5 signs you're working out too hard

Are you pushing yourself too hard in the gym? These symptoms and habits may signal it's time to dial it back.
Image: Cropped shot of an unrecognizable man suffering from a sports injury
Soreness in a joint or muscle on one side of the body, and not the other, is a sign you may have overworked a body part.Marco VDM / Getty Images
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By Stephanie Mansour

We all know that exercise has wonderful benefits, like burning calories, increasing energy levels, and boosting your mood. But just like anything else in life, moderation is key. Too much exercise or at too intense of a level, can leave you drained, and worse, at risk of injury.

Overtraining occurs when a person partakes in too much physical training with too little rest and recovery after hard workouts. The resulting stress placed on the muscles, joints and bones causes fatigue and soreness that ultimately affects performance. While over-training syndrome most often applies to serious athletes, that doesn't mean that recreational athletes or weekend warriors are free from the effects of pushing the body too hard. While it’s normal to feel some level of fatigue after a tough workout, complete exhaustion, burnout or pain is not.

Everyone’s body is different, meaning that every person has different limits when it comes to working out. Knowing your body and what it’s telling you is essential when it comes to making sure you aren’t pushing yourself too hard. Here are a few physical symptoms and lifestyle patterns to be aware of that may be signs you're going too hard in the gym.

Sign #1: Your body is overly sore

Being sore after a workout can be a good feeling (you put those muscles to work!), but sometimes soreness can be a sign that you’re actually pushing yourself a little too far. It’s great to be a little fatigued, but you should never feel like you can’t move a part of your body. And soreness should clear up within a day or two; lingering pain for a week or more is a sign that you’ve overdone it.

As a fitness coach, I often see clients trying to do too much too fast. Research has shown that increasing the intensity of a workout in small increments is better for your body overall. It’s even shown that this method can improve your workout performance and help you reach your exercise goals faster. A general guideline to follow when increasing your intensity is to pick one part of your workout where you want to up the ante, whether that’s weight, reps, distance or time.

For example, if you’re working on your cardio endurance, try adding 5 more minutes to your cardio workouts for a week, before upping it 5 minutes more. For weights, try going up 2.5 pounds every 2 weeks. If you’re comfortable with the weights you’re lifting, increase the repetitions. If you’re doing 10 repetitions of bicep curls with 5-pound weights this week, maintain for 2 weeks, and then increase the weight to 7.5 pounds the third week. Gradually increasing intensity in one area before focusing on another will help you get stronger and faster, without putting your body through too much, too soon.

Sign #2: Your soreness is one-sided

If a muscle group or joint on one side of your body is sore after a workout, but not the other, it may be a sign that you overworked a body part and may need additional healing and recovery time.

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“The rule of thumb I give my patients is this: If you have pain on both sides you are just healing and recovering from your hard work. You are not injured, but must allow adequate time for the body to heal,” explains Craig Dossman, a chiropractor and sports medicine practitioner who works with Olympic runners and professional athletes. If you have single-sided pain, you're also healing and recovering, he adds, but you should allow extra time to heal and it may be worthwhile to seek additional help to hasten this process.

While it doesn’t automatically mean you have injured yourself, jumping back into exercise too quickly without addressing the issue can make it worse. “For example, if you have single-sided knee pain after running 26 miles, the problem is not that you ran 26 miles. Although that is crazy, the problem is that you have an imbalance,” says Dossman. “Why doesn’t your other knee have the same issue? Did you not run 26 miles with that side as well? The injury is likely the imbalance that a biomechanics specialist can diagnose and correct. Continuing to train with this imbalance will cause chronic pain and difficulties with recovery/healing time.”

Sign #3: You're working out too much

Of course, exercising should be on your list of priorities, but it doesn’t need to be the number one thing, every single day to see results. Choosing a workout over time your family, work obligations, or social outings on a consistent basis are signs that you may be hyper-focused on exercise. This is not always a bad thing, but if you find yourself becoming obsessed with scheduling that next workout, you may be headed towards an unhealthy addiction. The key is to make sure you’re creating a sense of balance in your life — which yes, may mean skipping a trip to the gym in favor of a self-care activity or time with your family.

Many of my clients bend over backwards to make sure they follow a workout program exactly, only to discover that over the course of a few months they get burned out, sick of dedicating all of their time to exercise, and decide to throw in the towel.

This all or nothing mentality — either all in or all out — is setting yourself up for failure. I always tell my clients that I’d rather have them work out consistently a few days each week than push themselves every single day. If you find yourself feeling guilty or anxious taking rest days, remind yourself that too many days of high-intensity exercise each week won’t allow the body to heal properly, and you won’t progress as quickly as you could be. Rest days are an important part of every training plan!

Sign #4: You exercise infrequently and push too hard

On the opposite end of the spectrum, viewing exercise as a last priority can cause you to push too hard when you do finally get in a workout. I’ve seen so many women put working out on the back burner; when they do make the time, they cram all of the exercises into one session, which leaves them limping around (and unable to exercise) for days, or even a week.

Again, it’s important to slowly introduce exercise into your routine, and increase it in manageable increments. Our 15-minute HIIT workout is a great way to get a big bang for your exercise buck without overdoing it.

If you find yourself dreading workouts, take a step back and ask yourself why. Are you pushing yourself so hard that they aren't enjoyable? Or is it the activity itself that doesn't excite you? Exercise shouldn’t feel like torture. Research some activities that you find more enjoyable and look forward to participating in on a consistent basis, instead of it simply being another “to-do.” Make a shift mentally by focusing on making your workout about taking time for yourself, letting go of the stress of the day and appreciating what your body can do.

Sign #5: You're over indexing on one type of movement

Another sign of over-training “has to do with an unbalanced program,” says Will Torres, a personal trainer and owner of WILL SPACE gym in New York City. “We see this with people that only pursue one type of activity. When a runner just runs, he/she improves his endurance, but the other elements of the body become neglected. The legs become strong but also very tight and over time this leads to pains and strains because the runner, most of the time, does not spend the appropriate time that is needed to stretch the muscles that are pounding the pavement. Over time the muscles become so tight that they begin to stress the joints. This type of over-training presents itself as knee pain, plantar fasciitis or back pain.”

This mistake can be made with any type of exercise. People that only pursue yoga and Pilates have great flexibility, but often are not developing upper body strength, which over time can present itself as pain in the back and shoulders, says Torres. Those who are focused on weight lifting dedicate their time to “developing the large muscles of the body with little attention paid to the connective tissues or to mobility,” he adds. “This type of over-training will present itself as pain in the joints."

The solution here is simple: diversify your workout routine. “There must be balance in training,” says Torres. “By balance I mean strengthening of the large muscles, conditioning of the connective tissues, counter stretching after strength work, active flexibility and dosing each joint and vertebrae of the body with proper movement.”

If you recognize some of these signs in yourself, take a step back and pull out your calendar. Schedule in exercise 3-4 days a week and reserve the other 3-4 days as “rest days”. Depending on how rigorous your workouts are you can choose to have one or two complete rest days, or choose active recovery days where you get in some low-intensity movement like walking, biking or swimming.

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