What Happens If You Workout TOO MUCH?
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There’s a big difference between overreaching and overtraining. This post will show you how to prevent overtraining, and recognize if it’s happening to you. Find out exactly what happens when you exercise too much.
Overtraining: Myth or Fact?
Working out too much leads to pain and swelling in your joints, injuries, and a reduction in strength and performance. Or at least that’s according to people who believe in overtraining.
But not everyone believes in overtraining. C.T Fletcher, a very popular bodybuilder, has consistently claimed that overtraining is a myth. He claims there’s no such thing as overtraining, but instead, there’s only under-eating.
However, if we take our opinions out of it and look at the research, it clearly shows that overtraining exists.
Some studies show that overtraining affects anywhere from 7 to 20 percent of athletes each season.(1)
Meanwhile, other data shows that it impacts up to 31 percent of college athletes per year.(2) But, these are athletes who train much more than the average person.
You must remember that if you don’t train hard enough, you won’t see any results.
Overreaching & Overtraining: Explained
So what’s the sweet spot, and what would be considered overtraining?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple because everyone is different. There’s no exact number of reps or time spent in the gym that you shouldn’t exceed.
And to complicate things even further, many people often confuse overtraining with overreaching. Now even though they share similarities, overtraining and overreaching are definitely not the same.
What is Overreaching?
Overreaching is a temporary condition occurring in response to heavy or intense weight loads. It takes a relatively short amount of time to recover from. Even when going by its definition, we can see that it is possible “to recover from a state of overreaching within a 2-week period.(3)
To put it simply, if you’re overreaching, it means that you’re pushing your body to the point that is beyond its current recovery capacity.
But when you take some time off, your body will be able to catch up and recover from a state of overreaching pretty fast.
It can be argued that the condition of overreaching is a relatively normal and harmless result of the training process.(4)
An example of something that could cause overreaching would be doing a high-volume 3-week training phase followed by 1 week of rest. You’ll likely “overreach’ during the high-volume phase since you’ll either be doing a lot more reps or sets to achieve that higher volume. But as long as it’s not excessive, your body should recover from it very well, especially with a week off.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining, on the other hand, is different.
Generally, you go from overreaching to overtraining when you push your body to an extent where it’s hard for you to recover even after weeks or months. It’s common for athletes in an overtrained state to take months or possibly even years to completely recover.(5)
Overtraining is so hard to recover from because it disrupts homeostasis to such a significant extent that your body can’t handle it effectively.
Homeostasis is a state of balance within the body. It occurs when all your bodily processes are working together. They’re regulated in a way in which internal conditions are balanced, stable, and relatively constant.
It isn’t bad to temporarily disrupt homeostasis. In fact, that’s what you do whenever you lift weights or do cardio, you place a stressor on your body that acts as a shock to your system. And as a result, your body adapts and makes changes to handle a similar stressor better in the future.
In other words, you’ll build muscle, endurance, and you’ll get stronger.
But when homeostasis is disrupted chronically, which is the case with overtraining, your body won’t have the time and the ability to get back to a state of equilibrium.
Symptoms of Overtraining
Overtraining can cause acute and chronic immunosuppression. This means that it suppresses your immune system, making you more likely to catch a cold, an infection, or get sick.(6)
You can also be affected mentally. Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and lowered libido are common side effects of overtraining.(7)
And interestingly, it works both ways. Physically overtraining can increase mental stress and vice versa. More mental stress can increase the chances of overtraining.
Still, another obvious issue you’ll run into as a result of overtraining is decreased performance.(8)
If you’re training hard, but your performance and output aren’t reflecting this – so either you’re making no gains at all, or you’re experiencing a reduction in your athletic performance – you’re probably overtraining.
Another thing that can happen to your body is weight loss.(9) This usually happens because overtraining can reduce appetite.
Sounds counterintuitive, right? Because you’d assume it would increase appetite. But that’s actually not the case. Overtraining can cause hormonal influences that make you feel less hungry and reduce your desire to eat.
