There’s a basic law of living that goes like this:
If you want more, do more.
It applies more or less across the board. You tend to get out of life in proportion to what you give.
Want more money or a bigger business? Work harder at it and you’ll have the best chances of success.
Want deeper, more fulfilling relationships with friends or family? Spend more time building those relationships and watch them blossom.
Want to be the best player on your team? Practice longer and harder than your confreres and you’ll slowly pull ahead of the pack.
You get the point.
Working out isn’t that simple, though.
The “more is better” approach works…until it doesn’t. And then it becomes counterproductive.
That is, in terms of building muscle, strength, and endurance, more training is generally better than less…but once you exceed your body’s ability to recover, the wheels start to fall off.
Here’s a short list of what can happen next:
- You struggle to finish your workouts.
- You lose strength and endurance.
- You sleep poorly.
- You struggle with fatigue and lethargy.
- You have odd aches and pains.
- You get sick more frequently.
These are all signs that there is a systemic imbalance between work and recovery.
Scientifically speaking, this symptomatology is known as “overtraining syndrome,” and chances are you’re going to wrestle with it to one degree or another at some point in your fitness journey.
Well, this podcast is going to help.
In it, you’re going to learn how to spot overtraining before it becomes a serious problem, what to do if/when you find yourself overtrained, how to prevent it in the first place.
So, let’s start with one of the more common (and misguided) cliches about overtraining…
Would you rather read about overtraining? Then check out this article!
Mentioned on the Show
Mike: [00:02:02] Hey, Mike Matthews here from Muscle For Life and Legion Athletics, and welcome to another video podcast. This time around, we are going to talk about overtraining, what it is, what it isn’t, and how to spot the signs that it is probably time to deload, or take a few days, or maybe even a week off of the weights.
[00:02:26] So one of the tricky things about weightlifting is it conforms to one of the basic laws of living, which is that if you want more than you need to do more. And what I mean by that is: in most everything in life, you tend to get out of it what you put into it. So if you want to make more money, put more time into developing skills and exercising skills that make money.
If you want better, longer-lasting, more fulfilling relationships, then put more time, more work, more effort into the things that help relationships blossom. If you want to become the best player on your sports team, put in more time and more work practicing and developing the skills that are going to make you the best player and so forth.
And the same thing applies to weightlifting, at least for the purposes of gaining muscle and strength. If you want to continue getting bigger and stronger, you have to continue putting in more and more work overtime. And it takes a lot more work to gain one pound of muscle when you are, let’s say, three years into your weightlifting journey than when you are brand new to it.
[00:03:48] In fact, I am rewriting one of my books Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, which is a sequel to Bigger Leaner Stronger. So I’m currently writing the second – what is going to be the second edition. And like I’ve done with Bigger Leaner Stronger, the third edition, which is about to come out, I’m pretty much starting over from scratch on Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger. I’m reorganizing and rewriting it. And one of the chapters I’m coming up to is something I’m tentatively calling, The More For Less Method”.
[00:04:18] And the reason I’m calling that is one of the fundamental principles, and really just one of the fundamental truths that you have to accept as an intermediate or advanced weightlifter is, you are going to have to do more and more work for less and less reward. It just is what it is.
[00:04:37] But it was around that period, the seven or eight-year mark, when I decided to educate myself and learn how to train more intelligently because previously I was doing mostly just bodybuilder magazine workouts. So there are almost, I think, always body part splits and a lot of isolation work and tons of volume, not very much in the way of intensity.
So higher rap, tons of sets, you know, like a two hour chess day that has maybe a little bit of bench pressing here and there, but is mostly a lot of fancy bodybuilder kind of ‘isolate the pecs’ type exercises for lots and lots of reps. That’s how I was training back then, at least for the first seven or eight years.
And also then I educate myself on the fundamentals of diet, what is energy balance, what is macronutrient balance, why is nutrition important? Blah, blah, blah. So, you know, I’d say, I really have about seven or eight years of proper training and eating under my belt at this point. And in terms of total muscle gain, I am really at the top of my genetic potential. I started – so I’m 6’2″, 6’1.5″ or something and I started 155 pounds and now my weight fluctuates between 195 and 198 pounds.
[00:05:57] And so if you just look at those numbers very simply and you also factor in my change in body fat percentage. So when I started I was let’s say 12, 13 percent, probably something like that. Because I grew up playing sports, so I was always kind of a thin-ish endurance, athletic type of dude. So it’s 155, 12, 13 percent, and now let’s just call it 195 or 10 percent.
That’s my general kind of settling point. So you run the numbers and you can figure that I’ve gained maybe about 45 pounds of muscle, give or take since I started lifting weights. And as far as a natural weight lifter goes, that’s right up, you know, 90, 95 percent of my genetic potential. According to various models, I could gain a little bit more muscle.
