If you are serious about developing strength, building muscle, getting lean or getting fit, you probably do more than just exercise; you train. Exercise is general physical activity usually performed for its health benefits whereas training is more about working toward specific goals. For example, if you go to the gym and do a whole body workout using light to moderate weights three-times a week so you feel healthy then you are exercising whereas if you are pummelling a different muscle group on each day you exercise with the aim of packing on serious muscle mass, you are training.

Training has a much more definable purpose than exercise. That’s not to say exercise is not beneficial – of course it is – but training generally requires more effort and commitment as well as lots of motivation.

On the downside, it is possible to train too much, too hard, too often and without respecting the need to rest and recovery; if four training sessions per week is good, six must be better – right?

However, doing too much training can result in something often referred to as overtraining syndrome and whereas the right amount of training should result in great progress toward your fitness goals, overtraining can take you further away.

So, how do you know if you are training too much? Good question! There are several recognized signs and symptoms commonly associated with overtraining syndrome that you should watch out for…

  • Sore joints
  • Immune system suppression – you get more colds than usual for example
  • Non-specific muscle pain
  • Poor performance for several workouts in a row
  • Muscle and/or strength loss
  • Disrupted sleep despite feeling tired
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Depression
  • No enthusiasm for training
  • Unexplained fat gain

While mild overtraining might cause you to suffer just a couple of these symptoms, chronic or long term overtraining could result in all of them.

If you start to develop the early signs and symptoms of overtraining, it is important to take action before problems become more severe and that means taking a break from training or, at the very least, reducing the volume and intensity of your workouts until you feel completely recovered. Just sticking your head down and trying to work through the signs and symptoms of overtraining will simply necessitate a longer break from training in the future; it’s better to take a week off now rather than several months off later.

Of course, the best way to avoid having to deal with overtraining is to make sure that your workouts never take more out of you than adequate rest and recuperation can put back in. Think of training like running a bank account; ideally, you should never take out more than you put in otherwise you’ll go overdrawn and even bankrupt. In the same way, training takes energy out of your body and rest and recovery puts it back in. If you want to avoid overtraining and ensure you make progress, you must avoid taking out more than you can put back in.

To ensure you emphasize recovery, avoid training too much and generally steer clear of overtraining, follow these tried and tested rules…

  • Keep your workouts to around one-hour in length as training for longer has been shown to cause anabolic (muscle building) hormone levels to decline and catabolic (muscle destroying) hormone levels to rise.
  • Do not train for more than three days in a row without taking a day off. Try to ensure you have two days per week free from training.
  • Periodically include “deload” weeks in your training where, after several weeks of hard training, you take an easy week to allow for greater recovery.
  • Get at least eight hours of quality sleep per night as sleep is when your body goes into growth and repair mode.
  • Try to find time to have 20 to 30-minute “power naps” to help increase growth hormone production and reduce catabolic hormone production.
  • Make sure your diet is not only high in protein but also contains all of the nutrients necessary for recovery including vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
  • Emphasise post-exercise nutrition by always having a carb and protein-rich shake or meal immediately after training.
  • If you have stopped making progress, cut back on workout volume and frequency rather than add more; the more intensely you train, the less training volume your body can recover from.
  • Unless you are a very advanced exerciser, you don’t need to do more than ten or so sets per muscle group and smaller muscles need considerably less. Just because you have an hour to train your arms, doesn’t mean you should train them for that long. Once the muscles being trained have been sufficiently stimulated, additional exercises or sets simply delay your recovery. Try to do as little training as possible, not as much.
  • Cut down on training volume and intensity during periods of high stress e.g. insufficient sleep caused by a new-born, minor illness, work issues or relationship worries. Training hard during periods of high stress can compound overtraining.

Remember; training and recovery are opposite sides of the same coin and must be respected equally if you are to make continual progress while avoiding overtraining. Don’t assume that if your current workout is producing results that more work will produce better results – this is seldom the case. In all but the chronically undertrained, more training above and beyond what is actually needed to trigger results will cause fewer and not more fitness improvements.