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Overtrained and Underrated

Recovery isn’t just about muscles and joints. Your central nervous system needs to recuperate to keep your gains coming.


If you’re after muscle and strength, you’re probably doing the right thing by taking advantage of resources online to further your knowledge and education. Sadly though, many articles online feed readers with the idea that too much isn’t enough when it comes to how hard you go in the gym.

Don’t get me wrong. Everyone should train hard. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t see the results. But the decision to go balls-to-the-wall needs to come with a mind of discernment. Adding strength and size will always involve lifting heavy weights. That has an effect on more things than you think.

The “lift weights until you’re tired” approach is good for a lot — achieving complete muscle exhaustion and training to failure is beneficial for adding size, and even some strength. The repeated effort of this, however, begins to stray from your muscles getting the brunt of the music.

Your central nervous system (CNS) is comprised of your brain and spinal cord and transmits signals to your nerves to innervate muscle tissue (or make them fire). When it is pushed to the limit, the truth is, it needs plenty of time to recover — especially if the movements it is controlling are large, and compound in nature, like an Olympic clean and jerk or heavy back squat.

Related:Rest & Recovery. More Is Better Than Less

Even if your muscles feel like they’ve got more in the tank, chances are, after sets of a heavy workout, or repeated days of heavy workouts, your nervous system and your neurotransmitters are fried. Rest and recovery becomes more important than before, and overtraining becomes a topic worth considering.

Signs of Overtraining

Just to clear up any confusion, there are no set-in-stone parameters for what constitutes “overtraining.” It’s entirely subjective and case-specific. Overtraining completely depends on the variables that person brings to the table, like the nature of his or her workouts, lifestyle, diet, recovery and sleep habits. A 21-year-old with plenty of time on his hands could be just fine training six days weekly, every single week. Alternatively, a 39-year-old desk jockey with a family and a 90-hour-per-week, high-stress job (along with its irregular meal timing) may have a greater chance of overtraining at even four days per week.

Look out for the following things to give you signs of overtraining:

  • Low energy levels
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Extended muscle soreness post-workout (poor recovery)
  • Decreased libido
  • Performance decreases/plateauing (both in physical appearance and lift numbers)
  • Susceptibility to injury and sickness

All of these things can be low-risk if you simply take note that the nervous system — not just your joints and muscles — needs a break every now and then. If you want sustainable training at a solid frequency week after week, tailor your programming to include both heavy and moderate lifting, as well as varying intensities.

Personally, I’ve found plenty of success from alternating a high-volume week (that induces more muscular fatigue and uses sets for high reps) with a “CNS week” (that utilizes low reps and very heavy week) works well for keeping strength and size in view, while giving the nervous system the break it needs at the same time. Applying this advice could be the difference between a strong musculature and an injured ball of stress. And who would want that?