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While getting to the gym day in and day out may be one of your fondest pastimes, going balls to the wall for too long — tons of weight, a lot of sets, intensity techniques galore — could actually end up bringing an abrupt halt to your progress. A decade ago they called it wussing out. Today they call it overtraining.
"Overtraining is a very real condition experienced by bodybuilders characterized by an increased resting heart rate, unusually long recovery times after exercise, sleeping troubles, increased sweating, irritability, digestion problems, fatigue, depression and drops in strength and endurance," says M&F Senior Science Editor Jim Stoppani, PhD.
Despite the clarity of symptoms, overtraining can still sometimes be difficult to diagnose. "What appears to be a plateau in progress caused by lack of proper diet or intensity can be mistaken for the syndrome of overtraining itself," says m&f Fitness Director Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS. "That can often fuel the pattern of overtraining in affected individuals who aren't conscious of the condition or refuse to acknowledge the symptoms."
Some of the symptoms of overtraining are pretty tough to peg. Maybe you're in a bad mood simply because the guy who used the leg press before you neglected to wipe down the bench or remove his plates. And it could be that you're tired because you decided to watch a few repeats of Family Guy on Cartoon Network the night before. But some things are easier to catch and should thus raise a red flag.
A decrease in muscle mass, for example, can be easy to see for a guy who has been monitoring his progress in the mirror and on the scale. If you're finding it tough to get the last few reps on an exercise with a load you were handling just weeks earlier, it could be a sign that you're overtrained. The first place to look, however, is your routine.
"Overtraining is usually the result of training at too high of an intensity or with too much weight or too much volume for too long," Stoppani says.
So if you've been doing four sets of six reps on most exercises, doing 20 sets per bodypart and mixing in, say, forced reps and drop sets for the last several months, you're a prime candidate for an overtraining-induced plateau. The body, believe it or not, is only capable of so much in a given period. After a while, it revolts—from the inside out.
"The most significant changes that occur in someone who's overtrained are hormonal," Stoppani says. "Your testosterone levels fall and your cortisol levels are elevated. The increase in cortisol, which is a stress hormone, turns your body catabolic and causes you to lose muscle and strength. Growth hormone levels also fall, further limiting gains in size and strength."
As if that's not enough, your body experiences depressed levels of thyroid hormones, sapping you of energy, and your adrenaline levels can go haywire, affecting your body's ability to generate energy during workouts. Getting sick more often? That's another sign of overtraining — your immune system takes a beating after prolonged bouts of high-intensity exercise. Sore joints are also part of the misery.
These nightmarish symptoms end up affecting a lifter's central nervous system, leading to altered mood states and even depression.
The first step toward getting your overtrained wreck of a body growing again is recognizing the symptoms. After that, getting back on track is easier than you might think. "Overtraining is not caused in a day, nor can it be cured in a day," Peña says. "That's why it's very important to allow ample time for recovery. This could mean taking several days, even weeks, off from the gym. This doesn't mean zero activity, but staying away from heavy, intense lifting is key. Outdoor activities, a change in scenery and lighter activity can aid in the recovery process."
You are, as always, what you eat, and the quality and timing of your meals are important factors in preventing and coming back from overtraining. "This means eating enough of the right kinds of foods, even splurging more than someone is used to, allow the mind a mental break from the pressure of trying to achieve perfection, not to mention the physical results that will follow," Peña says.
"Diet is a very important factor in preventing overtraining," Stoppani agrees. "Those who eat properly before and after their workouts are at much less risk of overtraining because these meals help the body recover faster and much more thoroughly."
So don't forget your 20 grams of protein and 40 grams of slow-burning carbs before workouts. And don't even think about missing your 40—60 grams of whey protein and 40—60 grams of fast-digesting carbs after training. If you work out like a maniac and miss these key windows for nutrition, you're begging to hit a wall.
Overtraining is — as the Marines in the movie Jarhead referred to the Iraqi desert—"The Big Suck" for lifters. For you, progress in the weight room is a passion, and you're willing to put yourself through the ringer to pursue it. But going overboard too often or for too long is a sure way to interrupt your gains. The trick, then, is to temper your enthusiasm and periodize your weight training, alternating 6—8-week bouts of intense, heavy lifting with 6—8 weeks of more moderate sessions. Keep that in mind when you start up any of the programs in this or any other issue of muscle & fitness.