Does overtraining really exist?

Overtraining can be described as the point where the ability, effort level and intensity of an individual’s exercise – from the start of a workout – is significantly reduced even when performance-enhancing variables are optimal. The concept of overtraining describes the impairment of the musculoskeletal, nervous, cardiac, respiratory, energy and lymphatic systems which leads to the reduced output of effort and ability.

On paper, overtraining seems conceptually legitimate, but with the concepts of ‘100% effort’ and ‘pushing until failure’ in exercise performance being heavily linked to subjective, psychological barriers, does overtraining really exist or is it just another mentally fabricated cautionary principle to refrain from pushing the body to its physical extreme?


What I mean by ‘physical failure’ and ‘100% effort’ being ‘subjective, psychological barriers’, is that your mental resilience will give up a lot earlier than your body’s physical resilience can actually withstand. This is exemplified in ‘fight or flight’ emergency situations where humans show moments of immense strength or speed in comparison to their regular perception of their 100% ability or effort. Another more daily example of this is the use of caffeine in exercise. Caffeine alone provides no extra calories to the body to facilitate movement. Thus, its consumption purely influences the brain’s perception and ability through increasing cortisol and adrenalin secretion. It increases awareness, alertness, and pain threshold so that the body can perform at a greater intensity. Review this point once more as it’s quite enlightening: you have not changed the body’s fuel source at all when consuming a pure caffeine source, but your body’s output has indeed improved.

The summary of this boils down to the fact that your body’s ability is greater than the mind’s belief in your body’s ability.


Many people think that overtraining will come if they were to workout everyday. Interestingly, we find that the majority of these people have never trained everyday to fulfil these beliefs. This is another way that the mind erects a preventative barrier – again, in reality the body can withstand a lot more. This does not mean that I believe that anyone can train however many times they want without experiencing overtraining, and this point shows how much I support the science that overtraining does exist. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone knows where their overtraining boundary is or that it isn’t preventable.

As I said earlier, overtraining is the point where the ability, effort level and intensity of an individual’s exercise is significantly reduced even when performance-enhancing variables are optimal. But in order to experience the feelings of overtraining, you must be continually performing exercise to a high level of effort, ability and intensity where performance-enhancing variables are sub-optimal. Basically, if you are continually working out really hard and you don’t have quality recovery (quality sleep, naps, stretching and sedentary periods) or a quality nutrition plan (both frequency and type) you could be leading towards overtraining.

The reason I say that you ‘could’ be heading towards overtraining is because the body’s ability to withstand a negative stress-recovery balance is down to how used it is to training at this intensity. A competitive bodybuilder can workout for two hours twice a day for two to three consecutive days before scheduling a rest day, and they do not experience overtraining. However, a gym novice performing the same frequency and relative high intensity of exercise are at greater risk of overtraining if they were to continue this pattern because their mind and body are not used to it.

Furthermore, the gym novice can ensure that they have an optimal recovery plan between each session to ensure that their intensity remains higher for longer, pushing away the onset of overtraining. This is the same for any person’s level of training experience. No matter how dedicated you are to your body and goals, you can always improve your performance by improving your recovery and by watching what you do out of the gym as acutely as you do in the gym. By doing this, you will be facilitating a positive intervention in order to stave off a reduction in training intensity and the onset of overtraining.


To conclude, overtraining does exist, but many people have not experienced it. Rather, they may have experienced ‘under-recovery’ disguised as ‘overtraining’. If you do not prepare well enough outside of a training session, you increase your chances of overtraining. Moreover, many people have also not experienced overtraining because they create conscious and subconscious mental barriers as the brain naturally looks to protect the body from stimuli it believes will cause harm. People believe that overtraining is only an hour or two extra in the gym out of their reach. Do not be fooled by your brain if you are looking to reach your goals as effectively as possible with an energetic and fulfilling life. Your body can withstand more than you think it can – just prepare your body well enough through quality recovery to increase your resilience to the intensity you are subjecting it to – ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. Once you succeed in having optimal preparation, you provide yourself with the best chance to improve your body by reaching the point of physical ‘failure’ which is where we see the body progress effectively – ‘constructive preparation provides constructive failure.’


Chris James MA

Founder – Fitness Body Pro and London Life Balance

Chris James
Top Local Trainer Author
Team Member Picture
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Laura Ciotte profile image

Laura Ciotte

Vincent Henry Strength & Fitness profile image

Vincent Henry Strength & Fitness

Daniel Da Silva profile image

Daniel Da Silva

Holly Sutton profile image

Holly Sutton