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  • Overtraining - The Nemesis of the Unwary!


    Muscular Exercise & The Rebuilding Cycle

    Strenuous muscular exercise in the gym leads to structural damage in the skeletal muscle cells. This causes calcium to leak out of the muscle which activates enzymes that break down the proteins in the muscle fibers, causing the usual inflammatory response that presents itself as water retention around the affected muscle fibers and pain/ache. So... why is this a good thing? Well, when the body rebuilds the muscle fibers damaged by exercise it also increases the amount of intramuscular connective tissue in the local muscle fibers, and causes a hypertrophy in the tissue (i.e. it grows bigger). This leads to bigger, better, and more impressive looking muscles.

    So... why can't you exercise really often and watch your muscles surge with power? Well, the fact remains that the body only grows in size and strength when its resting, and it is widely accepted that the process of regeneration takes at least 36hours to complete... or even up to 30 days if more substantial muscle damage has occurred! This makes it important to resist the urge to over train, ensure adequate nutrition, and get sufficient rest/sleep.

    But how do you know if you are overtraining? What are the physical symptoms? This will now be discussed.

    Overtraining Syndrome

    Overtraining is defined clinically as an imbalance between muscular stresses and the body's ability to adapt. The most important side effects to the bodybuilder include subsequent losses in strength/fitness, but can also present as the following problems:

    Physical Symptoms:

    • Elevated waking pulse rate

    • Elevated morning blood pressure

    • Increased joint and muscle-aches

    • Headaches and tremors

    • Tiredness

    • Insomnia

    • Listlessness

    • Chronic fatigue

    • Loss or decrease in appetite

    • Increased risk of Injury

    • Illness

    • Susceptibility to colds and flu

    • Insatiable thirst or dehydration

    • Frequent minor infections

    • Altered function of the endocrine, immune, and central nervous systems.


    Psychological Symptoms:

    • Apathy

    • Irritability

    • Mood and sleep disturbances

    • Depression & Anxiety Disorders

    • Lack of concentration

    • Lack of appetite.


    No diagnostic clinical tool exists to definitively diagnose overtraining, but you should be concerned if more than 5 symptoms exist without another defined cause. It should be borne in mind that in addition to these problems, overtraining increases the levels of Cortisol in the body - a hormone that generally leads to a catabolic (i.e. muscle LOSING) state. Cortisol is the ultimate enemy of the bodybuilder, and levels should be kept to a minimum whenever possible!

    Preventing Overtraining

    There are many principles involved in preventing overtraining, so for this section I will rely almost entirely on a nice bullet-point list:

    • Train body parts hard, but remember that they take some time to recover. For this reason, leave a bare minimum of 3 days before working the same muscle group again (or up to a week if you have especially intense workouts).

    • Keep workouts no longer than 45 minutes each.

    • Ensure adequate relaxation and sleep. This is pretty self explanatory, but for the sake of students and other insomniacs I will state that 8hours sleep is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED at a base minimum.

    • Ensure that your protein intake is sufficient enough to cover the added train on tissue/muscle synthesis. Protein deficiency is relatively uncommon in the developed world, but may be a problem for vegetarians or those on restricted diets.

    • Carbohydrates are essential to provide the energy for your workouts and offset the effects of cortisol on protein degredation. Ensure that you ingest carbohydrates two hours before and directly after training to help your muscles remain stocked up with energy and promote growth. I shouldn't need to state this, of course, but I'm talking about complex carbohydrates here - simple carbs will give you a sugar rush and probably make you feel worse in the long run.

    • Make gradual changes in intensity rather then rushing headlong into super-high intensity workouts. This may take some self-control with people new to weightlifting, but by exercising restraint you'll experience better results and greatly reduce the probability of injury.

    • Be flexible and keep your workouts varied. In addition to keeping you interested, this will work different areas of muscle groups and prevent site-specific overtraining.

    • Don't be afraid to take the occasional week off from training. In addition to allowing your body to fully recooperate, you'll renew your enthusiasm and come back to the following week bristling with new ideas and energy.

    • Try to relax generally in all aspects of life. Stress and anxiety increases the release of cortisol and hastens the onset of an over trained state. By remaining mellow you'll be able to achieve better gains and feel happier when achieving them too!



    Bodybuilders tend to be very determined individuals, but it is important to ensure that you don't get tunnel vision and become blind to the warning signs of overtraining. Continually reassess yourself during your training and if you suspect that you are not realizing your training goals, check the listed signs for overtraining to ensure that it is not your problem. Remember that an injury caused by putting yourself in an over trained state can involve weeks (if not months) of recovery - time that would be better spent making more cautious yet continual gains. Good luck!



    • 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.

    • Stone MH, Pierce KC, Sands WA, Stone ME (2006). Weightlifting: Program Design. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28 (2), 10-17.


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