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How To Avoid Overtraining & Maximize Your Training Program

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 30 November 2018
Hits: 9918

As a person who has had a strong passion for sport and exercise all my life, I have made many mistakes that led to injury and pain that could easily have been avoided. For the past 14 years I have worked closely with many clients as a trainer and seen countless others make these same mistakes. The desire to get the most out of my own body and also my clients, motivated me to learn as much as I could about the best methods and strategies to deliver great training results without the risk of more pain. Many of you reading this article are like me, trying to find the missing ingredient or magic formula to maximize performance success. With such a determined focus on progression and performance it is easy to begin to push too hard, train too long or simply do way too much. It is in our nature to strive for perfection and often we are led to set goals that may be out of reach. While we can work to achieve our potential, we must always consider our abilities and our limitations and avoid the danger of over-training which can be a serious problem to your health. It can lead to decreased performance, decreased energy, depression, and potentially serious injury. Stress, nutrition and hydration, training, practice and, competition schedules, rest & recovery are all important factors to be carefully considered and organized in order to avoid over-training. This article we will give you some great ideas and knowledge to avoid the mistakes I and many others have made.

What Happens When You Exercise?

Before we jump right into the designing programs and workouts it is important to have a good understanding of what actually happens to your body when you train. Far too many people see exercise like going to war with your body and only end up doing damage instead of reaping the amazing benefits it can provide. Watch the quick video below to see what I mean.


One of the key health benefits of exercise is that it helps normalize your glucose, insulin, and leptin levels by optimizing insulin/leptin receptor sensitivity. This is perhaps the most important factor for optimizing your overall health and preventing chronic disease. See our article on Cancer & Diabetes for more information on this.

But there is a number of other important biological effects that occur, from head to toe, when you exercise. This includes changes in the following:

Lungs. As your muscles call for more oxygen (as much as 15 times more oxygen than when you're at rest), your breathing rate increases. Once the muscles surrounding your lungs cannot move any faster, you've reached what's called your VO2 max—your maximum capacity of oxygen use. The higher your VO2 max, the fitter you are.

Heart. As mentioned, your heart rate increases with physical activity to supply more oxygenated blood to your muscles. The fitter you are, the more efficiently your heart can do this, allowing you to work out longer and harder. As a side effect, this increased efficiency will also reduce your resting heart rate. Your blood pressure will also decrease as a result of new blood vessels forming.
See our article What Is The Best Exercise For Your Heart for more on this.

Brain. The increased blood flow also benefits your brain, allowing it to almost immediately function better. As a result, you tend to feel more focused after a workout. Furthermore, exercising regularly will promote the growth of new brain cells. In your hippocampus, these new brain cells help boost memory and learning. A number of neurotransmitters are also triggered, such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. Some of these are well-known for their role in mood control. Exercise, in fact, is one of the most effective preventions and treatment strategies for depression.

Joints and bones. When we exercise we can place as much as five or six times more than your body weight on your bones. Peak bone mass is achieved in adulthood and then begins a slow decline, but exercise can help you to maintain healthy bone mass as you get older. Weight-bearing exercise is actually one of the most effective remedies against sarcopenia and osteoporosis, as your bones are very porous and soft, and as you get older your bones can easily become less dense and hence, more brittle -- especially if you are inactive.

See our article How To Improve Bone Density for more detail on this.

But there is one big thing I have missed and that is - MUSCLE GROWTH!

Muscle Damage & Muscle Fibre Growth

Lifting weights and performing other strenuous exercise causes microscopic tears and other damage in the tissue of your muscles. Though this sounds bad, this damage is actually a good thing and essential for muscle development. The damage that your muscles receive while completing strength work triggers the healing process and also prompts the body to try and adapt itself to prevent this type of damage in the future.

As your body heals the damage from your strength workout caused in your muscles, specialized cells known as satellite cells begin fusing together and attach themselves to the damaged tissue to promote the healing process. These satellite cells begin fusing with the muscle fibres themselves, increasing their cross-section thickness. Eventually, these fused cells transition into new protein strands within the fibres, and components of the cells are used by the muscles to create additional strands as well. These strands increase both the size and the strength of the muscle fibres, resulting in the increase in muscle mass and muscular strength that you experience when lifting weights regularly. (Don't worry if you are a female, you will not get bulky as you don't produce enough testosterone needed for size)

Lactic Acid Build Up

This is one area that many people are confused with. This is more common to cardio exercise and in particular interval training. Any strenuous exercise that takes you to a point of exhaustion will deplete the blood in your muscles of oxygen. The muscles will primarily use lactic acid as fuel during this type of exercise and will last as long as 90 seconds before you will need to rest as this lactate or lactic acid can build up in your bloodstream faster than you can burn it off. The body will restore itself back to normal within 30-60 minutes of this training although there may be some small muscle fibre tears depending on the number of repetitions completed.

