructive human adaptation to training:

1) The workload must be sufficient to disrupt biological equilibrium enough to drive an adaptation, yet not excessive to the point of constituting an unmanageable level of stress.

2) Recovery must be sufficient to enable the adaptation to occur.

This is why not all training should be “load-focused.” Not all programs are designed for you to “lift more weight.” There are thousands of strong guys and gals out there with terrible physiques.

Modern Trends Leading to Overtraining

Extremes in programming styles are represented by two similar, overlapping styles:

A “go-heavy-or-go-home” approach, which may precipitate neuromuscular, cellular-intensity-induced overtraining.

The “train-to-failure” approach on the other hand, which may produce volume-induced systemic nervous system overtraining.

More common in the overtraining I see is a combination of both types, since most programs manipulate both variables. What needs to be assessed here, even in well-designed programs, is how YOU the trainee are actually responding to the training stimulus. Biofeedback is everything, and that includes assessing recovery. It is important when you decide what program comes next, and it is important to monitor as you dig in to that new program.

Biofeedback is everything, and that includes assessing recovery. It is important when you decide what program comes next, and it is important to monitor as you dig in to that new program.

Without recovery from an overload stimulus, the overload stress will not contribute to progress.

Put simply: Overload without adequate recovery leads to overtraining.

Some of you need to re-read that sentence several times over and let it sink in. To think if you aren’t training you are going backwards is faulty thinking. It has nothing to do with an understanding of exercise physiology and stimulus and adaptation.

The Cumulative Aspects of Training

“Overreaching” has been described as the cumulative effects of a series of workouts, characterized by a short-term decrease in performance, feelings of fatigue, depressed mood, pain, stiffness, sleep disturbances, and other things that require up to two weeks to recover from.

This can happen slowly, over time, but you can also experience a more rapid descent.

Again, a rapid descent into overtraining can occur if loading is too severe or recovery is inadequate. Most people nod in agreement with that statement, but then go out and ignore it when working out; assuming it applies to everyone else!

“If loading is too severe” is what you need to pay attention to here.

Bodybuilding training is training that is not as “load-focused.” It is “muscle-focused.”

Because it emphasises a wider rep range, and emphasises many angles, it has less joint trauma. Once again this was the central tenet of the program design behind The Hardgainer’s Solution. The variation in loads and rep ranges and the controlled volume is something that's deliberate, and within the program design of this particular program it prevents “Hardgainers” from overdoing it.

PROPER bodybuilding training also emphasizes “training the muscle, not the movement.” This is why bodybuilding training builds effective strength around a joint from training a muscle from different angles of contraction and various levels of force application.

As I said in a previous recent article, the late track and field Coach Charlie Francis must have been on to something when he famously said: “It is always better to undertrain than to overtrain. You will still supercompensate, but not to the same degree.”

Once you overtrain, your body will plummet and fight to retain a balance. Smaller CNS demands over a longer period of time will work better for you. Trying to force all the adaptation “right now” isn't how hypertrophy works. So you may make “some” progress, but you aren’t making your potential “maximum progress.”

Remember, you can still make gains when you undertrain, but when you reach overtraining, you lose everything.

Overtraining is the direct result of the failure to understand and apply the principles of stress, recovery, and adaptation to your training, and to base your training on a correct assessment of your current level of training status. This means training strategy needs to look at your work capacity and recovery capacity, as well as your internal biochemical and hormonal environment. Again: the training model.

The basic concept is simple: rest, and recover, but don’t detrain.

The “Cure” for Overtraining

The basic cure for overtraining is a combination of time and a reduced workload (undertraining).

Since the costs of overtraining are so high and dire, prevention is the best approach. That has everything to do with program design, and Coaching oversight.

It’s important to understand that the addition of training volume in the form of extra training days works only as long as recovery is being carefully managed. Adding an additional workout day or sequence to a program that is already producing overtraining would obviously be a bad idea. What is amazing to me is that some trainees don’t feel like they are doing enough, if they don’t feel like crap and have all the signs of overtraining. They perceive that kind of biofeedback as “progress.” I see it as an exercise dependency disorder.

What is amazing to me is that some trainees don’t feel like they are doing enough if they don’t feel like crap and have all the signs of overtraining. They perceive that kind of biofeedback as “progress.” s not what progress  “feels” like. I see it as an exercise dependency disorder.

Feeling like “crap” is not what progress  “feels” like. I see it as an exercise dependency disorder. In the arena of female physique competitors, combine this with a stringent diet, and irresponsible coach, and you have a recipe for metabolic damage. And it can take months, even years to come back from that.

Overtraining is more common in the fitness industry now than ever before. You’ve been warned!

As usual, some of you will get it; some of you will not.