The Myth of Over-training

Which is the most universal human characteristic, fear or laziness?

This is one of many thought provoking questions asked in Waking Life, one of my all-time favorite movies. Its relevance to the world of fitness occurred to me during a recent conversation that I had with one of my clients about the risks of over-training.

While over-training can be a real concern to elite athletes in competition training, it is rarely, if ever, something that is experienced by the average Joe. Yet I hear this concern brought up in the gym surprisingly often.

Whether we’re talking about a boxer getting conditioned to taking a punch or an ultra-marathoner building the endurance to run all day without resting, we humans have an uncanny ability to adapt.

Being sore doesn’t mean you’re over-training. Doing two workouts a day doesn’t mean you’re over-training. The problem is that most people are under-trained! While you should generally avoid doing heavy weight training on the same body part every day, you simply have to get yourself conditioned to exercise; your body will adapt. If your workouts are so intense that you actually manage to cross the threshold into over-training territory, you won’t have to ponder it–you’ll know it.

While the idea of daily workouts might seem overwhelming to most people, an individual who builds up their strength and endurance gradually should have no problem working out for an hour every day. It’s okay to take it easy on some days (active recovery workouts have long been a part of my regimen), but don’t let fear or laziness stand in the way of getting fit. They are the two biggest obstacles to achieving any goal, be it in fitness or life, and it is up to you to overcome them.

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  • http://www.strengthrunning.com Fitz

    Right on. Josh Cox recently said “there is no over training, just under resting” and it's true (even for someone running ~150 miles/week). If you're covering your recovery bases with diet, sleep, not hammering every day you'll be all set.

  • phattrainer

    I train 2 or 3 times a day. I'm good. Overtraining is a concern for people who get paid to do athletics. Not for avg gymgoers for the most part. Good article.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Fitz. Good point about the importance of sleep and diet as well. I am amazed by how many people “function” on less than 6 hours of sleep per night.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, bro. Keep hittin' it hard!

  • http://twitter.com/Crystal_Curtis Crystal Dawn Curtis

    I like that you add, “you won't have to ponder (over-training), you'll know it.” Part of the fear of overtraining, I think, is that people associate exercise with “going to the gym,” so the question, “how many days should I workout a week?” is really the question, “how many times do I have to drag myself to that place with the machines?”

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Good point, Crystal! I already worked out twice TODAY without setting foot in a gym!

  • http://www.fitnessriot.blogspot.com/ Laury

    I agree…a lot of people look for “excuses” to not workout hard, or enough…I get it from clients all the time that get too sore from a workout that freak out about it (because they never felt it before due to never exercising). I have to explain the that muscle soreness is not an “injury”–luckily, they get it.

    However, I have labeled my past methods of exercise as “over-training”
    I would go in the gym in the AM do an hour or more of cardio…hit the weights heavy for 90 minutes, go home, come back at night take a kickbox class, or whatever intense aerobics class their was and after wards jump on the stepper or another machine for 45 minutes, or go for a run…I did a different body part a day (lifting) but exercised 7 days a week, over-loading on cardio and ab work…I considered an “off-day” a day of just coming in to do 45 minutes of cardio and Ab-work. True story. I got LOTS of comments from gym-goers and staff back then about my “obsessive” exercise behavior.

    …and my body is paying for it now! I exercise 4-5 days/wk now, intense, but WAY less time!! I don't know if I should call it “over-training” or teenage poor-body image/ exercise disordered/ unhealthy addiction :/ I am 100% over those antics now! Maybe I was the exception to the rule for “over-training” or I should call it something else? I do account a couple injuries (that I have got under control) to whatever it should be called! I agree on the “Average Joe” part, but do you think their may be exceptions outside of athletes? I was not the only one I saw that did that (non-athletes) either.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Laury,
    My post was directed towards the people you mention who over-react to soreness, but you bring up an interesting point about body dysmorphia, which is what it sounds like you are describing. I guess you are the rare “regular person” who crossed the line–and it seems eventually you knew it. The routine you are describing does sound to be a bit much–but it shows how much it takes to cross that line. I would imagine that you probably weren't eating much during this time either, which would be an additional issue. I'm glad to hear you've got your act together now. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • http://www.fitnessriot.blogspot.com/ Laury

    Absolutely, Al…I guess my point was agreeing with you that anyone who shows any concern that they may be “over-training” when they are starting out a program, or doing just some of what their trainer recommends will never come close to it! I would roll my eyes at anyone that even suggested (back then) that I was crossing the line or “over-doing” it. My situation was a rare exception…and probably another day, another topic ;-)

    Thanks for all the great posts! Have an amazing weekend!!