Some say maybe 5 pounds. Some say saving up to 10 pounds. 10 pounds seems like a stretch to me. I could see that if my legs were where they were at several years ago, but I’ve worked on them fairly diligently and I think they are now – they’ve at least caught up to my upper body.
Maybe by bodybuilding standards, my upper leg should be a bit bigger – I’m talking about my upper legs, by the way. my calves are a lost cause. I still train them three days a week, but I’ve accepted that I will never have good calves. Anyways. So my upper legs are not quite up to bodybuilding standards, but I don’t quite even like that look. So I’m pretty happy where things are at.
[00:07:22] So my point with saying all that is: let’s just say that I could gain another eight pounds of muscle and just go in the middle between the bottom and the top of what these models predict. To gain that eight pounds of muscle, which somebody new to weightlifting would gain in their – a guy, a new guy to weightlifting would gain in his first few months.
And for women that are new to weightlifting, they progressed generally at about half the rate as men. So for women, maybe they could gain that eight pounds with their new in the first six months or so of weightlifting, maybe a little bit more. It would take me probably three to four years to gain that last eight pounds of muscle.
And that’s three or four years of working hard. Busting my ass in the gym, not missing workouts, making sure I’m sleeping well, I’m eating enough, making sure that I’m progressing in my workouts, not just going through the motions, but making my workouts progressively harder over time, really pushing to gain reps and add weight to the bar and so forth.
[00:08:28] And as far as diet goes, that would mean really watching my calories and watching my macros to ensure that I am in a calorie surplus, a slight calorie surplus, for as much of that three to four year period as possible, and making sure that my macros stay where they need to be, I am getting plenty of protein seven days a week.
And I like a higher carb lower – I wouldn’t say low fat – but lower, more moderate-fat diet that’s best for me for having good workouts and gaining muscle and strength as quickly as possible. And so really what that would come down to for my body would be spending probably eight to nine months of each year in a slight surplus and using the remaining months of the year, not necessarily in one go, there’d probably two separate cutting phases to just keep myself from getting too fat, basically.
[00:09:16] And so would be all that. That’s what I would take to gain just two, maybe two and a half pounds of muscle per year. If you were to look at it in terms of difficulty and in terms of volume in the way of hard sets that three to four year period to gain that final eight pounds of muscle would probably be comparable to all the work that I’ve done up until now to gain forty five-ish pounds of muscle. And so more for less, that is the motto as an intermediate slash advanced weightlifter.
[00:09:50] Now, what does all that have to do with overtraining? Well, many people understand that and try to program their training accordingly. They try to just work harder and harder and harder in the gym to continue gaining muscle and strength. And it’s the right idea, but it generally leads to problems, unless it’s gone about intelligently, it leads to problems.
[00:10:18] So anyone who has tried that before knows what I’m talking about. You start to struggle to finish your workouts, the weights start feeling very heavy, you start losing strength, you start losing endurance, you start sleeping worse, you start to struggle with just general fatigue and energy levels, you start getting odd aches and pains, particularly joint pains, you start getting sick more frequently and so on.
[00:10:46] Now, these types of things are all signs that there is a systemic imbalance between work and recovery. And scientifically speaking, the symptomatology is known as overtraining syndrome. And that is something that everyone does run into and does have to wrestle with at some point along the way in their weightlifting journeys.
[00:11:10] Now, before we get to some of the most common and reliable signs that you’re pushing it too hard and your body needs a bit of extra recovery in the way of maybe a deload or just a week off or whatever. Let’s talk about overtraining itself because there are two general schools of thought here.
[00:11:31] So the first one says that there is no such thing as overtraining, there’s only under recovering. The idea here is if you are feeling physically overwhelmed by your training, it’s not really that difficult in the scheme of what your body can actually handle. It’s just that you are not recovering well enough. And if you just did a better job recovering from your training, you would feel totally fine and you could even train harder than you are currently training as long as you are recovering well enough.
[00:12:00] Now, the other school of thought is the polar opposite of that. It is that if you do more than, let’s say, a couple intense weight lifting workouts, heavy compound weightlifting workouts per week and a couple cardio sessions per week, you are going to overload your nervous system, which is then going to fall behind and that’s going to negatively impact your performance and your health and well-being in many different ways.
[00:12:27] Well, as is often the case in the health and fitness space, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, heavy resistance training workouts do place a lot of stress in the body, and especially when they involve a lot of compound exercises – exercises that train many major muscle groups and require or stimulate a lot of central nervous system activity.
