Overtraining vs. Overreaching

I’m not a fan of the term overtraining. Now hold on, it’s not because I think it’s only for the lazy and weak, or don’t believe in it (although relatively rare, it’s real 1,2) or think if you eat and sleep enough it won’t happen (it will). I don’t like it for two reasons. The first reason is because, clinically, it’s a pretty arbitrary term. 1,2 And we’ll get to the second reason later on.

There are articles all over social media warning the fitness community of the dire consequences associated with overtraining. See, I even wrote it in red to emphasis its dreadfulness. Overtraining generally refers to training at such a high volume and frequency that your body’s recovery systems can’t keep up and your mental and physical health begins to decline. General indications include continued decreases in performance along with fatigue, insomnia, depression, headache, tremors, etc. where a blood sample might reveal elevated inflammatory markers.  So for example, let’s say your training program looks like 10 sets of 10 reps ass-to-grass squats at 85% of your one-rep max twice a day for 6 weeks along with deadlifts, lunges, and 40 minutes of HIIT, you’re probably looking at coming down with a case of the overtrainin’s. And that is a ridiculous example. Overtraining could easily occur at a much lesser extent. Which brings me to the second reason why I don’t like the term.

Overtraining only occurs in the presence of poor programming.

That’s right, overtraining and good programming are mutually exclusive. They can’t happen at the same time.

But you shouldn’t be worried. Ironically, it takes a lot of stubborn hard work and dedication over a long period of time to achieve overtraining.  Thankfully, most of us have a built-in “fuck this” mechanism that is triggered long before overtraining sets in.

So what should we be concerned with? Programming (more fancily known in the resistance training realm as periodization). The program you’re following should be appropriate for your personal situation including your current fitness status (which involves assessment) and your goals (which involves effective goal setting). It should be designed systematically and deliberately based off of your personal situation and your progress. There should be room for adjustments and modifications at any point in your program to match your progression. Which brings me to an important note: careful surveillance of you progression, or the rate at which you are or aren’t improving, is KEY. This surveillance should take place on both a microscale (session to session, or even set to set) and macroscale (program cycle to program cycle) level.  

Let’s consider the microscale surveillance. During any training session, you should be able to tell me, off the top of your head, how the previous training session unfolded for that exercise. Did you hit 135×8 or 135×4 on your third set? How did it compare to your goals for that training session? Are changes needed? These are important week-to-week variables to consider because they should be influencing today’s training session. Either find an app to help you keep record of this stuff, or simply write it down on a notepad or the notes function in your phone.

But there is yet another huge benefit to keeping careful track of your progress. Let’s get back to the topic of this article: overtraining. Like I said, overtraining won’t happen with good programming. But there is something known as overreaching that can be a very integral component of a good program. Overreaching is sort of a precursor to overtraining. You begin to notice slight decrements in your progress, you’re beginning to feel burnt out, and deep down you know you’re beginning to over-do it.  And you’ll know exactly when it’s happening because you’ve been keeping close track of your progress! In my experience, these feelings will typically occur at the start of a week just after a short rest period of a day or two. Despite the rest period, I still feel run down in the gym. At this point, I’ve been training consistently hard for 4-8 weeks, and I can begin to feel an accumulation of stress. Instinctively, I want to take advantage of a “de-load” week (a week dedicated to taking it relatively easy. I’ll trade the barbell for kettlebells and bike rides, focus on mobility work, etc.). What’s great about the de-load week following the onset of overreaching is that there is typically a rebound-like effect where your body over-compensates for the stress it experienced in the preceding weeks1,2. When overreaching presents itself, my suggestion is to finish out the week at a reasonable intensity, then enjoy a nice, laid back de-load week. You will come back refreshed and stronger.

  1. Kreher, Jeffrey B., and Jennifer B. Schwartz. “Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide.” Sports Health 4.2 (2012): 128–138. PMC. Web. 8 July 2016.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24531430

  1. Halson SL, Jeukendrup AE. Does overtraining exist? An analysis of overreaching and overtraining research. Sports Med. 2004;34(14):967-981

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15571428