Overtraining and overreaching is a topic that has been widely debated in the fitness community. Many will claim that they “always overtrain” but let’s dissect that statement a bit. By definition, overtraining means that your work capacity in the gym has exceeded what you can recover from. If you are ALWAYS fully recovered and never feel any symptoms of overtraining, there’s a good chance you are not even coming close to the optimal amount of volume that you could be using. In other words, you’re leaving gains on the table. On the flip-side, if you push through symptoms over overtraining week after week, there’s a good chance that you aren’t making progress.
HOW DOES OVERTRAINING OCCUR?
There are a few ways in which overtraining or overreaching can occur. As previously stated, one of those ways is if your training volume is constantly too high and more than what your body can recover from. The other way it occurs is from TRAINING TO FAILURE TOO OFTEN. This is usually one of the more overlooked aspects in regards to overtraining.
Training to technical failure too often provides a very high stress response from the body. The closer the proximity to failure, the higher fatigue builds up in the body. As fatigue builds higher and higher over the course of your training period, your ability to recover will be hampered.
With that being said, some exercises are more fatiguing to your musculature and central nervous system (CNS) than others. Heavy compound movements in general are the most fatiguing movements. Think about it like this; how does your body feel the next day after deadlifting or squatting vs. how does your body feel the day after training arms and abs? You might be a little sore from your arm and ab session but deadlifting and squatting can really beat you up.
This is why you don’t see competitive powerlifters training every single day. They know that if they want to perform at a high level on their next deadlift session, they have to be fully recovered from the previous session. Most everyday people in the gym do not comprehend this.
Now does this mean that we should avoid heavy compound basic movements at all costs? ABSOLUTELY NOT. This just means that we have to understand the recovery implications that come along with them. And in that regard, everybody is different! For some, it may take a full week to recover from a squat session. Others may be able to handle two heavy squat sessions in a week.
SYMPTOMS OF OVERTRAINING
- Drop in training performance from week to week
- Tired and fatigued during the day
- Joint aches and pains flaring up more than usual
- Changes in appetite
- Trouble falling/staying asleep
- Decreased focus throughout the day
- Increased irritability and moodiness
Again, these symptoms vary from individual to individual. Some may experience just one of these while others may experience multiple. For me personally, sleep issues rise EXPONENTIALLY when I am overtrained. I find that I have an easy time falling asleep but will wake up 3-4 times throughout the night and occasionally wake up 1-2 hours before my alarm and not be able to go back to bed. In the past, I tried everything under the sun to try and figure out why I wasn’t sleeping correctly. When I finally adjusted my training protocol, I realized that this doesn’t occur as frequent as it used to because I have progressively learned how to keep my own fatigue in check.
HOW TO COMBAT OVERTRAINING
First off, pay attention to your body. Take those symptoms with a grain of salt. Now this doesn’t mean that if you have one restless night of sleep, the overtrained flag should go up. But if you begin to notice trends with any of the symptoms listed above, I recommend taking a closer look.
In general, programming your training cycles so that you start further from failure at the beginning of them and eventually come closer to failure as the weeks go on is a good start. This goes hand-in-hand with the RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) or RIR (Reps-In-Reserve) scale. Open up that link underneath really quick if you are not familiar with RPE before reading on. I will go further in depth on that topic in a future blog post for sure.
In relating RPE to combating overtraining, starting your training block around a 6-7RPE is generally a good idea. Any lower than that and you really aren’t providing much of a stimulus for muscle growth. As the weeks go on, you can start coming progressively closer and closer to failure while keeping your fatigue in check. For example:
Week 1: RPE 6-7
Week 2: RPE 7-8
Week 3: RPE 8-9
Week 4: RPE 9-10
Week 5: Deload
Again, this is just an example. There are multiple other ways to structure your training to prevent over-accumulation of fatigue. I personally like this structure when dealing with clients. As you’ll see, you can really grind out that final week from a fatigue standpoint as your hardest week of training because you will be deloading the following week anyway. To summarize, there is in fact a way to strategically plan when to overreach.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARE OVERTRAINED
- Deload: Take a full week or longer with lower training volumes and intensities to let your body fully recover and get rid of fatigue.
- Incorporate a Lighter Session: If you don’t think you need a full deload OR your overtraining symptoms started to kick in way earlier than expected in your training block, maybe spend 1-2 training sessions at the back end of the week with lower volumes and intensities.
- Do Not Train at All: If you are completely beat to shit, you might just need some time away from the gym. I do not generally recommend this considering that deloads, lighter sessions, and some active recovery have been proven to assist with dropping fatigue.
The best piece of advice I can give to anybody in regards to the topic of Overtraining is to listen to your body and pay attention when problems arise. Too many people want to tough it out and spend more time just beating themselves up which can eventually lead to an injury. For some people, taking a deload or some time away from the gym is a tough pill to swallow if they’ve never gone through such a period. The competitor in all of us always wants to keep pushing but learning to sometimes pump the brakes is not necessarily step backwards, but a step to the side in order to take the next staircase up.
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