The Overtraining Trap
Only this week, I spoke to a new client who had been trying to beef for some time. Explaining to him that he was overtraining was difficult because it went against everything he had been thinking previously. He, like many, had major trouble getting his head around why he had reached a plateau without getting near where he wanted to be. He had been doing weights for three sessions per week, total body workouts lasting around 90 minutes per session. This clearly was not working so, deciding to apply logic to the situation, he decided to take a plunge and up the training. Welcome to the Overtraining Trap.
Whilst I can easily see how it makes sense to respond this way to a lack of success ('the more you put in, the more you get out' etc), it is often the worst thing you can do. In this example, my client was already overtraining with his three sessions per week, so to take it further would simply result in more blood, sweat and tears, but negligible results. Every gym session should make a significant impact on your goals, whatever they may be. However, over trainers slip into a regime of habit, forcing themselves into the gym at every spare moment out of a misled sense of self-duty. Most gym users have witnessed this in action, either in themselves or almost obliviously in the sight of (generally young) men who, day after day, can be seen toiling in he same spot in the free weights room but, month on month, never change the weights or develop their physique.
So why does a massive workload not lead to massive gains in physique? The reason is that you never give your muscles a chance to recover from their last session. It takes at least 72 hours for muscles to recover from an intense workout, and it makes no sense to interfere with this repair within this phase. To get scientific for just a second, what happens every time you overload on the weights is that muscles actually get broken down and micro-tears appear in the fibres. Although this sounds bad, it is extremely beneficial and your body super compensates by repairing this fibre stronger and, should you feed yourself well enough, bigger. Most of the size gains will occur in the first 48 hours but MRI scans prove it takes considerably longer for the repair to become fully knit. For this reason, I recommend a total body workout just twice a week. This allows the individual to get through plenty of work, whilst also allowing plenty of recovery time for that work to be rewarded through sustained strength and size gains.
Remember, no one has ever developed a single fibre of muscle in the gym. All the gains come whilst at rest. Indeed, the biggest proportion of muscle growth occurs whilst you sleep are you getting enough? Ignore anyone who tells you that you need x amount of hours per night, everyone is different and your sleep requirements will change on a daily basis, depending on the exertion you have endured that day. Weight training will increase your need for sleep. But even whilst you are awake, it is important to relax your muscles and give them the time to do their bit. Sometimes, watching TV is good for you! I can understand the mindset of someone who is focused on their goals and feels guilty if they are not at the gym. It is admirable. But you should resist the temptation to do a little light work' or begin to use a split routine when your training goals mean that four sessions a week are not necessary, as is the case for most people. If you really enjoy going down, spend a session focusing on intense fitness work followed by a fat-burning element. This would be much more beneficial than another session in the gym. But for pure muscle-building, rest is vitally important.
One thing I would urge caution on adapting split routines if they are not necessary. This sees them working one part of their body one day, and another part the next. The advantage of this regime is that the muscles used can be worked harder because energy levels are generally higher, but it is not always suitable for a large part of the gym population. Split routines increase the time spent in the gym and so also reduce the number of rest days. It also uses up more energy, which is detrimental to most people as there is a massive tendency to under-eat amongst gym users, especially those trying to beef. Total body workouts also have the benefit an increased surge of muscle-building hormones. Every time you overload a muscle, the tissue breakdown causes a surge in hormones; the bigger the muscle being overloaded (eg legs), the bigger the surge in hormones. As these hormones are transported through the bloodstream, other smaller muscles (eg biceps) undergoing a repair can benefit by piggybacking' an increased hormone level otherwise beyond their means. Even muscles that you haven't overloaded benefit to a smaller extent ever wondered why big, muscly guys have big, muscly faces? Split routines are not bad, but you do miss out on certain advantages and this needs to be considered. Split routines are understandably favoured by bodybuilders etc because, generally, they are at an advanced level of muscularity whereby extra growth can only be brought about by intense focus on one muscle group and have adapted their schedule so that they can eat enough to sustain more regular exercise. However, the amount of work regular gym users place on one part of the body during their split routine (e.g. 3 sets on each of 3 exercises) is just too much and, with more than two thirds of the workout left, the effectiveness has vanished, with rest/energy preservation/hormone-piggybacking also out the window.
Often, gym users fall into the trap of adapting their training to match that of other people (He's big so he must know what he's doing). This is a big mistake. At every gym, you will always find a small group of bigger guys who seem to live in the gym. Just because they are there every time you are there does not mean you should train more yourself to match them. These men, either bodybuilders or pure power athletes, will be using split routines to allow themselves more recovery but, even then, many would benefit even further from increased rest between visits to the gym. Bear in mind, though, that some guys are genetically blessed in the respect that their muscles can recover quickly. Of course, it is true that some have help in their recovery times from steroids; this is their choice but not recommended. Accept that your genes restrict you to more regular progress, and so you should employ a balanced gym regime that makes the most of your genetic leanings by getting the basics right.
Although a basic idea, understanding how to make the most of the build-up (anabolic) phase is definitely one of the most important concepts in weight training. But the same applies to reducing the effect of the breakdown (catabolic) phase. Some breakdown must occur to stimulate the surge in muscle building hormones, like testosterone, human growth hormone and IGF-1s, but there comes a point at which you begin to cause more catabolic action without any corresponding match in the anabolic action it is meant to stimulate. This massively hits potential growth, and an early spell of compromised effectiveness is soon replaced by a plateau in progress. At this point, the catabolic and anabolic phases are now balanced, cancelling each other out.
To correct this, you must minimalise the catabolic phase without compromising the anabolic phase a smaller amount of sets on a muscle with increased intensity is the best way to do this. This is no way to define a limit as to the maximum number of sets an individual can do without doing more than is necessary, but two very intense sets (failing between 10 and 12 reps) is consistently effective. You should also avoid training the same muscle more than once within the same session it will increase the breakdown but, as it is weakened from previous exertion, it will not be able to overload itself to an extent that would make the exercise beneficial. Four big exercises can cover all the major muscles groups; adding several more to work the core can complete a short but intense training session that will catapult your progress. If you have been training for 45 minutes and you are still not finished, you should definitely look at revising your workout.
Once outside of the gym, there is no way you can increase the growth stimuli that you have created, but there is plenty you can do to make the most of it. As mentioned above, at rest is the only time that your body is capable of developing the fibres undergoing repair. The other vital component is feeding your body enough of the vital raw materials required to do the job that means enough energy and protein every three hours (your body cannot hold amino acids, the building blocks of protein, for longer than this once digested). What you do outside of the gym is just as important as inside the gym. Progress cannot occur without both being taken care of.
Although it is tempting to lazily tell you to go forth and use common sense, it is simply not an option in this case. Logic has constantly told us from a young age that you only get out what you put in, compounding by ignorance within the industry. However, in this case, science shows us that the reactions caused by weight-training require time to bear fruits and so these laws must be obeyed if you want to make significant progress. Instead of working hard, we must work smart (and then work hard at working smart). I know there will be some doubters, even at the twilight of this article, who have toiled for many fruitless months or even years in the gym without knowing why but are still loath to accept that the answer was easier than they would have ever thought! Reduce the number of gym sessions, increase the intensity.
Marek Doyle, www.blueprintfitness.co.uk
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