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Over-reaching, Over-training and Under-training

When positve training adaptations don't occur it can typically be traced to one of these three things...the sooner you identify them the sooner you can remedy them!

What is over-reaching?


Over-reaching is where your prescribed training has too much volume in it and pushes your client too far into fatigue making their repair period prolonged.  Over-reaching may also cause adaptations that are undesirable even though the training that was done was technically focused on the right fitness component. 

personal training over reaching

An example of this is when someone is prescribed a resistance training programme that has too much volume for them.  They push through and complete it, but their body’s reaction in recovery may not be one of growth but may instead be one of catabolic activity (the breaking down of muscle to fuel recovery due to high levels of cortisol being present and significant carbohydrate depletion).  They may also have so much tissue damage that it takes them more time than expected to repair muscle fibres and lay down new actin and myosin filaments. 

It’s important to be cautious with your initial prescriptions for clients, particularly for those new to exercise, or who haven’t exercised for a while.  Its much better to progress your clients training than have to regress it.  Regressing training for the client that is sore, discouraged and hasn’t made any positive adaptations is a recipe for discontent and a discontinuation of personal training.

How can you detect and address over-reaching?


personal training homer simpson running Over-reaching can be seen when;

  • the client isn’t ‘fresh’ again within the expected timeframe
  • the clients RPE exceeds what is expected during a subsequent workout (i.e. they are finding the training harder than they should)
  • progress isn’t evident in the clients training intensities (how much they lift, or their heart rates on cardiovascular machines)
  • the client complains about being ‘sore’ for more than 24-48 hours after the workout. 


Some soreness/discomfort/tightness will often occur after workouts but those feelings should not be so dramatic as to affect the client’s normal daily function.  If they are (e.g. they can’t sit on the toilet, they struggle to get their jacket on, they can’t bend to get the pen off the floor) then your prescription has ‘over-reached’ your client and you need to regress it with an explanation and help the client recover from your botch up.

Remember that the client, in choosing to use you as their personal trainer, has a constant ‘balance sheet’ going on in their head and by over-reaching them you have now put black marks in the ‘cons’ column.  You’ve shown them that exercise hurts, they can’t cope, there isn’t progress and in fact there’s regression necessary – not a great day at the office for anyone! 

What is over-training?


Over-training is simply training again before your client has adapted fully to the last session.  This is common because not every client recovers from the same workout at the same rate (individuality) or changes as much due to that workout as another client (trainability).

Here is a graphical representation of over-training.

over training

It’s important to prescribe the amount of work that you think each client will recover fully from before you next expect them to train.  This is a way of prescribing training with the ‘end’ in sight rather than just prescribing what the client could possibly cope with today and hoping that they’ll recover before their next planned session. 

Even better, if your client wants to exercise quite regularly (their preference picked up during their consultation) then you can prescribe easier and harder workouts to allow recovery whilst still giving them the opportunity to train.

How can you detect and amend over-training?


As with over-reaching a lack of progress is evidence of over-training and is usually the earliest sign (after all you’ll see it between workout one and two!).  Every training session that you expect to see progress in, you should.  If your client doesn’t progress you have to ask whether your recent prescription was correct (i.e. should have been okay for the client in terms of their capabilities and the time they had available to recover), or whether the client hasn’t been consistent over the recovery period and for some other reason they are still not back to the state they were in when you last trained them. personal training fatigue

Other known indicators of over-training include; changes in mood, decreased motivation, lethargy, sustained discomfort/soreness/tightness, changes in eating habits (not hungry often or ravenous all the time), disturbed sleep and, oh yeah – your client telling you they’re tired a lot!

It’s common place for training prescribed in gyms to be poorly tailored to clients because the consultation isn’t thorough enough and/or the client isn’t monitored closely enough – particularly in the first few weeks of their membership.  This shouldn’t be the case at all when personal trainers are involved - when you design training for your clients you must be attentive to their needs and what their responses are telling you and amend the training immediately when the client’s adaptations are not optimal. 

Remember that it’s often taken the client several years to make the commitment to join a fitness club – the last thing we want to do is miss the opportunity to professionally interpret and execute an individualised training solution that works for them.

What is under-training?


Under-training is actually not very common – most clients do more than enough to cause positive adaptation – yes even the ones that chat a lot.  Under-training can occur however where you don’t progress your clients training regularly (i.e. the principle of progressive overload isn’t applied) and as a result the client may lose fitness right in front of your eyes.

personal training under trainingHere is a graphic representation of under-training (the incredible shrinking workout!)

Everyday a person trains they get fitter.  The fitter they get the less intense the same or initial workout will be. 

People who start training are often unfit and their body gets a lot of messages to change quickly.  Your aim is to not 'overcook' them early, but you must keep progressing the intensity or duration, otherwise they will become a victim of under-training!

As an example, some new fitness club members take what is written on a programme card and if they are not given the specific guidelines to progress it on ‘x’ day etc they will be doing exactly the same workout six weeks later and wondering why their initial progress has completed stagnated. 

I’ve had this happen to me when I was a gym instructor / fitness consultant.  I gave an older female member a programme, she did it perfectly, I left her to it with a re-booked programme update session in six weeks and when I met with her again she was only marginally fitter. personal training girl on swiss ball I took the programme card, saw lots of nice neat ticks in all the columns but no new loads for her weights.  I asked her what her weights had gotten up to and she told me ‘exactly what they should be according to the card – but it seems a bit easy now!’  Six weeks of training somewhat wasted, at least four weeks anyway!  As this poor lady got fitter (and with strength training that happens quickly and early as the nervous system learns) the training she was doing was, well, not really doing much at all. 

From then on I prescribed rep ranges, had a standard ‘progress the weights when on set ‘x’, ‘y’ reps can be done, and I started to asterisk at least a few exercises that I really wanted them to progress before we next met.  This experience helped me personal train quite effectively – particularly those clients who were doing sessions on their own.  Moreover it showed me that people generally perform to the expectations you set them.  You need to be reasonable in your expectations but by golly you need to have some very clear ones and they must involve progression.

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