Are You Overtraining? (Here’s How to Tell)
How do you know if you are pushing too hard during your workouts?
Overtraining is a real phenomenon. It is possible to train so much that you break your body down rather than build it up. But most people never come close to “real” overtraining, which is highlighted (lowlighted?) by physical breakdowns that are hard to ignore. This isn’t muscle soreness or having some bad days in the gym.
Here are 7 common symptoms of overtraining, they include:
- Increase in resting heart rate and blood pressure
- Insomnia-like symptoms and trouble sleeping
- Stomach disturbances
- Consistent low energy and bad mood
- Changes in personality and mood
- Decreased self-esteem and motivation
- Feelings of sadness and apathy
In other words, you experience symptoms that closely mimic depression and chronic fatigue, according to research from the University of Memphis. In severe cases of overtraining, your immune system shuts down and you can suffer multiple issues, including upper respiratory infections and slow healing, says research published in the Journal of Athletic Training. You can read all about overtraining here.
While that article gives a great breakdown of how to set up your training, it doesn’t cover how you determine the fine line between intensity and insanity. So if you’re worried about pushing too hard, Mike Robertson has the answer. Mike (one of the top strength coaches in the U.S.) examines the different ways to evaluate the intensity of your workouts.
They can be broken down into a few options:
Option 1: A self-analysis technique known as RPR/RPE, or “rate of perceived recovery” and “rate of perceived exertion.” The RPR scale is how you feel coming into a training session — how well you slept, how tired/sore you feel, etc.
The RPE rates how heavy/how hard things feel once you start working out. And as you’ll see in Mike’s post, he evaluates it by regularly asking clients questions about how each move feels throughout the workout. Here’s an example:
- RPE of 10 – Max effort/limit lift. This is either one heckuva grinder, or they flat out miss a lift.
- RPE of 9 – Heavy lift, but one rep left in the tank.
- RPE of 8 – Heavy(ish) lift, but two reps left in the tank.
- RPE of 7 – Moderate weight, multiple reps left in the tank
Option 2: But let’s say you don’t trust yourself to make subjective measurements. You want data. Well, there are some tests you can use that will put some numbers to your physical preparedness.
For example, the vertical jump is a fairly accurate predictor of how fatigued you are (see study here). If your gym has one of those jump height sticks (y’know, these things), you can use that as a self-assessment tool. Jump before your workout/after your warm-up. If you are at, or above, your usual total, then you’re likely ready to go.
If you’re several inches below, then you’re more tired than you think and may want to scale the session back — or even make it an active recovery day.
Option 3: If you don’t like jumping, but still want data, no problem. A less obvious way to test your readiness is a simple hand dynamometer, which is a tool that measures hand strength. Studies show that hand strength is a reliable indicator of strength on a given day (example here).
And if you’re squeezing and squeezing but several points lower than usual, you’re more fatigued than you know.
How to make use of all of this?
When you get to the gym and start doing your “working sets” (not your warmup), stop and assess how you feel. The weight on the bar might be similar to prior workouts, but how you feel is likely different. And that is your body trying to give you helpful information to make the most of your session.
Instead of sticking to your exact plan, if the weight feels “heavier” than usual and you’re exhausted, you can still get in a great workout without grinding away unnecessarily. As you workout, this is the holy grail of feeling in control.
Push harder when your body says you can, and easy up when you know how to recognize that you’re a little overworked. It’s an approach that’s more likely to keep you consistently in the gym, feeling good, and making improvements.