Overtraining is considered an enemy of performance, health, and wellbeing. But is it always such a bad thing, in every single case?
I want to start with a phrase that I learned from my late mentor that says “fatigue masks fitness”, and that encloses what I’m about to talk about in this article.
Let’s first explore what is overtraining.
The concept of overtraining obeys Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome rules and explains how our bodies respond to a stressor. In our case, that stressor is physical training. I make the clarification because there are many different stressors that affect us and that can actually play a role in overtraining. I’ll mention some of them during this article, but I won’t go deep into them.
When our bodies receive the stress of physical training, they must find the right mechanisms in order to adapt to that stress, and those mechanisms are not immediate. They take some time to achieve their purpose, normally a matter of days. If don’t allow them to happen before you introduce the next bout of stress (read next training session for the same body part), the adaptation won’t happen, and fatigue will set in with its consequent decrease in performance.
An analogy for this is when you first start playing tennis or using an ax to break logs. Being your first time and assuming that you do it for a couple of hours, the next day you’ll normally have ampoules on your hands. If you allow the ampoules to heal you can go back to the tennis court or the forest and do the task again. With time those initial ampoules will become calluses that are there to protect you. But if you don’t allow the ampoules to heal and go to do the job or play again, the next day they will be worse. If that process continues, you’ll have your hands full of blood and maybe your flesh exposed.
It’s exactly the same when talking about training. If you allow your body the right time to recover, next time you train the same body part your performance should increase. If you don’t give your body the time it needs to recover, most probably your performance will go down and with time, you’ll be overtrained. It’s also important to mention that if the time between training sessions of the same body part is too long, or you train several days after the recovery happens, you won’t see any progress or increase in performance.
In the world of research, this is known as “cumulative microtrauma”.
Types of overtraining
In our world, you’ll find mainly 2 types of overtraining. You can be overtrained by volume or by intensity.
Overtraining with volume:
When you maintain a volume of training that is too high for your body’s ability to recover, you’ll be overtrained by volume, mainly affecting the muscular system, and the main characteristics of it are:
- Feeling exhausted all the time
- No matter how much you sleep, it’s never enough
- Joint pain
- Muscular pain
- Mood changes
- Depressed immune system
- Decreases in strength and work capacity
- Appetite suppression
- Mild depression in some cases
Overtraining with intensity:
When the intensity of your workouts is too high for your body’s ability to recover, you’ll be overtrained by intensity, mainly affecting the central nervous system, and the main characteristics are:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Decreases in strength
- Mild depression
- It’s hard to focus on cognitive tasks
- Appetite suppression
- Being clumsy
- Mood changes
How to assess the start of an overtraining process
I’ll describe a few simple methods that will allow you to test your clients/athletes
Communication and observation:
As mentioned above, mood changes are part of the “symptoms” of overtraining and they appear before the overtraining becomes evident in the muscular system. The depletion of specific neurotransmitters like dopamine and acetylcholine and the depression of the central nervous system can explain the situation.
As a personal trainer or strength coach, it’s very important to pay attention to the mood changes of your clients and athletes and act accordingly as I’ll explain later in the article.
The warm-up for the training session can give you a lot of different clues, including if your client or athlete is recovered. If you are a good observer, during the warm-up or even the first set, you can always know if your client or athlete will be able to complete the training program stipulated for that day.
As Preston Greene, strength coach of the Florida Gators, eloquently explained during a seminar at Prentiss Hockey Performance, he’s always asked by the team management before the game, if the warm-up of the team was good.
Grip strength is a reliable indicator of the beginning of an overtraining process because it is related to the status of the central nervous system. A good way to measure it is using a hand-held dynamometer. Something absolutely important about the use of this type of device is to establish a baseline and be consistent in measuring always the same way. The client/athlete should use the dominant hand and start squeezing with full strength the dynamometer overhead, and then starts bringing the arm down and in front until it is parallel to the ground, and there is where you take the reading, as it is the strongest position. A decrease above 7% is considered an indicator of central nervous system overtraining.
How to prevent overtraining
Doing the correct interpretation of the neurotransmitter profile of the client or athlete is probably the most accurate and personalized tool in order to prevent overtraining. In this class, I teach how to properly interpret the neurotransmitter profile and depending on the results, the periodization models specific for each profile, when and how to un-load the client or athlete, and the application on every single training variable or loading parameter, amongst others.
Proper periodization is perhaps the most common method addressed in the literature, and the one that in my opinion can accomplish better this task is the undulating periodization model, where you alternate between accumulation and intensification phases. It’s important to note that the length of the micro and mesocycles play an important role in the effectiveness of this method.
Even though I completely disagree with the term itself, I believe is a good way to prevent overtraining. Let me explain. An un-loading phase is defined as the one where you decrease the volume by cutting the number of sets by 40% (doing only the 60% of the sets programmed), and you do that every third workout of the same body part. For example, if you are doing 10 sets of 10 reps, every third workout OF THE SAME BODY PART, on the unload you’ll only do 6 sets of 10 reps. As you can see, you are reducing the volume, not the load, and that’s why I disagree with the term. In my opinion, the name should be something like de-vol. The only problem is that it can be confused with the anabolic steroid, but I believe it expresses better the meaning of the process.
Critical drop-off point:
It doesn’t matter which method or combination of methods you use to prevent overtraining, every single workout should respect the critical drop-off point. The critical drop-off point is a measure of when to stop an exercise or workout, and the moment to do it depends on the strength quality being trained. It is based on the decrease in performance set after set. I devote a good portion of the Science of Program Design class to explaining and giving different examples of this important concept.
Other stressors in life:
The person that is subject to other stressors in life, has a higher tendency to get overtrained faster, than the person that doesn’t have them. For example, if the only thing that Peter hast to do in life is wake up, have breakfast, and train, the response to a training program will be completely different to the same Peter dealing with problems at work, being stressed driving, dealing with banks, etc. The chances that the second Peter gets overtrained with the same program that the first Peter, are definitively higher, and as coaches and trainers, we need to account for these factors when assessing and preventing overtraining.
The most important intervention is rest! If you or one of your clients or athletes gets overtrained, that person needs to stay away from the gym, get enough sleep and eat right, most probably, for one week. After that time, you can check the person with the methods mentioned above and make the right decision.
Is overtraining something you ALWAYS need to avoid?
The answer is not necessarily. There are certain occasions when planned overtraining is welcome and does wonders. And I want to make emphasis on the word planned. When you plan properly-getting into an overtrained state and the necessary recovery, you can reach what scientists call overcompensation or super-compensation, which as the name implies, the gains obtained are far superior to the ones obtained with conventional methods. A good example of the planned overtraining is the class Strength & Mass Internship, where students train 3 times a day, for 5 days, and then they are instructed to fully rest and eat right for one week. To this moment, all the reports we have received show an impressive super-compensation. After the week of rest, no exception, the reports received showed bigger, leaner, and stronger individuals.
On another occasion I use planned overtraining is when my clients or athletes are going on vacation to a place where I know for a fact that they will not exercise and the food they’ll have access to, not necessarily matches their nutritional needs. For that, I have them train twice a day for 2 weeks, and the end of those 2 weeks matches exactly with the beginning of their vacation time. When they come back to the gym, they didn’t gain much, if any, fat mass, they didn’t lose much muscle mass or strength, and they report feeling absolutely rested.
Implement these strategies and make sure you avoid overtraining your athletes or clients, or plan it when it is needed!
Coach Carlos Castro