Listen to your body now or risk injury later. Spot the early signs of overtraining

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Every person ever in the history of high physical stress has experienced some sort of pain and discomfort. Whether it is joint issues, constant fatigue or overtraining, we all have to push through hardship and become stronger each day. It is only by pushing through this pain barrier, whilst at the same time being smart about how you do it, that will make the difference between progress (gains) and injury (time off coupled with loss of gains).

And what do we want most in the world? More money of course, but gains too.

Learning to listen to what your body is by no means an easy process. It requires time, dedication, serious introspection and evaluation, and most of all, trial and error. While you might think, and even believe, that the pillars of success at the gym are lifting weights, cheat meals and Instagram, it’s not! The harsh reality is that unless you are constantly striving to expand your knowledge on this lifestyle, your body and what works best FOR YOU, you will never achive all you can. Constant learning is the one thing that will ultimately lead your success and inherently solve other problems, one at a time.

Experience, my friend, experience means the difference between fishing for the protein scoop every time and keeping an old one in reserve.

But more importantly, by educating yourself on other’s experiences (see now, I’m sharing my pain with you so you wouldn’t have to), you’ll be able to pre-empt and deal with certain problems confidently and with a plan, in turn losing less time on fixing problems and spending more of it on making gains.

There can be many triggers to injury or any number of issues that can stop you dead in your tracks, so learning how to differentiate between “growing” and “injury” pains is critical. Determinining the point when your body has had enough training will mean the difference between you breaking your lumbar spine and making Ed Coan envy you.

So let me be the guinea pig and show you what to look out for in your pursuit of a 409kg deadlift or shredded aesthetics, by addressing the issues of overtraining, pain, and tweaks to various exercise techniques.

Overtraining or Under-Resting?

You might have heard a lot of talk about overtraining being a myth, and under-resting being something a cross-fitter would say (so naturally you don’t listen), but the fact of the matter is that both of these issues are very real and very serious.  Both can deprive you of your most precious thing in the world, your muscles.

I’ve mentioned in one of my previous articles that the majority of us gym rats (I hate this term just FYI) believe that more is better, inspired by known “enhanced” athletes and their training programs and trending hashtags such as #justdomore and #destroythemuscle. It’s almost as if by not training 7 days a week, 3 hours a day, we would be missing out on progress. When the reality is that the right amount of exercise is best, and we don’t need to destroy anything, rather stimulate the muscle to grow.

To put it in perspective, if you train six times a week being a natty, that’s overkill. If you train less than that but are drinking and eating whatever, that’s senseless but more importantly, under-resting.

There are some key differences between overtraining and under-resting you need to be aware of. Overtraining means your body cannot handle the workload you are imposing, eventually leading to stagnation and injury. While there is a number of ways you can predict and prevent overtraining, many of us are unable to recognize its onset, and even if we do, we ignore it because we’re constantly hungry for more.

  • More than four exercises per muscle group a week may likely have an adverse effect, or be a waste of time
  • Doing more than one heavy compound movement per workout, like bench press and overhead press, will kill your strength and hypertrophy progress
  • Your arms work every single day so doing more than two to three exercises for biceps and triceps will lead to overtraining and a catabolic effect (a lifter’s worst nightmare)

Under-resting, being very similar at first glance is actually your body’s response to the lack of sleep, inadequate rest times and improper nutrition. Negeting your bodies needs you will eventually lead to overtraining, even if your workout split is perfect. Identifying under-resting is far more complex than overtraining and can often be confused with it; leading you to make all the wrong moves that will get you no results.

  • Sleep 7-8 hours a night, preferably at the same time every night
  • Try to drink more than 1.5L of water daily, and thank me later
  • Don’t skip carbs, rather use them to fuel your workouts
  • Take adequate rest times between sets, 3-5 minutes for heavy compound exercises (for strength), 1-1:30 for hypertrophy work (muscle building)
  • If you have the resources, supplement with glutamine, 40 grams during the day will help your entire body recover

Both issues of overtraining and under-resting can have serious effects on our body so be on the lookout for signs that can point you in the right direction. When and if you recognize yourself experiencing any of the signs, it will be up to you to analyze your lifestyle and find where the discord lies – alter it as soon as possible.

Common signs of overtraining and under-resting:

  • Constant muscle soreness (not to be confused with recurring soreness after workouts)
  • Insomnia
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Increased injury
  • Frequent sickness
  • Halted progress
  • Loss of concentration
  • No appetite after a workout
  • Being weaker every week on the same movements
  • Being extremely weaker as you progress through sets
  • Working out being a chore
  • An altered, pessimistic mindset

These issues are deeply intertwined with what we’ll talk about in the following text, and in order to prevent injury and stagnation, let’s address the problem of learning the difference between various kinds of pain.

