Feel the Burnout
We’ve all been there at least once. Training is going well. You’re making gains and can’t wait to get more. You’re on a roll. Then it happens:
- Motivation and drive? Gone!
- Performance? Down the drain.
- Physique? Smaller and softer by the day.
- Sleep? Terrible.
- Energy? Sucks.
No matter how hard you try to right the ship, it just gets worse. In fact, the harder you work to get your gains back, the worse you feel.
The irony? This is a lot more likely to afflict those who try hard and are passionate about training. Welcome to the wonderful world of overtraining. Or, more appropriately, burnout.
Let’s look at why burnout happens, what you can do to avoid it, and the strategies you can use to fix it.
What The Hell Happened?
How can you go from being a machine in the gym, looking full and hard, and getting a crazy mind-muscle connection to looking like a deflated balloon and hardly being able to feel the muscles working… all in a matter of days?
Because that’s what happens. You can actually wake up feeling like your muscles went from steel to soft rubber. And that’s just your muscles. What else can happen?
- Loss in motivation and focus
- Feeling demoralized, even depressed
- Problems sleeping
- Elevated anxiety
- Decreased performance
- Increased water retention
- Decreased muscle tone and mind-muscle connection
- Increased impatience
- Mood swings
Fun, right? So, what happened? Cortisol and adrenaline happened. Too much of them for too long, too often.
Burnout: It’s About The Catecholamine Systems
Catecholamines are neurotransmitters that increase activation of the various tissues in your body. The main ones are adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine) and dopamine.
While they have different effects, what they all have in common is that they increase the activity of the tissue they bind to. Their job is to put the body in the proper state to be able to perform physically or mentally.
Among other things catecholamines increase:
- Heart rate and heart contraction strength (increasing blood flow and oxygen transport)
- Muscle strength and speed of contraction
- Reactivity (ability to act quickly)
- Muscle tone
- Motivation and drive
- Feelings of strength and confidence
- Focus and speed of thought
When you suffer from training burnout, every one of these things go down. This clearly indicates an issue with the catecholamine systems. It happens when those systems are constantly asked to function in overdrive.
The Three Stages of Training Burnout
Normally, the symptoms of burnout occur in stages with the adrenergic system being affected first, then the noradrenergic system and, finally, the dopaminergic system.
Stage 1 – Adrenergic Downregulation
The adrenergic (adrenaline) system is affected first. Overactivation of this system is actually dangerous for your health.
When you look at people who have a heart attack when combining too many energy drinks or pre-workout supplements with intense physical activity, it comes from an excessive adrenergic response. This puts a ton of stress on the cardiovascular system (increases heart rate) and in some people, it just can’t keep up.
A constantly amped-up adrenergic system increases blood pressure. This puts stress on not only the cardiovascular system, but also on the kidneys. (High blood pressure is the number one cause of kidney damage.)
Basically, the adrenergic/adrenaline system is like nitric oxide for a street racing car: it gives you a lot more speed and power, but you can’t run on it for too long without engine damage.
Because of that health risk, the body will be quick to protect itself against what it perceives as excessive adrenaline activity. To do this, it makes the adrenergic receptors less responsive to your adrenaline. If you keep producing too much, for too long, too often, your body decreases its response, thus reducing the risks.
This decrease in responsiveness is called “receptor downregulation” or desensitization. Most receptors dealing with hormones and neurotransmitters can downregulate if overstimulated. But the adrenergic receptors do it faster than most receptors because of the health risk involved.
Talk to a bodybuilder who takes clenbuterol or ephedrine daily. (Both drugs stimulate the beta-adrenergic receptors, just like your adrenaline.) At first, the drugs get them jittery. They have limitless energy and racing thoughts. They’ll also have a hard time relaxing, especially after physically activity.
But as early as the second or third day, those effects diminish by about half. Before the first week is over, they don’t feel much unless they increase the dose.
Clenbuterol is the worst because it lasts a lot longer in the body, so it overstimulates the adrenergic receptors for pretty much the whole day.
That’s how fast the beta-adrenergic receptors can downregulate. In fact, even one excessive burst of adrenaline can downregulate the receptors. That’s why after the “workout of your life” or a competition, you can feel like complete crap the next day. You produced so much adrenaline on that one day, your body desensitized the adrenergic receptors and you felt it the next day.
