Everybody has heard it at some time or another "You're over training! That's why you're not making serious gains". But, do we understand what it means? I mean really understand what it means? Once you understand how to keep your body fresh and free from over training, you'll make some serious mass/strength gains.
Over training means the body is being put under greater stress than it can handle; it's that simple. Any additional stress that is above and beyond what your own body can handle will result in a failure to recover and grow. It follows that you could be fairly dedicated, training with a routine you believe to be a well thought out approach to getting big; yet fail to move ahead and grow if your body is over trained. The real let down with overtraining is that you won't grow regardless of nutrition! If you are in an over trained state, muscle growth and recovery comes to a dead-stop no matter how much you pump your body with protein, carbs, creatine, glutamine and/or essential fatty acids.
The intangible part of over training is that it varies greatly from person to person. Stress adaptation is the body's ability to deal with and recover from hardcore training. This is different for every bodybuilder out there; just as the metabolism will vary from person to person. We all know people who can eat a lot of junk and get away with it, while others seem to blow up when they marginally overeat. With training, you have to discover and hone what your body can handle and what it can't handle. Once you strike the right balance, the gains will come rather easily. With regards to overtraining and how it varies from person to person, let me tell you about a retired top pro I used to consult with. This pro frequently performed at least 20 to 24 sets for larger body parts and 15 or so for smaller body parts, taking each and every set to total failure. Every training partner he hooked up with never grew, ending up completely over trained while the pro continued to grow. Before you assume "Yea that's because all those pro's use anabolic steroids", I can tell you this pro trained clean (yes, drug free for the majority of the year) and very often his training partners were not drug free. There are several lessons to be learned from this anecdote:
1) What's too much for one individual may not be for another.
2) If you over train and hit the body too hard without adequate rest and recovery, you won't make gains even if you take steroids!
I always said, this particular pro made it to the pro ranks on hard work and exceptional recovery ability.
One of the dumbest things that I have ever heard is that "There's no such thing as over training, just under eating". The idea is so far off the mark and ill advised, I don't even want to spend much time with it. The fact is, nutrition can only support the body so far. When exercise stress exceeds your body's own tolerance for recovery, you go back wards. You don't grow; even if you are eating a lot.
When Dorian Yates burst onto the scene, he followed up on the ideas formulated by Tom Platz and Mike Mentzer years earlier. Dorian's take on things was consistent with Tom and Mike's which was that most bodybuilders fail to grow because they train with too many sets (known as volume) and usually train too frequently. This can be characterized by training everyday or not taking enough rest days. Platz, Mentzer and Dorian were right. When you train too much, you don't grow. However, Mentzer fell into the trap that "If more is not better than less – even far less may be radically better." So the pendulum shifted from heavy volume to far fewer sets. Suddenly, bodybuilders were doing 6 sets for chest or 8 to 10 sets for back which in my opinion is not enough to optimally stimulate growth. To understand why their approach may have been a little bit overboard, here's brief note on physiology. Building muscle relies on the weight you use. Pretty simple, right? If you can perform a set of barbell curls with 150 pounds, you'll stimulate far more growth than using only 100 pounds. No matter how you cut it, the weight you use is critically important in stimulating the muscle growth. After the weight comes volume or the total number of sets you perform. Volume influences muscle growth. If you do not perform enough sets, you'll fail to trigger growth. If you get carried away and do too many, you'll over train and also fail to grow. So you have to find a balance, a happy medium.
BUT CHRIS, WHERE IS THE HAPPY MEDIUM??!?
It depends on a number of factors, but here are some guidelines to help you sidestep the pitfalls of overtraining.
1) The More Sets You Perform, the Better
Just as the greater the weight you handle, the better in terms of muscle recruitment; the more sets you do, the greater you'll work a muscle. The thing you really have to distinguish is where to stop. To illustrate the point, just ask yourself is three sets of bicep curls really better than one? Of course, the answer is yes. Is five better than three. Most likely. Is 7 better than five? The point where you have to stop or the point where more sets are no longer helping is typically where you lose the "feel" or "pump" in the muscle or where your poundages start to drop. For example, Victor Martinez can't do 20 straight sets of standing barbell curls with 120 pounds. After the sixth set, he will no longer be able to use 120 pounds. If he was aiming to do 8 to 10 reps per set, after set number five, six or seven, the weight he can handle will drop off quite a bit meaning it's time to move onto another exercise. When you reach a point where the poundage starts to fade, that's it. For some people like a beginner or intermediate that might be 2 to 3 sets while for someone like Victor it might be 5 to 6 sets. It's important to listen to your body and move on when you need to. If you lose a pump, move on. When your poundages drop and you can't handle the same heavy weight for each continuous set, move on to another exercise!
