avoiding workout burnout

Avoiding Burnout

By: Barbell Logic Team

There are times when you need to recognize that outside factors have affected your training. During these times, the answer is almost never to “push harder.” The satisfaction you get from training is tied closely to your goals, values, and the sense of identity you have as a lifter. The first step in dealing with negative stress that is impacting your training progress is one of perspective. And, it often starts with how you view the weight on the bar.

How to Avoid Burnout?

Photo: Nick Delgadillo

It takes passion to be successful with barbell training. That’s because success is not a moment in time or a single lift or even a clearly definable goal.  Success means taking the decision to start training and turning it into a life-long habit. Though you will have many victories and likely a few failures, success is matching the value training has for you with proportionate effort.

In an odd kind of twist, however, passion is both a necessary component of long-term success and a contributing factor of burnout, the state of disinterest in as the result of physical and emotional exhaustion usually following a prolonged bout of stress and frustration. When everything in life and lifting is going perfectly, burnout is rarely an issue. But the stars rarely align so neatly or for very long. Inevitably, you will have to deal with unproductive stress and its effect on your training. This negative stress, when unaddressed, can become chronic and lead to burnout.

But burnout is not like lighting from a clear sky. If you know what to look for you can see it coming, and with some care, you can manage negative stress in a healthy way, one that preserves your progress and keeps training as something positive in your daily life.  

What is burnout?

Burnout is a loss of interest in training. It follows a predictable pattern:

  1. Some happening or series of events cause you mental and physical exhaustion; then
  2. You internalize lost progress or backsliding as a reduced sense of accomplishment; and
  3. You begin to devalue your training as the source of your sense of exhaustion and failure.

“Exhaustion appears to be the core component in burnout as well as an early sign of the burnout syndrome.” (Moen, Myhre, Stiles, “An Exploration about how Passion, Perceived Performance, Stress and Worries Uniquely Influence Athlete Burnout,” Journal of Physical Education and Sports Management, Vol. 3, No. 1: 88-107 (June 2016).) This precedes or accompanies performance that is below your expectations and tends to lead to feelings of inadequacy or the inefficacy of your effort. Without some adjustment, a lack of motivation and the decision to stop training may follow.

If your goal is to make training a life-long pursuit, then it helps to identify signs of physical and mental exhaustion and to learn to deal with accumulating negative stress in a positive way that does not affect the value or your sense of accomplishment from training.

Emotional and Physical Exhaustion

Exhaustion is the state of homeostatic imbalance from which you cannot adequately recovery. It is  “[t]he most obvious manifestation of athlete burnout is feelings of emotional and physical fatigue associated with training and competitions, defined as emotional and physical exhaustion.” (Moen). Whereas positive training stress leads to recovery and increased ability. Negative stress leaves you weaker, more fatigued, and less able to endure the recurring stress.

Both emotional and physical exhaustion follow a stress-response pattern. You are likely familiar with the concept of stress-recovery-adaptation. This is the framework we use for all training. The goal is to cause a stress to the body in the form of a workout or series of workouts. Then, you facilitate recovery from that stress. And, recovery leads to a predictable positive adaptation. When this cycle is successful, the stress is positive or productive stress. If, instead, you are unable to recover from the stress, either because the stress was too great or because you ignored your body’s needs for recovery. Then you end up weaker, not stronger. This is negative stress. Chronic negative stress can lead you to physical exhaustion.

Emotional stress works under a similar framework. All stress causes a physiologic and cognitive response. Novel mental or emotional stress creates an alarm response just like physical stress. Only, unlike training stress which is directed toward a beneficial adaptation, emotional stress can be simply unproductive stress, meaning it contributes nothing of value. Or it can be negative stress, becoming harmful and threatening to overwhelm your ability to deal with it in a healthy way.

If the stress is one that you can cope with easily, then like physical stress it can lead to a productive mental response. (Moen) If you are unable to cope with that stress, then it becomes negative stress. A big part of this is perception. Athlete studies have demonstrated that under the same types of mental stress, people who see themselves as having the resources to cope with the stress, do. If, however, they see the stress as a loss of control, or one that overwhelms their resources, it becomes negative stress and contributes to emotional exhaustion.

The perceived inability to cope can become a negative spiral. The accumulated negative stress affects your ability to recover from training, making the previously salutory training stress negative. This can lead to the second phase of burnout.

Reduced Sense of Accomplishment

An afflicted sense of accomplishment is the flip-side of passion. “Passion is here defined as a strong inclination toward a specific sport that an athlete loves (or at least strongly likes), highly values, and is willing to invest time and energy in on a regular basis.” (Moen) If you are serious about training, you’ve invested some amount of time, money, and a whole lot of energy into getting stronger. You’ve figured out how to eat differently, how to rest more. You’ve probably learned things about the benefits of protein that you never would have cared about before. You’ve probably even had to defend the benefits of barbell training to your friends or family who wonder why you’d want to risk hurting yourself lifting “all that weight.” When you’ve given so much to training, it can hurt when things don’t go your way.

There are times when you need to recognize that outside factors have affected your training. During these times, the answer is almost never to “push harder.” The satisfaction you get from training is tied closely to your goals, values, and the sense of identity you have as a lifter. The first step in dealing with negative stress that is impacting your training progress is one of perspective. And, it often starts with how you view the weight on the bar.

There is a difference between chasing personal records (PRs) and celebrating PRs. We always celebrate PRs, but we may not always be able to chase them. A healthy passion for lifting means that your lifting should lead to greater positive effects even when you are unable to train optimally. While strength gains are the most obvious benefit to training, maintaining strength, voluntary hardship, stress reduction, and fun are all valuable effects of training as well.

If instead your passion for strength training borders on obsession over heavier and heavier weights. Then you are more likely to accumulate rather than dissipate negative stress during these difficult phases of your training.

We’ve made the argument over and over again that strength is valuable and that training and the process of getting stronger are also intrinsically valuable. If training is causing you negative stress, then you should reexamine your reasons for training. Is the PR really the goal, or are you in it for the refining process. If the PR really is that important to you, consider signing up for a competition and using that as an organizing force in your training. This means you can have cyclical improvements to your training instead of the chronic pressure to constantly set PRs.

If your goal is the refining process, then consider how well you embrace the grind and whether you are also putting enough effort into your recovery practices. Flagging enthusiasm may be due to accumulating exhaustion. Negative stress affects your ability to make gains. But it doesn’t take away your hard work so far.


Perspective is how “voluntary hardship” translates to “valuable hardship.” Sometimes the valuable hardship means just imposing order on the chaos of your life and taking back some control for yourself. Sometimes hardship is something as simple as lifting with good form, learning the movement and having form breakthroughs are some of the most difficult and valuable breakthroughs you can have as a lifter. Everyone chases a number on the bar, but only a few people are willing to do the work that is needed right now, only a few people are willing to suffer in the short term without a clear idea of when they will get to their goals.

That willingness is part of the ability to cope with getting sidetracked or sidelined by negative stress. Your success lies in your willingness to do what’s best for you and your training, not your willingness to absorb punishment and hope for the best. Be aware of the looming unproductive stress and know that it will impact your training, but also understand that you can deal with it and keep moving forward. It just takes a little bit of time, a few adjustments, and maybe a slight shift in perspective.




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