That’s our first cause of training burnout. One study found that as little as two weeks of “excessive training” could lead to almost a 40 percent downregulation of the beta-adrenergic receptors.
The key symptoms of beta-adrenergic downregulation:
- Decreased muscle strength and speed of contraction
- Loss of muscle tone
- Decreased coordination
- Less endurance due to not being able to increase heart rate and contraction strength as much
- Problems clearing lactate from the muscles (less blood flow)
- Low drive to train
This all happens because you produce too much adrenaline, too often. We’ll get to the reasons why in a moment.
Stage 2 – Noradrenaline Depletion
First, remember that the catecholamines are all related. Adrenaline is made from noradrenaline, which itself is made from dopamine.
As such, the more adrenaline you produce the more noradrenaline you “use up” to make the adrenaline. Similarly, when the body wants to make more noradrenaline, it can lower its dopamine levels.
Once you reach stage one, if you continue having your body pump out a lot of adrenaline, you run the risk of depleting noradrenaline. This is made even worse if you compensate for the fatigue from the adrenergic downregulation by taking more stimulants to get through your day or workout.
When you reach stage two, some symptoms will be added:
- Problems focusing. For example, you might need to read a sentence a few times to understand it.
- Working memory issues. Losing your train of thought mid-conversation or forgetting why you went into a room.
- Confusion and brain fog
Stage 3 – Dopamine Depletion
If you keep putting your body under stress, you may reach stage three. The body tries to keep up with the adrenaline production demands by converting more dopamine into noradrenaline. But that can lead to lowered dopamine levels.
When that happens, other symptoms can be added to the list:
- Lowered self-esteem
- Anhedonia (lack of pleasure)
- Complete drop of motivation
Of course, the deeper you get into training burnout, the harder it is to recover. You can recover from stage one fairly rapidly because only one system is affected. But getting back from stage three is longer and more complicated.
That’s why it’s important to know what to do to avoid getting even to stage one in the first place, but also what you can do to fix the issue as soon as the first symptoms show up.
It’s All About Cortisol
The common theme between all three stages is the overproduction of adrenaline:
- Too much adrenaline leads to the downregulation of the beta-adrenergic receptors (stage one).
- Asking your body to produce more adrenaline can lead to depleted noradrenaline (stage two).
- Trying to keep up with the adrenaline demands by making more noradrenaline can deplete dopamine (stage three).
Is it possible to have dopamine or noradrenaline issues without going through stage one first? Yes. But the underlying cause of this issue isn’t noradrenaline – it’s cortisol.
Adrenaline might be the gun that shoots you down, but cortisol is the dude pulling the trigger. See, cortisol is one of the main things that increases adrenaline levels. One of the main effects of cortisol is to increase the conversion of noradrenaline to adrenaline.
When you’re in a stressful situation the first thing that’s released – in a matter of milliseconds – is noradrenaline. This will increase focus, mental acuity, and awareness.
Then cortisol is released, which initiates the more powerful response to the stressor, which includes the conversion of the released noradrenaline into adrenaline (the fight or flight neurotransmitter).
Any type of stress releases noradrenaline, then cortisol, and adrenaline. And the more cortisol you release, the more noradrenaline you convert to adrenaline.
That last part is the key. Because essentially, when cortisol is chronically elevated, adrenaline will be too. All sources of stress will release cortisol and adrenaline. That’s why it’s hard to get to sleep when you’re under stress, even if you’re tired.
Yes, what you do in the gym will have an impact, and I’ll get to that, but if you have a high level of stress in your life, it can also contribute to developing a state of training burnout/overtraining. That’s because anything that stresses you out will release cortisol, which will lead to an elevation of adrenaline.
That’s why those with no life stress can train more without burning out. I’ve worked with two CrossFit competitors who trained up to 4-5 hours per day. But that’s all they did. They didn’t have a job, no family to take care of, no financial stress, etc.
But if you have a full-time job, money issues, and complicated relationships, you won’t be able to train like a pro athlete.
What Causes Excess Cortisol/Adrenaline
Lowering the various sources of life stress will obviously help, but let’s talk about what can raise cortisol levels in training.
By the way, you do need cortisol and adrenaline when training. Without them you won’t be able to perform. But producing too much can lead to burnout, especially if your daily stress level is high.
