You’ve probably heard that you have to lift weights with intensity to make muscle gains. You may have also heard in recent years that you have to do a fairly high volume (more exercises or more sets or both) if you want maximum results as you advance. But you may have also heard that you have to be on guard to avoid overtraining or you’ll get injured and hit a progress plateau. The big question is, how do you know if you’re overtraining?
This is an important question. This can also be a complicated subject. To give you an idea how deep it can get, I have a textbook on my shelf about overtraining in sport, and it’s 403 pages long. Fortunately, the subject can also be simplified by doing two things: One, defining what overtraining really is, and two, giving you a checklist of the signs and symptoms.
But first, it’s important to learn the difference between overtraining and overreaching.
Overtraining Versus Overreaching
Some experts say that overtraining is not as common as many people believe. It follows that a good percentage of trainees could actually train harder (with more intensity of effort and or more volume, at least at certain times of the year in a periodized training plan).
Overreaching on the other hand, is very common and needs to be understood and recognized because it can either be used to your advantage, or it can signal the early phase of true overtraining, which is much more serious.
A layperson definition of overtraining that’s simple, yet accurate is: “Putting your body under a greater level of accumulated stress than it can handle, so you can’t recover, your workouts become less productive, and you don’t grow or make progress.”
That’s pretty straightforward and somewhat helpful, but there are also scientific definitions of overtraining and overreaching that give us deeper insights and greater distinctions. Strength training researchers Andrew Fry and William Kramer explained it like this:
“Overtraining is defined as an increase in training volume and/or intensity of exercise resulting in performance decrements. Recovery from this condition often requires many weeks or months.”
“Overreaching is a shorter and less severe variation of overtraining, which is easily recovered from in just a few days. Many structured training programs utilize phases of (intentional) overreaching to provide variety to the training stimulus.”
Does Overtraining Even Exist?
Even after these definitions were accepted in the strength training community, many lifters questioned whether overtraining even exists. Some athletes claimed there is only overreaching, and certain bodybuilders became infamous for boldly claiming, “There’s no such thing as over training, just under-eating.”
Another common meme was “There’s no overtraining, only under-recovery.” It’s true that inadequate nutrition often contributes to under-recovery, but thanks to science, it’s now well known that overtraining does exist.
Overtraining is real, and when it does happen, we also know that it’s serious and takes weeks or even months to recover from because it’s not just temporary fatigue, it involves serious impairments in the endocrine and nervous system. Fortunately, if we stick with the textbook definition of the word, it’s true that full-blown overtraining is really not that common.
This may be just semantics and I think many lifters will keep using “overtraining” as a blanket term, but it’s worth considering that most people throw around the word overtraining too loosely. When we push ourselves really hard in the gym and start feeling a little fatigued or beat up, what we are usually experiencing is overreaching.
Overreaching is a transient and less severe form of overtraining, but nevertheless, it often manifests with the same set of symptoms. The difference is, you can recover from it quickly if you notice it’s happening and respond appropriately. It can even be a good thing, if you know how to use it.
Pushing hard enough to the point of overreaching – where you just start to feel a little bit of those symptoms – can actually trigger new muscle growth, provided you back off right away when you notice it’s happening. If you continue to blast yourself into the ground (with intensity, volume or both) in spite of seeing those symptoms, your performance and gains will flatline, or even worse, you start heading down the dangerous slope toward serious overtraining.
In either case, seeing the symptoms associated with overtraining and overreaching means you have to back off your training intensity, load and or volume temporarily just long enough to let yourself recover. Then you can repeat the cycle, pushing to another new peak.
Knowing when to push harder and when to back off is both an art and science, so to some degree you simply have to listen to your body (autoregulate), measure your results (or lack of), and watch for those symptoms. Because of genetics and differences in work capacity among individuals, negative symptoms don’t appear for everyone at the same workload. The good news is, if you’re really paying attention, it’s not that hard to learn for yourself when it’s happening to you.
Classic Signs And Symptoms of Overtraining And Overreaching In Resistance Training
So what are these symptoms and warning signs? I read in one of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) journals that there are more than 125 possible signs of overtraining. But looking at all of them actually makes it harder to make a simple field diagnosis.
Instead, it’s more helpful to narrow it down to a short list of the classic symptoms of overtraining connected specifically with resistance training programs.
Here are the 15 signs of overtraining you’re most likely to encounter:
- Decreased performance or inability to maintain your usual training regimen
- Prolonged plateau in performance (keyword: prolonged. Just having a bad day doesn’t mean you’re overtrained or even overreaching)
- Persistent fatigue (a washed-out feeling)
- Persistent stiff, sore, “heavy” muscles
- Increased incidence of colds, flus, infections, or headaches
- Nagging and semi-chronic injuries (including joint pain and muscle aches)
- Poor sleep quality or sleep disturbances
- Decreased mental concentration and restlessness
- Increased irritability
- Depression or mood downswings
- Lack of motivation or interest to train
- Loss of appetite and or unintended weight loss
- Elevated resting heart rate in the morning
- Changes in bowel movements, even with no changes in diet
Keep in mind that a number of these symptoms are so general, they could be associated with other health problems, lifestyle issues or life stressors, so the presence of one or two does not always mean you’re pushing too hard in your training.
However, if you’ve been blasting it in the gym for weeks or months and then you suddenly start to see these symptoms popping up, like a strength plateau you can’t break, persistent muscle soreness, achy joints, general fatigue, and a loss of motivation to train, then suspicions about overreaching are probably correct.
Treatment and Prevention of Overreaching And Overtraining
Overtraining is a real thing, though if we care to split hairs over definitions, most people are simply overreaching. More training and more intense training is often better up to a point, but more is not always better.
If you push too hard for too long you will reach a point of diminishing returns, then a levelling off, and ultimately going backwards, combined with a whole list of negative side effects. To manage overreaching and avoid overtraining, you must recognize the signs of overtraining, and now you know what to look for.
The next question is, “what should you do about it?” The general prescription is backing off and giving your body more rest. That could mean a complete break from training or a deload (continued training with less weight, intensity, frequency or volume). With greater awareness of the symptoms, you might also re-think your entire training strategy to avoid overtraining in the future.
If you’re interested in learning more about what to do about overtraining once it’s happened, or how to take training breaks or reloads, post in the comments and let me know, and I’ll circle back to these topics in upcoming blogs! Check back every Friday for a new blog post.
-Tom Venuto, Author of, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM)
Author of, The BFFM Guide To Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
Founder of, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
PS. Progressive overload is the major key to making continued muscle gains over time. But you have to do it properly so you avoid overtraining. To learn the art and science of progressive overload training check out The Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle Guide To Building Muscle With Progressive Overload Training, available for instant download.
About Tom Venuto, The No-BS Fat Loss Coach
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 55,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details
1. Fry AC, Kraemer WJ, Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. Neuroendocrine responses.Sports Med. 1997 Feb;23(2):106-29.
2. Halson SL, Jeukendrup AE, Does overtraining exist? An analysis of overreaching and overtraining research. Sports Medicine, 24(14), 967-981, 2004
3. Cadegiani, K et al. Hormonal aspects of overtraining syndrome: a systematic review.BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 9: 14. 2017.