Workout Rest & Recovery: Signs Of Overtraining & How To Avoid It

When discussing weight training schedules and splits, one of the things you’re sure to notice is that 99% of the splits I recommend or prescribe in the workout routines I design are based around doing 3 or 4 total weight training workouts per week.

Do you think it’s just a coincidence that the most popular and highly proven splits in existence have this in common as well? It’s not. It just so happens that for the majority of the population, this is the maximum that is needed or beneficial.

Why Not Do More?

Any more than that and various recovery related issues are more likely to arise. And yes… even if the split is perfect in terms of giving your muscles a sufficient amount of days off between sessions, the same recovery problems can still occur just the same.

Why? Because it’s not JUST your muscles that need to rest and recover. It’s your entire body as a whole. From your joints, to your tendons, to your central nervous system.

Muscles actually recover fairly quickly. It’s the rest of your body that doesn’t, and this is a point most people miss completely or just ignore altogether.

Similarly, something you may have noticed when I talk about workout volume and exercise selection is that you’re not supposed to do a ton of exercises for a ton of sets and reps always going to failure and using highly intensive training methods. You’re not supposed spend a ton of time in the gym blasting the crap out of your muscles.

Why Not Do More?

Once again, those muscles will eventually recover (it will certainly take longer, though), but the rest of your body will take much longer than that.

And this all comes back to a singular incorrect belief most people have about weight training or just exercise in general. Stop me if you’ve heard it or thought it before…

More is better.

More volume, more sets, more reps, more exercises, more training days per week, more cardio, more interval training, more “pump,” more advanced methods… more of everything. Basically, the more work you do, the better your results will be and the faster you will get them.

More Is NOT Better

While the above paragraph is completely wrong in every single way imaginable, this whole thought is actually quite understandable. I mean, in most aspects of life, it’s totally true.

But, weight training is the one HUGE exception. Because when it comes to weight training, more work means less rest. And less rest means less recovery. And less rest and less recovery are guaranteed to mean less results. Or, in many cases, none whatsoever.

Overtraining and/or Under-recovering

Some people like to refer to this situation as overtraining, but it can just as easily be called under-recovering.

If you’re wondering if you are currently overtraining/under-recovering, here are the most common signs:

  • You get sick and/or catch colds more often than usual.
  • You feel tired and run down all the time.
  • You are losing motivation (or interest) in working out.
  • You’re experiencing occasional muscle and eyelid twitches.
  • You’re having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and/or your overall sleep quality has just gone to crap in general.
  • Instead of getting easier, your workouts are getting harder.
  • And most important of all, you are making NO progress and getting NO results for an extended period of time (no new strength, no new muscle, no new anything). In some really bad cases, it’s also pretty common to notice that you are actually LOSING strength and/or muscle.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s probably one of the top 3 reasons people fail to reach their weight training goals. If these signs of overtraining hit a little too close to home, I’d suggest taking an entire week off from all forms of exercise and spend that time fixing everything you’re doing wrong.

Speaking of which… how do you prevent this from happening or just fix it if it’s already happening?

Well, before I can tell you what you need to do, there are some things you will first have to know.

When The Body Does and Does Not Improve

Something most people don’t realize is that the human body doesn’t improve while you are weight training. No one has ever built an ounce of muscle or made any similar improvement to their body while at the gym in the middle of their workout.

The only thing you’re truly doing at that time is giving your body a reason to start the improvement process. You’re damaging your muscles, depleting your energy stores, fatiguing your nervous system and basically beating the crap out of your body (to a sane and optimal degree, hopefully).

Assuming that it’s all done correctly with a proper overall workout routine that is focused on progressive overload, all of the above provides a training stimulus that sends a huge signal to your body telling it that it needs to adapt to the stress being placed upon it.

How? By improving accordingly.

And from there, as long as the required amount of rest, recovery and nutritional supplies are in place, this ENTIRE process of adapting can begin and the improvements you’re trying to make can all be made (while resting, not working).

It’s during this recovery period when your body rebuilds your muscle tissue so that it is just a tiny bit bigger and stronger than it previously was. This is when energy stores get replenished and the nervous system recovers. This is when your joints and tendons get the break they need to stay healthy and injury-free.

You Either Recover And Improve… Or You Don’t.

This rest and recovery period is when EVERYTHING you want your body to do (build muscle, get stronger, appear more “toned,” etc.) actually gets done. Unless of course you’re not allowing it to. In that case, none of this can happen. If your body can’t properly recover, your body can’t properly improve.

The really scary part is that in a case like this where someone is just doing WAY too much and getting horrible results because of it, their first thought is often “Hmmm, I probably need to start doing even more.”