Here are the six main things that can increase cortisol during a workout. When you plan a workout, you must look at the overall stress level. Just because one of these variables is high, it doesn’t mean that the overall level of the session will be high (if everything else is low). Just like staying moderate in every variable could lead to an excess overall workout stress.
I put these factors in three categories, from the greatest impact on cortisol/adrenaline to the lowest one.
Category 1 – Highest Direct Impact
One of the main functions of cortisol is mobilizing stored energy and maintaining a stable blood sugar level. The higher your training volume, the more energy and glucose you use.
This means you’ll mobilize more fuel and you’ll also bring blood sugar down. For those reasons, a higher volume of work means a greater release of cortisol, which leads to more adrenaline.
This relates to how hard you’re pushing a set. Not the weight on the bar really, but how close to death you get! For example, getting 3 reps at 340 pounds while keeping 3 reps in the tank is less “intensive” than doing 12 reps to failure with 260 pounds.
I don’t like going high in volume and intensiveness at the same time. Focus on one of these with one high and the other fairly low, or use a moderate level of both.
If you keep up with coaches and their training methods, you could say that Fortitude Training, Dorian Yates’s workouts, and DC training are pure intensiveness-dominant programs (very low volume) whereas Mike Israetel or guys like Jay Cutler use more of a volume-dominant approach while keeping more reps in reserve.
There’s a caveat. Not all volume is created equal. A set of squats doesn’t have the same impact on cortisol and adrenaline as a set of wrist curls or calf raises. Similarly, going to failure on a deadlift will not have the same impact as going to failure on triceps pushdowns. That’s why you can’t look at volume and intensiveness in isolation.
This is also why the second category is a magnifier of the first.
Category 2 – High Direct Impact
When a set or a workout gets you a bit nervous before you do it, that’s psychological stress. When you amp yourself up before a set, that also increases psychological stress. In this category we could put very heavy weights, especially PR levels, but also workouts in which you know you’ll suffer.
The harder the brain needs to work during an exercise or a workout, the more adrenaline you produce. That’s because you need to amp your brain up (neurological activation) which is done, in large part, by activating the beta-adrenergic receptors in the brain.
Several things can increase neurological demands:
- Exercise Complexity: Multi-joint moves are more neurologically demanding than single-joint exercises. Free-weights are more demanding than machines.
- Exercise Novelty: The more efficient you are with an exercise, the less demanding it is.
- Exercises Combinations: Combining two or more exercises (superset, antagonist pairings, circuits) is more neurologically demanding because you need to switch a motor task on every set.
- Speed: The more explosive a movement is, the more neurologically demanding it is.
- Force: When you need to produce more force, the nervous system works harder.
An interesting point: The better and more efficient you become at an exercise, the more automatic it becomes, the less stressful it is. Take the Olympic lifts for example. They’re tremendously demanding on the nervous system. But for an elite lifter who’s been doing them for 15-20 years they’re no more neurologically demanding than a simpler exercise for you and me.
Category 3 – Moderate Direct Impact
When rest intervals are kept short, adrenaline stays up more. That’s one of the reasons certain people just get out of the zone if they rest for too long between sets. This is normally the case for people who break down adrenaline fast and subconsciously know that they’ll be very up and down if they rest for too long.
On the upside, those who are efficient at breaking down adrenaline are less likely to suffer from training burnout because they’re less at risk of downregulating their receptors. But those who don’t have that advantage can increase their risk of burning out if their rest intervals are too short.
When you’re trying to beat the logbook at all costs, kick your training partner’s arse, or post the best score on the board for the WOD, you’ll be increasing adrenaline more than if you stay more chill during the workout. This is the less impactful variable, but it can still contribute to overall training stress.
Evaluating Your Overall Training Stress
When you’re designing your workouts, or looking at doing a certain online program, consider the overall picture to see if the stress of the workout is adequate for you.
Some of the six variables mentioned above can be high, or even very high. But that means that the other variables must be brought down to allow for the high stress from the other variable.
Let’s first establish what constitutes high, moderate, and low levels for each variable:
- Very High: More than 20 total work sets for the whole workout
- High: 16-20 total work sets for the workout
- Moderate: 10-15 total work sets for the workout
- Low: 7-9 total work sets for the workout
- Very Low: 4-6 total work sets for the workout
- Very High: Half of your work sets or more are taken to failure or close to it. You can even occasionally do post-failure sets (rest/pause, drop sets, etc.). The average effort level of 8-9 out of 10.
