Every time you step into the gym hoping to pack on some muscle mass, your first priority should be making sure you tax your targeted muscle group even harder than last time to stimulate your body to grow. This concept is known as progressive overload. Progressive overload, if executed correctly, ensures that your body has no choice but to grow in order to adapt to the anticipated infliction of identical stress stimuli in the future. Adapting through growth allows your body to handle that same stress a bit better next time. Of course, the whole point to this concept is doing what’s necessary during your workout to stay 1 step ahead of your body: each time providing it with even greater stress than last time. And so the cycle continues. However, a key aspect of all of this is recovery. What the entire concept of progressive overload hinges on is the underlying assumption that you will provide your body with ample recovery in order to allow it to grow in the first place. Otherwise, your progress will stagnate because your body will not be able to grow when it has not yet restored itself from its previous beating. This is where the popular topic of “overtraining” pokes out its head. You probably hear a lot about overtraining: the fear that you will stop progressing because your body will simply run out of steam when there is an overload of stress-inducing behavior (working out) and an insufficient amount of recovery (required for growth). After all, I see the word thrown around anytime someone suggests doing anything out of the ordinary: two workouts per day, hitting muscle groups more than once per week, following a push-pull routine. With the way it has been often treated, you’d think overtraining lurks around every corner. In reality, although overtraining certainly is real, you might be surprised to learn that it is highly unlikely to ever cross your path barring a complete misapplication of the general rules of training and dieting.
If you are trying to build muscle mass by properly progressively overloading, there are only two things you need to keep in mind. It is not the volume of your routine, the type of routine, or training frequency that matters for the purpose of overtraining. What matters is a two-pronged analysis that is composed of the two fundamentals: diet and sleep. The diet prong supplies the resources, and the sleep prong supplies the time. With time and the proper resources at its disposal, your body can build. The heck with all else. Under the diet prong, if you are properly providing your body with the nutrients it requires to recover and grow, your body will welcome the process. This means, of course, that the amount of calories you consume each day is above your maintenance calorie count (the amount of calories necessary for your body to maintain your weight). Depending on whether you’re attempting a lean, regular, or strong bulk, the amount of calories you need to consume above maintenance may range anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand. Whatever the amount, based on your goals, the main point to keep in mind is that your body has the nutrients it needs for its adaptation process. Under the sleep prong, you have to give your body the necessary rest it requires to engage in the adaptation process. Because your body recovers and grows most when it is asleep, ensuring that you provide it with the right amount of sleep is essential. Optimal sleep range is anywhere from 7-9 hours. If both diet and sleep are present as the building blocks on top of your progressive overload workouts, overtraining will not be your problem.
Notwithstanding the above, there are some things to keep in mind as the devil is always in the details. For example, if you are the type of person that is hitting a muscle group 2-3x a week, staying barely above maintenance and sleeping 6-7 hours on the dot, this might not create the most optimal environment for avoiding overtraining and maximizing progress. In this context the details become very individual-dependent. I mentioned above that things like routine, volume, and frequency are not what matters. Although this is true, these things do matter for people on the peripheries. In other words, if you are an individual that loves high training frequency to the point of often going twice a day, you eat only right around maintenance, and are getting the bare minimum of optimal sleep, you might want to up the calorie intake a bit and sleep a little more if you start to tire. Although this is an extreme example, the advice applies to everybody. Any time you feel you are tiring too much, a diet and/or sleep uptick is likely to cure the problem. The whole concept revolves around where you, as the individual, fall within the circle of training coupled with optimal diet and sleep. If you feel you are approaching a periphery and it is impacting your strength, energy, or results, play around with your diet and sleep. Of course, sometimes sleep is not something we can control based on the circumstances. At that point, the best thing to do might be to evaluate your routine or diet. However, as long as you ensure that your diet and sleep are somewhere along the optimal range, overtraining might as well be a myth. Very often, I hear people are scared of overtraining so much that they preemptively limit their workouts, routines, or training frequencies at the cost of greater progress. Don’t be that person. Understand these fundamentals, feel out your body, and you won’t have to worry about overtraining. Good Luck!
P.S.: For those who are in a caloric deficit, overtraining is more likely due to the deficiency in the amount of calories consumed. To ensure you avoid it, work on your training frequency and your routines, but most importantly, do not cut out excessive amounts of calories below your maintenance. That is the one thing you can completely control. Aim for a few hundred calories below maintenance, and adjust from there based on how your body is progressing and feeling. The more calories you cut and the greater your body’s exhaustion from progressive overload and training frequency, the likelier it is that your progress might stagnate. Again, play with the variables (training, diet, sleep) and overtraining will not be an issue even if you are trying to lose fat.