And I’m sure you can imagine what happens from there (worse results, regression in strength/muscle, injuries, frustration, and so on).

So then, how do you avoid all of this? How do you allow your body to get a sufficient amount of rest and optimally go through that recovery period during which all of the good stuff happens?

I thought you’d never ask. Here now are the general guidelines to follow…

12 Guidelines To Avoid Overtraining & Allow For Optimal Recovery

  1. Don’t train too often. The majority of the population should weight train no more than 3 or 4 days per week.
  2. Don’t train on too many consecutive days. The majority of the population should not weight train more than 2 days in a row.
  3. Have days off from everything. The majority of the population should have a minimum of 1 day off per week completely from all forms of exercise (weight training, cardio, whatever). I’ll be explaining how to properly schedule cardio and weight training together in the most ideal way possible at some point in the near future. But for now just know that, if you’re doing both, there should usually be at least 1 full day off per week from all types of exercise.
  4. Use a proper workout split. You should use a weight training split that allows for a sufficient amount of rest between training sessions of the same muscle group, movement pattern and joint while ALSO allowing for an optimal training frequency to be reached.
  5. Use an optimal amount of volume. You should train with a volume that suits your training frequency and split and is just high enough to stimulate progress, but still low enough to avoid cutting into recovery. Your goal in the gym isn’t to destroy your muscles and do enough work so that you leave feeling trashed and like “you did something.” Your sole goal in the gym is to do just enough to stimulate new adaptations so you can recover quickly and get back in the gym and do it all over again.
  6. Use a proven workout routine that already gets everything right. This is definitely more of a tip than a guideline, but one of the simplest ways to avoid overtraining, allow for a sufficient amount of recovery and ensure everything is set up properly is to just use a weight training program that is already intelligently designed to do just that. You know, like The Beginner Workout Routine, or The Muscle Building Workout Routine, or any of the many HIGHLY effective workouts included in my new program, Superior Muscle Growth.
  7. Don’t train too long. Your weight training workouts should typically last 45-90 minutes, though it can certainly vary. I explain this in detail right here.
  8. Limit other intense activity. I often see people who are following most or all of the above guidelines, but who then go on to mention that they’re also doing 4 additional sessions of HIIT (high intensity interval training) or some other highly intense activity on top of their weight training sessions. What they don’t realize is that each HIIT workout is basically the equivalent of doing another weight training workout in terms of the stress it’s placing on the body and how much it’s cutting into recovery. I’m not saying to never do HIIT if it’s beneficial for your goal, I’m just saying to either do less of it or adjust somewhere else to compensate. Optimal recovery isn’t JUST a matter of getting the weight training guidelines right. It’s a matter of ALL forms of exercise being put together and managed properly.
  9. Eat right to support your weight training goal. Diet and nutrition play the biggest role in the recovery process. If you aren’t supplying your body with everything it needs to recover and improve, it won’t. What does that mean exactly? The shorter answer is here. The longer answer is here: The Best Diet Plan
  10. Sleep as much as you can. I realize life and jobs and school and whatever else gets in the way, but sleep is a vital part of the recovery process. Do your best to get as much as you can.
  11. Limit the stress in your life. I know, life and jobs and school and friends/family/girlfriends/boyfriends and everything else can be stressful. But adding significant outside stress to the stress already being placed on your body with weight training can hinder your ability to recover (among other negative effects).
  12. Take training breaks. It’s one of the very best and most important ways to guarantee proper recovery and consistent progression in the long term. In fact, one little bullet point just won’t do it justice.

Behold The Power Of The Training Break

The subject of training breaks and everything it entails (deloading, easy weeks, rest weeks, taking time off completely, etc.) is actually going to require its own article to fully cover the purpose and benefits of. Not to mention, the how, when and how often questions you’re bound to have about it all.

So, let’s cover all of it right now: How To Deload: Deloading Week & Taking Time Off From Working Out

24 thoughts on “Workout Rest & Recovery: Signs Of Overtraining & How To Avoid It”

24 Comments

  1. Great advice (as usual)! I’d really like to hear how you wrap cardio into your 4 day upper/lower split. Making great progress on the program but need to trim off the gut.

    • Awesome to hear the program is working well.

      The amount of cardio questions I’ve gotten over the last 2-3 months is insane. I guess I REALLY need to move it to the top of my to-do list.

  2. Great article! I’m looking forward to reading on #12. In the past I was obsessed with working out. I was overtraining and this caused me to lose motivation and drop it for a long time.

    Nowadays I listen to my body and if I’m worn out I let myself to take a break for a few days or a week. I really think its important to approach weight-lifting this way because it lets you be more consistent overall.

