Does Overtraining Exist?
Overtraining has emerged as a concept of increasing interest (or worry, rather) for countless bodybuilders and gym-goers alike and its effect on sex drive. What’s fascinating about this trend is that back in the “Golden era” of bodybuilding (i.e. the 1970s), overtraining wasn’t even a theory, and many bodybuilders, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, were working out multiple times a day, pretty much every single day of the week.
It’s as if bodybuilders have become a bit weak-minded in this regard, using overtraining as an excuse to not get their ass the gym and lift some iron. You’d be surprised exactly what the body, and brain, can sustain when you actually push yourself to your absolute max. This is not to say that many gym-goers aren’t experiencing true overtraining, but rather that overtraining is an extreme state to reach and it needs to be treated as such.
Overtraining is a phenomenon with mechanisms that remain elusive in scientific contexts, but anecdotes suggest it has detrimental effects on many aspects of life and wellbeing – especially libido.
Continue on as we take a look at where the concept of overtraining comes from, exactly what the expected causes for it are, and whether or not it’s actually a cause for worry for gym-goers.
Specifying Overtraining and Overreaching
A major roadblock in our understanding of overtraining is the enigmatic nature of it. Due to the multiplicity of symptoms and signs that might exist in people who are “overtrained” (and the difficulty in specifying the terms which explain those things), research on overtraining remains scarce.
The clinical features of overtraining are varied, anecdotal, non-specific, and legion. No single assay can be used to make a diagnosis.
Nevertheless, most physicians and strength and conditioning coaches agree that overtraining is a state where an athlete/trainee/bodybuilder has plateaued (or even regressed) due to exorbitant training demands (often in conjunction with inadequate downtime and nutrient deficiencies).
More simply: Overtraining is an imbalance between recovery and training. By that definition, overtraining overlaps considerably with the meaning of overreaching.
In many ways, overreaching is an intrinsic part of athletic/performance-enhancing programming. The idea is push yourself to your outright max (and beyond) even when your body is telling you not to.
Overreaching is frequently the objective of professional athlete, particularly in strength training, as intermittent rest after an overreaching phase can result in a “supercompensation” effect; in turn, the athlete/trainee notifications substantial increases in training capability (particularly max effort work).
It is postulated that supercompensation in strength training/weight lifting is due to neuromuscular adaptations. The brief respite after overreaching offers your neuromuscular system time to “rebound” and you return to the gym more powerful and explosive than ever.
This is exactly why elite training programs will have athletes gradually work up to a state of overreaching over the course of weeks (or even months). When that state is reached, the program swiftly reduces the training load so the athlete can reap the benefits of supercompensation.
A comparable supercompensation effect can also be used in bodybuilding, where the lifter gradually conditions themselves for a sufficient amount of time by increasing volume and training load, then takes a week or so to “deload”.
Ultimately, overreaching will leave athletes/bodybuilders feeling stressed and exhausted, but those aren’t necessarily negative things in this context. In fact, that’s a great sign if your goal is to maximize the benefits of overreaching.
The key is to provide the body time to recover after you reach a critical point where you literally can’t progress further. (This is basically the ‘cue’ that it’s time to take a deload or taper your training volume significantly.)
What Science Says about Overtraining
A research study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine (JSM) reported that it is highly difficult to distinguish severe tiredness and reduced exercise efficiency resulting from demanding training sessions apart from the states of overreaching and overtraining. This remains in part due to absence of diagnostic devices, inconsistent findings in extant research, and a lack of well-designed, controlled studies.
There are currently no conclusive findings that suggest overreaching is the state that precedes overtraining. If overtraining occurs, it can take months to totally recuperate, based upon the anecdotal evidence. Overreaching, on the other hand, usually only takes 1-2 weeks of reduced training load to revitalize the body.
Because research is significantly lacking on the subject of overtraining, it is an arduous task trying to decipher what exactly triggers it physiologically or exactly what biomarkers need to be examined.
Nevertheless, there are clues…
Indications of Overtraining
Clinically, overtraining is a syndrome that manifests throughout the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Anecdotally and clinically, the primary symptoms of overtraining include:
- Excessive tiredness (regardless how much one sleeps)
- Decreased desire to continue training (loss of motivation)
- Significantly decreased training capacity/athletic performance
- Reduced libido (or possibly erectile dysfunction)
- Adrenal fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Brain fog (inability to think clearly)
While there isn’t much data to conclude that these are exclusive indicators of being overtrained, there is definitely a correlation. Another warning that your body is reaching a state of severe fatigue is when you feel constantly stressed out, regardless how much you sleep or caffeine/stimulants you take.
