Overtraining: A Bodybuilding Nemesis!

This article will try to shed some light on this most serious of bodybuilding dilemmas and provide ideas on how to avoid becoming overtrained while continuing to gain muscle consistently.

Of all the things that could, and do, go wrong for a bodybuilder looking to add size, overtraining would probably have to be the worst. The sheer frustration resulting from this seemingly paradoxical problem is often enough for one to question their very involvement in the sport.

Indeed, overtraining in its most severe form may force one to stop training and coming back from this may not be an easy task. Rather than struggling to come back, it is best not to enter an overtrained state to begin with. It is often thought that an overtrained state is definitive and will result from high intensity training coupled with insufficient rest and nutrient intake. This is true to a certain extent, but is far from explanatory.

Rather, when it comes to training, too much or not enough of a good thing can be separated by a very fine line. Other variables come into play also. Diet and mental attitude are two that may affect ones propensity to become overtrained. Thus, the whole notion of overtraining is not very clear cut. A person may feel energetic and ready to train.

However, their gains may be minimal as a result of being borderline overtrained. To err on the side of caution and taper ones training program right back may constitute under training and results will be similarly compromised. But how does one know if they are overtrained, under trained or gaining successfully.

This article will try to shed some light on this most serious of bodybuilding dilemmas and provide ideas on how to avoid becoming overtrained while continuing to gain muscle consistently.

What Exactly Is Overtraining?

Overtraining is an increase in work in ones training program or excessive overload of a training stimulus coupled with an imbalance between these stresses and the body's ability to adapt. Of seriousness to the bodybuilder are the losses in size and strength that accompany overtraining.

Physical Symptoms That Accompany Overtraining Include:

  • Elevated waking pulse rate
  • Elevated morning blood pressure
  • Increased joint and muscle-aches
  • Headaches and tremors
  • Tiredness
  • Listlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Loss or decrease in appetite
  • Injury
  • Illness
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insatiable thirst or dehydration
  • Susceptibility to colds and flu
  • Frequent minor infections
  • Altered function of the endocrine, immune, and central nervous systems.

Psychological Disturbances That Accompany Overtraining Include:

  • Increased apathy and irritability
  • Mood and sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Reduced ability to concentrate
  • Lack of appetite.

In consideration of the above symptoms it follows that the three main consequences of overtraining are staleness, injury and loss of motivation.

It should be remembered however that overtraining is rare and is not to be confused with over-reaching (minor tissue damage related to insufficient recovery) and general tiredness. In fact super compensation that results from over-reaching is a good thing as it suggests overload and an upcoming physiological adaptation to stress.

However, if over-reaching continues, overtraining will result and the existence of five or so of the above symptoms should alert a trainer to this fact. An exact diagnostic criteria for overtraining does not exist so one must rely on these signs and symptoms as a diagnostic tool.

Leading to an overtrained state is a biological mechanism involving our beloved friend cortisol. Typically, the longer one trains the more cortisol that is released following this workout and the more protein that is destroyed as a result of excessive cortisol. The degraded protein is transformed into amino acids for conversion into glucose. A catabolic state ensues.

This can however be done without incident usually. However, if done too often with insufficient rest and nutrition, overtraining will more than likely result. If colds and flu often occur, this may be considered indicative of borderline overtraining. Once muscles and ligaments begin to tear due to compromised structural integrity as a result of repeated protein loss (at the extreme end of the scale) then full-blown overtraining has occurred.

The symptoms discussed earlier are to be factored in also, when determining an overtrained state. The first sign of overtraining (often colds or flu), is due to cortisol effectively stealing proteins from where they are needed: the immune system. T-cells (the immune systems front-line defense force) are usually the first to go. T-cells will rejuvenate over time (about 7-8 hours).

However, continuing to train at this level will result in almost non-productive levels of T-cells, effectively opening the door to viruses and bacteria, and eventually the tendon damaging effects of a full-blown overtrained state.

Overtraining can literally lead to months or years of wasted training effort. The best way to cure overtraining, to risk a clich鬠is prevention. This fundamentally involves self-assessment on a constant basis. Of course it is not as simple as this and other prevention techniques should be employed. These follow.

