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What is overtraining and what is not Are you really overtraining?

Was Übertraining ist und was nicht Befindest Du Dich wirklich im Übertraining?

Here is a brief summary:

  1. Overtraining is a very rare and misunderstood phenomenon. Overtraining does not mean training too much.
  2. There is a sports science definition of overtraining. It is a physiological condition caused by an excessive accumulation of physical, psychological, emotional, environmental and chemical stress.
  3. If you perform a training session that puts too much stress on your nervous system, you will suffer from a kind of "post-workout hangover". This will manifest itself in a lack of focus, apathy, lack of motivation and sometimes headaches.
  4. Training too hard can also overload the hormonal system. It can cause you to produce too much cortisol, which can promote inflammation and lower levels of muscle-building hormones.
  5. It can take months to recover from true overtraining, but you probably won't be overtrained. Sleep, nutrition and certain supplements can help you reach a state of overtraining and prevent burnout.

Overtraining is rare, but overreaching is not

You train hard - harder than anyone else in the gym. You train so hard that you constantly suffer from sore muscles, feel drained for a good part of the day, and sometimes lack training focus and suffer from mood swings. Yet your arms just don't want to grow. Even more frustrating is that a lot of people are making faster progress than you - even though they're not literally killing themselves training like you are.

Could it be that you are overtrained? Is it that demon eating away at your gains and destroying your motivation? Calm down first. Overtraining is a very rare and often misunderstood phenomenon. However, it could well be that you are overstressing your body and its key systems.

What overtraining is not

We often get confused when it comes to overtraining because even the name of the phenomenon leads us in the wrong direction. First of all, overtraining doesn't mean you're overtraining. Just because you perform 30 sets for your biceps during a training session does not mean that you have overtrained your biceps. It also doesn't mean that what you did was necessarily particularly smart, but you didn't overtrain your biceps.

We all have our individual recovery capacities, but the point is that overtraining is not just about overtraining. And if you injure yourself, it doesn't necessarily mean you were in a state of overtraining either.

What overtraining is

The accepted sports science definition of overtraining is as follows: "A physiological state caused by an excessive accumulation of physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental and chemical stress, leading to a sustained decline in physical and mental performance and requiring a relatively long recovery period."

There are four important elements in this definition:

  1. Physiological state: overtraining is not an action (like exercising too much), but a state similar to burnout, medical depression or illness.
  2. An excessive accumulation of physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental and chemical stress: Stress has both a localized and a systemic effect. Each type of stress has a systemic impact on the body, but this impact is not limited to the structures directly involved in the stressful event. This systemic impact is caused by the release of stress hormones (e.g. glucocorticoids such as cortisol) and over-excitation of the adrenal cortex. Each individual type of stressor can contribute to the onset of a state of overtraining. Problems at work, tension in a relationship, a death in the family, toxins and pollutants in the air we breathe, the food we eat or the water we drink, etc. can all contribute to overtraining. Too much exercise is obviously another stressor that can promote the onset of overtraining, but exercise is far from the only suspect.
  3. A persistent reduction in physical and mental performance: The key term here is 'persistent'. Some people experience a few sub-optimal training sessions and automatically assume they are in a state of overtraining. This is not the case. It could simply be acute or accumulated fatigue due to poor recovery management or inadequate nutrition.
  4. A reaction to a constant overload of the nervous system, immune system and endocrine system: Incorrectly planned and executed training can indeed contribute to this excessive overload, but it is not the only factor. As such, the key to avoiding overtraining is to not push these three systems to their limits and to do everything possible to promote their recovery.

You're probably not overtrained

The likelihood of you developing true overtraining syndrome is very low. In my entire life I have only seen two or three cases and these were always Olympic athletes who trained 20 to 25 or more hours a week. If you are unlucky enough to develop true overtraining syndrome, it won't take days or weeks to get back into top shape - it will take months.

You can't develop overtraining syndrome from 4 to 6 hours of training per week, especially if you're using methods that don't challenge the nervous system. However, just because you are unlikely to develop overtraining syndrome does not mean that you will not suffer the consequences of incorrect training.

