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Should I Worry About Overtraining? - Tucson Personal Trainer Blog

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Should I Worry About Overtraining? - Tucson Personal Trainer Blog

By: Jerry Trubman, Owner and Founder

‘Training’ is a continuum that ranges from couch potato (who inevitably suffers serious health repercussions from their sedentary lifestyle) to exercise addict (who works out compulsively despite negative consequences). You can probably guess where we’d like our students to land on this continuum. We’re passionate about sustainable, “consistency trumps intensity” training.

But I have to admit, I sometimes have to actively manage my own training regimen and that of our students. So, no matter where you find yourself on this continuum, this post should stimulate some self-reflection and give you a few things to ponder.

If you’re ready to tag this post as TL:DR, here’s the take away:

You cannot OVER-train, you can only UNDER-Recover

‘Over-training’ and ‘overdoing it’ are not the same thing. You can do something stupid and injure yourself without overtraining. ‘Over-training’ is about training frequency and intensity. ‘Over doing it’ is about training stupidity.  

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Phase 0: The WHY

As I’ve written about in the past, the biggest problem I see for most undertrained/deconditioned people is a lack of clear purpose in their exercise regimen. A clearly defined “Why?” is a crucial component of a successful exercise regimen that stands the test of time.

Simon Sinek, in his best-selling book Start With Why (click here to check it out) has popularized the importance of “Why?” in the self-help and business development community. It’s a fabulous book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and refer back to it often. The book’s premise is that we must begin with a meaningful purpose prior to any endeavor. The author shows the reader how to find it, connect to it, and use it to make effective changes and progress.

Although Sinek got into print ahead of me, this is a core principle at The Protocol. When someone new joins our facility without having a distinct ‘why,’ I know they won’t last long. Please take a preemptive lesson here: Start with WHY.

Some ‘why’s’ can come from external sources. When the doctor warns a patient that his or her life may be shortened without some major lifestyle changes, the patient has just been given a big WHY! Other ‘whys’ are internal and less serious. The guy whose girlfriend of 5 years dumps him. Broken hearted, depressed, and alone in the world, he wakes up on his first day back on the market, looks in the mirror, and sees an overweight blob who stopped taking care of himself. “There’s no way I’ll find true love looking like this,” he says to himself. “Things have got to change—now!” He begins the process of making changes.  

These are typical “why’s” for a lot of people, but yours may vary. Yours might be completely different: Be able to play with grandkids, travel and see places that require lots of walking without getting tired, get to a weight to make you more competitive in a weight-class related sport, have more energy for work, sleep better at night, or any number of other legitimate reasons.

If you can’t give a clear, crisp, and concise answer when someone asks you, “Why are you training? What do you hope to accomplish?”, then start there.

On the subject of weight loss, it’s been my experience that coaching people who don’t have a strong WHY is very difficult. Nothing I do convinces them to change their eating habits. But there’s almost nothing I can say or do to keep those who have a big WHY from achieving their goals.

Once we have this critical element figured out, we can now look at the different phases of training and examine how overtraining fits in those phases.


Phase one: “Everything hurts and I’m dying!”

Anyone who has ever started a new exercise program knows exactly what I’m talking about.

When a new student comes on board, we begin with simple bodyweight-only movements to assess their current physical preparedness level and general movement health. They leave with a smile on their face and are pleasantly surprised that we didn’t kill them on the first day. Those pleasant thoughts disappear overnight and they discover they have some trouble moving around the next morning. When asked how they felt the next day, the response is usually something along the lines of, “I couldn’t believe how sore I was… we barely even did anything!”

This is the ‘adaptation phase’. These simple movements would not be considered overtraining or cause injury. But it hurts because you’ve moved your body in ways that it hasn’t moved in a long time (or, in some cases, ever).

Here’s the point: in Phase 1, it is almost impossible to over-train. You aren’t capable of pushing to ‘over-training’ levels. Just enjoy the soreness for the first few weeks and don’t kill yourself by ‘over-doing’ it. That means you won’t attempt what you think you should be able to do. It also means you don’t compare yourself to what someone else in the gym is doing.

This phase is short… 60-90 days tops. And the worst is the first few weeks.

There are perks to Phase 1: Every day you walk into the gym feeling just a little stronger than the session before. Enjoy this time! When you’ve been training as long as I have, I’m thrilled to add 5 pounds to a lift in a year. You’re adding 10 pounds a week! Enjoy it

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Phase 2: “Why is my progress slowing down so much?!?!”

If you’ve said this about your training, congratulations! You’re no longer a beginner. You have  hit your first wall. Good job!

Phase 2 is designed to separate the serious and dedicated from those who dabble. An experienced coach can look at most any written program and can tell if it will work beyond the novice level. I call this the ‘smell test’. I know right away when a program won’t pass the smell test. After a bit of time and training, you will too. This is a valuable skill.

This is also on a continuum: The more you advance, that is, the closer you get to the limits of your genetic potential, the more damage poorly designed cookie-cutter programs may potentially inflict.  

The chances of overtraining start to increase in Phase 2. Not by much, but it is something to watch.


Phase 3: “I can’t believe I missed this lift! What happened, coach?”

Ah yes… your first brick wall of reality. Why do I call it that? Because this is how the universe unfolds. Ouch! Do you know why we can’t just add 5 pounds every week to the bar and progress indefinitely?

Neither do I… I was hoping you knew.

Since the science does not offer a reliable answer, anyone who claims to know is lying. If program design were as easy as starting with a fairly light weight and adding 5 pounds per week indefinitely, within a couple years we’d all be lifting cars. That’s not how it works, so let’s just call it what is and create a plan that works inside of reality’s parameters.

Proper cycling and recovery time start to become much more important in Phase 3. If you’re at this stage and feel like you might be overtraining, you could be right. Time to hire a coach and evaluate your plan.


Phase 4: “I can’t even lift the same weight I lifted last week! Why am I going backwards? ARRGGHH!”

Everyone who has been avid gym enthusiast for a long time (like decades), has tried to push their limits. A gym that has “PR Fridays” is hopefully a gym full of newbies. If not, there are people there who have experienced phase 4.

You’ve pushed and pushed (and pushed) your numbers for weeks and weeks. Now the craziest thing has happened: you can’t budge weights you were successful with just a few weeks ago!

Congratulations! You’re under-recovered. A good training cycle is no longer optional. It is required in Phase 4. Your injury risk is elevated. Even if you never hurt yourself, the risk of burnout is also high. This is when less-serious people quit. They think they started training and finished. Sorry, that’s not how it works.

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Fallow Time

Regardless of whether it’s in the gym or in highly stressful life situations, there is a lot to be said for periods of quiet dormancy. If you’ve ever pushed to meet a hard deadline at work and gotten sick as soon you finished, you know what I’m talking about. Your body has a funny way of forcing you to slow down when it needs it. A season of massive outputs must be followed by a season of “input.”

You need fallow periods to recharge your batteries. In our go-go world, this is sometimes referred to as lazy and unproductive, but the opposite is true. One of my mentors Mark Reifkind says, “The next step from a peak is always down. It’s wise to step back, rather than jump off.”

Until next time,

Jerry Trubman is a coach, clinician, author, blogger, and powerlifting state champion. With over two decades of lifting experience, he has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, and distilling them into practical programs that produce great results. Jerry has coached "Team Protocol" to 4 National Powerlifting Championships in the 100% Raw federation. He writes the internationally-read blog, “The Healthy Addiction” and lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Marie and dog Sadie. To subscribe to his blog, click here.

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