  • dannypersonaltrainer

    This is a really good post. If you think about it, the human body has not changed in a VERY LONG TIME. We are built to irrigate ditches, kill our own beef, run for our lives, and build our own homes. We are capable of A LOT. Forget about elite athletes: If you've ever done physical labor for 60 hours a week, then you know that someone going for a run in the morning, then lifting weights or taking a spin class at night is NOT pushing past their threshold; THEY ARE NOT OVERTRAINING!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Danny. I figured you'd like this one–we usually tend to feel similarly about this type of stuff!

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  • Ethan Warshowsky

    I also enjoyed this post. Waking Life is a great film!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Ethan!

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  • Jeff

    Awesome, well-written, important post!!!!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Jeff!

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  • Gandalfbeli

    l like this post!!! we can adopt, what would we do in natur? we would and we did… we kick ass!!!!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Right on – Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carlos-Layer/100000781564531 Carlos Layer

    I like your fitness philosophy so much!

    I got a question for you that doesn’t let me workout: talking about
    overtraining as a myth, means that I can do pullups for example 5 days a
    week? And what about all the stuff of “let the muscle rest at least 1
    day between workouts” (because it has to recover of the microtraumas produced at the workout)?

    I am a skinny guy with too many (contradictory) info, and I’m very
    interested in calisthenics (I have bought “Convict Conditioning”), but I
    hate “predefinded” workouts where they tell you the number of sets and
    reps you have to do… Can be all this stuff calculated by yourself in
    anyway? Can you do (for example) pushups everyday or dou you have to
    rest to rest?

    All these questions don’t let me workout… What’s your advice for a guy like me, Al?

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carlos-Layer/100000781564531 Carlos Layer

    I like your fitness philosophy so much!

    I got a question for you
    that doesn’t let me workout: talking about overtraining as a myth,
    means that I can do pullups for example 5 days a week? And what about
    all the stuff of “let the muscle rest at least 1 day between workouts”
    (because it has to recover of the microtraumas produced at the workout)?

    I
    am a skinny guy with too many (contradictory) info, and I’m very
    interested in calisthenics (I have bought “Convict Conditioning”), but I
    hate “predefinded” workouts where they tell you the number of sets and
    reps you have to do… Can be all this stuff calculated by yourself in
    anyway? Can you do (for example) pushups everyday or dou you have to
    rest to rest?

    All these questions don’t let me workout… What’s your advice for a guy like me, Al?

     

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Carlos!  Individual conditioning can vary greatly from person to person, but some rest is needed between workouts.  Paying attention to your body is the best way to find out what works and what doesn’t.  Like I said in the article above, varying your intensity is important, too – you can’t go all-out on the same muscles all the time!  So unless you’re keeping your reps low (ie “greasing the groove”), five days a week of pull-ups would probably be too much for most people.

  • http://www.ikmkravmaga.us/ Krav Maga Classes

    Waking Life is one of my favourite movies.

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  • http://www.alexandalexa.com/kids-trainers.html alex and alexa uk boys trainer

    Regularly exercising is the best option and way to keep body physically strong, healthy and in shape. Your diet is also very important. Eat healthy green vegetable and drink plenty of water stay an d keep body dehydrated.

  • yboog

    Indeed the conversation about rest keeps pounding at me.
    I train 5-6 days. I do full body interval routines and I work anywhere from 30min to an hour and a half.
    I don’t see how this could be over training considering the amount of training an athlete does.
    As you said, my body let’s me know when I need rest. I take it when it is do. 

    I am not a fan of weight training but am willing to do it. I used to.
    My question is, is it ok for me to do full body routines all the time or do I absolutely have to isolate certain muscle groups? Or can I just do both?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I don’t do isolation work but you can do whatever you want! 

  • Gabriel Olivero

    whats your opinion on the use of a weighted vest for body weight training

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo
  • Dima

    That’s really an interesting point. Personally, don’t think that overtraining is a myth, but the fact, that is overrated soo much in fitness community of today can not be denied. I train 5-6 days a week both with bodyweight and using a kettlebell and rarely do I fell overtrained. The matter is, I think, in picking the right muscle groups for the training and listening to what your body tells you.
    Anyway, thanks for your post

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Glad you enjoyed this one, Dima. Thanks for your input!

