You’ve been exercising regularly for several weeks or even months now, but seems like nothing is changing. At first, you lost some weight, improved muscle tone, strength and endurance, felt great after every exercise session and had a definite increase in energy levels throughout the day. You followed a strict diet, supplemented with necessary vitamins and minerals and pushed yourself with every workout. Seems like everything was going on very well. But now you feel tired and exhausted all the time, don’t have energy to even get to the gym, your sleep patterns have changed and you feel irritable and tense. If you find yourself dreading your exercise sessions or dragging yourself through the day, you may be pushing yourself too much. Diet and training plateaus are signs of your body’s need for rest. Recharge your body and your mind, get fit and lose weight by exercising less and eating more.
When it comes to getting in shape, most people, not you of course, but the majority expect too much, too soon. Usually they would push themselves too hard at the beginning of the program in order to get faster results. But what happens then? They feel tired, exhausted, moody, easily irritated, have altered sleep patterns, become depressed, and lose the competitive desire and enthusiasm for the activities they used to enjoy. Are you one of the above described restless exercisers?
If you answered ‘yes’, you may be experiencing an overtraining syndrome. Overtraining occurs when the physical stress of training is not balanced by adequate rest and nutrition to allow the body recuperate and repair the damage. The Unites States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the American College of Sports Medicine defined overtraining syndrome as ‘untreated overreaching that results in chronic decreases in performance and impaired ability to train’. Athletes and coaches also know it as “burnout” or “staleness.” Medically, the overtraining syndrome is classified as a neuro-endocrine disorder where the normal fine balance in the interaction between nervous and hormonal systems is disturbed and the body is so tired that it now has a decreased ability to repair itself during rest.
There is nothing wrong with feeling tired after a good workout. It actually is a very good indication that you have worked out hard enough and now your batteries can be recharged. But if you constantly push your limits without giving your body a chance to recover, your entire engine may just break down. Because most of us think that if a little exercise does your body good, more exercise must be even better, so we tend to put all the energy into every workout and push ourselves expecting to reach the set goals sooner. It is absolutely true that to make any improvements you need to challenge yourself out of the comfort zone. That means that now you may want to do more push-ups, sit-ups and lunges than you did last year, or you may try to run faster now than your normal pace of that a few months ago (if you trained regularly, of course). Progression is the ONLY way you can make improvements towards your set goals. The reason is that your body adapts to the same exercises and stops responding. In other words, it plateaus. But every body has a limit to what it can handle at any given time and there should be a very delicate balance between exercise and rest. Excessive training is not a short-cut to better performance. In fact, it may be just the opposite driving your progress down. Numerous studies have shown that a lot of times exercisers may work out harder and more often than necessary or even recommended.
Exercising is great for your body and mind. But if you start feeling tired, fatigued, irritated, your muscles begin to hold a lot of tension even when you are not working out, then you may be creating a very unfavorable internal environment. Physiologically, repetitive training alters your hormone levels, weakens immunity and triggers emotional instability wreaking havoc on your body and mind. But don’t despair, follow these simple steps and get the energy you have been missing.
By far and away the biggest mistake most people make when training for size and strength is overtraining.
You have to understand that the body has very limited recovery ability and can only tolerate a certain amount of training. Once you go beyond what the body is capable of recovering from you will enter a state of overtraining. And the further into an overtrained state you get, the harder is to get out.
How do you know if you are overtrained?
Well, some simple signs to look for are the inability to sleep, elevated resting heart rate, decreased appetite, decreased motivation in the gym, lowered sex drive, and a lack of
None of these are fun symptoms to have. And believe me I would know, I have been there plenty of times myself when I was younger and had no idea how to train properly.
Without knowing exactly what you are doing in your workouts right now, I can almost guarantee that you are overtrained in some capacity or another.
The first thing that I see most people do which leads to overtraining is performing too many sets in their workouts. If I had to take a guess I would say that most people do between 18-30 sets per workout. I know this is a pretty wide gap but it’s tough to narrow it down any more than that.
Let me ask you why you do that many sets? Who told you to do that? Where did you read that and decide that it was the norm to do so? What are you accomplishing by doing so many sets? Are extra sets making you stronger? Are they making you bigger? Are they getting you leaner? Are they helping you to recruit more motor units? Are you stretching the fascia? Inducing hyperplasia? What exactly is all that training volume doing?
And why does everyone seem to think that it’s necessary and just blindly follow what everyone else is doing? If you are really training hard and are serious about your workouts, it’s very difficult for most people to perform a ton of sets and still be able to recover.
After thousands of hours working with an extremely wide variety of clients, I have come to the conclusion that most people can’t do more than 12-18 sets per workout. Let me rephrase that, because plenty of people CAN do more sets than that, but most people can’t RECOVER from more sets than that. In certain cases, depending on the trainee, the situation and the type of workout, we can push this as high as 20-22 sets but that is usually the ceiling for most people.
Does that make sense?
