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Don’t Overtrain!

Or your gains will go down the drain

Overtraining is a severely underestimated problem. It shows itself when trainees fail to improve in their favorite lifts, even when they train harder and/or add more sets. The overtrained also usually find that they can't gain size or weight. There may be other symptoms that most trainees don't even realize are associated with overtraining.

First, let's define overtraining, also known as overreaching, burnout, staleness, stagnation and overuse. The levels of overwork are commonly defined by the amount of time it takes to recover: 1) overreaching: the trainee requires a few days to three weeks to recover from the training load; 2) overtraining: the athlete requires three weeks to several months to recover from the training load. Overtraining may affect different systems of the body, such as physiological, biochemical, psychological or immunological. The key point is that performance begins to decrease when you're overtrained'your lift numbers drop despite your effort.

Overtraining comes from too much training volume (sets and reps), too much weight (intensity), too much weight used too often (frequency), too little rest between workouts, too little sleep, poor nutrition, dehydration, jet lag and various social stresses that contribute to lack of recuperation. Proper recovery is the process whereby you achieve your desired results from training and recuperate so that you apply the next training load at the proper time. Training requires recovery from the training load. The training load leads to what's known as supercompensation'the sensation of being stronger than you were at your last workout. If too much time goes by, you lose the supercompensation, so you want to apply the next training load before that happens. Too little recovery doesn't give you the supercompensation, or even simple compensation. Negative results, or decreased performance, begin to occur.

Overtrained trainees may experience the following key symptoms: 1) decreased training performance; 2) severe fatigue; 3) reduced appetite; 4) disturbed sleep patterns, including insomnia; 5) irritability and mood swings; 6) decreased desire to train; 7) difficulty concentrating; 8) immune system deficits (susceptibility to colds and flu); 9) muscle soreness lasting too long; 10) overuse injuries; 11) attempting to train more to overcome the decreased performance, only to have performance decrease further. Lab tests can measure chemical components in the blood, but those aren't commonly used in recreational and even advanced weight training.

The central nervous system is the brain, spinal cord and nerves, the latter of which carry the impulse from the brain to the muscle so that any movement can take place. Too much stimulus to the CNS can cause it to 'fire' less effectively for several reasons. Overtraining can be peripheral (muscles and more short-term fatigue) or central (nervous system and more long-term fatigue). A phenomenon known as CNS fatigue was described in a '90 IRON MAN article about track star Ben Johnson's weight training program. Ben's coach, Charlie Francis, was very careful to make sure Ben didn't get CNS fatigue from his heavy weight training and speed work.

Most athletes who have done their fair share of weight training may have experienced CNS fatigue and not realized it. A simple example is bench press performance. If you've ever reached a plateau on the bench press, you may have tried training harder. You might have added more sets, more reps, forced reps, additional exercises for the chest, shoulders or arms. Yet your bench press weight didn't budge'and sometimes it actually decreased. Out of frustration, you might have taken a week or two off from training. You planned to reduce the weight when you returned, but much to your surprise, your poundage on the bench press was the highest it had been in many months. That's a classic example of overtraining. The one to two weeks of rest'and perhaps the mental break from training'enabled your body to recover, and that caused improved performance.

Next month I'll address the process of recovering from overtraining. IM

Editor's note: Visit for reprints of Horrigan's past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the book Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. 'Doc' Kreis, D.A., from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at

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