Overtraining can manifest itself in various ways: halted progress, decreased motivation to train, diminished focus in the gym, increased caffeine intake, tiredness, troubles falling asleep, bad mood, sore joints, body stiffness,…
Still, all these indicators of overtraining could result from factors other than too much training as well. Also, they are highly subjective—apart from increased caffeine intake and halted progress, which should be objectively identifiable in your training log. But when you experience prolonged halted progress (an absence of gains while being in a caloric surplus) or even a regress, then it might already be too late—you’re overtrained.
One way to spot looming overtraining early enough is to regularly measure your heart rate variability. In case you don’t want to rely on technology, though, you can use a simple metric that should be part of your training log anyway: rest.
Always measure your rest time between sets and exercises! Record it in your training log.
If training by the clock and tracking your rest time costs you too much time or concentration, then do it like me and track the total duration of your every workout.
Even if overtraining were a non-issue: let’s say you banged out 3 more reps than usual with your current weight. Congratulations! but how long did you rest between sets? longer than usual? maybe quite a while because you were hitting on that cute chick between sets? You might have not made any progress at all.
That’s why you have to track time just as diligently as you track volume and intensity. While you’re moving into overtraining, your strength performance in terms of volume and intensity might not suffer right away. The more mentally tough you are, the more you can push yourself to at least keep up your strength standard. You exhaust yourself more than ever because you won’t accept subpar performance. And it will work if you’re not severely overtrained yet. Then, objectively in your training log, it won’t look like you’re wearing yourself out. But this might be a deception; you don’t know unless you add the variable of time.
When you’re not fully recovered and you’re too tough to train soft, your training session will automatically take longer. You may not experience this subjectively, except maybe as a feeling of fatigue, but it will show clearly in the minutes that mark the total length of your workout. Keep track of those minutes!
Personally, I lift heavy six days a week. I try to keep every session under 43 minutes (general warm-up and initial warm-up sets not included), doing no more than 5 exercises for a total of 15 sets. Whenever a workout takes me longer than 43 minutes, I know I’m approaching overtraining. Then I simply take a day off to work on mobility instead, and everything’s fine. This way, I can always go hard and quickly recover in time when I’ve overdone it.
Since the day I started recording the duration of my workouts, I have not suffered from full-on overtraining once, even though I’m challenging my physical limits more than ever and have an extremely physically demanding job.
To spot overtraining well enough in advance, track the time between your first and last workset, write it in your training log, and take a day off whenever you exceed the maximum amount of preset minutes for the given workout.
Caution: Determine those minutes only after your nervous system has adapted to your current training program. If you set the limit too low, you might limit the intensity of your training.
Naturally, if you exceed that time because you’re distracted by your phone, socializing, or hitting on fitness chicks, you’re not training hard and focused enough.