Are You Overtraining? Or Are You Undertrained?

I’d like to start this by saying that while many individuals fear “overtraining”, being “undertrained” is by far the more prevalent state of being.

I think that’s an important distinction to make right out the gate because you never really hear people worrying about being undertrained like they do with overtraining despite it being more common. And even if undertraining is not an issue for you, I’d much rather someone have a mindset of “am I doing enough?” rather than being in constant fear that they are going to hurt themselves.

There’s a select minority of the population where, yes, they can take their training too far and they need to know how to avoid it, but again, it’s a relatively small population.

Everybody, however, worries about being over-trained even those who are relatively new to the gym, despite it being the less common issue, now why is that?

Fear.

Overtraining is a buzzword for media outlets to use because it draws attention to their sites. “DON’T do this or you will TEAR your bicep.” “Train like THIS and you will BREAK your back.” “AVOID these exercises or get a ticket to SNAP CITY”.

While great for generating online traffic to certain links, all these kinds of article titles scare people and unfortunately creates this general fear that your body is fragile and it’s super easy to overwork it which simply isn’t the case.

The Truth of The Matter

Our bodies are resilient.

They are designed to move, bend, and twist in all sorts of directions and even better than that they are designed to recover from and adapt to stress. The basic muscle building process is exactly that, we induce a stimulus (in this case resistance training), this stimulus causes stress to our body (microtears along our muscle fibers), in response to this stress our body remodels itself to adapt to the stimulus (your muscle repairs itself to be bigger and stronger than before for next time).

And the amount of stress our body can adapt to is quite incredible. Look to extreme variations of sports such as the World’s Strongest Man or The Iron Man races. These are examples of adaptation taken to a ridiculous level. Given the proper stimulus and time to recover your body can learn to do a myriad of incredible things.

The way you bypass this system of adaptation and actually injure your body is either through a stimulus which is too much all at once for your body to handle, or what most people fear with overtraining is you’ve been giving your body an intense stimulus over an extended period of time and haven’t been giving it enough time to recover from that stimulus.

A good way to frame the idea of adaption vs. injury in your mind is to think about developing a callus on your hand vs. a blister. A callus is an adaptation to stress, for example, the stress of holding on to a well-knurled barbell.

Given enough time your skin develops a thicker hardened layer to be able to better deal with the barbell.

On the flip side you get a blister or even worse tear your hand completely if you don’t give your hand the proper time to adjust to the rough knurling, this is an injury, the stimulus was too much at once to recover from and therefore your body wasn’t actually able to adapt.

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Training Follows The Same Ideology

Population At Risk:

Now, who would I say is actually at risk for overtraining?

While it’s hard to pin down there are certain personality types or personal situations that I’ll pay attention to more when it comes to this issue. Those personalities tend to be anyone striving to be competitive in sports, people who want results as fast as possible out of training, individuals who are involved in the fitness industry themselves and there’s constant pressure to be fit/strong, and those who have a more negative self-image and want to fix it.

While there are more personality types that could be listed the common thread here is these individuals will be highly motivated to train (for any of the numerous reasons listed), they will be highly motivated to train to an intensity higher than average, and they will more likely than not ignore signs from their body that it needs more time to recover.

Single effort injuries do happen, they are more often freak accident type events, and not as often something that you could have stopped ahead of time. The problem with these more motivated individuals, however, is the way they end up overworking and as a result injuring their body IS preventable and they need to be able to tell the difference between applying good stress to their body to stimulate an adaptation, as opposed to applying too much stress to their body and causing injury.

Another group that should keep overtraining in mind are those that are getting into programming for the very first time.

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I don’t want to scare anyone away from learning how to write their own training routines, and failure is a part of the learning process, but what you will see all too often is those new to programming will write INSANE customized training routines, and not realize how hard they actually are.

Often times this is simply a matter of one of the more motivated individuals listed above trying to design a training program to accomplish way too much, in way too little time.

If you are trying to take your first steps into the world of programming, my recommendation would be to spend a lot of time looking at other already popular and established programs to get a good concept of what is too little, and what is too much in terms of a training program before making your own.

3 Realistic Signs it’s Time to Adjust Your Training:

Just like it’s not easy to nail down which individuals may end up pushing themselves to a state of overtraining, it’s equally as difficult to say with 100% certainty “if this is happening, then your body is over-trained”. That being said here are some GENERAL signs you can pay attention too that you may be working yourself too hard.

Note the keyword, general.

Always assess the situation with a level head, and don’t immediately jump to the worst-case scenario possible.

Your Training is consistently going downhill

Probably the easiest way to tell if you are overtraining, or at the very least something needs to change with your training, is that your progress is on a steady decline.

A good thing to note here is that progress is not just a straight line up, there will always be peaks and valleys as you slowly work to be better over time. HOWEVER, the overall trend should be upwards. If you haven’t been progressing at all/you have been getting progressively worse over time either your body is overworked…or your program sucks…one of the two.

The issue here is confounding variables could also be in play such as your diet isn’t conducive to progress, you aren’t getting enough sleep, you are stressed, you are generating fatigue from some other area in your life (*cough* work *cough*).

But if you know for a fact you have all these other areas on lock and your progress is still going down it’s a good sign that it’s time to restructure your training.

You are tired, rundown, or even sick

This is another issue which again could have confounding variables in play. I.e. don’t go blaming your training program for why you are always tired if you are only getting 4 hours of sleep per night.

However, if you have a relatively healthy sleep schedule and your diet isn’t completely horrible you could be generating too much fatigue through training. Now when I say you feel tired, I don’t mean the obvious, you just worked out for 1-2 hours so now you feel tired. I mean you feel completely rundown.

Maybe, despite getting 8 hours of sleep you feel like you need more, you are constantly lethargic or worse start feeling sick, or you simply aren’t running at 100% capacity. Feeling a bit tired after working out is normal and often leaves individuals with a feeling of accomplishment. Feeling absolutely destroyed on a daily basis and not being able to function normally, not so much.

A chronically Increased rating of RPE

This goes hand and hand with a progressive decrease in performance. While many know that they can use RPE (rating of perceived exertion) to judge how hard a single set of the exercise was, you can also do the same for your entire workout.

If you are in an overtrained state you may notice that each time you step into the gym feels harder and harder and if you were tracking on a daily basis you would notice you were consistently rating your workouts towards the 9-10 range of the RPE scale.

You may even notice that despite a continuing decrease in the overall weight you are able to put on the bar you are still rating your workouts as harder and harder. This is one of the clearer signs that you may be overtraining and it’s time to reign in training. If you see a combination of decreased performance in the gym, along with an increased perceived RPE each time you train your body is run down by training (all other factors being accounted for) and it’s time to adjust things.

The Final Say

Over Training is a thing, but I don’t think it’s something that absolutely everyone should be worried about. Individuals who are highly motivated to push right up to the brink of failure with training should keep overtraining in mind and should have a system in place to track progress so they can objectively assess if they are on a downward trend.

For the most part, however, if you have a proper training program, get an adequate amount of sleep, and maintain a diet conducive to the training goal you have this should not be an issue you have to concern yourself with.

Matt Molloy
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Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.