The next mistake is that people train too long. Workouts, not including warm up time, should never exceed an hour. When you begin training, your anabolic hormones are immediately elevated. After a while they reach a peak and then start to decline. They eventually return to baseline and if you keep training beyond that point, they will dip down to below normal levels. What happens at this point is that cortisol, which is the stress hormone that eats muscle and causes increases in bodyfat, becomes severely elevated.
The next mistake I would like to discuss today when it comes to overtraining is training too often. You need to remember that training does not stress just the muscles but the entire body including the nervous system. The nervous system controls everything and if the nervous system is not recovered, it doesn’t matter how good your muscles feel, you can’t train again. You can try, but you won’t make progress and will just dig yourself into a deep hole of overtraining.
If you are training five or six days per week, you are probably overtraining. This is another mistake I made several times when I was younger. I was eager to get big as fast as humanly possible and thought that the more I trained, the bigger I would get. I was sadly mistaken. I actually ended up getting smaller and weaker from this schedule.
Most drug free trainees can’t recover properly from more than three to four hard workouts per week. Even drug assisted athletes seem to do better on three or four days per week because the drugs only help the muscles recover faster, not the nervous system.
The final mistake we are going to cover today, which leads to overtraining, is training too hard. What I mean by this is continually going all out and training to failure and beyond on every set you do. There is a time to train to failure and there is a time to hold back a bit. Unless you know how to walk this fine line, you will definitely fry your nervous system and be overtrained in no time.
#1. Evaluate your physical feelings and check for the following symptoms of overtraining:
- decreased performance and training tolerance
- fatigue and tiredness
- muscle soreness and tenderness
- depression and apathy
- irritability and stress
- sleep and eating disturbances
- increased frequency of colds, flu, sickness
- elevated resting heart rate and blood pressure
Everybody differs in their responses to stress and exercise, but only you know if your system is being pushed too far. So, ask yourself if any of the above symptoms describe how you feel now and make a conscious decision to treat your body well by giving it the needed rest.
#2. Stop exercising for a week and reduce your training afterwards. The week of recovery will give your body a wonderful chance to recover and recuperate after a long period of overexertion. Your muscles will have an opportunity to rebuild themselves during this essential time of relaxation.
What you may forget is that training itself doesn’t make you stronger. It actually breaks down your muscle cells making you weaker. Think about it, when are you stronger – before or after the workout? Can you perform another dozen sets of exercises AFTER you have already worked out? Obviously not. That muscle tissue breakdown stimulates them to grow stronger and firmer. But that happens only during the times of rest. Exactly when you are not exercising, your body is constructing the lean tissue you broke down, plus some more in order to protect itself against expected future damage in the gym. It is sufficient rest and good nutrition that makes you stronger.
Losing weight and burning some calories during exercise follows the same principle, but the picture is even more complex. In order to burn most fat, you need to exercise at high enough intensity and to generate enough muscle force. When you train too often or too hard, your energy levels may go down since the muscle tissue gets broken down every time you train. Giving your body the energy it needs through relaxation and enough food will boost your muscle power and energy to have the best workouts every time you train.
#3. Start eating more healthy nutritious foods and try to eat more often. The best way to rev up your metabolism is to eat at least five times during the day. Every time you eat, you burn additional calories as digesting food needs energy. Small frequent meals will also help you maintain blood sugar levels and even reduce your appetite so you end up eating less in one meal. This will prevent unnecessary spikes in insulin levels and give your body the energy it craves for recovery. At times of overtraining, one important nutrient that your body may be lacking is carbohydrates which restore the glycogen or ‘muscle sugar’. Because your glycogen gets depleted very fast during each exercise session, the stores must be constantly replenished. And carbohydrates from breads, pasta and fruit are the best sources of muscle fuel. Research has shown that one common supplement, the carbohydrate drink, can lessen the harmful effects of exhaustive exercise on immune system.
Eat more wholesome foods such as fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, dairy, lean meats and fish. Experiment with various combinations of these delicious ingredients and take them with every meal. Try eating oatmeal with fruit and yogurt for breakfast, snack on buckwheat crackers with low-fat cheese, have a seafood and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice for lunch, crunch some juicy celery and red capcicums dipped in humus before dinner, and indulge in a tender grilled chicken breast with mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli and carrots decorated with salsa and fresh cilantro. Or create your own combinations adding extra herbs and spices for more flavor. Remember, this nutritious energy together with proper rest and sleep is the only way you can recharge your system.
Whatever your goals are – to increase fitness, get stronger, lose weight, or simply to feel better – the best way to achieve them is to approach them slowly and surely. Well-balanced gradual increases in training are best, but only when your body is given a chance to recover. A training log is the best method to monitor progress. In addition to keeping track of volume and intensity, you can record the resting morning heart rate, weight, general health, how the workout felt, and levels of muscular soreness and fatigue. Concentrate on working out on a regular basis, making gradual but moderate measurable progress. Anybody can work hard, but working smart is the real key to success.