Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Over-Training
These days, it seems like every gym goer is afraid of over-training; yet, there is very little science behind the concept of reaching such a state. What is over-training? Does it even exist? In this article, you will learn all about the over-training phenomenon and whether you should be concerned about it (you just might be surprised).
Over-training seems to have become a topic of increasing interest (or concern, rather) for many bodybuilders and gym goers alike in recent years. What’s interesting to note is that back in the “Golden Era” of bodybuilding (i.e. the 1970s), over-training wasn’t even a concept, and most bodybuilders were training several hours a day, nearly every day of the week.
It’s almost as if avid gym goers have grown a bit soft in this regard, using over-training as an excuse to not push themselves (or even go to the gym). You’d be amazed what the body, and mind, can endure when you really push yourself to your limits. So read on as we take a look at where the idea of over-training comes from, what the supposed causes for it are, and whether or not it’s really a cause for concern for gym goers.
DEFINING OVER-TRAINING & OVER-REACHING
A large roadblock that hinders our understanding of over-training is the ambiguous nature of it. Due to the multiplicity of signs and symptoms that may be present in individuals who are “over-trained” and the difficulty in defining the terms used to describe those things, research on over-training remains rather limited.
In a more simple term, over-training would be a state where an athlete (or trainee) has plateaued or regressed due to a failure to tolerate their physical training load. However, this definition of over-training overlaps quite a bit with the definition of overreaching, which is not nearly as “bad”as over-training is purported to be. Essentially, if you push yourself to your absolute max (and beyond) even when your body is telling you not to, you’re overreaching.
In fact, overreaching is often the goal of athlete, especially in strength training, as a brief period of rest after an overreaching phase can result in a super-compensation effect; in turn, the athlete/trainee notices significant boosts in performance. It is hypothesized that super-compensation in strength training/weight lifting is largely attributed to neuromuscular adaptations. The respite after overreaching gives your neuromuscular system time to “rebound”and you come back to the gym stronger than ever.
This is precisely why advanced power-lifting programs will have athletes progressively build up to a state of overreaching over the course of several weeks. Once that state is reached, the program rapidly decreases the training load so the athlete can reap the benefits of super-compensation.
A similar super-compensation effect can be applied to bodybuilding, whereby a trainee progressively pushes themselves for several weeks on end with increasing volume and training load. Eventually, they will feel fatigued and burned out, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At that point of feeling burned out, a brief period of time off from training (or very light workouts) would be wise. Once they give their body time to recuperate, they will come back to the gym more muscular and stronger than ever.
A 2004 research review in the Journal of Sports Medicine reported that It is presently impossible to differentiate acute fatigue and decreased performance experienced from isolated training sessions apart from the states of overreaching and over-training.1 This is in part due to lack of diagnostic equipment, inconsistent results from research studies, a shortage of well-designed, controlled studies, and individual responses to training.
Since research is severely lacking with regards to over-training, it is extremely difficult to make any conclusions about what causes it or what markers should be investigated. Moreover, no evidence exists that would suggest overreaching is the preceding phase before over-training. If over-training does exist, it would take months to fully recover, based on the purported symptoms. Overreaching, on the other hand, typically only requires a week or so of rest to bounce back from.
SIGNS OF OVER-TRAINING
Anecdotally, the main signs and symptoms of over-training are lethargy, lack of desire to continue training, physical performance decrements, and adrenal fatigue. While there isn’t much data indicating that any of these are necessarily markers for being over-trained, there is something to be said for feeling these symptoms after an extensive period of training.
Another red flag that your body is reaching a state of extreme exhaustion is that you constantly feel burned out, no matter how much rest you get or how many energy supplements you take. If you’ve found yourself feeling over trained, it’s prudent to back off of training for at least 2-3 days or so and see how you feel. If you are truly over-trained, you will may need more time to restore balance to your body. Ease back into your workouts, using lighter weights and don’t push yourself for the first week. Then gradually increase resistance and intensity until you are back to your normal workout levels.
However, if you find that after a week or two you feel great and ready to get back in the gym, odds are you just overreached a bit (and recall from earlier that overreaching is certainly not a bad thing).
While the data remains very limited in terms of over-training studies, we can’t discount the large body of anecdotal evidence that athletes and trainees can reach such a state if they don’t properly manage their training volume/loads.
Therefore, it is advised to break your training up into blocks of 4 to 8 weeks; during each block, you should make it a goal to push yourself as far as possible. Trust us when we say that overreaching is extremely hard and will test both your physical and mental fortitude; you will dread the final workouts before your time off afterwards.
The main thing is to keep in mind that the reward for pushing your limits (as when overreaching) is the massive boost in muscular size and strength you will notice from the super-compensation effect. Squatting 120% of your previous one-rep max may sound brutally impossible, but after 6 weeks of peaking and enough time to recover, it’s totally achievable through super-compensation.
1 Halson, Shona L., and Asker E. Jeukendrup. “Does over-training exist?.” Sports medicine 34.14 (2004): 967-981.