Your Friendly Neighborhood Gym Girl: Overtraining vs Rest Days

When people learn that I’m a competitive athlete, their first question about my training is “How many days per week do you have to go to the gym?” or “So, do you train six or seven times per week then?” There’s a common misconception that being a pro-level athlete, or having a fairly lean and muscular physique must involve extreme measures — excessive gym trips to the point of exhaustion.

I enjoy enlightening the general public on the nature of a bodybuilder’s regimen, because they are usually pleasantly surprised when I mention how many rest days are worked into my program. Yes, there are weeks in the year, leading up to competitions, where weekly training hours are at extreme levels. However, it’s safe to say that in 98 percent of the year, my program is based on quality strategic performance versus quantity of performance. When quantity is added into my program for desired results it’s usually only for one week, a couple times per year.

It’s unfortunate to see women at my gym spending 60 to 90 minutes on the same cardio machine, six days per week, attempting a transformation yet looking the same way they did two years ago. That is a considerable time commitment that could easily be used more efficiently and health-consciously. Everyone’s body responds differently to physical activity, but I’m going to guess that these fellow gym rats could be victims of Overtraining Syndrome. I’m certain they’re in need of some serious rest days, proper recovery nutrition, and changes to their cardio techniques.

I found a beautifully straight-forward definition of Overtraining on Wikapedia:

“Overtraining is a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual’s exercise exceeds their recovery capacity. They cease making progress, and can even begin to lose strength and fitness. Overtraining is a common problem in weight training, but it can also be experienced by runners and other athletes.”

I can remember a time when I was obviously overtraining for an extended period; it was probably for a year or more in my mid-twenties. My car had been stolen and written off only months after purchasing it. I still can’t understand why my payout was not enough to purchase another vehicle… I digress… so, for a while I took the bus to work. It didn’t take me long to realize that my gym was right on the bus route, and that I could get in a brisk 30-minute walk before work instead of transferring to a third bus. Almost every day, I was hitting the gym with some cardio and weights before work, then walking quite fast for another 30 minutes from my gym to my workplace. I was happy to see that all of the regular walking gave me some results I didn’t expect. This was plenty of exercise for me, yet I also loved going running with my boyfriend at the time, and didn’t want to miss out on that experience. I ran five to ten kilometers with him after work some days and also on weekends.

I was very results driven, (nothing has changed since then,) thus all of this activity was quite intense and I was always pushing myself to perform at 100 percent. I was enjoying myself. I didn’t have an unhealthy concept of my body or unrealistic goals, I just merely got caught up in spending every single day submerged in the extremely intense activity that I loved.

With the knowledge I have today and looking back on that time in my life, I realize I should have had much more muscle on me for the amount of time spent with weights. I had no concept of rest days, muscle repair, or even proper nutrition. I did not eat many unhealthy foods, but I was ignorant to the value of post-workout recovery nutrition, especially protein and carb consumption. I was eating a lot of food for my size, but it wasn’t balanced, and my weight kept dropping; it was lean muscle mass dropping, not fat.

It’s interesting that today I spend much less time in the gym than I did back then, but have four percent less body fat and more muscle. When you look at the fact that muscle building happens post-workout during the repair stage (not in the gym while you are training,) it only makes sense that you should make the repair process a priority too. The thought of one’s results not matching their time spent in the gym is just tragic to me.

Nutrition for Recovery:

I recommend consulting a professional with a sports nutrition background to ensure you are consuming foods that will aid in the recovery process, and timing your food intake for recovery as well. If you are a vegetarian or vegan athlete, I urge you to be accountable for consuming a balanced diet that is rich in protein and lower in refined sugars. Whether it’s through food or sports supplements, I have yet to find an elite professional athlete who doesn’t swear by the benefits of sports nutrition for optimal performance.

If you are interested in incorporating some supplements into your diet, but feel overwhelmed or intimidated when walking into a local supplement store, try giving them a phone call first and asking their advice based on your goals. You can then research the products they recommend and get an idea of what you would like to try, before you visit the store for your purchase. The staff in these stores are trained to help both beginners and seasoned athletes.

Rest For Recovery:

If you think you’re guilty of overtraining, and spend a lot of time in the gym, but are not seeing the results you desire, you might want to hire a coach or personal trainer to customize a plan for you. Everyone’s goals are different and rest days are worked in differently for each athlete. Some rest days are timed with an increase in carbs or fats into the diet. Sometimes a rich, greasy, tasty cheat meal is scheduled for rest days. Some athletes lift extremely heavy weights, and have three to four rests days per week. Some athletes have double cardio visits plus a weights session all in one day, but have two consecutive rest days that follow.

I like a rotating gym schedule vs. a weekly schedule. I might train three days then rest for one and train for two days, then rest for one. I might train one day on and one day off for an entire month before mixing things up again. My coach tailors my rest days according to my goals – sometimes I am building and sometimes I am leaning out for a competition. The important point to remember is that training/rest days should always be customized for your individual body and goals.

When the number drops on your scale, is it lean muscle mass dropping? For optimal results and efficient use of your training, play around with recovery techniques if you haven’t applied them before. Don’t be afraid to sit on your rear end and savor the feeling of your muscles repairing. Don’t buy into the misconception that more gym time has to equal more results. Most importantly, please don’t overtrain and put yourself at risk for injury or depletion.

Happy Lifting!

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2 comments for “Your Friendly Neighborhood Gym Girl: Overtraining vs Rest Days

  1. November 29, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Great post, Mindy, but what if you had spent that much time in the gym back then knowing what you do now? The most famous of the bodybuilders from the 70’s and 80’s trained for hours a day, and so do most of today’s biggest bodies. I recently read of a study in Florida that showed a half-hour of steady-state cardio following workouts can reduce muscle gain by up to 50%, so perhaps it wasn’t the gym time but the remainder of your day that caused the stagnation?

    Lately I’ve been seeing good gains with intentional overtraining – i.e. over-reaching & super-compensation – but had to up our intensity 3 times before finding a level that my body wouldn’t recover from too quickly. Now I realize my original workouts, while effective, were nowhere near as taxing to my CNS as I thought they were.

    • Lifestyle and Strength
      November 30, 2012 at 11:36 am

      Hey Doug, I’d like to look at this study you are referring to. Any chance you still have the link available?

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