The majority of avid exercisers make the mistake of monitoring muscle soreness when deciding whether their bodies are ready for yet another tough workout. However, overtraining – or “under-recovering” — does not originate in the muscles, but rather has an impact on the nervous and endocrine system first…including the libido.
A Real-Life Scenario
On a personal note…some years ago, a male friend and I were both preparing to enter a bodybuilding competition out of town. The final “prep week” always poses a unique challenge, not only in the gym but in the kitchen as well. Lower intake of dietary carbs, additional sessions of cardio, and lifting with a greater volume of repetitions will make a body lean, or “ripped”, in professional fitness jargon.
However, it is the cumulative effect of 13 weeks of pre-competition training that really takes its toll. During that week, I asked my friend Tom if he was ready for the show. His reply? “I am SO ready to get my libido back!” That comment caught me slightly off guard; I was expecting him to say something more along the lines of, “Yes! I cannot wait to eat pizza again!” He was brutally honest about what bothered him the most, and obviously his lack of sexual desire topped the list.
When “Just Enough” Becomes “Too Much”
On many levels, exercise can provide a boost to testosterone levels, in both men and women (yes, ladies, our bodies produce testosterone, too!) The difference lies in the frequency and intensity of the workouts. T levels tested in men following resistance training revealed increases of testosterone in the bloodstream. Yet another study conducted years later showed that recreational weight-lifting caused a temporary uptick in circulating testosterone as well as a positive impact on fat distribution in females.
While increasing physical activity may actually boost testosterone levels for individuals living an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, researchers at the University of North Carolina found a direct link between frequent high- intensity exercise and decreased interest in “bedroom activities”.
One study followed 1,077 active men, including runners, walkers, cyclists, swimmers and avid weightlifters. Those whose training regimens fell towards the lower level of the intensity spectrum reported nearly seven times the likelihood of a normal healthy sex drive compared to the men who trained at the highest levels of intensity.
Clients who do not engage in competitive bodybuilding shows may still experience loss of libido, however. Individuals who set weight-loss or performance goals in the gym often exercise 5–7 days a week, allowing for little recovery time. Depending upon one’s level of fitness, workout intensity and day-to-day life stress, such a high volume of output can lead to overtraining and under-recovery, effectively hampering one’s progress.
Among my own clientele, I often must rein in clients who seem to get caught up in a vicious cycle of “more is better”, especially women trying to shed extra pounds for an upcoming special event.
Hormones at Work
Researchers indicate that intense exercise training may lead to a condition known as “exercise hypogonadal male condition”. This situation presents itself in the presence of concurrent suppression of testosterone and luteinizing. Coupled with the fact that exercising beyond a reasonable training threshold can lead to mental as well as physical fatigue, the diminishing of sexual desire comes as no surprise.
“Excessive muscle soreness, increased fatigue, decreased performance, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and injuries are all symptoms of overtraining,” says Tim Hartwig, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist from LA. These common symptoms are easily recognizable, whereas other warning signs may be more subtle…such as the marked decrease interest in sexual activity.
“Most people become lethargic and disinterested,” he says. Intense training carries with it the potential to increase circulating serum levels of cortisol, which in turn depresses the levels of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. “Lower hormone levels will decrease sex drive in both males and females,” Hartwig reminds us.
Symptoms Affect All Systems
Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) can manifest itself in the psychological, physiological, immunological, and biochemical realms. The sensitive nature of lowered sexual drive proves difficult for many clients to discuss with anyone let alone their trainers, especially men. If you or your clients notice and/or discuss any of the following symptoms, rest assured the unmentioned depressed libido may be an unmentioned factor on the list as well.
If clients voice concerns about any or many of the following issues, perhaps training protocols need reassessment and a deloading week is in order:
- Irritability/mood changes
- Low motivation
- Lack of focus
- Reduced appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased resting heart rate
- Lack of progress, or even regression
Stress Plays a Key Role
Experts now believe that the real issue in OTS stems from instability occurring in the nervous system during periods of overtraining, specifically in the sympatho-adrenergic nervous system. This cluster of organs and nerves is responsible for handling stress. Exposing the body to more stress than it can handle, as evidenced during bouts of overtraining and/or under-recovering, reduces its ability to control certain somatic processes, resulting in hormonal imbalances that can pave the way for a lower or non-existent libido.
Hearing the Hesitant Client
Listening skills remain a top priority for trainers and coaches who hope to develop a good rapport with clients. Upon hearing such concerns from a client, a savvy trainer can take advantage of this optimal window of opportunity to delicately inquire about his level of interest in sexual activity. Note that denial may factor into his response to you; remain open to listening while still discussing the ramifications of overtraining.
Perhaps he had wanted to cut back for a while but didn’t know how to approach the subject. Obviously, the research data is available for those who troll internet fitness sites, and the possibility exists that the client was aware of the OTS/libido link but could not find a way to approach the subject with you. Again, this remains a very hard topic to bring up, and patience on the part of the professional is essential.
If you don’t feel comfortable broaching the topic verbally, feel free to share printed information on overtraining in general and where mention of loss of libido is included.