Fitness has long been filled with cheesy clichés that supposedly help motivate us work harder. “Feel the burn.” “Go hard or go home.” “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” The thinking goes that if we put in more effort, we’ll see results faster.
But more is not always better, especially when it comes to exercise. Consistently engaging in strenuous workouts day after day or dialing up the intensity too far can push our bodies over the edge.
According to Kevin M. Cronin, PT, ATC, JSCC, a physical therapist and owner of ARC Physical Therapy in Illinois, overworking occurs “when the difficulty of the exercise exceeds what the body can manage without triggering the body’s own protective fascial reflexes.” This can lead to any number of painful conditions, from mild and fleeting to chronic and severe, he adds.
When physical stress is not balanced with proper rest, injuries and the breakdown of tissues can follow. Whether you’re lifting major weights or training for a triathlon, there are several telltale red flags that can indicate that you may be overworking at the gym, says Karena Wu, DPT, OCS, a New York-based physical therapist. Here are four that sports therapists want you to keep an eye out for—and some info on what you can do to help your body recover if you’ve taken things too far.
4 signs you’re overworking at the gym
1. Burning pain
A burning pain (sharper than, you know, what you normally feel when lifting a heavy weight) could be an indicator of potential muscle strain, says Dr. Cronin. Any painful kind of burning, or pain that doesn’t go away with rest “could lead to tendinitis, or worse, an actual tear,” he says. He recommends stopping immediately the minute you begin to feel any strain: Whether in the joints or muscles, excruciating pain is your body’s way of telling you that the activity might be too intense.
2. Extreme sweating or extra red cheeks
Extreme sweating, an abnormally hot flushed face, and increasingly poor coordination are all possible signs of heat exhaustion. “Drink water, and lie down with a cold pack or compress on the forehead and or the back of the neck,” recommends Dr. Cronin.
3. Severe muscle cramps or soreness
When there’s too much lactic acid buildup in your muscles, it can reduce the tissues’ ability to contract, leading to fatigue and a feeling of heaviness in the limbs, says Dr. Wu. Lactic acid buildup is a result of high-intensity exercise, and occurs when there’s not enough oxygen in the muscles to break lactate down. It’s the body’s way of telling us that it can’t physically continue to exercise.
Severe overworking can also lead to rhabdomyolysis, “where muscle fibers break down and enter the bloodstream,” she adds. “There will be associated muscle soreness, weakness, and brown or dark urine color.” With muscle soreness from overworking, you might feel pain when the exerted muscles are worked, but with rhabdomyolysis, the pain is excruciating even during rest.
4. Moodiness and diarrhea
When there’s too much lactic acid in the body, it can cause a metabolic imbalance, which can throw off our mood, appetite, and even digestion, “leading to poor function of the gastrointestinal tract and processing of foods,” says Dr. Wu.
What to do if you’ve overworked yourself at the gym
If you’re not feeling 100 percent, the best thing you can do for your body is to lie down for some Netflix time, and skip the gym until your body is back to normal. Dr. Cronin recommends making the most of your recovery time by applying ice to any body parts that hurt after exercise, and massaging sore muscles to improve blood flow.
Replenishing the fluids you lost during exercise is essential so that your body can start the repair process. “The rule of thumb is one ounce of water a day for every two pounds of bodyweight,” says Dr. Cronin. For example, if a person weighs 150 pounds, he recommends drinking 75 ounces of water per day on a non-exercise day, plus more during workouts.
3. Invest in bodywork from a pro
“If you are engaging in repetitive strenuous exercise such as triathlons or CrossFit competitions, it may be helpful to see an active release technique practitioner to help reduce the effects of scar tissue in the body from the long-term abuse of such activities,” Dr. Cronin recommends. It might not be a relaxing massage, but you’ll feel better afterward.