Before we get into any of the "Am I overtraining?" information, let's get something out of the way: More than half of you shouldn't be reading this. I've heard more Internet workout heroes walk into the gym and tell everyone that their CNS is burnt out than I've seen do actual work. If you're 18 years old, you have more hormones running through your system than a silverback gorilla. The chances of you overtraining and not recovering are miniscule.
My highly-educated guesstimation is that 98.5 percent of people who claim to be overtrained actually have a severe case of "imagiantpansy." It's a real disease. Google it! The majority of people claiming to be overtrained need to put on their big-boy pants, pull them up nice and tight, and man the fuck up.
Don't get me wrong: I have seen people overtrain, but the majority of those people are very high-level athletes training multiple times a day for months on end.
A four-day split workout will definitely not lead to overtraining unless those workouts are superhuman six-hour marathon sessions, or are designed by some idiot CrossFit coach who thinks rhabdo is cool.
Exertional rhabdomyolysis (ER, or rhabdo) is the breakdown of muscle tissue resulting from extreme physical activity. ER is more likely to occur when strenuous exercise is performed under warm temperatures and high humidity. Poor hydration levels before, during, and after exercise may also lead to ER.
Heed The Red Flags
Now that we have that covered, if you've been training hard for a long period of time and your mood, performance, or body has begun to suffer for more than a few isolated incidents, here's how to tell if you're overtraining, the best ways to deal with it.
There haven't been many overtraining studies done on humans, but it's probably safe to say that overtraining occurs when you're demanding too much from your body for too long. Your body just can't recover fast enough to deal with the required effort, and will slowly break down.
I can't stress enough how rare overtraining is for the general population. However, if you are actually overtrained, you'll see some obvious signs. In general, if you're seeing two or more of these red flags, you may be overtrained.
Red Flag 1: You're Weaker Than Usual
Although I'm not a fan of the gym nerd walking around with his pen and notebook, you should keep track of your major lifts, as well as the volume of work you are doing. So, keep some sort of workout log and remember that, for every action, there is a reaction.
For example, if you felt good one day and hit an extra five sets, chances are you won't hit that record PR the next workout. But, that doesn't mean you're overtrained, or that you need a break; it simply means that you changed a variable. Because of that variable, there was a reaction from your body.
If, however, you haven't changed a variable, and your lifts start to go down, you may have a problem. If you generally put up 225 on the bench and you suddenly start struggling with 185, or if you usually destroy five sets of squats and are quaking at two, take it as a red flag. Begin to take this red flag seriously if your strength is low for a series of workouts, not just in a single session.
Red Flag 2: You're Listless
Are you so tired and sluggish that you can't get out of bed in the morning, or bother to eat that fried egg, cheese, and avocado you normally dream about? Moving slowly from exercise to exercise or being unable to keep up with the typical pace of your workout is a sign that you're not right.
Now, I know right now some college frat boy is sitting in his bed, hung over after a seven-day bender, thinking he is overtrained. Remember to remove all other variables from the equation. Is there anything else that could be causing you to feel this way, and have you been feeling this way chronically?
I've seen a lot of people misinterpret being stressed out, feeling tired, or being annoyed by a girlfriend or jerk boss as signs of overtraining. If you have a factor in your life that is not allowing you to concentrate on your workouts, or is just making you tired and aggravated, take some time away from those specific factors. I know it's not always easy—or possible—to get away from these things entirely, but don't equate life stress to overtraining.
Red Flag 3: You Suddenly Lose Weight
If, during your morning mirror-flex session, you notice you're looking a little skinny, then hop onto the scale. Has the number moved in the wrong direction? Sudden and unplanned weight loss can be a sign that you've been training too hard for too long and aren't providing your body the necessary nutrients to repair itself.
I can't overstate the importance of meeting your body's micro and macronutrient needs. Just because your meal plan fits your macros, it doesn't mean you're getting the right food for your body. Fueling your workouts with Pop-Tarts may work very well short term, and you can probably lose weight eating only watermelon for a month, but your body won't feel its best unless you are properly fueling it for the long haul.
When you're training, you need to eat quality foods in the proper amounts. If you don't eat enough or eat nothing but crap, you'll do nothing but hinder your body's ability to train hard and recover effectively. I see this a lot with guys who want to get lean. There's nothing wrong with wanting to get ripped up, but if you're not providing your body with enough calories to recover, you're asking for trouble.
Red Flag 4: You Are Ill And Injured
Aside from making you feel tired and weak, overtraining can wreak all kinds of havoc on your body. If you're training too much without eating or resting enough, those systems that keep you healthy, injury-free, and feeling good are going to be compromised.
If you're chronically sore to the point of it being debilitating, if you're getting abnormal headaches and stomachaches, if you're constantly sick, if you have nagging injuries that won't go away, or if you keep getting injured when you're usually solid as a rock, you may need to back off. If you're overtrained to this state, consult your doctor.
The Fix: Your Program
The best way to keep your body from breaking down is to find or create a program that doesn't suck. For some reason, gym bros lift by the law of "if some is good, more is better." If your program calls for you to lift as much as you can for as long as you can every single day, guess what? Your program sucks.
Athletes generally train in cycles of intensity varying from 12-16 weeks. We call this type of training "periodization." At the end of these cycles, there is usually an event or competition. In order to prepare for these events or competitions, the athlete usually goes through what is called a taper period. During the taper period, the workouts are shorter and less stressful so the athlete can fully recover and be able to perform at his best.
You may not be a competitive athlete, but there are times when it really is important to back up and "deload" just like an athlete would during his taper period. Now, a deload doesn't mean you get to take a week off from the gym. It means it's time to drop the weights and volume to give your body some time to recover.
With a deload period in your program, you can keep your muscles active and working so you don't take any backward steps. If you love hitting it really hard in the gym, plan a deload or back-off week every couple months or between training programs. Your body will thank you, and you won't have to worry about the overtraining bogeyman.