What is overtraining?
Overtraining occurs when you don’t give your muscle tissue enough time to repair the tissue that has been damaged in your workout sessions. It is a condition generated by the overload of physical activity, associated with the lack of rest and, many times, accompanied by a poor diet.
The athlete always sticks to his plans of intensive workouts, aiming to improve his performance (increase volume, strength and/or definition), without proper resting periods, many times due to: stressing factors that have to do with a complicated sports schedule, the hurry to see results, the fact that the athlete wants to revolutionize his workout plan and go beyond what his body can take, etc. However, overloading the body with heavy workouts, fewer resting periods between sets, more sets per muscle group and fewer resting days will make you wear out your system, will increase the risk for injuries and encourage other negative symptoms. Just like with all the symptoms of fatigue (in general), you will feel weaker and slower in every movement you perform.
What will encourage muscle growth and the increase of strength has nothing to do with the intensity with which you will work out on a daily basis. A big part of the success comes from two imperative factors: proper resting and a proper diet. Without these two elements, even if you do your best, you will be fighting against human nature. Be coherent with your choices and that’s when you will see results.
How many types of overtraining are there?
Main types of overtraining: localized and systemic.
Both can be the consequence of the excess of physical effort, lack of rest, a poor diet. The most common one is the localized overtraining because, as the name implies, affects only one muscle or a specific muscle group, without affecting the others. This usually happens when you work the same muscle group two days in a row, without the proper resting period. It may also occur when, while performing exercises for other muscles, you always use the same muscle groups as support (those you should be resting), canceling the effect of recovery.
Systemic overtraining: occurs less often and it is the worse of these two types, because it will affect the whole body, making it go into a catabolic state. As your body starts falling into this state, it produces a bigger amount of cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone segregated by the adrenal cortex as a response to stress. It keeps your muscles from recovering, decreases testosterone production, inhibits protein synthesis, speeds up proteolysis (degradation of protein) and inhibits muscle growth. Besides that, it decreases the body’s ability to convert fat into energy and, consequently, increases the amount of fat that has been stored in the body.
Note: There are many ways for a bodybuilder to get the proper rest and reduce cortisol levels. The best method is to sleep more hours than the recommended.
What are the most common symptoms?
– The main symptom of overtraining is the persistent decrease in performance, even after a low intensity workout session or a period of complete rest;
– Stagnation of muscle development. The results are not showing anymore, whether it’s the increase of muscle mass or weight loss;
– Lack of energy to start the workout;
– Muscle soreness due to the previous workout (it is not valid for beginners, because it is common to feel pain during that period);
– It’s hard to fall asleep/ lack of sleep quality /insomnia;
– Constant lack of energy during the day;
– Irritability/ Constant mood swings;
– You don’t feel motivated to work out;
– Loss of appetite;
– Having frequent injuries and colds;
– Persistent muscle pain;
– Feeling of chronic fatigue;
– Significant increase of the heart rate while resting (typical symptom).
When is the right time to stop working out? For how long?
Accordingly to the opinion of a few bodybuilders, the cure for overtraining essentially comprises a dramatic reduction of the workout or, in more severe cases, the interruption of the physical activity and the competitions. It is recommended to take a two-week break every 12 weeks of constant exercise.
The goal should be around 3 – 4 days per week, maximum 5, letting the muscle fully recover before starting to exercise it again and varying the exercises.
Five simple answers to stop overtraining:
1. Redefine your workout plan.
The amount of free time you need to recover should be proportional to the intensity and volume of your workout sessions. The more you work out, the more resting you will need between sessions. A good plan includes lower intensity periods and variation in the exercises.
2. More resting periods.
Sleeping is essential to help regenerate the body’s fibers so, 8h of sleep per day are crucial. If you can’t do that, you will not recover quickly from every workout session and, over time, you will end up awakening your overtraining symptoms.
3. Meditation / Engage in an alternative activity.
Meditation brings physical, emotional and psychological benefits. Meditating or even breathing deeply are excellent ways of decreasing the level of stress, reducing the feeling of fatigue on the central nervous system.
There are also other positive methods to reduce stress and help the recovery: engage in an alternative activity (yoga, Pilates or tai chi chuan), resort to full-body massages (increases blood flow and helps with muscle recovery).
4. Go through your diet plan.
There’s nothing better than a balanced diet. Take the right amounts of carbs and quality protein, especially after working out, to help replenish glycogen and speed up recovery. Reduce the consumption of caffeine, because it can negatively affect the sleeping period and increase cortisol levels.
5. If necessary, resort to nutritional supplements.
If your immune system is weakened, it is likely that you’re not being able to deal with the workouts’ demands. The excess of exercise is also a factor than can speed up the depletion of the minerals you need for a good performance. So, using high quality supplements can be useful when it comes to preventing nutritional needs.
Fish oil, glutamine and a multivitamin supplement are a few of the best supplements you can take to stimulate the immune system.
What are the pros of stopping to recover?
If you have already started your physical activity for a while, if you have been working out a lot and have been feeling any of the symptoms above, you should stop working out for 2 weeks and try to eat foods with high nutritional value. Your body will use this resting period to get back to its normal state. Muscle growth occurs after the full recovery of the muscles.
Most importantly, you should listen to your body when it starts showing the first signs of overtraining.
If you don’t stick to an adequate recovery period, your body can’t regenerate and you will have 0 results.
In how long haven’t you taken a break from the gym? It might be time to think about it.
Igor Christ, Overtraining e seus efeitos: cuidado para não exagerar nos treinamentos, translation and adaptation of the original version
Jeff Behar, Rest & Overtraining: What does this mean to Bodybuilders?, 14th of May 2004, translation and adaptation of the original version
N/d, Overtraining: o pior inimigo dos treinos intensos, n/d, translation and adaptation of the original version
Randy Herring, Recuperation & Muscular Growth, 11th of June 2002, translation and adaptation of the original version
Shannon Clark, How to combat CNS Overtraining, 8th of August 2012, translation and adaptation of the original version