What follows is an excerpt from my contribution to a roundtable on overtraining in the most recent issue of Alan Aragon’s Research Review, which by the way, is an amazing body of work that spans a decade of issues. I’ve had the privilege of contributing to the AARR twelve times over the years and I can’t recommend it highly enough for those who want to see how the master engages with the literature: https://alanaragon.com/about-aarr/
There have been a few popular voices in the lifting community that have gone as far to say that overtraining is a myth, based on the largely correct (but reductionist) argument that true textbook ‘overtraining syndrome’ almost exclusively occurs in high level athletes (often endurance athletes) performing volumes of training that most lifters cannot even comprehend. While true, this was largely an argument in semantics rather than a useful message. Indeed, true overtraining syndrome for a lifter would be defined as a period of months where no progress can be made and a regression in body composition and strength occurred, alongside disturbed sleep, depression, a loss of motivation to train, a greater likelihood of illness, a loss of libido and an increase in systemic inflammation and sensitivity to pain. In classical research on overtraining syndrome, typically the only solution to such a state once it is present, is do very light or no training for weeks or even months before the system rights itself . This simply doesn’t happen in 99.9% of cases of just lifting too frequently, with too much volume, and/or too heavy.
However, that’s a pretty ridiculous standard for where to draw the line against overtraining alarmism. Sure, that doesn’t happen, but aren’t we worried about things that happen to a lifter way before they would get to that point? Essentially, it’s a straw man argument for one to ‘push back’ and say overtraining is a myth. The overly cautious ‘anti overtraining’ crowd never meant true ‘overtraining syndrome’ when they cautioned against ‘overtraining’. Rather, they simply meant that doing too much could reduce your rate of progress and increase your rate of injury.
Meaning, the real question is: what’s an appropriate amount of training to do? In the scientific community, James Krieger generated a number of key meta-analyses examining the relationship between volume and hypertrophy , and also strength , which he would flesh out further by collaborating with Schoenfeld and Ogborn to elucidate the weekly dose response between volume and hypertrophy . Similarly, Ralston and colleagues produced a meta-analysis answering the same question for strength . Overall, these investigations have shown a clear positive dose-response relationship, albeit a diminishing one, with hypertrophy and strength, and volume. Meaning, as you do more, you get bigger and grow stronger, however, the first set you do in a week is going to be vastly more effective than the 10th set you do on a movement, or for a muscle group, each week.
Other research has also shown that eventually you start to fall down the other side of the slope if you keep increasing volume (or intensity for that matter). Gonzalez-Badillo and colleagues showed that moderate volumes of training compared to higher or lower volumes produced greater strength , and a more moderate proportion of training coming from very high intensity lifts (>90% 1RM) compared to higher or lower allocations did as well . Similarly, Wernbom and colleagues found a bell curve in their systematic review of hypertrophy in 2007 , whereby rates of hypertrophy peaked in the range of 40-70 repetitions per muscle group per session, and then slowed when increased past that point. Most recently, two investigations of ‘German volume training’ showed that a group of lifters performing a very high volume training program made either no, or marginal gains compared to another group doing roughly half that volume [9, 10]. Finally, on the injury front, rates of injury occurrence of 0.24 to 7.5 injuries per 1000 hours of training have been reported across a spectrum of lifting sports including bodybuilding, strongman, highland games, powerlifting and weightlifting in a recent epidemiological investigation by Keogh and Winwood . The simple existence of an injury rate per 1000 hours of training shows that if you accumulate a lot of hours of training in a short period of time, you increase your likelihood of getting injured.
So, while true overtraining syndrome is rare (I’ve literally only seen it after brutal contest preps combined with excessive training), you don’t want to be that person with a neck brace or on crutches still stubbornly claiming that overtraining is a myth. We know you can do too much, but there are differing degrees of ‘too much’. Overdoing it a little can actually serve a purpose, short term periods of doing more than you could handle indefinitely can serve as a high volume block or week as a part of a periodized plan designed to focus on certain qualities like improving work capacity and hypertrophy before pivoting to something else (like a strength block) that both allows recovery while also capitalizing on the volume-induced gains you just made. However, extended periods of doing much more than you could recover from long term can go quite badly.
How do you know if you are in such a state? Well it won’t just creep up on you. The answer to the question “am I overtraining?” is almost always “no”. If you are overtraining, you probably know it, or at the very least, somewhere in the back of your mind before you asked the question (or read the article that prompted you to ask) you strongly suspected that maybe you were overdoing it. To truly do the kind of training that would result in full blown overtraining requires you to be a in a conflicted psychological state. You’ve convinced yourself, despite some inner disagreement, that what you are doing is okay, and that despite the pain, niggling injuries, inconsistent or degrading performances in the gym, disturbed sleep, and loss of motivation to train, that this is a smart thing to do. Rarely, an approach that prompts this internal dialogue pays off after a taper if you’re only flirting with it for a short period of time, say no more than a mesocycle or two. But more often than not, it’s simply playing with fire and ends poorly, or is followed by a much longer period of wheel spinning as your body tries to recover from the few mesocycles of insanity you subjected it to.
For this reason, I try to remind young overzealous lifters that they probably want to keep lifting for as much of their life as possible, so it might make more sense to focus on more than just the next four weeks of training. In my experience, you are probably better off playing the role of the tortoise rather than the hare.
- Fry, A.C. and W.J. Kraemer, Resistance Exercise Overtraining and Overreaching. Sports Medicine, 1997. 23(2): p. 106-129.
- Krieger, J.W., Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res, 2010. 24(4): p. 1150-9.
- Krieger, J.W., Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: a meta-regression. J Strength Cond Res, 2009. 23(6): p. 1890-901.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., D. Ogborn, and J.W. Krieger, Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci, 2017. 35(11): p. 1073-1082.
- Ralston, G.W., et al., The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Med, 2017. 47(12): p. 2585-2601.
- Gonzalez-Badillo, J.J., et al., Moderate resistance training volume produces more favorable strength gains than high or low volumes during a short-term training cycle. J Strength Cond Res, 2005. 19(3): p. 689-97.
- Gonzalez-Badillo, J.J., M. Izquierdo, and E.M. Gorostiaga, Moderate volume of high relative training intensity produces greater strength gains compared with low and high volumes in competitive weightlifters. J Strength Cond Res, 2006. 20(1): p. 73-81.
- Wernbom, M., J. Augustsson, and R. Thomee, The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med, 2007. 37(3): p. 225-64.
- Amirthalingam, T., et al., Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. J Strength Cond Res, 2017. 31(11): p. 3109-3119.
- Hackett, D., et al., Effects of a 12-Week Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy—A Pilot Study. Sports, 2018. 6(1): p. 7.
- Keogh, J.W. and P.W. Winwood, The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports. Sports Med, 2017. 47(3): p. 479-501.