How To Prevent Overtraining

  • Given that longer training sessions result in a pronounced cortisol release, it would be best to limit sessions to 45 minutes maximum to lessen the protein degradation that results from this.

  • Placing a priority on carbohydrates (60 percent of diet) will help to offset cortisol's influence on protein degradation. Carbohydrates should be taken two hours before and directly afterward training to help fatigued muscles with energy storage.

  • In addition to the carbohydrate emphasis, eat a nutritious diet with sufficient vitamins, and minerals along with the bodybuilders best friend, protein. The body will simply fail to adapt to any training stimulus if diet is inadequate. Overtraining will ensue.

  • Ensure adequate relaxation and sleep. Self explanatory.

  • Employ an instinctive training philosophy by training depending on how the body feels as opposed to maintaining, at all costs, a certain schedule. In other words, do just enough to keep gains steadily coming, no more, no less.

  • Make gradual increases in intensity over a period of time rather than blindly diving straight into high intensity training.

  • Never exercise during an illness. An enthusiastic trainer can be forgiven for wanting to train despite illness. However, the body will not forgive and immune system function will be further compromised.

  • Be flexible and willing vary exercises as much as possible to avoid monotony.

  • Occasional lay-offs may help to re-new enthusiasm and, more importantly, off-set the preliminary stages of overtraining.

  • Incorporate periodization techniques and emphasize tapering weeks during each Macro-cycle.

  • Try to relax in all areas in life. The gym is typically quite stressful with intensity of training being high. Stressful life events will further increase cortisol release and hasten an overtrained state.

Internal & External Factors Influencing Overtraining

Despite ones best efforts, overtraining might occur due to factors that influence vulnerability to overtraining. These include both internal and external factors (Uusitalo, 2001):


  • General health
  • General nutrition
  • Mood state
  • Personality (type A) stressors
  • Hereditary physiologic factors
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Menstrual cycle


  • Intensity of physical training
  • Volume of physical training
  • Social, economic, and psychological stressors
  • Training history
  • Environmental conditions and time of year
  • Food intake
  • Sleep (quality and quantity)
  • Infections
  • Medication, alcohol, tobacco, or other substances
  • Travel (jet lag, altitude)

How To Recover From Overtraining

  • All the good advice in the world will not help one who is overtrained. So what to do? Doing the following will help.

  • Depending on the level of overtraining, one should rest completely from training of any form (10-12 days at least).

  • Increase intake of highly nutritious foods and sleep and relax as often as possible.

  • Begin a supplement regime and focus on large quantities of whey protein for immune function and selected vitamins and minerals.

  • Begin training tentatively, with very light weights and short sessions.

  • Undergoing massage can also have beneficial effects on overtraining.

How many hours a week do you spend training?
Less than 3 hours a week
3 to 5 hours a week
5 to 10 hours a week
More than 10 hours a week ... I never stop!


Bodybuilders are typically very motivated people with high energy levels. These attributes could be a blessing or a curse depending on how they are used. Training intensely will undoubtedly lead to over-reaching, and a positive adaptation. However, training day after day at a high intensity and failing to factor in rest periods and nutritional requirements may lead to an overtrained state.

This might set training back weeks or months. Employing the methods listed in this article will help to prevent overtraining.

Remember: continue to self assess during a training cycle and if one suspects they are regressing, stop training altogether and check for the listed signs and symptoms. Good luck.


  • Uusitalo, A.(2001). Overtraining: Making a Difficult Diagnosis and Implementing Targeted Treatment. Physician and Sports Medicine. Volume 25 (9).
  • Lehmann MJ, Lormes W, Opitz-Gress A. (1997). Training and Overtraining: An Overview and Experimental Results in Endurance Sports. Journal of Sports Medicine Physical Fitness, 37(1):7-17.
  • Trine MR, Morgan WP. (1995). Influence of Time of Day on Psychological Responses to Exercise. Sports Medicine, 20(5):328-337.
  • Colgan, M.(1993). Optimum Sports Nutrition. Advanced Research Press: USA.

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