The Truth About Overtraining: What Overtraining Is and Isn’t

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We have all been enthusiastic beginners once, so probably all of you guys are familiar with this scenario: you go to the gym every day and you wouldn’t miss a workout, come hell or high water. You keep pumping one set after the other. You train harder than anyone else, in hope of faster development. Because, you know, “muscles are growing during workout”... Then, you are just looking into the mirror, wondering: based on the work you have invested into it so far, you should be Mr. Olympia by now. And you almost believe it: with all that work behind you, Kai Greene should look like Daddy Long Neck next to you. But in reality, both your strength level and your weight are stagnating, and your motivation seems to diminish. What can be wrong? Well, my friend, this smells pretty much like overtraining. But what can you do against it? These were the thoughts on my mind as I was browsing It looks like overtraining is surrounded by myths worldwide, so it is worth delving into this topic more in detail.

Overtraining as a process:

Yes, it is: contrary to public belief, overtraining is a process, not the outcome of one overdone workout. So, if you go crazy and do 30 sets of bicep exercises in one workout, that will not make you overtrained. Alright, this is clearly not a smart idea, still it won’t lead to overtraining. Overtraining is more like being sick: when a weakened immune system meets low spirits.
Weight training poses extremely high stress on your system. And, as any kind of stress, it prevails on two levels: locally and system-wide. When your body is exposed to such a shock, you will not (only) feel it in the part of your body which is supposed to be affected. This is due to an excessive release of the stress hormone cortisol. Now let’s take it one step further, just to get you an idea about the complex nature of this matter. Problems at work or at home, insufficient nutrition in terms of quality or quality, insufficient water consumption, or even air pollution can be a contributing factor. These are all factors in the equation which might lead to overtraining. The bottom line is: one hard workout is not likely to make you overtrained; finding the root cause requires a system-wide approach. Muscle and/or joint pains after workout are mostly of an acute nature, and can be easily mistaken for overtraining. However, contrary to actual overtraining, they go after a short period of rest. True: wrong workout techniques and too much exercise all contribute to overtraining. However, these may not be the main root causes. On the other hand, if you overwork your nervous, immune and endocrine systems each time you work out, you will soon win a free ticket to the over-train.

The process goes on as follows: you expose your muscles (but most of all, your whole system, that is, each of the above systems) to such a big shock they cannot recover from until your next workout, when you are bombing yourself to pieces again. Doing so, you are heading for a system failure, as this can easily turn into a vicious cycle, especially for beginners: you are getting weaker from one workout to the next, but your ego is unwilling to accept it, so you keep working with the same weights and rep counts. Or, to be more accurate, you are just trying to. Because, let’s face it: this will be more like a struggle than effective workout. If you are “lucky”, you will “only” overtrain yourself. If you are not, you might as well get injured, so you’ll have no choice but to skip 2 or 3 weeks instead of 2 or 3 days.

The keyword is: recovery.

In reality, overtraining has the least to do with workout. Most of the time, the root cause lies in the lack of rest or inappropriate diet. So, it can be a good idea to examine these two factors first. If you do not eat or sleep enough but train like a machine, you’ll end up overtrained. It’s as simple as that.

Therefore, you’d better be aware of the first warning signs. If you experience one or more of the following symptoms, overtraining may be knocking on your door:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps or muscle soreness
  • Low spirits or lack of motivation
  • Joint pain
  • Occasional irritability
  • A sense of “inflammation” which is like muscle soreness but is much more painful.

If one or more of the above applies to you, you should keep calm and not even think of hitting the gym until these symptoms go i.e. you manage to decrease your cortisol level.

The role of cortisol:

To keep it grossly simplified: cortisol is a so-called “stress hormone” in your body, which is activated when you need energy quickly (when doing weight training, for example). It makes all kinds of energy sources available all at once, as a “panic reaction”. In reality this mostly means that your muscles are broken down into amino acids and your blood sugar level rises so that there is plenty of fuel at your disposal in a stressful situation. In this condition your body is incapable of building muscles: workout is also a kind of shock, to which your body makes a panic reaction with your cortisol level rising—at the expense of testosterone which, as we all know, is an anabolic hormone, but its level drops to the bottom in stressful situations. It’s this effect of cortisol that enables you to swim like Michael Phelps when you suddenly see the fin of a tiger shark appear in the sea out of the blue. This is definitely a better solution than headbutting it like John McClane, and hoping that it has an Aspirin. From this point of view, cortisol is not such a bad guy, is it?

Once you have overtrained yourself for real, you should definitely review the whole picture, starting from the basics. Let’s begin with your diet. You might be eating much less than what your body needs, so it’s worth counting your macros. If you haven’t done it before, it is definitely worth trying now: you might be shocked. A rule of thumb can be extremely misleading. If only I had a dime for each time a guy said he was on a 3000-calorie bulking diet but, after some mental calculation it was revealed that his calorie intake barely reached 2000 calories. In case of overtraining it is a good idea to increase your protein intake so that your body won’t start devouring your muscles in the absence of exercise. You may also reduce your carb intake a little bit. If you don’t exercise, you won’t need as much. Plus, you’ll need unsaturated fats too, to reduce inflammation. Flax seed oil is a great source: fit in 5 to 10 grams daily into your diet. This won’t add too many excess calories.
The second area which needs your attention is rest. Getting 8 hours of sleep or more each night is always good for you, let alone when you are a bit down. There are also several kinds of supplements to improve sleep quality. We will discuss them later on. The third area to review is exercise. You’d better forget about any kind of weight training. However, you don’t need to retreat into an oxygen tent either. You can do mild aerobic workout to kickstart your cardiovascular system. Just make sure you adjust your diet accordingly.

Compile your arsenal of supplements:

  • Needless to say: the most essential item should be a high-dose multivitamin and mineral supplement, preferably in the form of complex training packs (like Builder Pak or Multi-Pro). Extra vitamin C is also a must for its anti-inflammatory properties; you might even take 5 to 10 grams a day. But in that case, don’t forget to increase your water consumption by 10% or more: this means about 3 to 4 liters a day. Omega 3 supplements are also great for reducing inflammation. Take 4 to 5 grams or as much as you can.
  • A quality whey protein product can be good for boosting your immune system, so you should not miss it, provided that you are not lactose intolerant. If you are, opt for pure whey protein isolate. Or, if you happen to be extremely sensitive to dairy, egg protein, beef protein or even rice protein will do.
  • Extra amino acids, especially glutamine. Yep, don’t forget about glutamine. Because it is an incredible immune booster; an essential nutrient on cell level. It will boost your recovery from a daily dose of 15-20 grams or more. You might as well include BCAAs too, as they will help you minimize catabolism that takes place due to higher cortisol levels.
  • Getting enough sleep both in terms of quality and quantity is also essential. Even if you don’t have trouble sleeping, there is always room for development. Night Pak is my personal favorite. GABA and tryptophan can also be very helpful if taken in the right doses. 1.5 grams of GABA and 2-3 grams of tryptophan 20-30 minutes before bedtime will be fairly enough.

Once you’ve crashed, there is only one solution: sit still, increase your protein, vitamin and mineral intake, and wait patiently. You might shorten your forced rest by a day or two, by taking vast amounts of glutamine, BCAA and vitamin C. However, a few days of forced rest essential, so don’t skip it completely.

Believe me: you are doing yourself much more harm if you crash again, just because your ego doesn’t allow you to rest for a few days.

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