- High: A third up to one-half of the work sets are taken to failure or close to it and an average effort level of 8 out of 10.
- Moderate: An occasional work set is taken to failure or close to it (less than a third) and an average effort level of around 7-8 out of 10.
- Low: No set is taken close to failure and an average effort level of 7 out of 10 (stopping 3-4 reps short of failure) with an occasional set at 8 out of 10 on the effort level.
- Very Low: No set is taken close to failure and an average effort level of 6-7 out of 10 (stopping 3-4 reps short of failure).
- Very High: Lots of pre-workout anxiety, significantly elevated heart rate before the workout starts, and the need to psych yourself up.
- High: A mild pre-workout anxiety that’s maintained or increases during the workout because the exercises and methods are challenging.
- Moderate: Small peaks of stress/anxiety during the session, but you’re not amped up during most of it. Some exercises are challenging, others are comfortable.
- Low: While you stay focused and involved in the session, you stick to movements you’re comfortable with and perceive as easy.
- Very Low: The workout is more of a social occasion. You can be joking around while doing easy/comfortable exercises.
This variable is harder to quantify because so many things are involved in increasing the neurological demands of a workout. Let’s simply look at elements that can increase it. The more of these elements your session has, the higher the neurological demands will be.
- Exercises with a complex coordination pattern. For example, a snatch is more complex than a squat, which is more complex than a bench press, which is more complex than a barbell curl.
- Exercises that are new to you or that you haven’t yet mastered.
- Alternating exercises (A1/A2 structure, circuits and the like) especially if the exercises are complex.
- Having to produce a lot of force (heavy weights, 90% or explosive movements).
- Very High: Rest intervals are minimized by using lots of supersets, circuits or WODs. The average rest is 45 seconds or less between sets.
- High: Average rest intervals are between 45-90 seconds between sets. There might be some supersets involved in the session or circuits still providing 45-75 seconds between stations.
- Moderate: Most exercises are done without supersetting, complexes or circuits. You rest up to 3 minutes between work sets on average.
- Low: Ample rest between every set, around 3-4 minutes between work sets.
- Very Low: More than 4 minutes between most work sets.
- Very High: Think competition level. You obsess about it the day before, and if you don’t perform as planned it ruins the rest of your day.
- High: The focus is beating the logbook or your partner. You psych yourself up to achieve your best performance and are aggressive toward the weight.
- Moderate: This is a best effort, but the quality of your execution and the feeling you get during each set is as important as improving your numbers. If you don’t lift more or beat your partner, you still feel like you can have a great workout.
- Low: You hold back on the amount of weight you’re using to focus on the quality of the execution and don’t care about numbers at all.
- Very Low: You’re basically just going through the motions and don’t care about the weight you use or how hard you’re pushing. This is “doing physical activity” not “training.”
Evaluating the training stress of a workout can be complex, but we can use a scale to make it simpler. While it won’t be perfectly accurate, it’s close enough to reality to have a very good idea of the stress imposed by a session.
Give a number of points to each variable and its level, then tally up the score of the session.
- Very High: 15 points
- High: 12 points
- Moderate: 9 points
- Low: 6 points
- Very Low: 3 points
- Very High: 15 points
- High: 12 points
- Moderate: 9 points
- Low: 6 points
- Very Low: 3 points
- Very High: 10 points
- High: 8 points
- Moderate: 6 points
- Low: 4 points
- Very Low: 2 points
- Very High: 10 points
- High: 8 points
- Moderate: 6 points
- Low: 4 points
- Very Low: 2 points
- Very High: 5 points
- High: 4 points
- Moderate: 3 points
- Low: 2 points
- Very Low: 1 point
- Very High: 5 points
- High: 4 points
- Moderate: 3 points
- Low: 2 points
- Very Low: 1 point
Now Assess Total Training Stress
By adding up the points you can get an idea of the stress level of the workout:
- Very High Training Stress: 50-60 points
- High Training Stress: 40-49 points
- Moderate Training Stress: 30-39 points
- Low Training Stress: 20-29 points
- Very Low Training Stress: 12-19 points
Most people should stick to 30-42 points per “normal” workout.
