For some bodybuilders, there’s no such thing as too much lifting. The adrenaline rush and the sculpted muscles are worth the pain and stress of working out constantly. But even if your mind is willing to lift forever, your body will let you know when you’ve exceeded its limits.
This condition is called overtraining and in addition to posing various health risks, it can also destroy your gains for months or even years.
Overtraining is severe enough to be considered a syndrome by researchers and medical professionals. If you love to hit the gym and want to make sure you can avoid burnout, this guide to overtraining is for you.
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Overtraining vs. Fatigue and Exhaustion
We’ve all had days at the gym that left us completely wrecked, with just enough energy to gulp a protein shake, take a shower, and drag ourselves to rest somewhere. That’s quite common and necessary for building muscle. They have to be overworked so that your body can rebuild them stronger with hypertrophy.
Overtraining is habitually working your body out again without rest days or enough time to recover. You don’t just suddenly overtrain one day at the gym. There’s some psychology at play that causes overtrainers to work past their body’s ability repeatedly without taking a day off, but the exact principles at play are still unclear.
What is clear is that overtraining leads to the gradual loss of muscle mass and reduces your body’s ability to perform physical tasks. Some researchers have suggested it be called Paradoxical Deconditioning Syndrome because working out and becoming less fit is such a contradiction.
There are countless warning signs of overtraining that you should take seriously if they persist.
Warning Signs of Overtraining
The clearest signs of overtraining syndrome are soreness and exhaustion, but since many lifters commonly experience both after challenging training sessions they are frequently overlooked as warning signs of overtraining. Your body also responds to overtraining in some of the following ways:
Suppressed Immune Function
Anytime it’s weak your body’s ability to fight off disease is significantly reduced. That might result in a light cold or it could be something more severe, and these days you can’t be too careful.
Several of the warning signs to come also have a damaging effect on your body’s immune system.
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It won’t be the kind of beneficial weight loss you’d get from an effective cutting phase. Your body will cease protein synthesis and start losing lean muscle mass if you overtrain and the number on the scale will shoot down.
You can expect to look wiry and even sickly if you overtrain for long enough and the symptoms go unchecked.
Reduced Appetite and Motivation
When your body is in full burnout from overtraining, you won’t want to train, go out, head to work, or do much of anything. It can get so bad that you don’t even want to eat, which can speed up muscle loss if it prevents you from eating enough protein.
Deconditioning can turn you from a fit lifter to a sedentary blob. When you lose the strength you worked so hard for, you’ll be completely demotivated to do anything.
Stress From a Hormone Disruption
Your body’s endocrine system uses hormones to regulate metabolism, reproduction, growth, recovery, stress, and energy level. Overtraining syndrome causes a flood of a category of hormones called catecholamines that typically provoke a stress response.
These stress hormones, which include cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine, cause increased breathing, more rapid heartbeat, constricted blood vessels, and muscle tightness.
Interrupted or Lost Sleep
Healthy tiredness after high-intensity training sessions helps you sleep better, but overtraining will destroy your sleep schedule. You might be unable to get as many hours of sleep as you used to or not be able to stay sleeping for long periods.
In addition to the hormone imbalance overtraining causes, the reduced sleep will lead to moodiness and possibly even depression.
These warning signs can also come from various other environmental factors, but if they’re coming from overtraining they’re likely to appear seemingly without cause. That’s because most people who work out regularly don’t want to admit that they might have overdone it.
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Workout Stubbornness Leads to Overtraining
It’s not that bodybuilders, lifters, and physically active people are naturally more hard-headed – working out and staying fit is a healthy activity with tons of benefits under normal circumstances. A natural faith that it won’t harm your body is only logical.
But a particular stubbornness can arise when you start to see serious gains. This is most likely to occur if you’re hyperfocused on having chiseled muscles and not thinking holistically about the state of your body.
The Impact of Overtraining On Your Muscles
Overtraining syndrome doesn’t just make you less motivated to keep training to meet your fitness goals. It causes your body to actively stop building muscle and even consume what muscle mass you have built up.
When your body produces too much cortisol, as it will when you have overtrained, it will consume muscle tissue for energy. Cortisol is catabolic, which means it encourages your body to use its fat and muscle stores for fuel, which is a great adaptation in a stressful situation. The opposite is an anabolic state, where your body is building and strengthening muscle.
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Overtraining syndrome causes the release of cortisol, which puts your body in a catabolic state just like it would be if you were exercising. However, the cortisol stays around even when you aren’t in an intense training session, which leads to muscle loss.
It makes sense that your body has adapted to get into a catabolic state when it needs to recover. When you’re overtrained, the cortisol release is meant to accomplish that task.
Parasympathetic vs. Sympathetic Overtraining
No, we’re not going to talk about how your muscles have feelings. A sympathetic reaction is one where your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Parasympathetic overtraining, then, is overtraining that causes the body to slow itself down by stopping the release of stress hormones.
Triathletes and people who do lots of cardio are susceptible to parasympathetic overtraining. Their bodies are trying to tell them to take it easy so it can recover. Bodybuilders and strength trainers are more likely to have a sympathetic overtraining response because they exercise in comparatively shorter bursts.
Is It Worse to Overtrain With Cardio?
As far as muscle mass goes, sympathetic overtraining is much worse because your body is consuming its own muscle mass. For a weightlifter, that’s the worst situation. Sympathetic overtraining is also more dangerous because it can make weightlifting even more unsafe and lead to injury.
Doing the exercises in your training program with the proper form is key to getting the gains you want without injuring yourself. Shoulder exercises, for example, pose a particular risk to the rotator cuff and other important ligaments if done improperly.
An overtrained body underperforms at physical tasks, which doesn’t only mean you won’t be able to lift as much. You’ll be at a greater risk of injury, too.
