When you’re feeling burned out from a long stretch of hard training and you suspect you are overtrained, there are many strategies and tactics you can apply to stimulate recovery and start making progress again, and to prevent over-training in the future.
But the first thing to realize is you may be experiencing overreaching and not over-training, and overreaching is not always a bad thing.
Overreaching has the same set of symptoms, but over-training is much more severe and can keep you stuck in a rut or even put you out of commission for weeks or months. You can recover from overreaching in as little as a few days or at most, in a week or two of doing lighter, less intense training (or time off, when necessary).
The distinction between these two conditions is important because true over-training is something you want to avoid because it means your body is literally beat up and burned out – not only your muscles and joints, but also your endocrine system, your nervous system, even your mind. Psychological burnout often accompanies the physical.
Overreaching on the other hand, can actually be a part of the normal training cycle and doesn’t have to be feared. Remember, weight training is a stress to the body, but it’s a positive stress as long as it’s applied in a way that allows recovery to happen.
Good Stress, Bad Stress and the Recovery-Growth Cycle
Muscles are not only fatigued after a resistance training session, they are actually damaged (microscopically). Your body doesn’t grow during the workout, or instantly right afterwards, it first goes into a regeneration phase. Then, if recovery is allowed, your body “super-compensates” which means your muscles adapt to the stress by increasing in size and strength above the baseline where you started.
That’s the process of muscle growth in a nutshell at the short-term level, but cycles of stress, recovery and super-compensation also occur over longer periods of time as well.
If you gradually build up the weights, volume and effort of intensity in a lifting program using progressive overload over the course of weeks and months, eventually you’ll reach a point where your body can’t recover completely from the increasing demands as the stress accumulates beyond your recovery capacity. Eventually, your progress slows down or plateaus and you start feeling mild to moderate amounts of fatigue. This is overreaching – where you’ve pushed your body right to the edge or just beyond its current capacity.
If you ignore these early signals from your body and you keep trying to lift hard and heavy non-stop, then you begin to see even greater negative effects and a decrease in performance. But if you push yourself to the point of overreaching, then back off and strategically apply recovery and stress management techniques, the recovery period after the high intensity training period causes super-compensation.
In other words, it’s not always detrimental to progressively push yourself to the brink of your capacity, and when you do that, feeling a bit tired and run down comes with the territory. The reward is more muscle growth than if you always take it easy and never explore your limits. What you don’t want to do is push yourself far over the edge of your recovery ability to the point where you get injuries, your performance decreases and you feel miserable and unmotivated.
What you’re really trying to do is manage overreaching and prevent over-training.
Management of Overreaching And Prevention of Over-training
You can review the checklist of signs and symptoms of overreaching or over training in our previous post here: www.burnthefatblog.com/warning-signs-of-overtraining
When you’re seeing these symptoms, and feeling overtrained, there are a number of strategies you can use to help your body recover and get ready for your next push to the next peak. These strategies can be applied at specific times when they are needed. You can also build them into your training programs and make them a part of your overall training philosophy – that will help you avoid over training in the future. The general prescription is giving your body more rest and double-checking to make sure your program design and your overall lifestyle are allowing you to recover from the stress of training.
Here are 10 of the the best tactics and strategies of managing overreaching and avoiding over-training:
1. Take a week off.
If you’ve been training for months without a layoff, consider a full week with no training at all. If you suspect (more severe) overtraining, or you’re suffering from chronic pain or injury, consider an even longer layoff that can allow injuries and nagging aches or pains to heal, if you can’t work around them. What about losing muscle? It’s a common fear, but mostly unwarranted. You will lose little if any strength or muscle in a week, but you will actually be allowing full recovery and super-compensation to take place. Any gains lost from longer layoffs will be regained quickly and you’ll return to training fresh, healed and fully recovered. A tried and true formula is to take a week off for every 12 weeks of heavy and intense training.
