Overtraining: The Natural Bodybuilder's Nemesis

Taken from American Fitness Professionals and Associates

What is progress? How do you define bodybuilding progress? What types of changes are occurring within the body? Do we define change from oxen to automobile to jet aircraft progress? Can speed and efficiency be the criteria of progress? Man’s clothes have changed; his food has changed; his toys have certainly changed! Athletes in the 1990’s are bigger, stronger and faster than at any time in recorded history. These changes are all a result of improved training techniques, better nutritional supplements, and a greater understanding of eating properly to improve performance.

All these changes do not take into account the continued use of anabolic/androgenic steroids, diuretics, and growth hormone. When these illegal and many times harmful ergogenic aids are introduced there are significant strength/body-weight increases. But at what cost? Man used to travel a few miles an hour; now, he can exceed the speed of sound easily. What are the advantages of saving time? When asked why he did not wish to travel faster, an old Vermont farmer replied. "Because I figure I pass up more than I catch up with". Where is our progress in life as well as bodybuilding? Take away the gains made in strength and physique appearance that have occurred in the last 15 years in men, and especially in women, as a result of drug use, and where are we collectively. I see many trainees in the gym walking around with muscle magazines in their hands trying to copy the "champs" three hour double-split workouts. These many times high school age aspiring bodybuilders, with boundless energy, and fanatic adherence to the exercise programs are essentially wasting their time! The marathon workouts when followed by the drug-free athlete are counterproductive, and actually limit the potential for success in any sport these individuals are attempting.

STALENESS: Staleness is a term coined to describe an athlete who is overtraining, either in cardio-vascular conditioning or weight training. Many times an athlete will feel that there is no further improvements, or that they have reached a plateau, no matter how hard they are training. A very real and documented problem among athletes from beginner to advanced, is the lack of adequate rest between work-outs. The importance of rest/recovery between workouts cannot be underscored for anyone who wants to improve performance.

The scientific process of rest is known as super compensation, and only occurs with adequate rest. If an athlete’s resting phase between workouts is to long, stagnation in performance will almost always result. The opposite is inadequate rest between training sessions; which typically results from the athlete training the same body-part during the recovery phase. An example; On Monday the legs are trained while they are only at 75% recovered from Saturdays workout. Recovery is a process of restoring glycogen stores within the muscle that are depleted during exercise. This restoration of glycogen stores can only take place with adequate complex carbohydrate intake, enough rest, and attention paid not to overtrain.

What many athletes/trainee’s fail to realize is the recovery time between workouts lengthens in direct response to the intensity of exercise, i.e. the harder you train, the more rest you need. Fitness and strength levels will not improve, and after a fashion will regress, unless a planned rest segment is built into your training program. Staleness can occur at any time during your training, but typically manifest itself when both intensity of workouts and workloads are increased simultaneously. Working out in the gym for 2 1/2 to 3 hours instead of the usual 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or increasing your daily run from 3 to 6 miles per day while increasing your pace without a "light" day will promote not only staleness, but typically leads to over-training injuries (stress fractures, frequent colds, injuries that do not heal in a timely fashion, sleep disruptions, etc.).

In the last decade, cross-training has gained considerable attention, with the popularity of tri-athlons emerging. Personally, I have trained with weights during the past 20 years. After two decades, I am amazed that many of the same people I began lifting with as a youth still train chest every Monday, using the same bouncing-off-the-chest bench press movement as in the mid-1970’s! Does it state somewhere, "Monday is chest day" ?

OVERTRAINING: The number one cause of bodybuilding\strength training and general fitness training and athletic failure, especially among the drug free athletes is attributed to over-training. What can the natural athlete do in an effort to maximize his/her training efficiency? The first, and most important change is a re-programming of the mental attitude. Double-split, bomb and blitz twenty-five sets per bodypart workouts are best left to the chemically enhanced. Following "Mr. Galaxy’s" biceps workout will lead to discouragement when you do not achieve an inch on your arm, or four inches on your chest in the first week, let alone the first year. It is possible to perform double-split workouts, each lasting several hours for a very small percentage of the very advanced, chemically enhanced.

Listen to your body, if you are sore, rest, not train the same muscle group again. Strength training research dating back to the early 1950’s comparing workout programs from around the world documented conclusively that workouts consisting of 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions of a particular exercise stimulated an increase in muscle mass and muscular strength.

This translates into 3-9 sets of 8-10 repetitions depending on the body-part. An example: The biceps can be stimulated with one exercise, 3 sets, 8-10 repetitions for adequate stimulus. The back is divided into three primary groups (latissimus dorsi, trapizeus, and erector spinal or para-spinal muscles). Selecting 3 exercises (one for each group), 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions, will again allow for adequate stimulus for increases in muscular strength and hypertrophy of the muscle.

