My most common client looks like this:
They are fit, and exercise is a priority.
They like to work out super hard, and motivation is not an issue.
They don’t often take breaks or feel guilty when they do.
They don’t feel like they did enough unless they’re completely exhausted and dripping in sweat.
Their body hurts.
They are fatigued and frustrated.
They’ve plateaued, declined, or aren’t seeing results at all.
They are overtraining.
Overtraining is a systemic phenomenon that affects your entire system, including your immune system, nervous system, endocrine system (hormones), and musculoskeletal system (joints). Overtraining is different from overuse in that overuse is more specific, usually describing one area or muscle group (you can find out what muscles you’re overusing in this free assessment I wrote), where overtraining affects all the systems in your body.
I see overtraining in my clients all the time. They are frustrated that the amount of work they are putting into their exercise routine isn’t producing the results they want. And they feel like crap.
So why does this happen? Why does working harder not always yield better results?
Working harder doesn’t always yield results because you could be overwhelming your system.
There is an optimal ratio of work to recovery. And it’s 50/50. Again for those in the back, THE RATIO OF WORK TO RECOVERY IS 50/50. Anything outside of this will not yield great results.
To understand overtraining, we first have to understand what happens in your body when you exercise.
Results from exercise have to do with overload. Overload is the amount of stress (or work) that disrupts the equilibrium in your body to stimulate healing, and thus creating stronger tissues. Your body is adaptive. When it senses you’re lifting heavy things frequently, it lays down more muscle to adapt to your environment. Another term for this is catabolic. Exercise is catabolic, meaning it breaks down tissues, and your immune system comes in to repair them stronger.
If you have too little stress/work, you won’t see results, and you will regress. If you have too much stress/work, you will not see results, and you will regress. The ratio of work to recovery is 50/50.
Exercising too little is one issue, but working too much can be equally harmful.
Overtraining occurs when that ratio is off. When you’re exercising too hard and too frequently without the proper recovery, cortisol accumulates. Your nervous system gets exhausted, and your healing immune cells can’t do their magic to lay down new, stronger tissue.
What part of my routine could be the culprit?
Overtraining can happen when you have too many consecutive days of intense workouts, and/or if you’re not providing a muscle group with enough rest and recovery between workouts.
For example, if you’re squatting heavy multiple consecutive days a week, you could be overtraining muscle like the glutes and lower back, and you will regress. Essentially, if you’re getting to the point of total fatigue in one muscle group, it needs a couple of days (or more) to recover before you work it again.
And here’s the catch – you can’t rehab/yoga/meditate/stretch your way out of overtraining, and continue with the same intense workout regime. I often get asked, “what can I do to remedy this?” The answer is not “stretch more.” The answer is to do less. You have to change the intensity of your workouts. There is no band-aid for a routine that is wearing down your system.
So how do you know if you might be overtraining?
Here are some symptoms of overtraining, but it highly varies from person to person:
- Extreme soreness
- Global (all over) tightness, decreased range of motion
- Decreased speed
- Disrupted sleep
- Increased chronic pain
- Abnormal mood swings
- Chronic fatigue
Not only can overtraining make your body feel like crap, but your results will regress. If your immune system is overworked and overwhelmed, it can’t create stronger muscles. You can actually lose strength by overtraining.
Finding a balance of working enough, but not too much is tricky.
Here are some tips you can try to avoid overtraining:
- Cross-train and vary the intensity
Remember, you want enough intensity to stimulate change, but not so much that your system gets overwhelmed. Here’s an ideal workout routine that I’ve found works for my body: (5 days/week of workouts)
2 days/week of heavy lifting
1 day/week of yoga flow + strengthen (resistance training!)
1 day/week of time-under-tension exercise like Pilates
1 day/week of HIIT, 30 minutes or less
This is what has worked for me, and allowed me to gain more strength in my body than ever. I used to deal with chronic pain in my back, hips, knees, wrists, and shoulders. I no longer have ANY chronic pain—all due to finding an appropriate routine that incorporates the right amount of work to rest ratio.
2. Incorporate breathing/meditation into every workout
Even if it’s just 60 seconds! Teaching your nervous system how to down-regulate is key, so you aren’t staying in that high-stress environment, which won’t allow your body to heal and create stronger muscles.
3. Don’t work sore muscle groups.
Let them heal. You aren’t doing yourself a favor by hammering away at muscle groups that are sore and vulnerable.
4. Don’t work the same muscle group on consecutive days.
If you worked a muscle to fatigue, it needs at LEAST one day (preferably 2-3 days) to recover, so it can come back stronger. It’s like picking a scab – it will heal faster and stronger if you let your body do its thing.
5. Completely rest (maybe take a walk, or something restorative) at least 1-2 days/week
Tell yourself this is a non-negotiable part of your training program! Remember, proper rest will lead to better results.
6. Keep your cardio short
Studies have shown that aerobic exercise for more than 45 minutes can increase cortisol. Keep your cardio brief. You get cardio in resistance training too, so there is no need to do a bunch of focused, repetitive cardio more than a couple of times per week.