The other day, I got an email from a guy who was worried that he was overtraining.
Someone had looked at his training program, told him that he was doing too much exercise, and that chemicals in his body would eat into his gains as a result.
It would be great to be able to say that a set amount of exercise is guaranteed to push you into an overtrained state, but it’s rarely that simple.
In truth, overtraining is nowhere near as common as some would have you believe.
Entering a true state of overtraining (AKA overtraining syndrome) can take months of excessive exercise, far more than most people are doing in the gym. And the symptoms are not pleasant.
The Symptoms of Overtraining
One guy I was reading about, who’d been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome by a team of researchers from Finland, was unable to carry on playing his sport due to constant fatigue and exhaustion .
He couldn’t sleep properly, and was getting by on only 3-4 hours of kip each night. Despite the fact he was only in his mid twenties, his T levels were low, his brain chemistry was out of whack, he was suffering from tinnitus (the perception of noise or ringing in the ears), and a psychiatric examination showed that he was suffering from major depression.
That’s overtraining. Feeling a bit tired for a day or so after a hard workout isn’t.
Once you’re in a true overtrained state, it can take months (possibly years) of rest and recovery before you get anywhere close to normal again.
The Difference Between Overreaching and Overtraining
There is a form of temporary overtraining, known as functional overreaching, which is sometimes used to boost athletic performance.
This involves ramping up the amount of training you do for a relatively short period of time, where your progress stagnates, or even gets worse. Then you cut back before tipping yourself over the edge.
This is supposed to generate a rebound effect, where you come back stronger and fitter after a period of recovery (although I think it’s largely a waste of time for anyone wanting to build muscle).
There’s also non-functional overreaching, where your performance doesn’t improve because you didn’t get the balance right between training and recovery, and end up digging yourself into a hole that can take weeks to recover from.
But most people will end up skipping a few workouts if they’re feeling a bit frazzled. That’s usually all they need to get things back on track before they get anywhere close to overreaching, let alone overtraining.
If you feel tired, or have a few crappy workouts, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re overtrained. Maybe your diet wasn’t quite right, or you’ve been under a lot of stress, or you haven’t been sleeping well, all of which can lead to your performance in the gym taking a dive.
If all it takes is a few days of rest to get things back on track, you weren’t overtrained.
Too Much, Not Enough or About Right?
What’s more, you can’t tell just by looking at someone’s training program if what they’re doing is too much, not enough or about right.
Training programs that might appear to constitute “overtraining” have been shown to work surprisingly well when it comes to building muscle.
In one study, the amount of muscle growth generated by squatting and bench pressing six times a week was not significantly different to training three times a week .
In fact, while the differences between groups didn’t reach statistical significance, it was subjects in the six-day group who saw the biggest gains in lean body mass.
In another trial, a group of untrained beginners in their 60’s and 70’s trained their quads three times a week for a total of four months, using the leg extension, leg press and squat . Despite racking up a total of 27 sets per week, the fast-twitch muscle fibers in their quads grew by an average of 23%.
In days gone by, I would have slapped the overtraining label on both programs.
You can’t take a group of untrained beginners in their 60s and 70s, get them to do such a high volume of training and expect them to grow. Nor can you bench press and squat six times a week, and expect to see gains. It’s just going to leave you overtrained and burned out.
But in both cases, I would have been wrong to do so.
And that’s my point. You can’t look at a single workout, or even a week’s worth of training, and declare that it is or isn’t overtraining.
What constitutes “too much” for one person may be “too little” for someone else and “about right” for a third.
More interesting still, resistance training programs designed specifically to generate a state of overreaching/overtraining often fail to have the desired effect .
That is, despite following a training program designed to make them weaker, many of the subjects taking part in these trials ended up getting stronger.
In a 1994 study, subjects using the Tru-Squat machine five days a week for three weeks (8 sets of 1 rep at 95% 1-RM) finished the study stronger than they were at the start .
“This was not expected,” write the researchers, “given that the design of the training protocol was intended to produce decreases in 1-RM leg strength.”
In another, subjects who trained their quads seven days a week for two weeks posted a six per cent increase in leg press strength, a result the authors describe as “surprising.” .
Again, the training program had been set up to make their subjects weaker. But that isn’t what happened. The group that was supposed to be overtraining actually made faster gains than the control group, who trained their legs twice a week using a more conventional upper/lower split routine.
Two weeks of daily training with 10 sets of 1 rep at 100% of 1-RM has been shown to decrease strength performance . But that’s a long way from the type of thing most people are doing in the gym.
Even the “squat every day” type of training that was popular some years back will typically involve just one maximal set, followed by several lighter sets .
Someone might see the amount of exercise you’re doing, and announce that you’re overtraining because you’re doing too many sets, training a muscle group too often, doing too much cardio, or using too many advanced training methods like rest-pause training or drop sets.
But without knowing a lot more about you, how long it’s taken you to build up to that amount of training, or how well you’re responding to it, they’re just guessing.
Christian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former “trainer to the trainers,” he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.