The Pump & The Burn

As you lift weights, your muscles perform a series of intense contractions to lift and lower the weights in a controlled fashion. These contractions place pressure on the blood vessels that provide blood flow to the muscles, increasing blood pressure within the muscles themselves. This increase in blood pressure causes some blood plasma to leak from the capillaries in the muscles into the surrounding tissue. This leakage causes the "pump" effect, creating larger, swollen muscles that remain pumped for approximately 15 to 30 minutes after you finish lifting.

The "burning" sensation you feel while lifting weights is caused by the build-up of an acidic by-product of the energy production process within the muscles themselves. The body uses a process known as anaerobic glycolysis to convert carbohydrates to energy when there isn't enough oxygen present in the blood to meet the energy needs of your muscles through normal respiration. This process produces water and free hydrogen ions as a result, changing the pH of the muscles and making them more acidic. A component of lactic acid binds with the hydrogen ions to remove them, but as more ions build up the lactic acid can't remove them all and they begin accumulating around nerve endings. When you stop lifting the ions can be flushed from the muscles, explaining why the burn you feel fades soon after you stop working out.

DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)

Okay now we are talking about something everyone knows all about if you have done strength training.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS is the aching you feel in your muscles in the days following your lifting session. This soreness many people mistake as build-up of lactic acid in the muscles during exercise, but by the time DOMS sets in, most if not all lactic acid has been removed from the muscles by blood circulation. The real culprit when it comes to DOMS is the microscopic damage done to the muscles while lifting as we discussed in point one. The soreness can remain until the microscopic tears and other damage to the muscle tissue has healed, a process that can take several days depending on the severity of the damage.

You must allow for repair during this stage and not train with soreness which we will discuss shortly. For if you do, you lose all of the gains you were about to get from your training and even worse you are now likely to sustain.....

Muscle Injury

While the damage done to muscles while lifting weights is beneficial in the long run, too much damage can result in muscle injuries that can sometimes take weeks or longer to recover from. Over-training and improper lifting techniques can cause muscle injuries such as muscle sprain, larger muscle tears and damage to the ligaments and other connective tissues that bind muscles to bone and muscles to each other. While pushing your limits is important if you're trying to increase your strength and muscle mass, you should always listen to your body and stop lifting if you feel sharp or sudden pains beyond the burning sensation you normally experience. I cannot tell you how many people we see in our rehabilitation program for help with an injury that was caused by the person doing way too much and trying to push through the pain barrier.

This is why injury is extremely common in sports as people strive to achieve their best and over reach, and as a result go beyond their ability to heal. Always remember this.

"The harder you train, the harder you rest".

Okay so now we know what happens when we exercise, how do you know how much is the right amount?

What Is The Perfect Training Volume For Great Results?

It is impossible for me to give you a one size fits all answer to this question as it can vary a lot from person to person. And it is still one of the most misunderstood things that circulate within the Health & Fitness community and the media. This is where many people still think more is better and you have to train every day to get good results. We have covered this before in our article called Progressive Overload and you can also watch the video below that gives you a good explanation of this concept, but I am going to go into even more detail in this article to really drive home just how important finding the balance between training and rest is, and that LESS IS MORE!

In order for the body to adapt, it must have a period of repair. If you cannot adapt to and cope with the physical and mental demands of training, you will quickly become exhausted.  The key lies in one of the simplest yet most neglected training principles: RECOVERY.

Training is designed progressively to overload body systems and fuel stores:

  • If the training stress is insufficient to overload the body's capabilities, NO adaptations will occur!
  • If the workload is too great (progressed too quickly, performed too often without adequate rest), then fatigue follows and subsequent performance will be reduced. Again NO adaptations will occur!
  • Work alone is not enough to produce the best results; you need time to adapt to training stress
  • To encourage adaptation to training, it is important to plan recovery activities that reduce residual fatigue. See article - Best Foods & Methods To Promote Faster Recovery
  • The sooner you recover from fatigue, and the fresher you are when you undertake a training session, the better the chance of improving and having positive adaptations.

Let's take a close look at how to work out exactly how much is enough.

