Q: I’m a 24-year-old business student from Austria and a huge bodybuilding fan! It is a real pleasure to get in contact with such a legend as you. I’ve read a lot of bodybuilding books and magazines and tried all kind of routines, but, sadly, I didn’t make noticeable progress in four years of hard training and clean eating. I’m pretty confused about the intensity factor of bodybuilding programs. Nobody seems to explain how many sets you should do to failure. When I’m training each muscle two times per week and doing a pyramid routine with just the last set to failure, I’m getting a sore throat after two weeks. Is that a sign of overtraining? Is it possible to overtrain with such a routine?
A: Overtraining can be the result of many things. How hard you train is just one of the reasons you can be in an overtrained state. The primary cause factor in overtraining is how much rest you’re getting overall. If you’re training too many days in a row without enough rest days, you can easily overtrain, especially if you’re training very hard.
You mentioned that you are working each muscle group twice a week. If you split your body over three days to train it, you could end up training a total of six days a week, unless you schedule a rest day.
I recommend that you add a rest day after every two or three days of training. Many bodybuilders feel that they can train day after day, as long as they are training different muscle groups at each workout; however, the body as a whole also needs rest and recuperation, especially when you’re really training hard.
Here is a routine I’ve used in the past that enabled me to train the muscle groups more often while still getting plenty of rest. It’s a three-day-split program, training the whole body over three days.
Day 1: Chest, arms, calves
Day 2: Legs, abs
Day 3: Shoulders, back
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Repeat cycle
Adding that rest day after training your whole body will enable you to work much harder when you resume training. Many people are overtrained from hitting the gym so often, and they don’t even realize it. It’s only after taking a day or two off that you will comprehend how much you needed the rest. Your workouts will be so much better because you will feel stronger and have so much more energy.
The big muscle groups like legs and back take the most energy and require the most calories to train really hard. They are the biggest muscle groups in the body, so you can use a lot of weight, which takes a lot out of you. I’ve had really heavy leg and back workouts and have been totally wiped out the next day. If I forced myself to go to the gym when I was so drained from the workout the day before, I would end up overtraining my body because I was working out again when I should have been resting.
It’s very important to listen to your body when you’re training hard. There is nothing wrong with taking a day off when your body tells you it’s tired. If you’re stubborn and stick to a set routine, you can easily end up pushing yourself too hard and end up getting sick or overtrained.
From what you said, I don’t think you’re doing too much in your training program. Using a pyramid program and only taking the last set to failure is not overdoing it by any means. You have to make sure you’re keeping your sets moderate and not doing too many for each bodypart by including too many exercises. If you perform too much work for each muscle group, you can risk overtraining by overdepleting your energy reserves.
Keep the sets moderate—12 sets for bigger muscle groups and six to eight sets for the smaller muscle groups—train hard on each exercise, and schedule enough rest days per week, and you should be able to avoid overtraining.
Another important point to consider is nutrition. Eating enough of the macronutrients, particularly protein and carbohydrates, will help your body recuperate from your hard training.
You should be eating at least five or six meals per day. Frequent feedings will help keep your body in an anabolic environment by providing the muscle tissues with the nutrients they need for growth and development. Each meal should consist of a complete protein food—eggs, turkey, chicken, fish, steak or protein powder—and complex carbohydrates, like oatmeal, oat bran, sweet potatoes, brown rice or Ezekiel bread.
It’s also vital that you take in a postworkout recovery drink like Optimum Nutrition’s 2:1:1 Recovery. A good postworkout drink provides fast-acting carbs and protein to get into the muscles immediately after a workout. That helps increase recuperation time and muscle growth. Your muscles are in a unique environment after a workout, so it’s important that you take advantage of this opportunity by getting a postworkout drink designed to enhance your recovery.
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com for more information about how you can be a part of his exciting, new Natural Olympia Fitness getaway. Send questions or comments to John@NaturalOlympia.com. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s radio show, Natural Bodybuilding Radio, at NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM