Working out too much can lead to pain and swelling in your joints, overuse injuries, and a reduction in strength and performance. At least that’s according to most people that believe in the concept of overtraining, or overtraining syndrome (OTS).
But not everyone does. For example, bodybuilder CT Fletcher routinely claims that overtraining is a myth, claiming there’s no such thing as overtraining, and instead there’s only undereating. But if we leave the opinions to one side and just look at the research, it clearly shows that overtraining is indeed a real thing.
Some of the studies show that overtraining effects anywhere from 7% to 20% of athletes per season. Meanwhile, other data indicates that it impacts up to 30% of College athletes per year. However, you have to keep in mind that these are athletes that train a lot more frequently than the average person.
You also have to keep in mind that if you don’t train hard enough, you won’t see any significant results. So what is considered the sweet spot for strength training and what are the signs of overtraining?
Unfortunately, as with most things, it’s not an easy thing to define because everyone is different, so there’s no way to calculate the exact number of reps or time spent training. To complicate things even further, a lot of people often get overtraining mistaken for overreaching.
What is the Difference Between Overtraining and Overreaching?
So what is the difference between overtraining and overreaching and why do people often get them confused? Even though they share some similarities, overreaching is usually the first step into overtraining and is definitely not the same thing.
Overreaching is a short-term condition that arises in response to heavy or intense weight training, but your body generally recovers from it in a short amount of time. According to most definitions, we can see that it should be possible to recover from a state of overreaching within a two-week period.
To simplify, if you’re overreaching, you’re training in such a way as to push your body to a state where it cannot recover sufficiently before the next training session. But if you just take some time off, your body should be able to rejuvenate and recover from a state of overreaching pretty fast.
That’s why it can even be argued that the condition of overreaching is a relatively normal and harmless result of the training process, and many people actually use overreaching as part of their training programs.
An example of a training program that could cause overreaching would be doing a high volume, three-week training phase, followed by a one-week phase of rest. You’ll likely overreach during the high volume phase since you’ll either be doing a lot more reps or sets to achieve that higher volume.
But as long as it’s not too extreme, your body should recover from it perfectly fine, especially with a week off.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining syndrome is quite different to overreaching. You go from a state of overreaching to overtraining when you push your body so much that it’s hard for you to recover even after a longer period of time such as multiple weeks or months.
In fact, it’s common for athletes that are in an extreme overtrained state to take a very long time such as many months or even possibly years to completely recover from their injuries.
The reason overtraining is so difficult for the body to recover from is because it disrupts homeostasis to such a substantial extent that your body can’t handle it.
Homeostasis is a balanced state when all of your body’s biological systems are working in harmony together and they’re regulated in a way in which internal conditions are balanced, stable, and relatively constant. Now, it isn’t bad to temporarily disrupt homeostasis. In fact, that’s what happens whenever you do weight training or cardio.
Physical exercise stresses your body and acts as a shock to your system, resulting in your body adapting and making changes so that it more adaptly handle similar stresses in the future. In other words, you build muscle tissue and you get stronger.
However, when homeostasis is disrupted chronically, which is what happens when you overtrain, your body won’t have the time and/or the resources to get back to a state of homeostasis. This can lead to a multitude of problems.
Overtraining will give you a number of symptoms, including:
Acute and Chronic Immunosuppression
Mental Health Issues
Acute and chronic immunosuppression
Overtraining can cause acute and chronic immunosuppression, this means your immune system is suppressed, making it more likely to catch an infection or get sick.
Mental Health Issues
Overtraining can also affect you mentally. Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and lowered libido are all common side effects of overtraining, and unfortunately, it can turn into a bit of a cycle. Physically overtraining can increase mental stress and that mental stress can then increase the chance of overtraining.
The obvious issue with overtraining is performance will take a hit. This is the most likely way you’re going to know if you’ve been overtraining.
Even though you might be training hard and supposedly doing everything right, your performance and your output during your workouts aren’t showing it. So either you make no gains at all, or even more likely, you might have a reduction in your athletic performance even though you’re working hard. Another thing that can happen to your body is weight loss.
This usually happens because overtraining can reduce appetite. That might sound counterintuitive because you would assume it would increase appetite, but that’s actually not the case. Overtraining can cause hormonal influences that make you feel less hungry and reduce your desire to eat.
You can also develop sleep problems because overtraining overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is your body’s fight or flight response, making it harder for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. On top of that, most people are already pretty familiar with the side effect of having a higher risk of injury from overtraining.
This can happen for a variety of different reasons, including the fact that overtraining leads to excess fatigue. This excess fatigue impairs coordination and the ability to maintain proper form, which is very likely to lead to an injury. Aside from that, as was mentioned in the beginning, overtraining has adverse effects on the quality of your connective tissues, which includes your tendons and ligaments.
This also makes it more likely that you’ll get an injury like a hamstring strain, Shin splints, or another very common one patellofemoral syndrome, which is actually the most common cause of knee pain. Aside from all that when you work out too much, you’ll also experience chronic muscle soreness, you’ll feel more irritable, and you’ll experience a decline in your motivation to train.
How To Know if You’re Overtraining?
Keep in mind that even though all of these are the most common symptoms of overtraining, it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily experience all these symptoms at once. Usually, you’ll only notice a couple of the signs of overtraining.
The big problem is that even when athletes do recognize these symptoms, they usually don’t pay them much attention at all, which ironically, may have been the cause of their overtraining in the first place. They might have ignored things like a nagging injury, excessive fatigue, low libido, elevated anxiety levels, or a decline in performance. And that’s the Catch 22 with overtraining.
Usually, it happens when you’re most motivated to reach your goals and you’re not paying attention to how your body is reacting. So, as weird as it sounds, even though motivation and that drive to see results can be really helpful, in some cases, when it’s taken to the extreme, it can backfire and lead to overtraining.
As was mentioned earlier, other than physical stressors, there are also mental stressors that can lead to overtraining, especially when you experience mental and physical stress at the same time. That’s because, for your body, it doesn’t matter where the stress comes from. Whenever you exceed its ability to handle that stress for extended periods, you’ll disrupt homeostasis and run into problems.
We have evidence of this in action. For example, in a review study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers noticed that stress can come from not only training but also from physiological stress as well as illness. That’s why overtraining is more likely to become an issue when you go through a mental hardship, such as the loss of a loved one, financial difficulties, or relationship problems.
This is why overtraining can happen at seemingly random times when you’re not training any differently than usual. Even if your workout routine stays more or less the same so you don’t add on more reps sets or lift heavier weights, you can still be bogged down by overtraining if you’re under a lot of mental stress.
This is why a good coach not only pays attention to how an athlete is training but also how external factors like their life, sleep, quality, diet, supplement regimen, and stress levels are impacting their recovery. But you might not even have a coach.
What are the Signs of Overtraining?
The question is, what can you do to assess whether you’re overtraining or not? And are there some pre-emptive actions that you can once we see the signs of overtraining? Well, first, remember that it’s fine to push yourself out of your comfort zone and even overreach, because as long as you give your body the time and the resources it needs to recover, pushing yourself is what will help your body adapt to the higher level of physical stress and lead to improvements.
If you keep your training volume really low because you’re afraid of overreaching, you’ll most likely see either very limited or no results at all. In fact, studies show that there tends to be a dose-response relationship between training volume and muscle growth.
So the more sets, reps, and weight you use, the more muscle you’ll tend to gain. So sticking to a low amount of volume is definitely not the solution. But with that said, this dose-response relationship between volume and muscle growth only holds true as long as you can actually fully recover from your workouts.
So I want you to imagine it as a Bell curve. A well-known sports scientist, Eric Helms, actually depicts this Bell curve in his book. You can see that there’s an optimal training volume, and if you go above or below that, you’ll impair your results. So to find out if you’re overtraining, start by asking this question. Am I making progress at the gym?
Am I increasing the weight I can use, or am I at least able to perform more reps with a given weight load? Now there are a number of reasons why you might not be making progress. So this is definitely not the only question you want to ask. But it is the first question because if the answer is yes and you are improving, then by definition you are not in an overtrained state.
How to Avoid Overtraining and Keep Making Progress
Now, if you have hit the point where you’re not making any additional progress and you want to know how to avoid overtraining, ask yourself the following questions:
Am I consuming enough calories and protein?
Am I getting enough sleep?
Am I following a solid workout program?
Am I training hard?
Am I focusing on applying progressive overload?
Am I consistent with my workout and my nutrition plan?
Is my lifting technique and my form on point?
Is my circadian rhythm good?
Do I train, eat and sleep around the same time each day?
If you answered no to one of those questions, you’ll want to fix that first. That’s likely the reason you’re not making progress. But if you answered yes to all those questions, there are most likely two reasons that you’re not seeing progress. The first and the more common reason is that you’re not doing enough training volume. The solution to that is to train harder and to try to increase your sets, reps, and weight load use over time.
The other reason could be that you’re doing too much volume and you’re overextending the ability of your body to recover from your workouts. In this case, not only do you answer yes to all the questions I just went over, but you’re also most likely experiencing at least a couple of the symptoms, like getting sick more often, feeling more fatigued, and experiencing more injuries.
Luckily, you don’t have to wait until you’re seeing signs of overtraining to start reversing this. Ideally, you don’t want it to happen at all. So to avoid overtraining, the first thing that you want to do is make sure that you give yourself enough time and enough nutrients to fully recover.
The other thing that you want to be extra careful of is doing a very high amount of sets and reps per workout. Even though lifting really heavy weights can technically lead to overtraining, it very rarely does so on its own. Overtraining is almost always the result of doing too many sets and reps at a high enough intensity.
The truth is, your body can generally handle a high training intensity very well. For example, research shows that powerlifters can make excellent progress just by maxing out one rep every day, followed by five sets of three reps using a very heavy weight load.
It’s typically only when you use a decent weight load in combination with a ton of sets and reps that you might end up overtraining. This is actually one reason why overtraining is more common for CrossFit athletes rather than Olympic weightlifters. The CrossFit athletes focus on components of volume like sets and reps, while Olympic weightlifters focus more on intensity or weight load.
So now you understand that you can see why overtraining for pure strength athletes like weightlifters and bodybuilders is uncommon and actually lower than what most people believe. Most weightlifters simply don’t do enough sets and reps and overall volume to reach that point.
If their progress stalls, it’s generally not because of overtraining, but more likely the result of something else like not getting enough sleep, following a poor exercise routine, insufficient protein or calorie intake, and so on.
On top of that, before a bodybuilder or weight lifter overtrains, there are generally two things that will happen. Firstly, most lifters will give up mentally way before they can push themselves into a state of seeing the signs of overtraining. The second thing is that their connective tissues will degrade.
That’s because muscles can heal much faster than tendons and ligaments can. So when doing a lot of volume, overuse injuries tend to pop up in joints long before the muscle tissue starts to be overwhelmed. It’s only if you can push through the mental discomfort and do enough volume without suffering overuse injuries that you might be able to overturned. But again, that’s rare for weightlifters. So yes, overtraining does exist.
Overtraining definitely is a real thing, and it’s especially common among athletes that do a high amount of volume, such as endurance athletes or CrossFit athletes. But it’s much less common for regular people that go to the gym, and you’d really have to go out of your way to push yourself to the point of overtraining.
If you feel you’ve been experiencing one or more of the symptoms of overtraining, then it’s a good idea to take some time off from the gym and let your body fully recover.
So that about wraps it up. I really hope this helps you understand more about the concept of overtraining, how likely it is, and its opposite but equally detrimental concept of undertraining.
Jason Chapman has a degree in Exercise Science and is a personal trainer with 10+ years of experience in fitness and strength coaching. Jason spends his time with BodyCapable researching the latest strength training trends and writing science-backed, informative content. Jason likes to spend his spare time hiking, traveling, and of course training!
Body Capable’s content is for informational and educational purposes only. Our website is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment; we encourage you to seek out a medical professional whenever necessary.