A number of factors impact optimal training frequency, how hard to train and how long to train. These include the equipment and coaching available, individual rates of recovery after hard weight training and the individual’s ability to sustain intense exercise.

I find it easiest to explain this concept using a timeline graph that I borrowed from Peak Performance to view the factors involved with exercise and then determine how long you may need to repair from training.


A training session can be separated into four phases

  1. Fatigue - The training bout itself where the muscle fatigues and strength decreases;
  2. Recovery - The recovery phase, including both the immediate recovery from the exercise and the delayed recovery when damaged muscle fibres are removed and replaced;
  3. Adaptation- The adaptation or super-compensation phase;
  4. Return - The return phase where any strength gains from the bout of exercise are lost.

Changing the intensity of the exercise is the key as this either increases or decreases the length of each of the phases. For example, a workout that was a 60-minute walk is not the same intensity as a 60 minute integrated strength training workout. The intensity of the walk is low and recovery is much quicker than the high-intensity strength workout.

If you are a person with an injury then lower intensity training is where you should be training, using low loads and lots of repetition to restore mobility and stability to the body. Too high intensity will create more pain and problems. If however, you are a person looking to improve strength, power or fitness you will need a much higher intensity. Training at low intensity will not produce the results you are looking for. More training at low intensity will not be enough to change the body as it is the intensity that is the missing ingredient, but it comes with risk and also requires a much longer time to repair and recover.

What you need to do is determine what is the optimal frequency to train based on your workout intensity. If each of the sessions is optimally timed (at the peak of the adaptation phase), you will increase strength at a maximal rate. See chart below.

If we assume you are a person looking for strength, fitness, and power the sessions are too frequent (as is common with the gym junkie, the muscle doesn’t have sufficient time to adapt and strength gains are slow. Over time this leads to injury. On the flip side of this poor strength gains are the result if the sessions are not frequent enough.

The big thing to take home here and what might surprise you is; "OPTIMAL FREQUENCY TO TRAIN HARD IS ONLY TWICE PER WEEK!"

You can still train most days but they will need to be of lower intensity. Any more hard training than that and you are not yielding the gains that you should. Anytime you train with a Personal Trainer you can rate this as a hard session. Your other workouts can involve skills work, stability, and mobility work or light cardio activity. You can keep working out, and I encourage you to do so, you just cannot train hard.

Below is a picture example of a perfect week.

The person who tells me they train every day indicates they are training at a low intensity and are not achieving their true potential. The quality of their workouts must be compromised in order to train this often. This also tells me they do not respect exercise and the damage it creates to their body. The likelihood of developing injury in this person is very high. They are most likely doing the same thing all the time and results will be poor, no matter how hard they train.

Again I am not giving people an excuse to only workout twice a week, as you can still do exercise most days, it just cannot always be hard and it must never be the same thing. But what can you do on these other days? I like to spend time working on skills, trying to restore mobility to areas I know I am stiff or simply practicing movements I am not good at so when I get to my strength program I am more equipped to complete it better than last time. You will get some ideas on what to do in the article below.
Use These Mobility & Stability Warm Ups As Low Intensity Workouts

If I play sports I may want to use different days to practice other skills that are important to my sport such as speed, agility or balance. I will be training this on a separate day to my strength and power sessions. You will find great ideas of how we do this for sports in the articles below.

Also, a great video about how we break up training for a sporting athlete will give you a good insight into how we manage this. You will see we very rarely strength train more than twice per week as the risk of over-training is so high.


For people working with an injury they will also need to train most days, but none of their work will be at high intensity. The work in the early stages is very low level and stability based. As the program progresses it becomes more strength orientated and this is where they must understand that more is not better. For example with knee pain clients if they overdo glute strengthening exercises they can develop a hip or lower back problem by not allowing the muscles to repair. More is not better, only the quality of the training and the movement is.

However, the practicing of skills with bending, single leg stance, squats at body weight etc can and should be done all the time. This is not muscle damage but rehearsing movement quality and repetition is important for the brain to encode this as an automatic motor engram. Movement is everything! For stacks of ideas on how to put all of this information together, you will find this in our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets below. Click here to see more or on the image below to get your copy instantly.


I hope you have enjoyed this article and it not gives you some greater understanding of how to structure your workouts to achieve greater results from training SMARTER, not always harder. The best news is you don't have to spend as much time working out as you think to get in good shape. The harder you train the more rest you require. Quality beats quantity every time. If you abide by these laws you will never have trouble and constantly progress and move forward with your training.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


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