Overtraining is an insidious trap because it goes against our natural instincts.
In most endeavors in life, you can expect to receive rewards in proportion to what you give in time and effort.
Work more and harder in your career, and you’ll usually grow your business or wind up getting promotions and raises. Spend more time with friends and family, and you’ll usually build stronger, more fulfilling relationships. Practice longer and more diligently on your golf swing, and you’ll usually shave strokes off your game faster.
Exercise, and weightlifting in particular, is a bit different, however.
There’s a point where exerting more effort actually becomes counter-productive. Most people are aware of this concept, but they aren’t aware of how easy it is to overtrain, and how to spot it.
You see people overtraining all the time.
The guys that spend 2+ hours working a single muscle group, doing set after set after set, are overtraining without realizing it, and don’t understand why they don’t get bigger or stronger despite their long, grueling workouts. The more effort they put into growing their chest, they figure, the more it will grow.
That’s not how it works, though. Your body can only take so much before it becomes afflicted with what’s known as “overtraining syndrome.”
Overtraining is simply an imbalance between work and recovery. When you put too much stress on the body and don’t give it the proper amount of rest, various undesirable things happen.
The common side effects cited clinically are a state of chronic fatigue, depression, and underperformance despite rest, but it’s not always that extreme or obvious. There are other, subtler signs of overtraining that you should know and watch for.
What follows is a list of signs that you may be overtraining. If you’re only experiencing one of the symptoms, it may not indicate overtraining.
Table of Contents
8 Signs of Overtraining
1. You simply can’t finish a proper workout.
When your body is overtrained, you won’t be able to lift the weights you normally can, you won’t have the energy to do as many sprints, you won’t have the stamina to run your normal route, and so forth.
Even though you’re hitting the gym each day, you’ll feel progressively weaker, slower, and more lethargic. I’ve had it so bad before that I couldn’t stop yawning in the gym and simply couldn’t push myself to do another set.
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2. You’re getting fatter despite training hard.
Well, you think you’re getting fatter at least, but what you’re actually dealing with is an increase in water retention.
This is caused in part by the hormonal disruptions caused by overtraining (and this can be especially problematic when you’re restricting calories for fat loss.)
Namely, your testosterone levels can plunge while your cortisol levels rise, which causes a whole host of problems related to protein metabolism, insulin resistance, appetite, and more.
The end result?
You train harder and watch your diet closely, but you look fatter.
3. You’re training hard every day of the week.
I’ve yet to meet someone not on drugs that can lift heavy, sprint hard, or engage in otherwise intense training every day of the week and still adequately recover.
Unless you have Wolverine’s gift of regeneration, it’s absolutely vital that you take at least two days off weights per week, and at least one day of absolutely no exercise.
What I like to do is lift weights Mon – Fri and do cardio Sun – Weds. Saturday is a full rest day.
You can intersperse your rest days throughout the week too, such as the following routine:
Day 1: Weights
Day 2: Weights & cardio
Day 3: Cardio only
Day 4: Weights & cardio
Day 5: Weights & cardio
Day 6: Weights
Day 7: Full rest
You can play with this however you want so long as you take two days off weights, and give yourself one day of no exercise whatsoever. If you want to give your metabolism a little boost, don’t take two full rest days in a row.
4. You’re restless at night and are having trouble sleeping.
If you do a lot of aerobic exercise and are overtrained, your sympathetic nervous system can remain excited at all times and you’ll feel restless and unable to focus, and your sleep will be disturbed and broken.
5. You feel overly fatigued and sluggish.
If you’re a weight lifter and are overtrained, your parasympathetic nervous system becomes overly stimulated, leading to a decrease in testosterone, an increase in cortisol, a crushing fatigue (mental and physical), and a stubborn tendency to hang onto body fat.
6. You have odd aches and pains in your joints, bones, or limbs.
This is one of the first things that I notice as I approach the point of overtraining. My shoulder will start to ache. Then my wrist. Then my knee. Then my forearm.
It’ll usually take 8 – 10 consecutive weeks of intense training before these things turn on, and I just take a week off or “deload” for a week to let my body recover. They’re always gone by the end of the rest period.
(These things can also be signs of poor form, but that’s easy enough to diagnose. If you’re lifting heavy weights for the first time, you can also expect various aches like these right off the bat.)
7. You’re getting sick more often than usual.
You can throw a wrench in your immune system in many different ways. Increasing sugar can do it, as can a lack of vitamin D/sunlight, poor sleep habits, and even mental stress.
But if you’re all good on these fronts and are getting inexplicable little coughs, sniffles, congestions, or headaches, you may be overtraining.
Take a rest week and let your immune system build back up.
8. You feel drained and crappy after what normally would be a good workout.
The post-workout feeling of general well-being is one of my favorite things about training. The rush of endorphins just calms your entire body and mind and can last for hours. It’s great, isn’t it?
Well, if it never comes, and if you feel irritable and uncomfortable after working out, you may be overtraining. Exercise should elevate your mood. If you’re feeling negative instead, it might be time to take a rest.
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How to Handle Overtraining
Fortunately, handling overtraining is very simple. Once you spot it, all you need to do is take some time off the gym.
What has always worked for me is a week off weights, with nothing more than a few sessions of light cardio.
Getting a proper amount of sleep is also a key part of preventing overtraining–7 – 8 hours per night is generally considered optimal–as is a proper diet that fully provides your body with everything it needs to repair itself.
You’ll know the overtraining is gone simply by how you feel. After 3-5 days of rest, you’ll feel rejuvenated and ready to train again.
What are your experiences with overtraining? Have anything else you’d like to add? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004;130(4):601-630. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601
- Irwin M, McClintick J, Costlow C, Fortner M, White J, Gillin JC. Partial night sleep deprivation reduces natural killer and cellular immune responses in humans. FASEB J. 1996;10(5):643-653. doi:10.1096/fasebj.10.5.8621064
- Aranow C. Correspondence: Cynthia Aranow 350 Community Drive Manhasset, NY 11030. J Investig Med. 2011;59(6):881-886. doi:10.231/JIM.0b013e31821b8755
- Sanchez A, Reeser JL, Lau HS, et al. Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. Am J Clin Nutr. 1973;26(11):1180-1184. doi:10.1093/ajcn/26.11.1180