    Also I wanted to leave a general comment and say I appreciate how straightforward and no-nonsense your blog is! I think a huge challenge when it comes to exercise is sifting through the huge amounts of contradictory and false information. This site is a valuable resource. Thanks!

    • I hear ya. One of the most important aspects of training is NOT training, and for people who love it, the hardest thing to do is take a break from it even when you know it’s beneficial and really a requirement for long term progress.

      And thanks for the compliments. You’ve pretty much described exactly what I want this site to be, so it’s nice to see it’s having the intended effect.

  3. Awesome timing. I’m going through a period of lost motivation for the gym. I’ve replaced lifting with cardio…which I guess is better than replacing it with sitting on the couch…even so, good information to keep from getting burnt out again.

    • Yup, sounds like you definitely needed some type of training break. My next post (should be up tomorrow) will cover pretty much every aspect of deloading and taking time off that most people will ever need to know.

  4. Hi, I am currently doing a 3 day/per week full body split (which i created using ure “ultimate workout” article)and was wondering if it was considered “overtraining” if i worked-out with “some” muscle soreness even though i have left a day rest in between, for example after Wednesday’s full body workout i have Thursday off and then on Friday is my next one but i still feel some muscle soreness…is it ok to workout at this point?

    • Soreness is definitely not an indicator of whether or not you’re properly recovering or able to train that same muscle group again. Progression is the one true indicator of that, so as long as you’re still progressing well, training though some mild soreness is perfectly fine.

      And since you’re a beginner, it’s pretty normal to be a little extra sore a little longer than most people because weight training is still new (or at least semi-new) to your body. And if there’s anything that soreness truly indicates, it’s that you’re doing something that your body isn’t completely used to doing.

      As more time passes and your body begins to adjust, you’ll notice less and less soreness.

      Of course, all of this assumes that you’re using an intelligently designed beginner routine (like my beginner program, for example). If you’re using something that sucks, then it’s possible that you are just doing way too much.

  5. Thanx for the reply…im pretty sure i have a well set out routine, as i used ure recomended volume figures (sets x reps) per muscle group to insure not overtraining, i can write down my routine if u like so that u can assess it?

  6. Ok… Day 1: Squats 4×8,
    Incline benchpress 3×10,
    DB rows 3×10,
    Skull crushers 2×8 (superseted) with- DB curls 2×8,
    lateral raises 2×8

    Day2: Pull ups 4×8-5
    Straight leg deadlift 3×10
    Arnold press 2×7
    Incline flyes 3×10
    Overhead Tricep extensions 2×7 (superseted with)-Hammer curls 2×7

    Day 3: Incline DB bench 4×8
    Squats 3×10
    DB rows 3×10
    DB upright row 2×8
    Close grip bench 2×7 (superseted with)-Incline DB curls 2×7

    So there thats it…i am kind of a beginner although ive been training with weights for about 4 months (but not with this split i just started this split) and up till now (for the past 2 years)i did a lot of bodyweight excersises including a lot of core scince i do taekwondo and some gymnastics….
    Thankyou in advance for reading this…

    • There’s a bit more isolation/accessory work than I’d normally like to see in a beginner routine, but aside from that it looks alright.

      Like I said in the other comment, as long as you’re progressing well on the compound exercises, you’re good. If not, take that as a sign to reduce some of the accessory work.

    • Off topic: I am delighted to see the proper character being used (× instead of x) for “3 times 10” etc. That’s rare!

  7. Excellent info!!!
    I am lifting with your ultimate guide and doing some cardio on the side.
    Can you advise … My goal is build muscle AND lose only 5-10 lbs of ab/love handle fat.
    Do i eat more (for muscle) or eat less (lose fat)?
    Would reducing food and lifting heavy weight with low volume be enough to stimulate muscle without Overtraining?
    Any tips would be great.

    • That’s honestly one of those complicated (yet extremely common) questions that will take more than a quick comment to cover in proper detail.

      But have no fear, the topic of exactly what to do when you want to both lose fat AND build muscle is definitely near the top of my to-do list.

  8. Thanks for the great articles. I was wondering how you could mix in sprinting with the beginner workout routine (ABA, BAB on M,W,F). I had a couple thoughts of how to proceed:

    I could make it an ABC workout and take out one of the lower body work outs and add sprinting there since it uses a lot of the same muscles but in a different way, but I’m not sure how that would effect overall leg strength progress.

    Also, since I’m new and working on form I’m not using a lot of weight at the moment for my deadlifts and squats so perhaps I could perhaps sprint after my weight training on the same day?

    Or I could sprint on a couple of the days after weight training, like Tuesday and Saturday, since I’m doing strength training M,W,F. I’d still have Thursday and Sunday for rest days where I’d do nothing except MMA practice.

    (JK)

    Thanks!

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