2. Take a deload.
A deload is an intentional reduction in volume, load and or intensity with the purpose of aiding recovery and allowing muscles to super-compensate. If you feel burned out, consider doing a whole week of lighter training, with no sets taken to exhaustion or failure. It’s important to note that some people plan de-loads in advance as a preventative measure. For example the classic prescription is to plan for one week of lighter training for every 3 to 4 weeks of heavier, intense training. However, there’s some debate about whether you should take deloads if you don’t feel like you need it. That’s where “auto-regulation” comes in.
3. Use Autoregulation (“instinctive training”).
Training is not pure science – it’s also an art, and that means listening to your body. Take more rest when you need it, and as much as you think you need. Learn to trust yourself. The old-school bodybuilders used to call this “instinctive training.” Today the more formal and scientific name for it is autoregulation. On one hand, you never want to walk in the gym and just wing it or train randomly – you need a specific well-designed training plan on paper to guide you. But as the weeks go by, you shouldn’t feel bound to following the original plan 100%. You must stay a little flexible to accommodate the inevitable fluctuations in how you feel from day to day in the gym.
4. Periodize your training.
If you train hard and heavy all the time, eventually you will burn out or get injured. Periodization is a way to avoid this by rotating periods of harder and easier, heavier and lighter, higher volume and lower volume. Periodization can also be used strategically at times when you want to reach peak condition (for a competition, vacation or just looking your best in the summer, and so on). You can back off after a peak is achieved and then start ramping up again for the next one. These cycles or seasons are built right into your workout plan from the start.
5. Train with high intensity of effort, but be smart about training to failure.
If you push to failure on every set of every exercise, especially multi-joint movements (like deadlifts), you will burn out eventually. Studies have shown that people who train to failure all the time often show symptoms of overtraining, which include hormonal changes that threaten the anabolic status of the body. To circumvent this, train with high intensity most of the time (within 1 to 2 reps of failure), but use maximum intensity training (to failure) judiciously.
A great technique for managing intensity of effort is to save all-out efforts to failure for the last set of each exercise or the last set of the workout. Alternately, you can gradually increase the frequency of failure training as you approach the peak of a training cycle.
6. Monitor how you feel at the end of your workouts.
You don’t have to “leave it all on the gym floor” and push to total exhaustion at every workout. There are sub-cultures in the fitness industry where this attitude is praised, but for most people, it leads to injury and burnout. Save that level of effort for the height of your peaking phase or use it in a cyclical fashion, not all the time. Most of the year, at the end of your workouts, your body should feel like you could give a little more. If you feel completely spent (or even sick) after every workout, you’re doing too much.
7. Re-assess your training frequency and recovery time between workouts
A general rule of thumb is to allow at least 48 hours between workouts for the same muscle group, but that may not be adequate recovery time for many people, depending on individual response (genetics), the type of training goal, and the training volume, load and intensity. In fact many people find they need at least 72 to 96 hours between training each muscle to feel completely recovered and ready to hit it again. It’s usually a safe bet to work each muscle group twice a week, but not less than once every 5 days (when using body part split routines).
It’s important to train each muscle frequently enough to stimulate the protein synthesis process and avoid leaving results on the table by taking too much time between workouts. For example, the old practice of bodybuilders training each muscle only once a week can obviously build muscle, but is probably not optimal. It’s a delicate balance between too much and too little frequency and it sometimes requires a little trial and error with different schedules and frequencies to see what works best for you. If you feel over-trained, that’s a good time to consider if you’re training each muscle too often.
Also remember that frequency can mean two things: One is how often you work each muscle group. Two is how many workouts you perform in a calendar (7 day) week. If you do an upper – lower split and train Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, your frequency of working each muscle is twice a week and your total frequency is 4 times per week. Too many workouts per week with no complete days of rest is another common cause of over-training.
Virtually no one lifts 7 days a week even if they have the time, because having no rest days wears the body out so quickly and it’s so evident, it’s almost common sense. Even 6 days a week of training is more than most people can handle. This is why even professional bodybuilders often limit training to 5 days a week. Remember that how many days in a row you train (and therefore how many total rest days you allow each week) will have an impact on your recovery.