 Growing Pain vs Warning Pain – the Dawn of Gains

If you have read one of my previous articles, you might have seen something about how there is no bypassing the pain. Unfortunately, like it or not, we humans are fragile and our body’s nervous system and bones are not used to the amount of stress we’re suddenly pushing them through, and in order to grow and become stronger, things will start to hurt.

I remember my wrists hurting like hell when I started benching and my knees hurting when I squat. Now, pushing through the pain and not addressing my form and technique would have been very unwise and would have led me nowhere, or worse, toward injury. By making small tweaks to the way we perform exercises, we can lessen the pain and transform it into “growing”, pleasant pain. Like muscle soreness, we learn to love it. I’ll talk more about performing certain exercises the right way in order to prevent the “warning” pain a bit later, but for now, let’s stick to differences in pain perception.

Almost every kind of pain is bad, and you have to be very careful and take a minute for true self-analysis in order to recognize what kind of pain you are experiencing.

It doesn’t take a brainiac to figure out that a sharp, weight-dropping pain is something very bad, but it also takes some experience to know when your knees are adjusting to the new weight, and when your form is killing them.

So take the following as reference.

  • A sharp, sudden pain is never good
  • Slow-occurring, light pressure and discomfort in your joints is most likely a “growing” pain, push through it and correct your form, don’t drop the weight down
  • Deep, light pain means your nervous system is adjusting
  • Surface, sharp pain, whether strong or light, means something is wrong
  • Deep, dull pain in your muscles means the stress is high and your body is adjusting
  • Surface, sharp muscle pain means you are tearing the muscle

Let’s talk about how to heal bad pain, and recover in a timely manner. If you experience sharp pain in your back while performing any movement, immediately re-rack the weight (you’ll probably drop it anyway), lie on your back and take deep belly breaths. Let the pain subside. If you’re lucky and you haven’t dislocated any of your disks, you will be able to foam-roll the pain away by massaging the stressed area. After that, do not try to lift the same weight, rather lower it and re-evaluate your form.

There is a chance for you to save your knees and other joints from injury if you immediately address the pain, even if it was sudden and it subsided immediately – it’s a sign that you’re doing something wrong. First of all, you need to re-learn the technique and then rub adequate medicinal gels for joint and muscle recovery. Additionally, work on mobility and flexibility. I will write about the importance of mobility work in weight training, exercises and how they will help you reach new PRs and stay injury-free, so be on the lookout for that.

If the pain won’t subside, take a couple of days off that certain exercise and hit it again, this time smarter. But if you’re unlucky and you dislocate something while lifting, there is not much I can help you with, call an ambulance.

On the other hand, when experiencing “growing” pains, there are a number of techniques and details you can turn your attention towards in order to become stronger faster, and prevent those pains from becoming injuries.

So let’s move on to making small tweaks and learning a few tricks to control growing pains when doing exercises.

You can Lift with Proper Form and Still be a Beast

There are certain exercises that are notorious for their ability to leave people injured if not executed properly, and consequently, those same exercises are the ones building the most amount of muscle, while some sports are even completely dependent on them. I am talking, of course, about the squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press.

Being very complex movements, a number of things can go wrong while performing them, and what I am about to share with you is by no means a substitute for devoting the time to learn proper technique. I will however be writing full compound exercise tutorials in the near future.

First of all, let’s talk about wrist mobility and positioning. Whether you are doing the bench press, overhead press or the squat, your wrists will carry the load almost in its entirety. Remember that there are eight very fragile bones in your wrists and just like you will break them if you throw a bad punch, you’ll do the same if you position your hand the wrong way while lifting.

  • Stretch your forearms
  • Place the bar at the base of your palm
  • Press with palms facing forward as much as possible, not upward, to prevent hyperextension
  • Find which type of thumb positioning is best for you
  • Wear straps when necessary

Your wrist mobility comes from stretching the under and over side of your forearms by pulling your palm in each direction for 30 seconds. It will be very useful when lifting and progressing in weight as they will be able to adjust in accordance with the pressure they are under.

Strength without mobility is soon to become a weakness, so make sure to stretch.

There is just so much weight you can press before your wrists start to hurt, and in order for them to become stronger and not broken, you will need to make a few more corrections.

Positioning is Key

When doing the bench press or any pressing motion for that matter, it’s very important to know that your wrists can handle any type of pressure, as long as they are not hyperextended and the weight is distributed at the base of your palm. Many people make the mistake of placing the bar in the middle of their palms rather than the base, thus hyperextending the joint.

There are also two types of thumb placement when pressing the bar – thumb around and a thumb-less grip.

