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Resistance exercise: How to avoid overtraining

Hadyn Luke posted this on Tuesday 21st of May 2013 Hadyn Luke 21/05/2013

Tags: Training methods


Resistance exercise: How to avoid overtraining

Today’s blog focuses on resistance training and why a fitness professional should be aware of the downside to overtraining.

There are several reasons that a personal trainer might use resistance training with a client (see our blog on Personal training: Resistance training for beginners). These include:

  • General health and fitness
  • To improve posture and proprioception
  • To increase athletic performance
  • Rehabilitation after an injury or accident
  • Increasing bone density and the musculoskeletal system

A definition of overtraining

A “Current Comment” article in the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), written by Andrew C Fry PhD defines overtraining as follows:

“If physical performance is depressed for extended periods of time, and requires long recovery periods, overtraining has occurred. This situation may result in a decreased desire to exercise, and can also increase the risk of illness or injury.”

Variables in resistance training

When devising a training schedule, a fitness professional can make use of several variables, including:

  • Choice of exercise
  • Order exercises are carried out
  • Number of repetitions
  • Number of sets
  • Load or intensity
  • Length of rest between sets

Intensity versus volume

One challenge that a personal trainer faces with their clients is determining the best combination of training volume and intensity for each individual. The general rule is that if the intensity of the exercise is high, the volume should be low, and vice versa.

Some fitness instructors of the “no pain, no gain” persuasion may overwork a client, incorrectly presuming that this will always bring results. Others may give the client the same programme to do four or five times a week without allowing sufficient recovery time. Getting the balance wrong can impair performance and even cause harm to the client.

The signs and symptoms of overtraining

Most of the existing research has been carried out on endurance exercise overtraining and more research is needed on resistance exercise overtraining. However, signs a personal trainer might want to look out for include:


  • Decreased strength and power
  • Decreased muscle and cardiovascular endurance
  • Decreased training tolerance
  • Increased recovery requirements
  • Decreased motor co-ordination


  • Problems relating to resting heart rate, blood pressure and respiration
  • Increased VO2, VE and HR during submaximal work
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sleep and eating disorders
  • Unusual muscle soreness and damage
  • Exceptional joint aches and pains


  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Inability to concentrate


  • Frequent illness
  • Slower healing
  • Impaired immune system


  • Decreased serum total and free testosterone, testosterone/cortisol ratio
  • Decreased muscle glycogen
  • Low serum haemoglobin, iron and ferritin

Solutions to overtraining

If a fitness instructor believes a client may be overtraining, they should look at either cutting down or finding alternative training methods. 

These may include:

Avoiding going to failure – a personal trainer should avoid continually pushing their client to go to absolute failure with every exercise at every training session.

Recovery days – these can be added to the training week or their number increased so that the client has time to recover before the next training session. 

Reducing eccentric muscle actions – avoiding the excessive use of eccentric muscle actions, where a muscle exerts a force when lengthening, can help prevent overtraining.

Introducing periodisation and split-training days – a personal trainer can set split training days, where the client has a regular routine but only carries it out once or twice a week, with other routines interspersed on the other days they are training. They can also set routines that alternate high intensity, low volume training days with low intensity, high volume training days. This is usually a more effective way to structure a client’s exercise regime (see our blog on Periodisation: What it is and how to use it). 




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