A deload week to prevent burning out would include mostly 25-30-point workouts. A reparation period, to get out of a burned-out state, would go down to the 15-20 point range.
You could include an occasional 45-50 point workout within a training block. I recommend no more than 2-3 per 4-weeks block.
It’s also possible to do a blitz week that includes 2-4 sessions that are in the 45-50 range, provided that it comes prior to a vacation or a period where you won’t be able to train hard.
Let’s look at an example. This is an actual session of a high-level athlete I’m training.
The volume is 13 work sets (there are 9 warm-up sets that are darker in the grid). This is moderate and provided 9 points. Intensiveness is also moderate, adding another 9 points.
Psychological stress could be seen as moderate because of the power snatch. But that’s the only demanding exercise in the workout, and this athlete is very comfortable with that movement. So for him I rank the psychological stress as low – 4 points.
As for neurological demands, most of the exercises are simple (a lot of isolation). But since there’s the power snatch in there, I’d say this factor is moderate – 4 points.
Density is moderate too, with rest periods being 2-3 minutes – 3 points.
This was a submaximal session, using plenty of mind-muscle/isolation exercises. Even the power snatch was submaximal and focused on speed and technical precision. He was training alone, and not trying to beat the logbook or a partner. This would put the competitiveness aspect as moderate – 3 points, or even low for 2.
The total for the workout is 31-32 points.
This session is part of his deload week. While the score is slightly higher than a typical deload score (25-30 points) it was one of the two more demanding workouts of the week, with two other ones being lower is stress.
Now look at a second session:
This one is more of a high-stress workout, done at the beginning of a new training cycle, after a full week of deloading.
The volume was also in the moderate range since he ended up doing 15 work sets (the ramp only took three sets that would qualify as “work sets” with 3 lower intensity sets). That’s a moderate score – 9 points.
The intensiveness is a bit more complex to rate because of the nature of the exercises. The first exercise is an activation movement, on which you don’t go anywhere near failure. On the second and third exercises, you have two sets that would qualify as high in the intensiveness category, and on the last one you’ll have one set that I’d qualify as high. While you could qualify this session as moderate, let’s play it safe and say that it was high in intensiveness and give a score of 12 points.
The psychological stress would also be categorized as moderate. Sure, there was the ramp for a heavy triple on that last exercise. But by that time, there was lots of fatigue present and the goal wasn’t to hit a max weight, but simply to do one fairly heavy set in a fatigued state to force the use of proper technique. The other exercises are mostly technical drills to work on elements of the snatch, which isn’t a huge psychological stress. I’d give this a score of 6.
The neurological demand factor is a different animal. All of the exercises performed have a high demand either by their coordination pattern/complexity and/or their explosive nature. For the athlete in question, I’d consider this category as high.
I wouldn’t score it “very high” for two reasons: First, he’s accustomed to these exercises, which decreases the neurological demands. Second, because of the loading schemes and methods used, the load and force production is submaximal. This brings this factor to a score of 8 points.
With rest periods in the 3-4 minute range, the density is low for a score of 2 points.
Because of the heavy triple at the end, it would be easy to rank the competitiveness higher than it really is. Lifting heavy isn’t the goal of that stage. It’s to force him to use good technique instead of relying on brute force, which is the normal problem of athletes who are already strong when learning the Olympic lifts. I’d put the competitiveness factor of that session as moderate since it’s really focused on technique acquisition, not performance. So, 3 points.
If we tally up the overall score, we come up to 40 points. This is in the proper zone for normal sessions. It’s also worth noting that this is a professional athlete who doesn’t need to work full-time and has very little life stress. For a “normal” person, with a full-time job and plenty of stress, a score of 40 would represent a “high” training stress. For an athlete in his situation, it’s more of a “moderate” stress session.
The Weekly Demands
Frequency also comes into play. Even if it’s high, you might be able to recover from three weekly 40-point sessions. But doing 6 or 7 of them will be excessive for most.
The amount of weekly stress you’ll be able to tolerate will depend on many variables. But I’d rarely recommend going above a weekly total of 150 stress points. If you like to train six days a week, it means an average of 25 points per session, while you could go as high as an average of 45-50 if you do three weekly sessions.
