By Dan Gwartney, MD
Weight train long enough and eventually it happens to everyone— burnout. You find you’re experiencing session after session of disappointing workouts that become the complete antithesis of what’s intended. Rather than building muscle and lifting spirits, your workouts add a new ache and loss of gains— proving beyond a shadow of doubt that you’re actually weaker. Day by day the numbers drop, until you realize you’re the physical equivalent of a stock market crash.
Many people find themselves trapped in the quicksand-like experience of being ‘overtrained,’ but either enter a frantic mindset of training even harder (worsening the condition) or become depressed, losing self-esteem and interest in training altogether. Often the overtrainer exists in a state of heightened frenzy, until finally succumbing to the perpetual stress through injury or illness. The overtrainer may eventually find his way back to the gym or exit the fitness lifestyle, seeking fulfillment at the end of the clicker and prime time television.
Pushing Beyond One’s Limits?
Nearly every athlete and fitness enthusiast has used the term ‘overtained’ to describe himself at some point in time, but sports science and physiologists know extremely little about the condition. In fact, a recent review has even raised the question as to whether overtraining actually exists.1 The lack of credible data makes it maddeningly difficult for those facing the inevitable plateau (or worse) to determine what causes a sudden reversal in their progress. As important as it is to determine the cause of overtraining, for those stuck in the proverbial rut, correcting the situation is even more important.
Observant readers may have noticed the quotes placed around the term ‘overtrained.’ This is because there’s a more correct term for what most people experience. The confusion caused by improper terminology is one of the contributing factors in the lack of scientific answers to the question of how to avoid or get out of burnout.
Technically speaking, athletes (including noncompetitive fitness enthusiasts who train for health or personal goals) must train beyond the level of their current capabilities in order to improve. In the weight room, it does little good to walk in every Monday and bench 225 for three sets of 10. To gain muscle strength or size, a progressive, incremental increase in training must occur— in other words, you have to program your workouts so you become able to lift more weight for more reps. This is accomplished by a variety of methods, but the most successful programs force the athlete to progress a little more than he believes possible on a regular basis. This might involve the use of forced reps, eccentric sets or more elaborate training methods, which force the body to respond by increasing the abilities or strength of the athlete.
However, constantly pushing beyond one’s natural limits creates the risk of overdoing it. While injuries are a major concern, overdoing it also taxes the body beyond its ability to recover. Experiencing minor fatigue and short-term reductions in performance, after really pushing oneself is normal, and with adequate rest, the body should super-compensate (rebuild beyond the abilities that existed before the greater demands). This cycle of overtaxing the body, followed by super-compensating after adequate rest, is the basis for most training programs. However, when the training demands increase out-of-proportion to the allowed rest, the body may not be able to recover to evenly compensate (return to the original level of ability), let alone super-compensate. This may lead to the familiar state, commonly called ‘overtrained.’
In fact, being truly overtrained appears to be relatively common, as it’s defined by the sports scientists.2 Yet, the signs and symptoms of being overtrained are encountered more frequently than would be expected. This is because the basic conditions that lead to overtraining are the same used to promote super-compensation— the difference being the results. Remember, to super-compensate, one basically overworks a muscle and then allows it to recover in the hopes that the training, in combination with proper diet and rest, will cause the body to super-compensate.
Super-compensation is considered a positive adaptation to training. However, two things can happen with this simple equation that could cause the athlete to have a negative adaptation to the training (‘overtrain’): the level of training demands may be too excessive and/or the rest may be inadequate. When this happens, the athlete may experience signs and symptoms of overtraining, including: fatigue, performance decline and mood disturbances.3