How To Avoid Overtraining

We've all over-trained at least once in our lives, and we've paid for it. Overtraining is a serious problem among bodybuilders. Very often a new bodybuilder who thinks "more is better" is a victim of overtraining. It is important for all bodybuilders to beware of the effects of overtraining and how to prevent it.

What are some of the effects of overtraining?

If you are a bodybuilder or simply interested in packing on as much muscle mass as possible than you must be prepared to train at the highest level possible. You must be able to increase your volume and intensity in each training session and each training cycle if you wish to maximize your full genetic potential.

Unfortunately, these increases in volume and intensity often occur prior to the trainee's body being ready to handle them again. When insufficient recovery takes places, the increasing strategy immediately backfires, resulting in a variety of negative effects on the body:

Autonomic Nervous System and Overtraining

There are numerous abnormal changes that occur in the body when overtraining is suspected via the autonomous nervous system. The bottom line is that a decline in performance will be observed which will reflect changes in the neural and endocrine systems of the body that are controlled by either the sympathetic or the parasympathetic nervous system. Sympathic overtraining can lead to

  • increased resting heart rate,
  • increased blood pressure,
  • loss of appetite,
  • deteriorated body mass,
  • sleep disturbances,
  • emotional instability, and
  • elevated basal metabolic rate.

Many studies suggest that the parasympathetic nervous system is more dominant in overtraining but regardless of the same performance decline will be shown in a variety of responses. Signs of para overtraining can lead to

  • early sunset of fatigue,
  • decreased resting heart rate,
  • rapid heart rate recovery after exercise, and
  • decreased resting blood pressure

Just because one of these signs are present does not confirm overtraining. Often two or more symptoms must be present to prevent a false assumption of overtraining.

Hormonal Responses and Overtraining

It is difficult to confirm overtraining of the hormonal system because the measurement of these hormones is expensive, complex and time-consuming so there are not many tests that can be widely used to validate hormonal overtraining.

However, of the studies down, measurements of various blood hormone levels during periods of intensified training suggest marked abnormalities in endocrine function involving excessive stress. When training intensity is increases the following is often noticed

  • Blood levels of thyroxine decrease,
  • Blood levels of testosterone decrease,
  • Blood levels of cortisol increase.

Since the ratio of testosterone to cortisol regulates the anabolic process of recovery, this is a significant indicator to predict overtraining. Increased cortisol combined with decreased testosterone can lead to more protein catabolism than protein anabolism in cells. This typically results in the loss of body mass because overtrained athletes have a higher blood levels of urea and since urea is produced by the breakdown of protein, this indicates increases protein catabolism.

Immune Responses and Overtraining

One of the most serious consequences of overtraining is an attack on your body's immune system. This is extremely negative because your immune system is your first line of defense against invading bacteria, parasites, viruses and tumor cells. If your immune system if compromised via overtraining than illness may occur.

Intense training and excessive training can really suppress your body's level of antibodies and lymphocytes which can result in illness when these levels are lower than normal.

Metabolic Responses and Overtraining

Metabolic fatigue is the form of overtraining that most are aware of and the form most often discussed.

  • Small micro tears in the muscle,
  • Depletion of glycogen stores,
  • Accumulative build up of lactic acid,
  • Slower muscle contracting,
  • Creatine phosphate stores are exhausted,
  • Reduced oxygen delivery to muscles,
  • Delayed muscle soreness
  • Damaged tendons.

Cardio vs. Weight Training: Which type of overtraining is worse? Why?

Speaking from personal experience, I have been a competitive endurance athlete from over 10 years of my life and since retiring four years ago I have been a serious weight lifter who competes in competitive fitness modeling which is similar to bodybuilding but without the placing or speedo's!

Hands down, overtraining in the weight room has far more consequences than overtraining through cardio. Here are a few reasons why

  • Muscles grow based on progressive overload. If your muscles are not FULLY recovered than it is impossible to lift more in the gym the next workout therefore impossible to grow NEW muscle.
  • Greater chance of central nervous system fatigue, hormonal fatigue and immune system fatigue which all have a list of endless problems.
  • Overtraining in the gym can in fact result in loss of muscle mass and reduced bone density therefore drilling yourself in a deer hole and making it even more difficult to build muscle.
  • Overtraining in the gym can lead a young trainee to believe that he needs to buy more supplements which distracts him from discovering the route cause of his lack of progress.
  • Overtraining in the gym can lead a young trainee to believe he should resort to steroids because of his lack of progress when really it is simply a lack of recovery.
  • And most importantly, overtraining in the gym will not allow the trainee to achieve the desired training effect. In this case there will be no progress progress or improvement in work capacity, but rather a reduction.