But keep in mind that a 45-50 point session will normally leave you feeling bad the next day. Strictly for gym performance, it could be fine since you won’t be training the day after a workout, but quality of life could suffer.
Other Factors Contributing To Burnout
The above scale is fine and well but there will be some individual variations depending on different factors. Because of these factors, some people could handle an average training stress of 50 or more while others risk burning out with a training stress of 35 per session.
What are some of these factors?
If you’re in a caloric deficit you’ll produce more cortisol because you need to mobilize stored energy. That means when you’re on a diet you can experience training burnout more easily.
Overall Carb Intake
Another function of cortisol is to increase blood sugar levels when it’s too low. If your carb intake is low, your cortisol will be higher.
By the way, that’s the reason some people report very high energy when they do intermittent fasting or use a keto diet. The low carb intake requires that you mobilize stored glucose or amino acids to produce glucose. This means releasing cortisol, which leads to an increase in adrenaline, which gives you “energy.” But it comes at a price: a higher risk of burnout.
If you’ve ever dieted for a long period of time to get super lean or lose a large amount of fat, you know that it’s almost impossible to sleep… even if you’re dead tired. The reason? The lower you go with your calories and carbs, the more cortisol and adrenaline you produce. This makes it almost impossible to shut down your brain. You’ll start to have sleeping issues and more anxiety and overthinking.
Training in a fasted state means you’ll likely have less energy readily available to fuel your workout. You’ll have to mobilize more stored energy by releasing cortisol. This added cortisol leads to more adrenaline. Again, this is why a lot of people report having more energy when training in a fasted state: they produce more cortisol and adrenaline.
The catecholamines are made from amino acids. For example, dopamine is made from tyrosine and phenylalanine. If your protein intake isn’t high enough, dopamine levels might go down, which will also bring down noradrenaline. While this won’t make the beta-adrenergic receptors downregulate, it can lead to low levels of dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline which will give you the symptoms of training burnout.
Magnesium helps regulate the adrenergic system by dislodging adrenaline from its receptors. Someone who’s deficient in magnesium will have a harder time “bringing himself down” once amped up. If you stay activated for longer, you’re at a greater risk of beta-adrenergic downregulation.
A higher level of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine decreases the need to produce adrenaline when in a stressful situation. That’s because acetylcholine increases the brain’s speed of transmission as well as muscle contraction strength.
People with a higher level of acetylcholine produce less adrenaline for a task without having a decrease in performance. This makes it less likely that they’ll downregulate their receptors. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have low acetylcholine levels, you’ll produce more adrenaline, making it more likely that you’ll downregulate your receptors. If you don’t have enough choline in your diet, you’ll likely have a low acetylcholine level.
Vitamin B-12 Deficiency
This will negatively affect the methylation cycle, so you’ll have a harder time clearing out adrenaline. If it’s harder to clear it, it sticks with you for longer when you release it, making it more likely that you downregulate your receptors.
Some people clear out or break down adrenaline more easily and faster than others. This is in large part related to the type of COMT they have. Some have a slow COMT enzyme, which takes a lot of time to break down adrenaline; others have a fast COMT which rapidly breaks it down.
The faster you can break down adrenaline, the quicker it stops acting on the receptors, the less likely you are to get them downregulated.
Another factor is the methylation capacity of the person (which is also influenced by genetic factors). The more efficient your methylation cycle, the better you’ll be at clearing out adrenaline.
So people with poor methylation and a slow COMT enzyme will be a lot more likely to burn out, and as a result can’t handle the same amount of overall training stress. I trained an Olympic athlete who was like that, and at the most, he could tolerate 6-8 total work sets per workout, three days a week.
Those on the other end of the spectrum – over-methylators with a fast COMT enzyme – can tolerate a lot more training and general stress without burning out, because they clear out adrenaline easily.
Other genetic factors include someone’s natural beta-adrenergic receptor sensitivity as well as serotonin and dopamine production capacity.
Every stress triggers the noradrenaline–cortisol–adrenaline cascade. As such, stress can accumulate and contribute to developing a training (or normal) burnout. That’s why you need to look at the big picture when evaluating whether a program is right for you.
How to Avoid Training Burnout
1. Evaluate your workout plans to know their stress level.
Trying to adjust a workout when you don’t know how much stress it causes is like trying to adjust your food intake when you don’t know exactly how much you’re eating.