Are you a stimulus junkie?

If you read everything you can find about training and spend a good part of your day thinking about your training sessions and how you can improve them, then you're probably a stimulus junkie. Welcome to the club.

A stimulus junkie is someone who loves the act of actually working out and uses their muscles not so much for the gains, but more for the feeling of the workout. For these guys and gals, the workout itself is the reward. Being a stimulus junkie has its perks. You will rarely lose your motivation to train, you will stick with your training for the long haul and you will never shy away from hard work.

However, stimulus junkies are also the perfect candidates for excessive training and they tend to push themselves too often, too hard for too long. A stimulus junkie often takes pride in training harder than anyone else, rather than taking pride in achieving better results than anyone else. For this reason, a stimulus junkie is often their own worst enemy, using training practices that cause them to stagnate (or even regress) and feel shitty all the time.

Training hangover, lethargy and low sex drive

If you do a training session that puts too much strain on the nervous system, then you will suffer from what Paul Carter calls "training hangover". This is quite an accurate term as you will feel similar to how you feel after a night out: lack of focus, lack of energy, apathy, no motivation and sometimes a headache. Unsurprisingly, you won't be able to do a good workout in this state - on top of that, you'll feel poorly throughout the day.

You may also be overloading your hormonal system. In the case of training, this means that your body is producing too much cortisol. Cortisol is not your enemy per se. It plays an important role in the training process. It helps you to produce more energy for your muscles during the training session by increasing the breakdown of glycogen and body fat. Of course, cortisol will also increase the breakdown of muscle protein, but this is not really the problem.

The big problem is that cortisol, male muscle building hormones and estrogen are produced from the same parent hormone known as pregnenolone. The more cortisol you produce, the less pregnenolone will be available for the production of muscle-building hormones!

If you continually produce too much cortisol, then not only will you suffer from low levels of male muscle-building hormones, but what little is left of these hormones will have a harder time doing their jobs. This leads to less muscle, more fat and reduced libido. In fact, one of the best signs of a state of low androgen levels and high cortisol levels is a lack of what is commonly referred to as a morning erection, as well as reduced sexual interest. Another sign of excessive cortisol production is water retention and flat muscles.

Training to the max

Too much training volume seems to be the prime suspect, but I'll take it a step further: Any workout that causes mental stress will lead to more cortisol production. Simply psyching yourself up to complete an exercise or getting nervous about completing a max repetition will increase the cortisol response to training.

Vassily Alexeyev (an Olympic weightlifter with 81 world records) always said that his secret was to never drive himself crazy. This meant that he didn't push himself metal for any max attempt and never tried weights he wasn't sure he could handle. He understood that training is about developing the body and its capacities, not about testing its limits.

Those who have competed in sports that test their limits in terms of capacity (powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, athletics, etc.) know that a competition where you give it your all can affect your training for 10 to 14 days. Many will even show symptoms of depression during this phase. Every time you push yourself to your absolute limits in training, you are essentially creating the same scenario (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, but it can still be detrimental and affect your training).

Training to your absolute limits may only increase your performance by 3 to 5%, but it can double the recovery time needed after a training session. This means you can train less often and training frequency is more important than volume.

You can train an exercise or muscle frequently without overtraining and you can train it hard - but only if you avoid pushing it to your absolute limits. If you are doing work that is potentially demanding on the CNS (heavy training, explosive training, training to muscle failure) one way to reduce excessive demands on the CNS is to keep everything from the neck up as relaxed as possible. This prevents excessive shock to the CNS, which can increase your performance but also make you hit a wall faster.

Contorting your face, clenching your teeth tightly and keeping your neck tense can increase your power production and be useful when it comes to giving your all in a competition - but it comes at a price. Your nervous system will take much longer to recover and you may find yourself suffering from a training hangover the next day.

Inflammation and lack of progress

While a certain amount of inflammation from training is a prerequisite for maximum growth - it's an element that initiates the repair/growth process - too much of it will significantly slow down your progress. Inflammation will not only reduce your performance in the gym (squats with a sore thigh are much more challenging) but will also increase your body's stress response.

