An Olympic-style weight lifter at the tender age of 8, Jolaina Peltier bears the scars of overtraining.
Her parents both avid body builders, Peltier accompanied them on twice-daily gym workouts, performing power cleans, dead lifts and bench presses.
"I thought it was really fun to be included," she says.
A year into the intense regimen, Peltier's knees started to swell, reason enough to see her pediatrician, who diagnosed her with Osgood-Schlatter disease. The condition typically strikes children involved in sports and is characterized by inflammation and fluid build-up that worsens with physical activity.
But stunted growth was the underlying consequence of Peltier's athleticism. Lifting too much, too often had caused her growth plates to close, an injury that couldn't be remedied, doctors said. Standing 4 feet 11 inches tall at the age of 21, Peltier never grew any taller than she was at age 9.
"It's way too young," she says of her first lifting program.
Now a certified personal trainer employed at Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford, Peltier safeguards clients from overdoing it at the gym. Her sagest piece of advice is one trainers hand out often: Give your muscles at least one day of rest between workouts.
"You're actually causing little, microscopic tears in your muscle fibers," says Jeni Beck, fitness coordinator for Rogue Valley Family YMCA.
"Benefits and strength gains are made on the days that you rest."
As a workout's intensity increases, more rest is required to recover, says Bill Macy, director of Avamere Health & Fitness Club in Medford.
"More rest is better than less," Macy says.
While athletes can focus solely on strength training two or three days per week, Macy says, the average adult looking to improve overall fitness should incorporate strength training with exercises that build endurance and flexibility in every workout. Varying the routine is a key point, regardless of physical-fitness level and even if a person doesn't exercise every day, Macy adds.
"They just repeat and duplicate the same workout day in and day out," he says, adding that the habit engenders a lack of progress.
Failing to deviate from a program and the absence of physical gains are both warning signs of overtraining, Macy says. Inability to muster enough energy for a workout is another important indicator, one that can portend irritability, sleeplessness and depression, even in elite athletes, he adds.
"Your body is talking to you, and they tend to zone it out."
Frequent feelings of light-headedness plagued Peltier throughout her youth, which was spent shuttling from softball, karate and track practices with inadequate meals in between. Taking a break, she says, didn't seem like an option if she was to win an athletic scholarship to college.
"I was doing sports from sunup to sundown," she says. "Everyone always wants to push through the pain. I always kept quiet and said it's going to go away."
Peltier's body, however, started to give out before she ever made it to high school. Her entire right shoulder joint has been replaced with a prosthetic, and her left shoulder has been surgically repaired twice.
"Rotator cuff" injuries are among the most common wounds associated with weight-training, usually the result of poor technique or straining to lift a weight that's too heavy, fitness trainers say. For that reason, beginners shouldn't attempt to lift weights over their heads, Macy says.
"It's such a prevalent injury because it's the most loosely held-together joint in the body," he says.
After shoulders, the knees, spine — particularly the lower section — and feet and ankles suffer the most in the weight room, Macy says. Feeling like a joint, rather than surrounding muscle, is bearing the load indicates that one's form is off or the weight is too heavy, Beck says. Sharp pain, particularly in the joints, is reason to see a doctor, Macy says.
Because machines limit the body's range of motion, fitness trainers recommend that novice weight lifters start there and gradually add a few free-weight exercises. While free weights require more precise technique, they also stimulate the entire body, improving balance, coordination and mental focus, Macy says. Muscles also become fatigued quicker while lifting free weights, making them valuable components in an endurance workout, Macy adds.
"It's a huge energy expenditure," he says. "It forces you to engage your brain."
Whether lifting dumbbells or using machines, gym-goers should make the most of every repetition by resisting gravity while releasing the weight, instead of focusing only on the primary push or pull, Macy says. For example, don't allow the bar to drop onto your chest during a bench press, he says. And never attempt to "max out" — or lift the heaviest weight possible — at every workout, he adds.
"Trying to max out every single workout — physically your body can't handle that," Macy says. "If you could get human egos out of strength training, you could probably prevent 99 percent of injuries."