2. Monitor how you feel each day.
The athletes I work with must write four things on their workout sheet every day: their morning fasted weight, the quality of their sleep, how good (on a scale of 10) they’re feeling prior to the session, and how good (on a scale of 10) they felt the session was.
A drop in these variables that lasts a few days is a clear sign that the body is overstressed. (Of course, if fat loss is the goal, a body weight drop doesn’t necessarily mean trouble.) If a whole week shows a body weight drop, poor sleep, and a 5-6 for workout quality and general feelings, you must deload even if it’s not planned.
3. Keep carbs around the workout.
What’s the best supplement to lower cortisol? Carbs!
That’s one of the reasons I like intra-workout carbs. For a hypertrophy session, I like to ingest carbs pre and intra-workout. For a neurological session (heavy or explosive work) I prefer to have carbs intra and post-workout.
Plazma™ is the best choice for that because of the speed of absorption and the low effect on insulin (less chance of reactive hypoglycemia).
4. Take magnesium post-workout.
Post-workout magnesium will help you clear out adrenaline, minimizing the risk of receptor downregulation. You don’t need much – 250-500 mg is plenty.
5. Use glycine post-workout.
Glycine is a really cool amino acid. It lowers cortisol and adrenaline, increases serotonin levels and increases mTOR activation, which helps with protein synthesis. Taking it post-workout and in the evening (3-5 grams) can be a huge help.
6. Deload every 4-6 weeks.
The frequency of your deload will depend on the severity of the sessions. I used to only deload when there were signs of burnout. I figured this would give my athletes more “hardcore” training weeks to stimulate progression. But it actually slowed it down. I now deload every fourth week with performance athletes and every six weeks with hypertrophy clients.
What do you decrease when deloading? It really doesn’t matter! Just lower the overall training stress of the session. Of course, lowering volume and intensiveness will be more powerful than lowering competitiveness and density.
During a deload week, I like a 25-30% reduction in overall stress if it’s a preventative deload and up to a 50% reduction if there are signs of burnout. That’s why it’s important to measure the stress level of your workouts.
When I deload someone, I normally lower volume, decrease the number of multi-joint exercises, and replace them with isolation or machine exercises. It’s only one week; you won’t lose strength.
7. When signs of burnout appear, increase calorie and carb intake.
Especially around the workout and in the evening. See carbs as a tool to help you relax. Ingest them when you want help shutting your brain down.
8. Avoid habitual use of stimulants.
While using some stimulants once a week for a brutal session is fine, don’t make it a daily thing. Stimulants target the beta-adrenergic receptors, either directly (like ephedrine for example) or by increasing your own production of adrenaline. As such they can speed up the development of a burnout state.
Also, daily stimulant use can mask warning signs of burning out, making it more likely that you continue on with the regimen that led to the problem in the first place.
9. If you use a dopamine-boosting supplement (tyrosine for example), balance it out with a supplement that’ll increase serotonin.
That’s because increasing dopamine lowers serotonin. If you lower serotonin too much, you’ll have a harder time balancing out adrenaline and calming down.
A strategy I like is to use a dopamine-boosting supplement on workout days (up to 3-4 days a week) and a serotonin-boosting supplement on off days. For example, taking Brain Candy® on training days and Z-12™ on off days. This will help you maintain a balanced brain chemistry, reducing the risk of burnout.
10. Training is not competing and it’s not a war.
While memes depicting training as an all-out war with the weights are cool, they’re not productive. Lee Haney said it best: stimulate, don’t annihilate.
Or as I say: don’t chase fatigue, chase performance. While an occasional friendly workout competition is good and will help you blast through a plateau, making every workout a contest will do more harm than good.
One Word of Warning…
In the past I’ve written programs that had a stress level that I’d see as too high. But those were written years ago, when I didn’t have the understanding of training that I do now.
Furthermore, I have been “cursed” with training elite athletes and high-level bodybuilders. These guys (for different reasons) were able to handle a lot more work without crashing. Also, I’m blessed with a very fast COMT which means that I clear adrenaline super-fast and am unlikely to burn out.
Because of those experiences, I first believed that normal people were able to handle more stress than they really could. That’s why it’s important to understand the reality of the person who will be doing the program.
I hope that you now have a better understanding of what training burnout is and what to do to avoid this ugly beast.