Overtraining and Libido
For males, arguably one of the most frustrating symptoms of overtraining is loss of sex drive. There are a number of physiological factors that impact libido, but during a state of overtraining there are two things that appear to lower sex drive: Decreased testosterone and increased cortisol.
In fact, one study directly investigated the effect of overtraining on testosterone, cortisol, and sperm count in adult males. The findings show that basal testosterone levels decreased by upwards of 40% after overtraining, while basal cortisol levels increased nearly 50%. They also found that sperm count was reduced by a whopping 52% after overtraining.1
It’s well known that men who have lower testosterone and higher cortisol (i.e. poor testosterone to cortisol ratio) experience low sex drive (and often erectile dysfunction).2 In fact, multiple studies in elite athletes postulate that having a reduced testosterone:cortisol ratio is the most pronounced hormonal indicator of overtraining syndrome.3,4,5
How to Repair Reduced Libido from Overtraining
Intuitively, fixing a lack of sex drive resulting from overtraining is not an overnight process. The good news is that correcting this issue isn’t complicated (it’s more about consistency and recovery).
Rather than compartmentalizing the issue and just trying to increase libido, the focus should be on recovering from overtraining. After you recover from overtraining, the symptoms will take care of themselves.
Research suggests that the best protocols for preventing/treating overtraining are:6
- Balancing training and rest
- Monitoring mood, fatigue, symptoms and physical performance
- Reducing distress
- Ensuring optimal nutrition (especially total energy and protein intake)
For most people, if you’re experiencing chronic symptoms of overtraining, your best bet is going to be stopping all strenuous physical activity for at least one week (or even two weeks). You will also want to significantly reduce stimulant consumption during this time.
Consuming an adequate diet will be key during this phase as well, along with sleeping sufficiently. If possible, you might even want to take time off of things that may cause distress, such as work or school. You essentially need to “reset” the body; it will not happen overnight, but most people can expect to see significant improvement within 3-4 weeks.
Be careful that once you reintroduce exercise you don’t immediately jump back into an intense training program. Give yourself at least a solid 2-4 weeks of lighter exercise (some people may need even longer). Again, you need to focus on rest, recovery, and proper nutrition during this time.
It may sound simple but treating overtraining and libido issues is not about any complicated medical procedures or special supplement to magically boost your sex drive. It’s about correcting the underlying issue causing the overtraining, which is a lack of balance between recovery and training.
- Roberts, A. C., McClure, R. D., Weiner, R. I., & Brooks, G. A. (1993). Overtraining affects male reproductive status. Fertility and sterility, 60(4), 686-692.
- Zitzmann, M., & Nieschlag, E. (2001). Testosterone levels in healthy men and the relation to behavioural and physical characteristics: facts and constructs. European Journal of Endocrinology, 144(3), 183-197.
- Banfi, G., Marinelli, M., Roi, G. S., & Agape, V. (1993). Usefulness of free testosterone/cortisol ratio during a season of elite speed skating athletes. International journal of sports medicine, 14(07), 373-379.
- Handziski, Z., Maleska, V., Petrovska, S., Nikolik, S., Mickoska, E., Dalip, M., & Kostova, E. (2006). The changes of ACTH, cortisol, testosterone and testosterone/cortisol ratio in professional soccer players during a competition half-season. Bratislavské lekárske listy, 107(6/7), 259.
- Hloogeveen, A. R., & Zonderland, M. L. (1996). Relationships between testosterone, cortisol and performance in professional cyclists. International journal of sports medicine, 17(06), 423-428.
- Eichner, E. R. (1995). Overtraining: consequences and prevention. Journal of Sports Sciences, 13(S1), S41-S48.
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Rich Jacobs is a Board Certified Integrative and Functional Nutrition Practitioner who specializes in resolving gut, insomnia, low libido, fatigue and fat issues. He uses a holistic approach and functional lab work to identify root causes such as hormone imbalances or gut pathogens that could be impacting your health.