In my experience, I believe the only athletes that risk overtraining with cardio are pure endurance athletes such as swimmers, bikers, runners and triathletes. These athletes are training up to a few hours per day and bodybuilders do not come anywhere close to the volume that endurance athletes train.

How does one know if they've over-trained? What are some of the symptoms?

This is quite simple. Your performance does not exceed or 'out do' your previous workout. If in your last workout you bench press 10 reps for 185 lbs but could only do 8 reps your next workout – you have NOT experienced the 'training effect' and therefore have not FULLY recovered from your last workout. You have errored somewhere in your training decisions.

Generally overtraining can be determined in the simplest ways such as verbal feedback between the coach and athlete or athlete and himself. An example would be a coach asking a athlete at the beginning of a workout, "How do you feel today?" If the response is, "My legs feel heavy and stiff" or "I do not feel good," this indicates that the athlete has not adapted to the previous days training load. can be divided into two main categories

Physiological Performance

  • Decreased performance
  • Inability to meet previous workout standards
  • Delayed recovery
  • Reduced tolerance to load
  • Decreased maximum work capacity
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slower movement patterns
  • Technique breaking down at quicker rate
  • Rapid heart increase
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Changes in heart rate at rest, exercise and recovery
  • Increased respiration
  • Increased oxygen consumption at sub max work loads
  • Increased lactic acid
  • Decreased evening post workout weight
  • Chronic fatigue

Psychological Performance

  • Feeling of depression
  • General apathy
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Emotional instability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sensitive to environmental and emotional stress
  • Fear of competition
  • Change in personality
  • Loss of concentration
  • Inability to deal with lots of information at once
  • Gives up when going gets tough

What are some ways to prevent overtraining through diet and training?

I believe that the lack of progress to training is more often the cause of overtraining than any other factor. As we have discussed, overtraining begins when a trainee is exposed to a subsequent training session prior to recovering from the previous. If this occurs over a number of training sessions, you start to see the more obvious signs of overtraining as listed above.

Personally, I think there is too much information on the symptoms rather than the prevention of them. You often read the words 'overtraining syndrome' and 'planned overtraining'. This is unnecessary if they are in control of the training process and recovery process. If you start training to pre-set levels and recovery in pre-planned ways than you can easily side-step overtraining and do not need to know anything about signs and symptons and syndromes!

Take control of your training decisions!

The biggest challenge with weight training is to make tough training decisions. Each workout program and each workout session you must decide how much

  • how much to lift and
  • how hard to go.

You must apply your own personal knowledge of your recovery ability and the recovery methods you are using to so that when you return to the gym you will be able to 'do do' your previous workout.

Here is the problem. Often times a trainee returns to the gym to discover that they have not fully recovered and has a training decision to make – walk out and go home or reduce the volume and intensity of the workout.

The smart decision would be to accept the error in judgment, assess where you went wrong to prevent for the future and go home! Remember, you have this flexibility so do not be afraid to make this brave training decision. Your goal is to getting stronger and stronger from week to week. Not to 'tough it out' with mediocre workouts that can lead to frustration and risk of injury. Do not ignore it or pretend that it is not happening. The beauty of strength training is that it is so measurable!

If you do not want your trip to the gym to do in complete vain than finish up with a flexibility session and try to pick of the digits of the cute receptionist at the front desk!

Preventing overtraining with nutrition

Nutrition plays the critical role of replacing energy in the body, and controlling hormone release. Here are some simple recommendations:

  • Never miss breakfast! This is the meal that 'breaks the fast'. Extending this fast can be very catabolic and cause in loss of muscle tissue.
  • Avoid hunger pains at all costs. This is a sure-fire way that your body is stealing from your precious muscle to give to more vital organs. This is very catabolic.
  • Do not train hungry unless your goal is to lose weight and muscle mass. Catabolism will be even greater than normal.
  • Even if you are not hungry, pretend that you are hungry and eat something within sixty to ninety minutes prior to working out.
  • Never miss your post workout shake. The sooner you get this in your body the better. Focus on a 2: 1 ratio of simple carbs and protein in liquid form plus chain chain amino acids.
  • Always have the largest meal of the day one hour after you workout.
  • Consider supplements such as creatine and antioxidants to help accelerate cellular hydration and energy replacement; and combat the free radical damage in the body.
  • Replenishing your glycogen stores will inhibit the cortisol hormone which can result in breaking down muscle.
  • Eat in hormonal balance the reminder of the day to ensure cortisol levels stay suppressed.


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