2) Speed Of Reps Count
The speed or perceived speed at which you move a weight influences how many sets you can do. Outside of the weight and total number of sets you perform, the speed at which you drive a weight has an influence on growth and can determine your own personal threshold for over training within each training session. Moving a weight fast, with speed and aggression, is far better for growth than moving a weight with a slow and even speed. That's because in trying to "drive a weight" with the intensity of a bullet coming out of a gun, a far greater number of muscle fibers come into play than simply moving the weight with a slow cadence. Slow training, in my opinion, is a gimmick and has no real place in mass building plans. If you want to grow, you should pick a heavy weight and drive the weight while maintaining good form. Of course when you drive a weight, there's not going to be a lot of momentum created because when you overload the muscle with a heavy weight, the poundage radically cuts down on the creation of momentum. In overloading a muscle with a heavy weight and driving the weight by pushing it fast rather than super slow, you physiologically create the greatest amount of stress on the muscle as possible. One way to discover whether you are about to do too much is by getting in touch with your ability to drive a weight. If you go into the gym and there's no oomph to the muscle and you can't explode or drive the first few sets of an exercise (after warming up of course) you are already over trained. Get out of the gym! On the other hand, if there is a lot of snap in the muscle – you can drive those heavy weights and you feel powerful, obviously you are not overtraining and should proceed with the workout.
3) Frequency Counts
Another factor influences recovery is training frequency. For the most part, I believe you have to train a muscle once every 5 to 8 days. In general, if you train a body part more frequently – for instance, training chest every fourth day – you won't grow due to over training. On the other hand, if you wait more than 8 days, you'll also fail to grow. In this case not by over training but by failing to train frequently enough. You see, the muscles grow by stimulating them, then resting. If you rest too long – waiting too many days before hitting the same muscle group for another workout, the stress on the body appears to be too great which overwhelms the recovery process leading to a lack of growth. Let's put it this way, imagine training legs on Monday and then again on Wednesday. The time in between is too short, so you over train. Now try training them for a second time 10 –12 days after the first workout. What happens? The time between training is so long your legs become immensely sore the second time you train which can also trigger over training. You need balance, not too often and not too infrequent. To avoid over training, you'll need a training strategy that allows you to hit each body part once every 5 to 8 days with 7 to 8 being the ideal.
4) Too Many Days In a Row
If mass is the goal, you have to rest. Many bodybuilders won't be able to train more than two consecutive days – or at least should not train for more than two consecutive days in a row – because training for more than two days usually causes hormonal changes that lead to over training. Typically, in an over training state, testosterone levels start to drop a little. In addition, you'll experience a small surge in cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone released from the adrenal cortex that sits just atop the kidneys and it increases in response to stress. In small amounts it actually contributes to anabolism – the building up in muscle tissue. However, when released in larger amounts, especially when testosterone levels drop even mildly, it tends to tear muscle down creating a catabolic scenario. I've found most bodybuilders can not train for more than two consecutive days in a row before having to take a day or rest. For most individuals, good gains can be realized following the 2 day on 1 day off system where half the body is trained in two days followed by a day of rest. Then the other half of the body is trained in two days followed by another day of rest. In fact, even following this approach many (hard training) bodybuilders and athletes could risk slipping into a state of over training. Chronically, even the one day off becomes inefficient at facilitating recovery. The next logical step is to incorporate another day off after 3 cycles of following the 2 on 1 off system. For example, after cycling through 2 on, 1 off where you train all the body parts at least one time, repeat this for three cycles then incorporate another day off.
Day 1 – Chest & Biceps
Day 2 – Quads, Hamstrings & Calves
Day 3 – Rest
Day 4 – Back & Abs
Day 5 – Shoulders & Triceps
Day 6 – Rest
This is equal to one cycle. After going through three cycles, tag on another rest day such as follows
Day 1 – Chest & Biceps
Day 2 – Quads, Hamstrings & Calves
Day 3 – Rest
Day 4 – Rest
Day 5 – Back & Abs
Day 6 – Shoulders & Triceps
Day 7 – Rest
Day 8 – Rest
This added rest day can ensure you don't over train. At this point, you would go back to the original two on one off schedule.
5) Hormones Count
Some bodybuilders resort to shooting illegal anabolic steroids in hopes of adding mass. Illegal anabolic steroids help prevent over training – at least for a few weeks. The reason why is because it all boils down to the interplay of hormones: testosterone, thyroid, growth hormone and cortisol. Overtraining plays havoc with your own anabolic hormones – suppressing them – while dramatically increasing the circulation of catabolic hormones. In part 2, we'll take a closer look at hormones and what you can do naturally, from diet to supplements, to alter your hormonal status to help you overcome the perils of over training.
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All articles by Chris Aceto have been edited and arranged by Jeff Pearce since April 2011. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions e-mail him at [email protected] .