GENETICS: Over the years I have observed as young and adult alike attempt to physically alter the length of their muscles! You read that right, and sad to say I am completely serious. Muscle magazines of shown professional bodybuilders with biceps the size of softballs, if not melons that fill the gap from the shoulder to the elbow. The story goes if you train in the preacher bench you can "fill in the gap" between the biceps and the elbow. It would be wonderful if this were true, because God knows I tried!

Muscles are shaped genetically, not as a result of exercise. Training with weights can increase the size, and strength, but not the shape. Our parents can be thanked for their contribution. Believing that we can "lengthen" our muscles would be akin to believing that you can become taller by hanging from the ceiling or attain more wealth by watching the United States Treasury print money! Many men and some woman have been lead to believe that they can "peak" their biceps by performing scott or preacher curls. It has never happened and it never will. The only time there is a change in muscle belly length is as a result of a tear to the tendon or muscle and a surgical re-attachment.

FREQUENCY: The frequency of resistance training is another very mis-understood area. If you train your legs (leg presses, squats, lunges, hack squats, sissy squats) both the quadriceps of the front of the legs and the hamstrings of the back of the legs are being stimulated and broken down at the same time. Research has demonstrated that after muscle groups have been trained they require 48 hours minimum before they can be trained safely again.

I have meet many trainees, including who over-trained in a particular workout and the soreness lasted for 5 days. This soreness which is often refereed to as DOMS (delayed onset of muscular soreness) typically begins 24 hours after a training session and will peak in discomfort at 48 hours. It is believed that this soreness and sometimes pain is a result of:

  1. the overload placed on the muscles during the workout
  2. muscle glycogen depletion during a workout
  3. excessive lactic acid production and accumulation in muscle group worked
  4. failure to cool down after a workout to enhance removal of waste material from muscle
  5. failure to replace glycogen (stored blood sugar within the muscle from carbohydrates in the diet) in a timely fashion

This translation for the drug free athlete: Train the same muscle groups every 3rd to 5th day. This allows for a minimum of 48 hours recuperation, but does not exceed 96 hours. There have been articles in muscle magazines that promote training one bodypart once a week. Research has clearly demonstrated that when a muscle group has not been stimulated for over 96 hours changes associated with atrophy (loss of muscle mass) begins. When a particular muscle or muscle group has not been stimulated for 168 hours (one week) a loss of 10 percent of strength can occur.

(Side note: one reader has made the following comment about the statement above:"Not stimulated" means, essentially, "lying in a hospital bed unmoving". Ordinary activity (e.g. walking, buying groceries) is sufficient stimulation to keep muscles from starting to atrophy for at least a couple of weeks.)

If a muscle is sore, let it rest. Training a client or yourself while you still experience soreness from the previous workout is counter-productive, akin to taking one step forward while taking two steps backwards. If you have a client for personal training they cannot train heavy three times a week for their entire body. An example:

If common sense and basic physiology of the body and the bodies ability to recuperate from exercise training sessions are not followed then overtraining and failure are sure to follow. Some symptoms of overtraining to watch for in yourself and certainly in a client are:

How do you avoid overtraining? You know your body and how it responds day to day better than anyone. Keep track of your morning pulse rate and bodyweight. Sudden changes in either of these can signify overtraining is taking place.

If you or your client loses 3 percent (a 150 lb. athlete loses 5.5 pounds) of their bodyweight within 24 hours after a workout it is an indication that the exercise load is to heavy. It is very easy to damage muscle either through bizarre dieting or excessive training and lose this amount of weight. The primary composition of this weight loss are proteins and intra-cellular water.

A sudden rise in morning pulse rate of 5 -10 beats per minute for three or more days consecutively indicates that the body is in a state of chronic overtraining.

Rest the body. For the athlete rest is not optional, it is a part of the training program. This is a logical conclusion to high intensity or high volume training. Athletes involved in heavy training programs (high intensity or high volume) need 7-8 hours of sleep per night.

Diet for the Natural Athlete:

  1. A diet that is made up primarily of complex carbohydrates (65-70 Percent ) of the total daily caloric intake has to be the cornerstone for success. Complex carbohydrates, including beans, grains, rice, potatoes, are needed in the diet to replace the glycogen stores that are depleted during exercise. Insufficient glycogen replacement prevents muscular growth and performance and leads to overtraining.
  2. Excessive protein intake robs the body of calcium, increases the production of ammonia (very toxic to the body and must be buffered and removed in the urea cycle), and can reduce athletic performance dramatically.
  3. The need for frequent feedings throughout the day. (Maintaining blood sugar levels by eating every 3-4 hours).
  4. Adequate water intake. Minimum of 64 ounces of water per day.

It is essential for natural athletes to stay in tune with their bodies, and watch for signs and symptoms both for themselves and the clients they might train. Those who ignore the warning signs and continue to train without any signs of improvement soon can become demoralized and fatigued. These problems can be avoided by simply trimming off excessive exercises while watching for the signs of overtraining. Combine these steps with periodic lay-offs will result in improvements both in attitude and performance.

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