You can also develop sleep problems because overtraining over-stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is your body’s “fight or flight” response, making it harder for you to fall and stay asleep.(10)
On top of that, most people are already pretty familiar with the side effect of having a higher risk of injury from overtraining.(11) This can happen for a variety of reasons, including that overtraining leads to excess fatigue. (12) In turn, the excess fatigue impairs coordination and the ability to maintain proper form. This is very likely to lead to an injury.
Aside from that, overtraining has adverse effects on your connective tissues’ quality, including your tendons and ligaments. This also makes it more likely that you’ll get an injury like a hamstring strain, shin splints, or patellofemoral syndrome, which is actually the most common cause of knee pain.
With that aside, when you work out too much, you’ll also experience chronic muscle soreness, feel more irritable, and you’ll experience a decline in your motivation to train.
But keep in mind that even though all of these are the most common symptoms of overtraining, it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily experience all these symptoms at once. Usually, you’ll only notice a couple of them.
Issues with Overtraining
The big problem is that even when athletes do recognize these symptoms, they usually don’t pay much attention to them, which ironically may have been the cause of their overtraining in the first place.
They might have ignored things like a nagging injury, excessive fatigue, low libido, elevated anxiety levels, or a decline in performance.
And that’s the catch 22 with overtraining. Usually, it happens when you’re most motivated to reach your goals, and you’re not paying attention to how your body is reacting.
So as weird as it sounds, even though motivation and that drive to see results can be really helpful in some cases, when it’s taken to the extreme, it can backfire and lead to overtraining.
I mentioned earlier that other than physical stressors, there are also mental stressors that can lead to overtraining. Especially when you experience mental and physical stress at the same time.
Why? Well because, for your body, it doesn’t matter where the stress comes from.
Whenever you exceed your body’s ability to handle that stress for extended periods, you’ll disrupt homeostasis and run into problems.
And we have evidence of this in action.
For example, in a review study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers noticed that stress can come not only from training but also from psychological stress and illness.(13) That’s why overtraining is more likely to become an issue when you go through a mental hardship, such as the loss of a loved one, financial difficulties, or relationship problems.
As a result, overtraining can happen at a seemingly random time when you’re not training any differently than usual.
Even if your workout routine stays more or less the same, you can still be bogged down by overtraining if you’re under a lot of mental stress. This is why a good coach pays attention to how an athlete is training and how external factors like their life, sleep quality, diet, supplement regiment, and stress levels impact their recovery.
But you might not even have a coach, so the question is, what can you do to assess whether you’re overtraining or not? And are there some preemptive actions that you can take to avoid it?
First, remember that it’s OK to push yourself out of your comfort zone and overreach. As long as you give your body the time and the resources it needs to recover, pushing yourself helps your body adapt to the higher level of physical stress, leading to improvements.
If you keep your training volume really low because you’re afraid of overreaching, you’ll see either very limited or no results at all.
Studies show that there tends to be a dose-response relationship between training volume and muscle growth in trained individuals. The more sets, reps, and weight they use, the more muscle they tend to gain.(14) Sticking to a low amount of volume isn’t the solution.
Signs You’re Overtraining
So, to find out if you’re overtraining, start by asking these questions:
- Am I making progress at the gym?
- Am I increasing the weight I can use?
- Can I perform more reps with a given weight?
There are many reasons why you might not be making progress, so these are definitely not the only questions you want to ask, but it is a starting point.
Why? Because if the answer is yes and you are improving, then by definition, you’re not in an overtrained state.
But if you have hit the point where you’re not making any further progress, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I consuming enough calories and protein?
- Am I getting enough sleep?
- Am I following a reliable workout program?
- Am I training hard?
- Am I focusing on applying progressive overload?
- Am I consistent with my workout and my nutrition plan?
- Is my lifting technique and my form on point?
- Is my circadian rhythm good? (Do I train, eat, and sleep around the same times each day?)
If you answered no to one of those questions, well, fix that first. That’s likely the reason you’re not making progress.
But if you answered yes to all of those questions, there are most likely two reasons you do not see progress.
Reasons You’re Not Seeing Progress
The first and more common reason is that you’re not doing enough training volume. The solution is to train harder – try to increase your sets, reps, or weight load used over time.
The other reason could be that you’re doing too much volume and overextending your body’s ability to recover from workouts. In this case, not only do you answer yes to all the questions above, but you’re also most likely experiencing at least a couple of the symptoms like getting sick more often, feeling more fatigued, and experiencing more injuries.
Luckily you don’t have to wait until you’re overtrained to start reversing this. Ideally, you don’t want it to happen at all.
But with that said, the dose-response relationship between volume and muscle growth only holds true as long as you can fully recover from your workouts.
I want you to imagine it as a bell curve. Eric Helms, a well-known sports scientist, depicts this bell curve in his book.(15) There’s an optimal training volume, and if you go above or below that, you’ll impair your results.
How to Avoid Overtraining
To avoid overtraining, make sure that you give yourself enough time and enough nutrients to fully recover.
You’ll want to be extra careful of doing a very high amount of sets and reps per workout. Even though lifting really heavy weights can technically lead to overtraining, it rarely does so independently.
Overtraining is almost always the result of doing too many sets and reps at a high enough intensity.
The truth is your body can generally handle a high training intensity very well. For example, research shows that powerlifters can make excellent progress by maxing out 1 rep daily followed by 5 sets of 3 reps using a very heavyweight load.(16)
It’s typically only when you use a decent weight load combined with many sets and reps that you might end up overtraining.
This is actually one reason why overtraining is more common for CrossFit athletes rather than Olympic weightlifters. The CrossFit athletes focus on components of volume like sets and reps. In contrast, Olympic weightlifters focus more on intensity or weight load.
Now that you understand that, you can see why overtraining for pure strength athletes is uncommon and lower than what most people believe.
Most weightlifters simply don’t do enough sets and reps and overall volume to reach that point.
If their progress stalls, it’s generally not because of overtraining but more likely the result of something like not getting enough sleep, following a poor exercise routine, an insufficient protein or calorie intake, and so on.
On top of that, before a bodybuilder or weightlifter overtrains, there are generally two things that’ll happen first that prevent them from overtraining.
The first thing is that most lifters will give up mentally before they can push themselves into a state of physical overtraining.
And the second thing is that their connective tissues will degrade. That’s because muscles can heal much faster than tendons and ligaments. So, overuse injuries tend to pop up in joints long before the muscle tissue starts to be overwhelmed when doing a lot of volume.
It’s only if you can push through the mental discomfort and do enough volume without suffering overuse injuries that you might be able to overtrain. But again, that’s rare for weight lifters.
So, yes, overtraining does exist. It is a real thing and is prevalent among athletes that do a high amount of training volume, such as endurance athletes or CrossFit athletes.
But it’s much less common for regular people that go to the gym. They generally don’t do enough volume for that to happen.
Usually, undertraining is an even more significant threat for the regular gym-goer.
So that about wraps it up. I really hope this helped you understand more about the concept of overtraining, how likely it is, alongside its opposite but equally harmful partner – undertraining.
If you’re not quite sure how to set up your training and nutrition plan for optimal results, click the link below.
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- a coach to make any adjustments and always make sure that you’re doing everything correctly.
1. Research shows, however, that overtraining does indeed exist. For instance, some studies show that over training affects anywhere from 7% to 20% of athletes per season.
2. Other data indicates that it impacts between 7% to 31% of collegiate athletes per year.
3. “To recover from a state of overreaching within a 2-week period.”
4. “It may be argued that this condition [overreaching] is a relatively normal and harmless state of the training process.”
5. “Athletes who are in an overtrained state may take months or possibly years to completely recover.”
6. “Acute and chronic immunosuppression”
7. “Mental health issues”
8. “Decreased performance”
9. “Weight loss”
10. “Sleep problems”
11. “Higher risk of injury”
13. “The stress may arise from training, psychological stress or illness.”
14. Studies show that in trained individuals, generally the more sets that they do per muscle group, the more muscle that they’ll gain. So, doing a low amount of volume isn’t ideal.
15. You can see the optimal training volume as a bell-curve, as Eric Helms and his colleagues show in their book “The Muscle and Strength Pyramids.”
16. For instance, research shows that advanced powerlifters can make excellent progress while training their 1RM every day followed by 5 sets of 3 reps at 80% of their 1RM for over a month.
*Info on signs of overtraining
**“Increased risk of illness”
***“Slow strength and endurance gains”