In order to improve performance (gain size, strength and/or definition) you've got to work hard. However, hard training (be it heavy training, training with less rest between sets, more sets per work, or less days off) will break down your muscles and in the very short term, make you weaker.

To grow and to get stronger, the most important part of this equation is not necessarily how hard you train. To make the huge gains we all desire lifting success can not be thought of in a vacuum. An experienced athlete, who does include weightlifters and bodybuilders, understands the importance of proper nutrition and rest.

However, there are still many bodybuilders who do not realize (or at least underestimate) the important role rest plays in obtaining maximum performance and results from the hours spent in the gym.

The Value Of Rest

It is rest that makes you stronger, because it is the rest that allows the muscles that you have broken down to heal and recover. It is the rest that allows you to recover so you can be strong, and thereby handle the increased weight, and increased number of sets and reps needed to gain further.

Why does rest play such an important role in muscle recovery? It is during sleep where growth hormone (GH) levels are at their highest. Physiologic improvement in bodybuilding can only occur during the rest period following hard training. This is also why consuming the proper foods and supplements immediately following such training is key.

Hard intense training (whether it is aerobic training which will challenge the cardiovascular system or weight training which will challenge the cardiovascular system to an extent and the muscular systems) conditions the body. Such workouts will improve efficiency of the heart, increase capillaries in the muscles bringing greater blood flow (more oxygen and nutrition), and increase glycogen stores and mitochondrial enzyme systems within the muscle cells (resulting in a much fuller look).

Immediately following a workout, during a recovery period these systems build to greater levels to compensate for the stress that you have applied. The result is that you are now at a higher level of performance. However, if proper recovery time (rest) is not given then the body can not regenerate.

The body will store less glycogen which is why you will look flat when you overtrain. If this imbalance between intense excess training and inadequate recovery (rest) time persists then performance will decline.

Without proper recovery time, not only will you reach a performance plateau, but you also will run the risk of injury, and may even experience reduced performance (less strength, less endurance, etc.).

Needed Rest Or Are You Just Being Lazy?

It is important to be able to discern the difference between needed rest and just laziness. There are a lot of factors that can contribute to how you are feeling and how your body will respond.

These factors include:

  • Stress
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • Physical condition
  • Emotional state
  • Recuperation time; not necessarily in order of importance.

Regardless of whether I have a show or not I will always listen to my body when it comes to training and recuperation.

Having been training for over 25 years I follow instinctive training to gauge whether or not I need rest. How much I train, how often, how fast, how long and how heavy will all depend on my energy levels and how I feel.

Sometimes, I will opt to take a day off in the middle of my training split; sometimes I may slide a body part to the next day if my energy is off. Sometimes I won't even take a day off and I might cycle through my routine 2x before taking the day off. It will all depend as to how I feel.

Because the mind can sometimes be tricky, in many cases I will always drive to the gym and attempt my workout to see if my lethargy is real. I have found that approximately 50% of the time once I get to the gym and start my workout I not alone have an amazing workout but I actually feel better (endomorphin release). Making myself go to the gym prevents my mind from psyching me out of a workout because I know I am forcing myself there.

Defining Overtraining

So what exactly is overtraining for a bodybuilder? Overtraining can best be defined as the state where your body has been repeatedly stressed by training (weight training and/or cardio) to the point where rest is no longer adequate to allow for recovery.

There are two main types of overtraining:

  1. Localized
  2. Systemic overtraining

Both can occur as a result of too much exercise/stress without enough recover time/rest and proper nutrition. Localized overtraining is the most common. As the name implies, localized overtraining effects a specific muscle or muscle group without affecting other muscle groups.

The most common cause of localized overtraining is when the same muscle group is trained on successive days or with too much frequency without adequate amounts of rest. This can also occur when supporting muscle groups are trained on separate days, thereby never given these muscles a chance to recover.

Systemic overtraining occurs must less frequently and is potentially the more serious of the two types of overtraining. Systemic overtraining will affect the entire body causing the body to enter a negative nitrogen balance (a catabolic state). As the body enters this state the body also produces an increased amount of cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex in response to stress. Cortisol impedes muscular repair and function, decreases testosterone production, inhibits protein synthesis, accelerates proteolysis (protein breakdown) and inhibits muscular growth. Making matters worse it also reduces the body's ability to use fat as an energy source, increasing the amount of stored fat within the body.

Signs Of Overtraining

There are many signs of overtraining. Physical symptoms include elevated morning pulse (10 beats more than normal), consistently elevated blood pressure, lack, persistent muscular soreness, increased frequency of common illnesses, like colds, increased incidence of injuries, and decreased appetite and weight loss. The effects from overtraining may not only by physiological.

Emotional & Behavioral Symptoms Can Also Occur Such As:

  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Loss of desire to train (or do other things formerly enjoyed).

Emotional and behavioral symptoms typically will only occur as a result of chronic (long term) overtraining (weeks to months). This condition is best known as "burnout"."

This condition is different from short term overtraining in that post exercise fatigue and emotional swings persist even after recovery periods that are taken.

The Overtraining Threshold

The exact threshold for overtraining will vary among individuals, as everyone responds differently to exercise and stress. Some weightlifters can tolerate large volumes of sets and heavy weights while others can tolerate much less.

Several factors such as nutrition sleep quality, hormonal and enzymatic concentrations, muscle fiber composition, and previous training experience can impact recuperative capacity and, therefore effect when overtraining will occur.

Although everyone has varying recuperative abilities, a period of 48 to 72 hours is usually required for adequate recovery between strength training sessions.

For most people 8 hours of GOOD sleep is also a safe bet. Even the most experienced bodybuilders typically do not train large muscle groups more than ten to twelve total sets while subjecting smaller muscle groups to only eight to ten sets.