8. Re-assess Your Training Volume.
In resistance training, volume is the total amount of work you do, and it is a function of sets X reps X load. Volume has become a huge topic of discussion lately because recent studies looking at the ideal number of sets per workout or per week for gaining muscle have determined that there’s a strong dose-response effect between volume and muscle growth. This has lead a lot of bodybuilders and physique enthusiasts to start doing more sets and many seeing better gains. But caution must be used here.
If you’re training with a fairly low volume like 5 sets per body part per week and you progressively increase to 10 sets, you will almost certainly increase your gains. In one research study, the group that did at least 10 sets produced twice the gains as those performing less than 5 weekly sets. However, more is only better to a point. There’s a point of diminishing returns where adding any more will lead you into overtraining because you can’t recover. Bodybuilding coaches call this the maximum recoverable volume or MRV.
The million dollar question is, how many sets per week is optimal for maximum muscle growth without over-training? Experienced bodybuilders have some ideas, but scientists are not entirely sure yet. A couple things we do know are that it’s probably at least 10 sets per muscle per week, but for advanced bodybuilders it could conceivably be in the ballpark of 20. We also know that due to genetics, everyone is different and the workload a gifted professional can sustain might be far above what an average lifter can handle.
To some degree, the only way to find out is raise your volume gradually until you start overreaching. Volume can be used as a progressive overload method, so this can be done gradually and safely. On the other hand, if you are currently seeing signs of overtraining, you may have already pushed your volume up too high and or it may be indicative of less then Olympian recovery genetics. In that case, scaling back the number of sets (and or exercises) is the cure. More is never better if you can’t recover from it.
I would also suggest we should consider MPV – maximum practical volume – because while pros would be happy to stay in the gym another hour to maximize their gains, the average busy person with a spouse, kids and a job can only train for so long. The good news for the average lifter is that a modest number of sets gives you the majority of your gains. If you add volume, there may be increasing gains, but there are also diminishing returns. For example, suppose 10-12 sets per week gets you 90% of possible gains and if you added 8-10 more sets you’d get 100%. The competitive bodybuilder would do it. The average person would probably not bother because it’s not worth the extra time involved for an extra 10%.
9. Use gradual progressive overload (consider the 10% rule).
Progressive overload essentially means doing more over time. This is the ultimate training principle that must be followed or else continued results will not be achieved. In resistance training programs aimed and increasing strength and muscle, the primary method of overload is lifting more weight. When you can’t increase the weight, you can do more reps with the same weight. You can also do more volume (number of sets and exercises. Other methods of overload are available as well, though often neglected – you can learn more in the Progressive overload training manual.
One of the keys to success at progressive overload is to be patient and do it gradually over time. A rule of thumb given by many trainers, is don’t increase by more than 10% at a time. Big jumps in in load, volume or intensity all at once, even if you can achieve them, can lead more quickly to plateaus and over-training. It can also leave you with debilitating delayed onset muscle soreness which reduces performance in subsequent workouts. Slow and steady progress wins.
10. Examine your lifestyle outside the gym including sleep, stress, nutrition and hydration.
Although this is last on the list, it’s not the least in importance. In fact, it may be the first thing you should think of when you are feeling overtrained or burned out. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with your training plans or strategies. Sometimes you are simply not providing your body with the support it needs to recover. Getting proper sleep is so mundane and obvious, it is often underestimated or overlooked. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you can’t really complain about fatigue in or out of the gym, you need to fix your sleep habits first.
The same is true for nutrition, hydration and stress. Dehydration can cause acute drops in lifting performance that are not related to overtraining. And it goes without saying that inadequate nutrition will not support recovery from hard training. In fact, recovery revolves almost entirely around rest and nutrition.
Stress management is also vital. Psychological or social stress operate under similar principles as training stress on your muscles. It’s a normal part of life and in many cases can lead to growth. But not if the stress is continuous without breaks. If you are under high levels of nonstop stress, you must find ways to cope with it and provide periods of relief, otherwise stress out of the gym will hurt your progress inside the gym.
Between the checklist of over-training symptoms in the last blog post, and this list of tactics and strategies to manage overreaching and avoid over-training, you are now well-equipped to go out there and make some of the best progress of your life. All you have to do is study these solutions closely and start to apply them immediately.
-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
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