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For about a year now I've been doing the StrongLifts 5x5 weight lifting program. It was about 6 months in that I started to have to pause occasionally while I got over a minor cold - I thought it was just a seasonal thing as winter was setting in.

After a while I'd recover, go back to the gym for a couple of weeks and the situation would repeat. Upon realising the link I'd take a prolonged break from the gym altogether and restart with a big deload (~20%) but within a month or two my immune system would weaken to the point where the process started again.

I'm currently seeking medical advice but after some initial blood tests, and a physical examination there's nothing obvious.

I think I'm being sensible when I exercise, incrementing in 2.5kg stages only after successfully lifted 5 sets of 5 reps, ensuring 48hrs between gym visits and eating extra protein after workouts, extra carbs before, and fruit and vegetables all the time. I'm not even lifting particularly heavy loads - 60kg bench, 110kg dead lift, and 80kg squats are my personal bests.

Can anyone advise on how to strengthen my immune system?

EDIT (to address comments): Sleep - I work out late when the gym is less busy, say 9-10. I get on average 8 or more hours sleep a night, never less than 7. Never had a problem sleeping. Diet - Breakfast is weetabix or other whole grain cereal and whole milk, often a mandarin or similar small orange like fruit. Lunch is usually soup and bread. Evening meal mainly meat, veg and pasta/rice/potatoes. On days where I'm working out I'll eat larger portions than usual. Days after a workout I'll eat additional chicken/tuna throughout the day i.e. as well as normal meals.

Why do I think working out is making me ill? I've gone through the same cycle too many times to realise it's not a coincidence. I wait until I'm well before returning but I'll be run down again after only a few sessions. My previous health regime was football and running and this never happened after physically demanding games.

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Post hoc ergo propter hoc? How do we know that the lifting has anything to do with the colds? – Dave Liepmann Apr 25 '14 at 10:36

First, understand that stress in any form depresses your immune system. Lifting weights is a training stress, and in particular deadlifts can really push you over the edge. The goal is that when the stress is lifted and you recover you are at a stronger position. I have no idea what your current stats are with the squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, and barbell rows. A year is a long time to be on that beginner program.

Some things to consider:

  • Perhaps it's environmental. Some place where you go regularly might be a breeding ground for colds. The training stress just makes you more susceptible.
  • Perhaps it's time to move on from StrongLifts.

Stronglifts is a beginner program, a typical run with it would be 3-6 months. A whole year running the program is probably putting more stress on your body than it can handle. Moving to a different program with a slower regular progression could help your recovery a lot. You might consider Texas Method, or Wendler 5/3/1, the Cube method, or Juggernaut 2.0.

The bottom line is that it sounds like your training is outpacing your body's ability to recover. Doing 5x5 in every lift (save the deadlift) with any appreciable weight is a tremendous amount of stress on your body. By spreading that out over a week or a month, or even longer you can really help your body recover from the training stress and stay above that threshold of getting sick.

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You aren't telling us about your diet or sleep schedule. Both these factors are important when considering illness. [This part should be a comment, but I can't comment yet]

Answer: If it is directly related to going to the gym you might want to make sure you are washing your hands thoroughly after a gym session. The gym is a great place for germs to spread.

I'm glad you got blood tests and are seeking medical advice, that is probably your best course of action.

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Hi Iain,

Do you take multi-vitamins? If not, you need to add multi-vitamins to your daily intake. Vitamin C is especially needed for immune system boost.

Since you've already sought medical help and nothing obvious could be found, I would start with taking the multi-vitamins. Our bodies can't produce all the nutrients it needs; that's why multi-vitamins are needed. Vitamins rich in B-complex, manganese, zinc, and iron are also recommended daily.

Also, look out for things that can cause allergies. Your symptoms could be the results of allergies. You can try switching gyms, equipment, or clothings to determine if your situation is allergy-related.

You can also try other exercise programs to determine if these particular exercises are too strenuous for your body to handle.

We can't exactly tell you what the problem is, but by changing a few things and observing the results, you might be able to determine where the problem lies and then fix it.

Hope this helps.

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+1 for vitamins! They're dirt cheap and if you overdo them, oh well, nevermind. Better to be safe than sorry. Also goes vor mineral complexes and fish-oil. – LarissaGodzilla Apr 25 '14 at 6:20
I'll be a dissenting voice. Current research shows that most of us get quite adequate levels of vitamins and nutrients in our current diets. Most vitamins and supplements are a matter of marketing trumping actual needs, an extension of a more primitive mindset where we were convinced that ingesting magic nostrums would make us healthier.… – Sean Duggan Apr 25 '14 at 12:42
@SeanDuggan: The worst I could find in the article you linked (and others linked therein) was 'no effect whatsoever'. So is it just useless or can it actually be dangerous? If you think it can be dangerous, would you have any sources you could point me to? – LarissaGodzilla Apr 25 '14 at 13:14
@LarissaGodzilla Dangerous? Generally not. There are supplements and vitamins that can build up to toxic levels dependent on what you're getting from environment and physiology (I, myself, have to watch how much iron I take in due to hemochromatosis), but usually, you're just literally pissing away the excess that your body flushes out of the system. To use a parallel, if you overfuel your gas tank, the fuel just washes out onto the ground. For most people, multi-vitamins are the equivalent of running the pump as the gas spills out onto the pavement, not harmful but costly. – Sean Duggan Apr 25 '14 at 13:59
@SeanDuggan First, the article never mentioned that we obtain adequate levels of vitamins in our current diets. If you have an article for that, produce it. Medical professionals have already said that we don't consume enough nutrients, even to vegetarians. That doesn't mean one can't do without it; it simply means that the body isn't getting enough of what it needs. Vitamins A, B-complex, C, D, E, K, iron, manganese, zinc, etc are all good for the body. If the body doesn't get enough from food, where should it get the rest? There's a chance to overfuel, but that's a separate story. – Kneel-Before-ZOD Apr 25 '14 at 14:39

Many years ago I had a similar problem to this. I was a marathon runner, and was used to pushing my body hard. I had some blood tests done. Nothing showed up re iron or the normal things they test for, but the white blood count was low which meant my immune system was suppressed. I found it really hard to step back from training, but training hard just makes the situation worse, and prolongs the problem.

I would suggest reducing training significantly for a few months. And have at least one days rest between training days, also take a tonic to try and help with your recovery.

@Berin loritsch suggests changing your program which I think is a good suggestion. Also, as Berin said, do be aware that other things causing stress in your life will suppress your immune system. Good luck on your recovery

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