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Overcoming overtraining

By Stephen Kelly

For the past few months you've had a love affair with the gym. You've been working out hard five times a week, and you like the results. But lately something is amiss. Your muscles and joints ache, you're low on energy, and your friends say that you're bitchier than usual. Where did the love go?

Chances are you're feeling the effects of overtraining, doing too much too often and not giving your body sufficient time to recover. Overtraining hits almost every athlete at some point, and it's important to recognize the symptoms:

  • Decreased strength and aerobic training performances
  • Persistent muscle soreness
  • Irregular sleep patterns
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Recurring colds or illnesses
Cause and Effect
What causes this to happen? Your muscles go through a tremendous amount of stress during strength training or any hard physical exercise, developing tiny micro-tears that need 48 to 72 hours to heal properly. It's this healing process that leads to size and strength gains. Not giving your muscles sufficient time to recover means they never get a chance to repair themselves, and your strength and growth gains become seriously compromised. It's like you're running to stand still. Fortunately, if you catch the signs early before you've caused permanent damage, overcoming overtraining is relatively easy. Follow these tried and true steps to bounce your body back into shape in no time.
  • Take a break: Most experts agree that you should take one week off from working out every eight to ten weeks. Don't worry, you won't turn into a 30-pound weakling. If anything, you may be surprised at the growth and strength gains you see when you return to the gym fully recovered.
  • Get some sleep: Your body recuperates best when you shut it down, so grab eight hours of shut eye per night if you can.
  • Develop a sensible workout plan: Write down your weekly workout routine, including both strength training and cardiovascular exercise, and make sure you're giving your body adequate time to heal, repair, and grow between workouts. You should take at least one day a week off, no matter how heavy or light you are lifting. Take into consideration how many days a week you work out and how many times per week you hit each muscle group. In general, try not to work any one muscle group more than two days per week.
  • Build muscle groups in tandem: Muscles don't work in isolation, so it's important to understand how your muscle groups work in tandem as you are training. For instance, your triceps (and to a lesser extent, your shoulders) are activated when you do chest presses. The same goes for back and biceps. You might not want to work your back on Monday and biceps on Tuesday, as this subjects your biceps to a double whammy workout in a two-day period. Either execute these body parts during the same session or separate them by at least two days to make sure a muscle group is not being worked on consecutive days.
Strength Training Workout Routines
Whether you strength train three, four, or five days a week, separating muscles groups should not be a problem. Follow these suggested weight training breakouts to ensure you don't overtrain and injure your muscles:

Three-day Workout
  • Day 1: back and biceps
  • Day 2: chest and triceps
  • Day 3: legs and shoulders
Four-day Workout
  • Day 1: back
  • Day 2: chest and shoulders
  • Day 3: legs
  • Day 4: biceps and triceps
Five-day Workout
  • Day 1: chest
  • Day 2: back
  • Day 3: legs
  • Day 4: shoulders
  • Day 5: biceps and triceps
Watch What You Eat
Athletes and strength trainers should always watch what they eat, but monitoring your food intake is particularly important when you know you have been overtraining. Make sure you get a balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, and fats to keep yourself fueled and energized with the nutrients your body needs to run efficiently and repair damaged muscle tissue. And watch out for simple sugars like candy and soda—your body may crave this quick fix as it tries to propel your fatigued muscles through another workout, but it's a short-term solution to a larger problem.

When deciding on your diet, be sure to take in enough protein to keep your weakened muscles from breaking down under the stress. Manuel Villacorta, a registered dietician and nutritionist based in San Francisco, recommends that when doing light weight training, you should eat approximately 1.7 grams per kilo of bodyweight per day (or 0.8 grams for every pound), and when doing heavy weight training, you should eat up to 2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day (0.9 grams per pound).

A Word About Abs
Somewhere along the line someone apparently decreed that the path to washboard abs lay in working the abdominals every day. Nothing could be further from the truth. The abs may be the most overtrained muscle group in the body. Anatomically speaking, the rectus abdominus (the long, flat muscle that extends the length of the front of the abdomen) is as thin as a bath towel. Working such a thin muscle every day can only lead to muscle fatigue and diminishing returns. You wouldn't work your biceps or pectorals every day; think of your abs in the same terms, and give them at least a day of rest between sessions.

Stephen Kelly is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and NPTI-certified personal trainer. He trains his clients at Gold's Gym in San Francisco's Castro district.