Is overtraining something we need to worry about? How do you know if you’re overtraining? Does overtraining even exist? Overtraining is definitely a real thing, and there is a great deal of research on it. Typically, this research is over highly elite athletes who compete in track and field sports. Most of the research is not on bodybuilders, and especially not on men who simply want to pack on some mass. Let’s discuss overtraining, overtraining syndrome, and if you should be worried about it.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining is when there is an imbalance in training and recovery that leads to a decrement in performance that lasts more than two and three weeks. Overtraining syndrome is a clinical condition with symptoms including persistent fatigue, muscle soreness, depression, reduced heart rate variability, and more. People who suffer from overtraining syndrome are in a serious state and should seek medical care.
What is Overreaching?
If you find yourself feeling excessively tired, sore, and irritable after the gym, it is possible you are overreached, rather than overtrained. Overreaching can be thought of as a shorter, and much less severe version of overtraining. The key to overreaching is to notice it early enough before that two to three week mark. This is so you can emphasize recovery so you can take advantage of a phenomenon known as super compensation.
Super compensation is where the body responds to the demanding overreaching stimulus so the body adapts more strongly. This leads to even better performance and more gains. On the other hand, with overtraining, the body experiences a loss in gains and a long-term drop in performance.
How Much Training Can You Get Away With Without Overtraining?
In his landmark 2010 review, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld states that overtraining is more of an excessive volume than it is intensity. This does not mean that overdoing intensity is a good idea either. In another study, when weight trained men performed a one rep max machine squat six days per week for two weeks, the one rep max strength dropped by 12 percent. Recent data has suggested that even though volume matched three sets of ten reps and seven sets of three reps causes the same hypertrophy, the heavier group experienced more fatigue. So, unless you’re training specifically for strength, keep loads more moderate in the six to twelve range for maximum muscle growth.
As a low-end ballpark for volume, it is recommended to do 40 to 70 reps per body part done two to three times per week. Once you get more advanced, you may need more volume for progress, so you will have to titrate in more workload as you assess your own recovery.
How to Assess Your Recovery
There are a few things you can do to assess your recovery to ensure you are not overtraining. One is a four question self survey. Ask yourself these four questions:
How is your sleep?
How are your energy levels?
Are your muscle and joint aches worse than usual?
How is your strength?
If you answer these questions honestly, you may reveal an overreached or overtrained state. For some, this may feel way too subjective as it can be tough to be honest with yourself sometimes. In this case, you can use heart rate variability, or HRV, as a more objective measure. To measure your HRV, you can establish your average morning heart rate baseline for a week and track changes from normal. If you see changes that are more than 10 percent or more, you can take that as a sign to reduce your training workload, or deload.
Deloading serves two main purposes. First, it prevents the overuse of injuries, and second, it resensitizes the body to training again. This can lead to better results over the long term. To deload, you can cut training volume roughly in half and also drop back the weight by 25 to 50 percent. If you train more intuitively, be sure to stop your reps a couple shy of failure and slash your sets for every exercise in half for a few weeks.
A full training break every once in a while is not a bad idea if you are feeling overworked as well. This can give your connective tissue a break without losing any progress. A 2011 study found that a group who trained continuously for 15 weeks saw the same muscle gains as a group who took a three week break halfway through.
Other Recovery Factors
In addition to what has been mentioned, there are other factors you should look at when assessing your recovery. These factors are sleep, diet, and lifestyle. It can be enlightening to look at your body as a garden. As Greg Nuckols said, you fertilize, tend the soil, uproot the weeds, water, leave it in the sunlight, and give your body the best conditions for growth. Your body will only grow as well as its circumstances will allow.
Overtraining vs. Overreaching
When it comes to feel more tired after the gym than normal, chances are you are overreaching instead of overtraining. With the methods mentioned above, you should be able to recover from overreaching and even optimize your muscle growth. With overtraining, you can damage your muscle growth and recovery takes much longer. If you do feel you are overtraining, you should seek help from a doctor, as it is a very serious condition.