And cardio workouts done in addition to the weight lifting often place even more stress in the body. Now, if it’s just walking, for example, then not really. But if it’s high-intensity interval training, then yes, that definitely places an additional load on the body, on the systems of the body. But most people can train quite a bit harder, can spend quite a bit more time beating their bodies up in the gym than they currently do without running themselves into the ground.
[00:13:25] And so just to get to the point, my rule of thumb that I use not just with my own body and training, but with all the people I work with. And this rule of thumb is really based on my understanding of the scientific literature and my experience having worked with thousands and thousands of people, men and women of all ages and circumstances over the last six or seven years is: most people can do three to six hours of heavy weightlifting per week and one to three hours of cardio per week, depending on what they’re doing, what their goals are, and if they are looking to lose weight, maintain a calorie deficit somewhere around 20 to 25 percent and be totally fine, do well.
[00:14:12] Now, I have also come across many people who can get away with quite a bit more than that and do just fine as well. Most of the time, though, they are younger. Usually, they are in their 20s and they have plenty of time to give to sleep and plenty of time to give to proper nutrition and just generally have less going on in their lives, which also just means lower stress levels.
But I have come across some people in their 30s, 40s and beyond who train quite a bit more than that and do well. And that I chalk up usually just genetics. Some people do have very good genetics for recovery. And some people’s bodies are just more resilient and are just tougher than others, can just take more of a beating.
[00:16:36] Okay, so let’s start getting to signs. Eight signs that overtraining syndrome is starting to settle in. And I know research shows that overtraining may be more of a psychological state than a physiological state. But regardless of the ultimate cause, it is real. The symptoms are real. If you push yourself too hard for too long, you start to feel bad.
[00:17:02] So, for example, the first sign is something I mentioned earlier, and that is that your workouts start to feel particularly hard. When your body becomes more and more fatigued, just in general, when you fall further and further behind in recovery, the perceived effort of your workouts increases.
And how this usually plays out, for me at least, is toward the end of a training block, which is usually a week six or a week eight, the weights just start to feel heavy. And I’ve slept well, I’ve been sticking to my diet well, but regardless, progression stops. So for a couple of weeks, I don’t gain reps on really anything, I’m not adding weight to the bar. And then that weight that I’ve been using for the last few weeks, let’s say it’s on a bench press or a squat or a deadlift, I notice it particularly on the harder exercises, that weight just starts to feel heavier and heavier.
[00:18:03] Another sign, the second sign, is that you lack the motivation to train. So if you normally look forward to your workouts and you now have no desire to get in the gym and you have to drag yourself through each rep, each set, that is a red flag that your body may need some extra recovery.
[00:18:25] I remember many years ago it was so bad that I actually couldn’t will myself to finish a workout. I remember I was sitting on a bench, I was doing pull-ups, this was maybe the second exercise in a pull workout where I had five or six exercises to do and I was so tired and just had so little energy and desire to continue.
I actually just left and I never am one to end workouts, but it was clear that something was wrong. I was just like, this is really not normal. And it also came after I worked with this trainer for, I want to say six to eight weeks. And this dude was super jacked, of course, and he was on all the drugs.
I didn’t know that at the time because he wasn’t – he didn’t look like a hulking bodybuilder, he just looked jacked – and I mean, he put me through – that was the hardest training block I’ve probably ever done. It was insane, the amount of volume I was doing. So I did that. I didn’t take a deload, a week off, or anything, and just tried to go back to my normal training and ran into the wall.
[00:19:33] Anyway, that brings me to the next sign, which is feeling depressed. In some people, mood disruption extends beyond just training. They lose motivation to do anything, really.
[00:19:46] The next sign, the fourth one is feeling perpetually sore. So as you probably know, muscle soreness isn’t correlated with muscle growth. I rarely get all that sore these days, regardless of how hard I train. Yet I can continue to progress in my workouts and gain very small amounts of muscle over long periods of time. But when overtraining syndrome has started to set in, some people experience a persistent soreness that just doesn’t go away. Muscle soreness.
[00:20:19] The next sign is you are not sleeping well because when you’re pushing your body too hard when the work has way outpaced the recovery, your nervous system can become overstimulated and this makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. I used to sleep really well before I had kids and at that time this was a very reliable indicator for me that I need to take a deload.
Once my sleep started to get shaved, because previously before I had kids, I would fall asleep in 5 or 10 minutes and I would rarely wake up in the middle of night. I’d be out and then I would open my eyes and it’s 15 minutes for my alarm, and I would sleep maybe six and a half hours max, seven hours a night naturally, just wake up, and that was it.
