Every serious strength athlete is guilty of doing far too much work in the weight room at one time or another. It’s part of the process of getting stronger. Those who want to improve their level of strength push to the edge. Sometimes, they slip right over it.
Now, pushing so hard in the gym that you enter the state known as overtraining isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I believe it’s necessary. If you never push yourself into overtraining, you’re not striving hard enough. Becoming overtrained isn’t the problem. The problem occurs when you don’t recognize the condition and continue to overwork.
Being overtrained isn’t the same thing as having a bad workout or even a series of bad workouts. When you’re overtrained, you’re chronically fatigued. That causes all your numbers to drop and your form on all the lifts to suffer. Overtraining is closely linked to recovery. Rest is a critical variable in the quest for getting bigger and stronger, which means that the very best clue as to whether you’re doing too much work is how well you’re sleeping. If you’re not sleeping soundly and you’re waking up tired even when you do get enough rest, you should consider making some adjustments in your training.
There are other indicators that you’re doing too much physical exercise, one being that you start dreading going to the gym or doing your chosen aerobic exercise. When you do train, you go through the routine like a robot’a tired robot. In most cases appetite also drops off, which causes bodyweight loss, and since bodyweight is a critical factor in gaining strength, the numbers start falling. That spurs many to try to do even more to recover the lost gains, and that, of course, creates a downward spiral.
If you don’t make some alterations, the problems get worse. An overworked person is more susceptible to various illnesses, such as colds, flu, strep throat and mononucleosis. The chronic fatigue brings on irritability and frustration at events that normally don’t matter. Aches and pains are more common, and the possibility of sustaining an injury is much higher. Part of the reason for the greater risk comes from the fact that technique suffers when you’re overly tired. Poor form results in a greater chance of injury.
Understand that people seldom become overtrained for just one reason. It’s generally a series of variables that add up. In most cases the underlying causes can be found outside the gym, rather than in the routine itself. That’s the reason it’s so important for strength coaches to talk to their athletes. They need to know what their athletes are doing and what they did the night before. If, for example, an athlete has been up all night preparing a term paper, the odds are that he or she is going to be more tired than usual. Adjusting the workout accordingly can help prevent a poor training session.
Many forms of stress can influence training. Moreover, what constitutes stress for one person may not bother another at all. Most college athletes get stressed out during midterms and finals’but not all of them. Many actually thrive at those times, and their lifts go up. The same thing goes for changes in the weather, especially in those areas of the country where the shifts are drastic. When the weather turns extremely cold or hot, some people are very negatively affected by the change. Others enjoy the variation.
Stresses created by problems in personal relations are very common. The breakup of a romance can be devastating to some people, while to others it means little. Family tragedies, however, always take their toll. The death or severe illness of a loved one invariably has its effect in the gym. In addition to outside forces, there are training-related variables that can increase the possibility of your becoming overtrained. Many people fall into the trap of doing too much too fast because they’re anxious to regain their former strength levels. That’s common for members of sports teams who only do an abbreviated strength program’or none at all’during the season. Once they start on the off-season routine, they want to get back to the numbers they were using the year before. In most cases it’s easy to do because they’ve already broken the numbers barrier; however, a fast climb often vaults them into a state of overtraining because it takes time to build the foundation, whether it’s the first time around or the second or third. Another way many fall into overtraining is that they try to follow a routine they found in a magazine. Never mind that the program comes from a very advanced strength athlete or bodybuilder who devotes most of his time to training. When working people who have families try to follow the routine, they end up doing too much and their lifts slip backward.
Beginners become overtrained because they try to carry too great a workload before they’ve established a solid enough foundation. In those cases it’s rarely the primary exercises that cause the trouble. Usually it’s the auxiliary movements. Beginners don’t overwork their legs or backs, but they do overload their upper bodies. They want a bigger bench press or larger arms and thicker chests, so they will often spend a full hour working those bodyparts after they’ve already done their three primary exercises. It always takes its toll.
I mention again the fact that having one or two poor sessions doesn’t always mean you’re overtrained. In many cases a lack of energy in the weight room stems directly from a faulty diet or poor sleep habits. I don’t mean not being able to rest because of fatigue but, rather, not getting sufficient rest due to, say, too many late-night parties. If people are dragging through their workouts because they didn’t get enough sleep the night before, the solution is basic: Get to bed earlier than usual and do some catching up. Contrary to the popular notion, you can catch up on your rest. The same advice holds true with regard to diet. People get superbusy and neglect to eat properly, resorting to fast food. That will have an adverse effect on hard training, so change it. Get a good protein powder and start drinking milkshakes right after you train. They’ll do wonders for your recovery, and, of course, recovery is the key to avoiding the condition known as overtraining.
Everyone hits a plateau on nearly all of his or her lifts at one time or another. That doesn’t necessarily mean the person is overtrained. It’s a normal part of getting stronger. Runners also go through that phase, and everyone who has ever gone through basic training in the military understands it well. Recruits are pushed to the very limit, made to run farther and farther each day. Eventually, they’re tired to the bone, but the instructors don’t let up. For several weeks the new servicemen can barely make it through a day, then, almost miraculously, they aren’t nearly as tired and can do more than before.