Optioning for the right one will take time and repetition, so don’t worry, you’ll get there, but you need to understand what advantages each of them brings. A lot of dispute in the fitness world has led people to regard the first type as safe and the other for daredevils, but there is actually benefit to both. I simply prefer the thumb-less grip.

The major benefit to putting the thumb around the bar is that you are locking it in place and there is very little chance of you dropping the weight on the money-maker, but there are benefits to the other option as well – your wrists won’t hurt as much and you will avoid hyperextending the wrist.

The “science” is simple, when you press the bar with your thumb around it, the weight is distributed forcefully on the base of your thumb, thus creating unsustainable pressure for some people, leading to thumb, wrist and forearm pain. All of this could lead to long-term injury.

While many people don’t have that problem, simply because of the way they are built, I love the thumb-less approach because it puts the pressure solely on the point where I am strongest – the base of the palm, lifting the pressure from the fragile bones and allowing me to lift more weight.

And don’t worry, the bar won’t slip out and onto your head if you simply pay attention to what you’re doing, don’t let anyone scare you.

If you do opt for the latter option, be very careful and practice it with an empty bar until you get the feel for it, and when moving toward very heavy weights, start using chalk to minimize the risk of losing control of the bar.

When talking about knee pain, we have to understand that it is very real and it’s going to happen at some point no matter how impeccable our form is. But in order to prevent that growing pain to become an injury, there are certain tweaks we can make to our positioning in order to keep them healthy and make them strong.

  • Wear lifting footwear
  • Wear straps or sleeves when necessary
  • Distribute the weight across the entirety of your foot, not only the sole or the heel
  • Push with the outer arch of your feet (this will keep your knees facing outward)
  • Never let your knees face inward
  • Engage your glutes in order to keep the knees strong
  • Let your knees follow the direction of your toes
  • Whether your knees go over your toes will be determined by how you’re built, not solely by your technique
  • It is okay for your knees to pass your toes by a few centimeters, as long as the weight remains distributed through the center of your body

Your knees are very strong and susceptible to damage at the same time, and they have the potential to become even stronger. There are many factors that determine the durability and health of your knee joints, and the list above is mainly for squatting. When doing leg extensions and stretching, it is also important to keep the feet retracted and not loose, in order to keep the pressure off the joint, and when doing lunges, if you value your knees, never let the joint hit the ground. Don’t even tap it.

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, and as such, it has the most chance of getting injured. Luckily, there are some simple things you can do before and after your workouts to prevent injury from occurring. I will write soon about proper shoulder joint strength and flexibility, and the benefits it will have on almost every exercise you do.

  • Do active warmups with light dumbbells
  • Stretch the anterior, posterior, and lateral head of the deltoid after workout
  • Heavy compound movements are for the shoulders as well
  • No pain in the shoulder joint is “good” pain, if something hurts, you have to attend to it

Many of the movements you do in the gym, even the squat, will depend on the flexibility and strength of your shoulders. Therefore you need to attend to proper shoulder warmup and stretching in order to keep them healthy.

Finally, the elbow joint. Very strong by nature, very weak when hyperextended. We are always using our elbows, ever since we were babies, and they have grown to be stronger than we think. There aren’t a lot of things that can go wrong with your elbow unless your form is seriously crap and you put too much pressure on it. In order to prevent elbow pain, keep up with the following.

  • Do active warmups
  • Don’t fear locking out the elbow, that is not what gets you hurt
  • In order to properly lock out, you need to squeeze your forearms, biceps and triceps, not just push with the elbow
  • Keep the elbows slightly in front of your body when pressing, this will force proper muscle activation and relieve unnecessary stress from the joint itself
  • When squatting, don’t hold the bar from sliding from your back with your palms, rather press the bar with the base of your palms into your back, relieving the stress from the joints
  • No pain in the elbow is good pain, if something hurts, address your technique and let it heal

Our bodies have the ability to become more rigid and stronger than we ever thought possible. In order to make it happen and to reach our goals, we have to learn to listen to what it is telling us, and make changes to what we do, accordingly.

Hopefully, by reading this you will have gained some idea as to what you should listen and look out for, what to worry about and what is good for you.

The main point is, never give up simply because something hurts, as there is nothing beyond your control, and it just might be the thing trying to help you become the strongest version of yourself. To make progress consistently you need to ensure you follow the 3 principles of weight training.


About Author

Nikola has a bachelor's degree in management, branding, marketing and copywriting. He is a master with words and a warrior with the iron, the dumbbell kind. A lifelong fitness enthusiast, bodybuilder and competitive power lifter, he enjoys nothing more than teaching good form and lifting technique.

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