Once my sleep started get disrupted, usually I wouldn’t have trouble falling asleep, but I would wake up a couple of times in the middle of night and it would just continue. That was almost always due to overtraining symptoms starting to set in. And I would deload or take a week off and voilà, my sleep would be fine again. Now these days, my sleep is okay.
I will tend to wake up once or twice at night for no reason whatsoever, go pee, go back to sleep. So it’s not very disruptive, but you have to spend a bit more time in bed now. And why? I don’t really know. It could be extra stresses in life. It could be that just having kids. I’ve heard from many parents as just like a normal thing.
Maybe there’s a biological aspect to it. Just getting older is probably playing a role because we tend to become lighter sleepers as we get older. Anyways, my point is now it’s harder to say with my sleep. You know, if I wake up a few times in the night for a few days, I don’t know. Is that just: it is what it is? Or is it related to overtraining? So not as reliable of a sign anymore, but it used to be very reliable for me.
[00:22:20] Okay, so the next sign, the sixth one is you are always tired. And this is to be expected, of course, if you are not sleeping well. But when you have pushed things too far, it is common to feel perpetually tired, perpetually lethargic, regardless of how well you sleep.
[00:22:38] Okay, the next sign is having odd aches and pains, joint pains in particular, that is often a sign that you are due for some downtime and that has remained a reliable indicator for me. Years ago it was usually pain in my knees or my shoulders and sleep becoming disrupted and the weights starting to feel heavy. Once those things started to happen, I knew there was time to deload or just take a week off.
Now, many years later, fortunately, I don’t have any joint pains. In general, things feel pretty good. And so I’ll notice now that usually toward the end of a training block, I’ll get some pain. It seems like the pain that comes is: it’s a pain in my left knee, beneath the kneecap. And it’s not when I’m training. It’s usually in the mornings, actually. And then I will deload or take some time off and it just goes away until it comes back and those types of things are common.
[00:23:41] Okay, so the eighth and final sign is getting sick more often because periods of intense training do suppress the immune system, which of course, increases the likelihood that you’re gonna get sick.
[00:23:55] Okay, so that’s it for all the signs and symptoms. This video is gone on a bit longer than I wanted it to. Big surprise. So I want to quickly, though, touch on what you can do to help prevent these symptoms, help stave them off for as long as possible.
[00:24:11] So one is getting enough sleep. Most people need around eight hours of sleep. So if you can prioritize that, then that is going to help.
[00:24:21] Another is eating enough food. If you are in a calorie deficit, your body’s ability to recover is impaired. So unless you are intentionally maintaining a deficit to lose fat, it is smart to try to be in a deficit as little as possible if you are trying to really push it hard in your workouts.
[00:24:39] Another tip is managing your stress levels in your life, not allowing yourself to be stressed out of your mind all the time. Our bodies are very good at dealing with acute bouts of stress, but not chronic stress. And if you want some simple tips on how to reduce stress levels, because we can’t just run away from life, living life comes with stress.
And I’ve experienced it even in an odd way where I’ve had a lot going on in my life the last few years from business things to personal things to having another kid, etcetera, etcetera. And while the added stress didn’t impact me all that much psychologically, I never felt overwhelmed or like things were just going to fall apart. It definitely impacted me biologically.
Basically, I learned that while I can deal with a lot of burden and difficulty and problems psychologically and emotionally, my body can only take so much, and especially when my sleep was very on and off. Sometimes I would have periods where it was pretty bad and waking up multiple times at night and then I’d have periods where it was okay.
And one of the things that helped me, in addition to addressing the underlying problems that were causing the stress, which I’m on the other end of now, so that’s nice, is doing some simple things that just helps the body relax and just causes positive physiological changes in the body to settle it down. And if you want to learn about those things, just Google “Muscle For Life ways to relax” and you’ll find an article that I wrote on that.
[00:26:24] All right. My fourth and final tip for never having to deal with serious overtraining syndrome symptoms is to take a rest or deload week. Every so often. Now, how often depends on a number of things like what you are doing in the gym, what your lifestyle is like, how old you are, your training experience, your sleep hygiene, baba, blah, blah.
But for most people, I would say every eight weeks or so, give or take a week or two is a good rule of thumb. Every eight weeks of intense training should be capped by a deload week or just a rest week. No weightlifting and no intense cardio either. If you want to do some walking, maybe a little bit of biking, that’s fine. But don’t just replace your weightlifting with intense HIIT workouts, for example.
[00:27:14] Now, if you want to learn about deloading, just Google “Muscle For Life deload” and you will find an article I wrote on it. Now, last but not least, supplementation, I’ll keep this real simple. Protein powder can help you get enough protein, which of course helps you recover from your training. And creatine is also a good supplement for helping you recover from your training.
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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- 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