Before we can explore how to avoid overtraining and how to cure it, we must define it. There are two types of overtraining:
- Muscular overtraining
- Central nervous system (CNS) overtraining
What is muscular overtraining?
When you train, your muscles sustain microdamage, which is normal. While you rest, your body repairs the damage and reinforces the muscles with extra proteins to protect them from future damage. That is how your muscles grow. Muscular overtraining is when you consistently train too much and fail to let your muscles recover. As a result, your muscles stop growing and you experience a plateau or a decline in training performance. You may also experience chronic (ongoing) muscle soreness or even muscle loss.
Muscular overtraining can affect either one or all of your muscles, depending on which ones you overtrain. There is also CNS overtraining, which can be more serious.
What is CNS overtraining?
Just like your muscular system, your CNS can be overworked. As it is responsible for generating all of the muscular contractions in your workouts, excessive training can exhaust it. Unlike muscular overtraining, CNS overtraining affects your entire body. General symptoms include:
- Weakness and tiredness
- Loss of workout motivation
- Lack of enthusiasm for everyday activities
- Inability to concentrate
- Lack of body coordination
- Inability to sleep, or difficulty waking up
- Elevated heart rate while training and/or resting
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Who is at risk of overtraining?
You may be at risk of overtraining if you train excessively for several consecutive months, which is not recommended (see Tips on how to avoid overtraining below). Most people who think that they are overtraining are usually nowhere near it. Noticing that you can’t do as many reps today as you could in your previous workout doesn’t indicate that you have overtrained. Daily fluctuations in ability are normal. You should suspect overtraining only if you know that you have been training very intensely for many months without a break and have observed the symptoms of overtraining for multiple consecutive workouts.
How do you cure overtraining?
Fortunately, mild cases of overtraining are easy to cure: Just take a deload week to give your body time to recover. Basically, a deload week is a week during which you take it easy and either take some time off from training or significantly reduce the volume and intensity of your workouts. Generally speaking, volume is the number of exercises, sets, and reps that you do per muscle group in your workouts, and intensity is the amount of weight that you lift per set relative to your one-rep max. (The one-rep max was introduced in How many sets and reps should I do?)
In extreme cases of overtraining, where the individual has overtrained for several months or even years, simply taking a deload week will probably not fix the problem. Recovery from extreme cases can take many weeks or even months. If you think you might fit into this category, please seek professional advice.
Tips on how to avoid overtraining
1. Take breaks from intense training
Since both muscular and CNS overtraining are caused by an imbalance between training and recovery, the best way to prevent them is to follow a training program that allows adequate time for rest and recovery, such as any of the training programs on this website. However, just in case you ever follow your own training program, here are some guidelines to follow.
- Do not train each muscle group (especially large muscle groups) more than two or three times a week (unless you are following a beginner’s full-body training program, in which case you can train each muscle group up to four times per week)
- Allow each muscle group to rest for at least two days before hitting it again (unless you are following a beginner’s full-body training program, in which case you can allow each muscle group to rest for just one day)
- Take a deload week every 8 to 12 weeks
2. Listen to your body
An important skill in preventing overtraining is being able to listen to and read the state of your body. For example, if you notice that your shoulders often still feel sore when it’s time to hit them again, revise your training program so that your shoulders get more time to recover.
3. Get the right amount of sleep
Sleep is essential for rest and recovery, so make sure that you get enough of it. The National Sleep Foundation recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep per day for young adults and adults. However, this applies to the general public. You may need more if you’re training intensely. Listen to your body to figure out how much sleep you need.
4. Get the right nutrients
Good nutrition is essential if you want to prevent overtraining. As you’re aware, your workouts will damage your muscles. Your diet must provide the raw materials necessary to repair them, as well as to build the muscles to make them stronger and less susceptible to damage. See the Nutrition Guide for everything you need to know about nutrition.
5. Manage your personal life
Sometimes, symptoms that indicate CNS overtraining may in fact be being caused by issues that are outside of the gym. Busy lifestyles, stressful jobs, financial issues, break-ups, and other personal problems all impact your CNS and can leave it exhausted. Therefore, if you experience what seem to be the symptoms of CNS overtraining despite having followed a balanced training program, look for possible causes in your personal life.
What is strategic overtraining?
Now that you know how to avoid overtraining, mention should be made of strategic overtraining (also known as over-reaching). Strategic overtraining is the process of deliberately pushing yourself into a mild state of overtraining for a short period of time (two to four weeks). As a result, you experience a regression in performance. However, after you take a deload week, your performance can rebound above and beyond its previous level.
Strategic overtraining is an advanced strategy for advanced lifters and should not be attempted by beginners. It is used by advanced lifters to break out of plateaus or increase gains when making gains becomes a struggle. Beginners, who can make great gains by following a balanced training program, have absolutely no reason to practice strategic overtraining.