It happens in any physical activity. The body needs some time to adapt to the increased demands placed on it. So hitting a plateau doesn’t always indicate that you should decrease your workload. One thing you can do to aid your cause when it happens, however, is try to get more rest. If you’re in a position to slip in a nap, do it. If not, get to bed a bit earlier. A half hour extra can be a godsend.
Overtraining can occur when people start slipping in extra activities outside the weight room, such as playing too much recreational basketball before they lift. That happens on any college campus because athletes love basketball. After playing a full-court game for an hour, though, they have little left for the weights. If they persist in doing both for too long, they’ll become overtrained, since they seldom have a solid enough foundation to carry that sort of load.
People who decide to start doing some form of aerobics often run into the same problem. It’s not the aerobics per se, but they do too much too soon. Any new physical activity should be added to the total scheme of things gradually. Less is better in the early going because every form of exercise, whether it’s running, racquetball, basketball or some other sport, stresses the body in a different manner, and it takes time for the body to adapt to the new stress.
Serious strength athletes are never satisfied. If they do a 500-pound squat, they’re immediately thinking about doing 525. That attitude, which is essential in a champion athlete in any sport, is also responsible for their doing too much too soon. The increases have to come gradually, and for some that’s hard to do. Many athletes increase the intensity on a lift at the same time they increase the workload. That’s too much. If you’re working to improve a max single on a lift, you should not also be trying to increase the total amount of work on that lift. One or the other is okay, but both will be too much.
I’m always talking about the importance of figuring out the weekly and monthly workload, and this is one area where it’s very helpful. Once you know for certain just how much tonnage you’re handling in a week or month, it’s much easier to design a program that will let you do a bit more or, if you feel the need, a bit less. If you don’t know the exact numbers, it’s guesswork, and that’s an invitation to problems.
Let’s say you’ve determined that you’re overtrained. You’ve calculated your weekly workload, and it came out to 110,000 pounds. For the next couple of weeks lower the load to 85,000 or 90,000 pounds. That’s a significant decrease, and it will be enough to allow you to recover. Once you feel you’re recovering properly, slowly move the load back up to 110,000 pounds and see if you can carry it. In most cases you’ll be able to, but if not, lower it again and repeat the process.
I’ve found a simple method for lowering the total workload without negatively affecting the base or the top-end numbers very much. For a week or two eliminate most’or all’of your auxiliary exercises. Concentrate solely on the primary movements and leave the gym. Overtraining often occurs because people spend too much time in the weight room. Cut out 30 to 40 minutes and recovery will be much easier.
If you feel as if you’re starting to become overworked, it’s best to drop any high-skill exercises. If you try to do full cleans or power snatches while you’re overly tired, you’re going to pick up bad form habits. It’s better to do less-complex exercises until you feel as if you’ve recovered from the down period; for example, bent-over rows or deadlifts instead of full cleans.
Some seemingly tame routines can also result in overtraining if you ignore the heavy, light and medium sequence. Lots of split-routine enthusiasts do too many heavy sessions back to back. Few really have a sufficiently solid base to handle that much work, so they end up becoming fatigued rather than any stronger.
There are also people who become overtrained because they persist in attempting a max at every workout’particularly on the bench press. Three times a week they try a max single. For a time it seems to be a fine idea because they improve consistently, but, of course, that can’t go on forever. Eventually, the lift flattens out, and if they don’t make changes, it will start to slide backward.
That brings up the point that people may only be overtrained in one area of their body. Athletes who incorporate too much running at the same time they’re pushing their squat workload upward can become fatigued in the lower body. More often than not, though, the area of the body that’s the most overworked is the shoulder girdle: the shoulders, arms and chest. When any area is obviously fatigued for an extended period, you have to make alterations. Either lower the workload or the intensity, eliminate some auxiliary movements or change the routine completely.
The question always comes up in any discussion of overtraining: Should I take some time off when I know I’m overtrained? It depends. If you’ve pushed yourself so hard that you’ve stayed in a state of overtraining for months, then you should take a break and allow your body to recuperate. That happens to competitive weightlifters who enter several meets in quick succession. Taking time off is essential for them. Most people, however, don’t stay overtrained for very long. An alert coach can spot the condition. If I see athletes struggling with form on a lift they usually do perfectly, I know they’re overly tired.
If you’re in the early phase of overtraining, I believe it’s best not to take an extended layoff. Training consistency is one of the keys to progress, and if you start missing workouts, for whatever reason, it can become a habit. I sometimes allow my athletes to skip a day, but they have to make it up some other day that week.
One of the best adjustments I make for athletes who are overtrained is to put them in the power rack. I have them do the three basic positions in three exercises: the press, pull and squat. I use either the pure isometric or isotonic-isometric combination, depending on their level of strength. The workout is short, condensed and most effective. It’s not tiring, so the lifters can improve their strength while they recover from being overworked.
When it comes to avoiding overtraining, an ounce of prevention is the key. Pay attention to your workload and intensity, which will help you monitor your increases. When you decide to up your workload, make changes in other areas of your life at the same time. If you know you’re going to be handling a larger load than usual in the upcoming week, get a bit more rest, especially the night before a heavy session. Plan your diet to ensure that you’ll be properly fueled for the stress ahead. As in most of life, it’s the little things that make a difference.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM