A good friend of mine started a roundtable discussion on Facebook centering around the phenomena of overtraining and I figured my response would make a good topic for my weekly blog post. I suppose first I should preface that for this article we’re concerned with the physical aspects of overtraining since there are behavioral and emotional conditions that can accompany it. For those that may be unfamiliar with it, overtraining is the end result of a person exceeding their body’s ability to recover by incorporating too much volume and intensity into their exercise program. I use the term exercise program loosely as it can affect all sorts of athletes such as weight lifters, runners, swimmers, and even golfers. The individual stops making progress, and CAN even begin to backslide in terms of their performance in their respective sport.
The reality is that the majority of the population who “exercise” regularly will not experience overtraining as they simply do not place strong enough demands on their body. Conversely, the gym rat or competitive bodybuilder/powerlifter who takes their exercise programming quite serious because of their extreme goals most definitely can and at some point likely experience overtraining. This typically occurs unintentionally when a block of training is too grueling on the body and is typically ignored by the individual as the line of thinking “more is better” gets perpetuated. Periodization, which is the progressive cycling of various aspects of your exercise program for specific amounts of time should minimize the chance of overtraining.
With that said, I personally feel a defined block of overtraining can be a good thing. I don’t have any scientific evidence to support this but anecdotally I’ve seen numerous bodybuilders and powerlifters go through a phase of overtraining and subsequently end up busting through plateaus. This may sound counterintuitive so for example, let’s look at a bodybuilder who diets for 12 weeks leading up to a bodybuilding contest: The individual’s goal is to get their bodyfat percentage as low as possible while maintaining as much lean mass as possible. To do this, they will restrict their calories and/or increase energy expenditure (activity level) to a point at which the body is in a calorie deficit. Typically in the latter weeks of a contest prep the individual will feel lethargic and weak in the gym and rightfully so as a 3 month food restriction accompanied by excessive weight training and cardio can be grueling on the mind, body, and central nervous system. The good news is that the individual can burst through plateaus if they transition out of this phase properly. The most important aspect of rebounding from such a depleted state is adequate rest. I usually recommend 5-7 days away from intense exercise along with a modest bump in caloric intake, around 500 calories. Once regular exercise is resumed I suggest slowly adding back in calories and ramping up intensity in your workouts. The key is to be patient after the overtraining phase and not go on a one week binge and eat everything in sight. With that said, I’d like to make a point for the readers out there that aren’t looking to compete in a fitness contest and just want to change their body composition and become more muscular and less fat: When the time comes that you make a true decision to change the way you look and how you feel you will implement similar practices that a bodybuilder would such as slowly reducing calories and increasing activity level but do not fear that you will look like a bodybuilder as these individuals have an extreme goal and have been working towards that in an extreme manner for most likely an extremely extended period of time.
About the Author
Gym Owner and Personal Trainer, Keith Diedrich has a B.A. in Exercise Science and has been professionally involved in health and fitness in various capacities since 2005.
"My initial thought about Keith was that he seemed very casual and not as frenetic as other professionals. I quickly learned that he was gauging my stamina, movements, and technique. He wasn't after a fast burnout, but he wanted to exhaust every muscle every time. He said we were working on a "mind to body connection." With this connection I'd be able to gauge whether a set was 15 reps or 20 reps regardless of the initial "goal of 15!" I believe much of my gains came from Keith always seeing my potential even when I couldn't." ~ Saul "Mr. Biceps"