There have been several clinical studies done regarding overtraining. One interesting finding is that in many individuals overtraining increased the body's cortisol levels and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA and cortisol are the body's long-acting stress hormones and are antagonistic to each other to some degree.

DHEA has an anabolic or building influence, while cortisol has a catabolic or tearing down effect on the body. Normally these hormones are in balance.

They become imbalanced during chronic overtraining. After proper rest and recovery, the body will reduce its output of cortisol and DHEA to resting levels. This is what happens with short episodes of stress. However, if proper recovery is not obtained such as in chronic overtraining conditions, the body will continue to make increasingly greater amounts of cortisol, while reducing the amount of DHEA produced.

Elevated levels of cortisol can:

  • Cause you to crave carbohydrates excessively especially in the evening
  • Make you feel fatigued and exhausted
  • Increase cholesterol and triglyceride production
  • Decrease serotonin levels in your brain which can trigger depression.
  • Deplete vital vitamins and minerals the body needs for proper function such as the B (aka, stress vitamins), calcium and magnesium

The consequences of elevated cortisol and reduced DHEA can be devastating. Although the effects from high cortisol and low DHEA levels will vary with each individual and will also be dependent upon genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors.

The negative effects may include:

  • Reduced growth hormone (GH) release, which related to reduced muscle mass and strength, increased fat tissue, a weakened immune system and other health declines.
  • Reduce protein synthesis.
  • Increased protein breakdown, which can lead to muscle loss, bone loss, arthritis, and overall muscle weakness.
  • Immune system compromise with increased risk to infections, certain and disease.
  • Thyroid function impairment resulting in decreased metabolism, and increased fat storage.
  • Glucose utilization and insulin function impairment resulting in higher blood sugar levels.
  • Salt and water are retention, which can raise blood pressure (this can be deadly if anabolic aids which can also raise blood pressure through fluid retention are also used).
  • Increased blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels increasing the risk for heart disease.
  • Disrupted sleep patterns.
  • Reduced R.E.M. (rapid eye movement)

Overtraining has also shown to cause an increase in the amount of free radicals within the body. This can serve to exacerbate the catabolic effects of overtraining, making symptoms worse.

Treatment For Overtraining

The treatment for the overtraining sounds very simple—rest and proper nutrition. However, there are many different opinion regarding what is proper rest and what is proper nutrition. The can be further complicated for the pre-contest competitive bodybuilder who is increasing training while trying to control caloric intake.

Rest And Relaxation

There are many ways a bodybuilder can rest and reduce elevated cortisol levels. The most obvious method is to increase sleep (and I mean good quality R.E.M. sleep). This will increase GH levels and reduce cortisol levels.

There are also other positive methods to reduce stress and aid in recovery. Such methods may include massage (which also increases blood flow to the muscle to aid in recovery), meditation, and yoga.

To make gains a bodybuilder must straddle the line between challenging (stress) the body and rest. Unfortunately the amount of rest each person needs is also once again dependent upon genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors.

Studies show that as we age we need less rest, but those studies are not geared towards competitive bodybuilders. The best recommendation I could give to a bodybuilder regarding what is the proper amount of rest is to advise him to listen to his/her body.

The real key to success is to be able to detect the signs of overtraining early and to take the needed rest. This needs to happen even if you believe you do not have the time, and "your body is not ready for your contest". It is important to remember that in many cases more training will not be best, and will only result in a worse appearance. What is important is to train hard while you are in the gym, get the best nutrition and rest when you are out of the gym, and the rest (no pun intended) will follow.

Nutrition And Supplementation

Regarding nutrition, nothing beats a good balanced diet. Consuming quality carbohydrates, especially post-workout, helps to replenish glycogen stores and provide sufficient energy for intense training. It is also imperative to maintain an adequate amount of good quality protein.

There is an abundance of evidence that weightlifters need up to 2x the amount of protein than the average person. As a minimum, serious weightlifters should consume approximately one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to maintain a positive nitrogen balance. This means that a 200 pound bodybuilder should consume 5 protein meals of approximately 40 grams of protein.

It is understood that this can be difficult sometimes do to today's fast paced environment, as well as during pre-contest time. Therefore the use of high quality supplements can be useful in preventing protein breakdown.

Overtraining can deplete minerals such as zinc, magnesium, manganese, calcium, and vitamins B6, Pantothenic Acid (B5) and vitamin C. Additional supplementation of these vitamins and minerals are highly suggested.

Anti-oxidants such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, co-enzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid, and selenium should also be used since they have been proven effective in combating free radicals that form as a result of overtraining.

A DHEA supplement is also desirable because DHEA is antagonistic to cortisol. 7-Keto DHEA is preferred by many bodybuilders because it is considered a more potent form of DHEA that will not be converted to active androgens (testosterone) and estrogens which will cause further water retention and a "soft" look.

Glutamine supplementation should also be considered to replace glutamine stores used during the workouts, boost the immune system and to prevent protein breakdown. Arginine and ornithine supplementation is suggested to increase growth hormone levels.


The best defense to overtraining is a proper combination of god rest and proper nutrition. A well-planned training program will include adequate recovery time and proper nutrition, including proper supplementation.

Most importantly listen to your body when you see the early warning signs of overtraining. Be flexible and adjust your workout, your sleep and your diet accordingly.

Understanding the signs of overtraining and responding accordingly will help you reach your goals faster. See ya in the winner's circle!

About the Author

Jeff Behar

Jeff Behar

Jeff Behar - All Natural Bodybuilder! I started weightlifting in 1979 at the age of 13. Since then I've entered and won multiple competitions!

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