In addition, during recovery your body will use a lot of resources to solve the inflammation problem - resources that are no longer available for growth. While some muscle soreness the day after a hard training session is fine, killer muscle soreness - especially if it affects more than one muscle group at a time - is a sure sign that something is going wrong.

Signs that you're overworking your body

Here are some symptoms to look out for, as they could be a sign that one of the three key systems - nervous system, immune system or endocrine system - is under too much strain:

  • Lack of morning erections or a significant reduction in sexual drive and performance
  • A sudden increase in subcutaneous water retention
  • Muscles that feel flat
  • A noticeable decrease in grip strength (the pole will feel thicker and heavier)
  • Reduced explosiveness (vertical jump height decreases)
  • The weights will feel heavier on your joints
  • Exercise execution feels less precise, you get out of your groove
  • Increased blood pressure at rest
  • Itchy eyes
  • Persistent muscle soreness
  • More frequent, longer-lasting illnesses
  • It takes longer to get going in the morning
  • You feel like you've had a night out, or like you have a hangover

If you experience these symptoms regularly, you should evaluate your exercise program. It could be putting you in a bad physiological state.

Things that are hard on the nervous system

The following things are hard on your nervous system. Although doing any of these things occasionally may not cause serious problems, regular use will lead to periods of stagnation or even regression. If you want to achieve maximum, long-term progress, you should avoid these things as far as possible:

  • Training to the max - getting mentally pumped up before a set, feeling nervous before a max attempt, etc.
  • Performing multi-joint exercises to the point of muscle failure, especially when using heavy weights.
  • Using the absolute maximum weight for an exercise.
  • Performing more than 4 total repetitions with more than 92% of the 1RM weight during a training session.
  • Performing more than 6 sets to muscle failure during a training session (which also applies to isolation exercises)

Things that are hard on the endocrine system

The endocrine system is less susceptible to acute changes than the nervous system. This means that it takes longer for problems to occur. Unfortunately, this also means that it will be harder to notice that you are doing something wrong. And when you finally notice the symptoms, it's already too late and it will take longer to repair the damage. That's why it's important to avoid the following as much as possible:

  • Becoming a stimulus junkie who wants to do more and more work because they think it will help them achieve their goals faster.
  • Exercising longer than 75 to 90 minutes. Most people should do even shorter workouts. The reason I gave a longer time period is because I also wanted to take into account those who work out in a commercial gym, where you may have to wait longer between sets and exercises. Volume plays a bigger role in hormone levels than pure time.
  • Continue to perform sets for one muscle if you don't feel any further increase in your pump from the additional training.
  • Continuing a training session if you feel a sudden and significant drop in your motivation to train.
  • To continue training if your muscles feel flat during training.

Some may point out that professional bodybuilders or elite athletes break these rules. But these people should also be aware that athletes who inject large amounts of hormones every week create a hormonal environment that is immune to most mistakes. An athlete who is clean does not have this advantage.

How you can avoid burnout

Although proper training and lifestyle management are the most important elements of avoiding burnout, there are additional nutritional and supplement strategies you can use to prevent or solve problems:

  • Use proper pre- and intra-workout supplementation. Not only can this help you recover faster after a training session, but it can also provide you with more readily available energy, reducing the need for excessive cortisol production. (Cortisol levels are increased to mobilize energy. If you have plenty of readily available energy, then there is no need to increase cortisol levels).
  • Consider using Rhodiola during periods of high training stress. Rhodiola is the most powerful adaptogen available to help the body cope better with stress.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep. This is more than obvious, but still many people jeopardize their gains by simply not getting enough sleep. We often tend to neglect the influence of sleep, but sleep is probably the most important element for the regeneration of the nervous system, the immune system and the hormonal system. If you suffer from sleep problems, you should consider using a natural supplement to promote healthy and restful sleep.
  • The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil and the supplement turmeric are amazing natural anti-inflammatories. I highly recommend these to anyone regardless of whether they exercise or not. Fighting systemic inflammation is one of the most important things you can do. Inflammation can affect every process in your body. This includes muscle growth and fat mobilization.


By Christian Thibaudeau

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