  • Gilleh

    Hey Al,
    Great post! Inspired me to do some pull-ups on the beach this morning after hitting the barbell hard yesterday. I actually don’t feel the soreness that I usually feel after workouts, so there’s definitely something about that active recovery workouts!
    I have a question though. Everywhere I read it says our muscles build themselves on rest days, so does working out (the same muscles) every day affect it in a bad way?
    I figure it does not, but you’re the expert.
    Other than that, thanks for the information, inspiration and motivation.
    GRock on!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    I know this post is super old, but I would like to add that, when someone spends that much time exercising, it is even more important to get adequate mobility training to support and protect your joints and muscles so that you don’t pull or strain anything. Training your body to be strong through complete ranges of motions of the major joints (shoulders, hips, spine, knees, elbows, etc), as well as developing adequate flexibility within those confines, is important in protecting yourself from injury when committing to such a routine. Otherwise, the risk for injury rises. This isn’t so much “over-training” as it is “under-conditioning”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    Going super heavy every day will wear you down sooner than later. Active recovery should be an easier exercise, ideally one that mainly targets an opposing muscle group to what was worked hardest the previous day and/or that provides some sort of stretch to said muscle group. You said you hit the barbell, presumably this was some sort of press? Pull ups are a good active recovery workout for that, since they are (likely) easier and they focus on the major pulling muscles (biceps, lats, upper back/back of shoulders), while presses focus on the major pressing muscles (triceps, chest, front/side of shoulders). Furthermore, pull ups utilize the major pressing muscles for stabilization. I like working on handstands for active recovery because, in addition to being a worthy challenge on their own, I feel a great stretch in the lats and chest, and they help build a solid foundation in your shoulders; to me this exercise epitomizes the term active recovery.

    In the end, it’s all about balance. Define your long term and near term fitness goals, and set up your actual workout routine to focus primarily on achieving your most reasonable near term goal. Then, set up your warm up, cool down, active recovery, and skill training exercises around that. Ideally you want to build a solid foundation of fitness throughout your entire body while having the focus of your exercises geared toward achieving your most reasonable near term goal, all the while giving your entire body, cumulatively, enough time to recover yet while still getting enough work in. For example, I want to do both slow bar muscle ups and full range handstand push ups for sets. I can only do one or two reps of slow bar muscle ups, but I can do slow ring muscle ups. While I could also work on elevating my hands for handstand push ups, I am, instead, focusing on the muscle up since it is a more attainable goal for me. After that, the full range handstand push ups will become easier.

  • Dunte Hector

    Al, pardon how after-the-fact this comment is, if you would.

    While I am a long way from elite and, as a very active strength athlete and personal trainer, am the exception to our general population, I feel like I’ve dipped into overtraining dozens of times (according to my training log). Sometimes due to volume (when I was racing bicycles & 5k’s); sometimes to poor training programs (this+that+this+that+tired and getting nowhere); sometimes because I was truly working hard (practice toward OA chins, refining OA pushups & pistols, working MU on rings, etc.). I’ve learned my lessons about doing too much but I wonder about the audience for this post:
    Is it the person *working up to* an hour a day of training who you’re talking about or the intermediate to advanced amateur athlete? Because in the latter case, where intermediate/advanced are references to the Mark Rippetoe definition, I feel like overtraining is very much real and is a major problem impeding an athlete’s progress.

  • Dunte Hector

    You know, let me eat this post, foot-in-mouth style, since your reply to a long-ago comment addresses exactly my question. I agree that lots of people overreact to their soreness; I just spoke when I should have kept reading.

    No less, I think overtraining could be a very relevant topic, considering the skills and movements you demo on the site with regard to people new to this modality of training.

    All that said, sorry for talking too much and listening too little.

  • Gilleh

    Thanks for the informative comment, Robby.
    Gave me a lot to think about planning my workouts.
    I’m definitely going to work on my handstand!

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  • Kanoodle

    I love these posts, I’ve found my new favourite website! I was personally effected and paralyzed by the “overtraining” fear for a very long time. No wonder my progress was dead. I found that if I don’t exercise daily, I don’t stick with it, or I end up making stupid compromises with myself until I’ve stopped doing it altogether. But when I do train daily, I get the best results, it’s more fun, and I stick to it. Example! When I was in my early teens before I got caught up in the current fitness industries mess, I ended up working my way up to 3 sets of 50 push-ups, and 250 straight sit ups by doing them every single damn day, some days I’d take it easier than others, which would be the extent of my rests, but since then, after the fear of over training, I dramatically decreased my awesome, so thanks for inspiration, I’ve just gotten back into it properly, and I think this post is what I needed to really get me enjoying exercise again.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks! Glad you found my site!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey man, no worries! Of course it’s possible to overtrain. The point of this post is simply that it takes a lot more than most people think to cross that line.