Overreaching vs. Overtraining
If all this talk of overtraining has you worried, remember that it’s a long process to become overtrained. Your training volume has to be way too high for months and months with few or no days off to get into a properly overtrained condition.
Individual training sessions where you work out too much after inadequate rest are called overreaching. You can overreach in the short-term, say for a few days or a week, or in the long-term, for multiple weeks or a few months.
Overreaching for a long period of time is believed to be the prime cause of overtraining. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the symptoms of overtraining if you start to experience them. Letting them go on for too long can ruin your fitness career for good.
Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome
The negative effects on this list aren’t warning signs that you’ve been overreaching. They indicate that your body is already overtrained and you should take corrective measures immediately. Keep in mind that they should be chronic symptoms to indicate overtraining, not sudden one-time events.
If you can’t lift like you used to and don’t see any gains despite an increased training load, you could be overtrained. It’s natural for your ability to fluctuate day by day, but a significant reduction in speed, endurance, agility, or strength following months and months of intense workouts likely means you’re overtrained.
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Persistent Muscle Soreness
Your body needs the right amount of time to recover for muscle soreness to go away. If you have overtraining syndrome, that means you haven’t given your body enough time to heal and so muscle soreness and pain will last longer. This is especially true if you have lots of muscle soreness following a session that has been part of your training plan for a long time and has never caused problems before.
Higher Resting Heart Rate
An overtrained body has to work harder to keep itself running. As compensation, your heart will beat faster and possibly flutter or skip beats, which is called palpitation. This will happen during a workout and continue when you’re out of the gym if your body is overtrained. You might not notice an increased resting heart rate at first, but it can lead to symptoms like chest pain, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath.
Fat Gain & Muscle Loss
Along with the loss of muscle tissue, cortisol also causes your body to store energy as fat. It thinks it’s in an emergency because of the stress response and it wants to make sure it has enough to get through the hard times. If you continue working out and notice more belly fat even though you aren’t bulking and your calorie intake is the same, you might have overtrained.
A suppressed immune system will give you more frequent colds, even if they’re minor. You may also be at risk for worse diseases. If you’re rarely ill in general and start to feel worse at the gym generally and start catching colds more often, it’s a sign that your body needs some rest.
Part of the stress response in your body is to put off eating so it can concentrate on escaping whatever stressors it’s facing. This is also the case with overtraining syndrome because of the adrenaline release it causes. People who are trying to build muscle typically need to take in lots of calories and balance their macros. If you’re having trouble eating and don’t ever feel hungry for a long period of time in addition to the other symptoms, you might be overtrained.
How to Avoid and Recover From Overtraining Syndrome
If you suddenly have long-lasting muscle soreness, fatigue, listlessness, reduced appetite, and aren’t seeing any gains under an increased training load, overtraining syndrome is a likely culprit. Try some of these tips for recovering an overtrained body.
1. Take a Break
The most important thing you should do whether you’re overtrained or not is to take regular breaks. That can be a day off from your training plan or it can be an entire week every few months. It will improve your mood and give your body time to repair itself, hopefully building muscle mass and strength in the process.
People who think they might be overtrained should stop their workout immediately. Stick to walking if you want to stay active, but if you don’t quit the intense workouts you may get to the point where you can’t do them at all.
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2. Active Rest is Key
In addition to walking 10,000 steps a day, you can also have leisurely bike rides or go swimming for some light fitness and to keep your body active and healthy as you recover from overtraining. Just make sure that you’re not trying to sneak in some of the old muscle-building workouts in the meantime.
3. Monitor Your Heart Rate
All lifters should do this anyway. Some people have a naturally high resting heart rate so if you don’t ever check it you might think your normal heart rate is a symptom of overtraining. It’s also a great way to quickly check how hard your body is working.
Normally, a fast heart rate will cause other changes in your body and cause you to notice. It’s still better to catch a high resting heart rate before these side effects arise.
4. Keep Notes
It can be hard to remember every stage of your fitness journey. If you don’t have a personal trainer or a gym buddy who can help you remember, keeping notes or a training diary is a good way to see long-term trends in your training plan.
You might find that your performance is slacking or that you haven’t had a day off in a long time if you consult your notes regularly.
5. Vary Your Workouts
As you might expect, a good way to avoid overtraining is to avoid training too much. It’s also good advice for muscle growth because your body adjusts to a routine so varying speed and difficulty can shock it into muscle growth.
In terms of overtraining, part of resting and giving your body time to recover is also not going full speed at your max rep for every exercise all the time. You should also target different muscle groups on different days to give other parts of your body time to heal.
6. Eat a Healthy Diet
Part of lean bulking and building muscle, in general, involves eating a balanced diet with enough carbohydrates and other macronutrients for your body to power through workouts and recover afterward. Giving your body these essential nutrients is also a great way to make sure it can heal and avoid the trap of overtraining.
7. Increase Your Training Load Carefully
We all try to get that extra weight on our deadlift or bench press. The challenge of fitness is part of its appeal. But if you do so recklessly for an extended period of time, you could exhaust your muscles past the point where they can completely recover. Pair this mistake with insufficient rest days and you could easily become overtrained.
If you have ramped up your workouts too quickly and are seeing signs of overtraining as a result, you might be able to continue the exercises with less weight. Ask a physical therapist or personal trainer for advice on your particular case to prevent serious injury.
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Everyone wants to go the extra mile and put their body to the test. When we chase maximum muscle gains, it’s all too common to forget to rest enough and exercise mindfully. Overtraining is the result of long periods of overreaching and, if you let it get bad enough, it can spell the end of your fitness career.
Follow the steps and look out for the warning signs in this overtraining guide to avoid the worst-case scenario. Doing so will help you build more muscle and lasting strength in the long run.
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