Someone once said that bodybuilding training isn’t rocket science. That implies that it’s an automatic process; you simply go the gym, lift weights, follow a good nutrition program and rest, and everything will work in your favor. Like other activities, however, bodybuilding isn’t as simple as it initially seems. Efficient training requires an honest and objective assessment of progress. If gains in muscular size and strength aren’t forthcoming, you must use your brain to figure out what’s holding you up.
Many bodybuilders, both recreational and competitive, often make mistakes that impede progress’doing the wrong exercises, using poor exercise form and not training consistently. But the most common bodybuilding mistake is overtraining.1 I’d venture to guess that few, if any, bodybuilders never experience some form of overtraining.
During the past 20 years entire systems of training have evolved that focus on avoiding overtraining as a means of promoting faster and more efficient muscular gains. One example is high-intensity training, initially popularized by Arthur Jones, inventor of the Nautilus and MedX exercise machines. Jones discovered the HIT concept after having to drastically reduce his training time and volume because of work constraints. To make up for that, he opted for less total exercise and for appreciably increasing the intensity level by simply training to complete failure, using a minimum of sets, reps and exercises.
Although he initially expected to just maintain the muscle he’d previously developed, Jones found that he was, paradoxically, making the greatest gains of his life. Being highly analytical, he deduced that the key to efficient muscle gains involves hard but brief training. He further theorized that most people had a finite recovery ability and that exceeding it quickly led to overtraining and no progress’even a loss of previous gains.
Jones’ acolytes continue to espouse HIT. Foremost among them was the late Mike Mentzer. Mentzer, who won the World Bodybuilding Championship with a perfect score, experimented with Jones’ exercise principles and developed his own high-intensity system. Then and now, an important principle of HIT states that the more advanced your experience, the less you should train.
That was, and remains today, a heretical concept. The vast majority of bodybuilding champions continue to use far more training volume than either Mentzer or Jones would ever recommend. Both those men would suggest that while bodybuilders who do extended routines appear to make progress, they’d look even better if they trained less but harder. Mentzer even implied that bodybuilders who used the volume approach were wasting much of their time in the gym.
While not everyone agrees with the concepts that underlie high-intensity training, it’s hard to deny the ubiquitousness of overtraining. Moreover, sports scientists can’t directly explain what causes overtraining.
What Is Overtraining?
At its core, overtraining is a volume of activity that exceeds your ability to recover between workouts.2 The entire basis of the progressive-overload system that forms the cornerstone of all bodybuilding is that you first train a muscle, then give it sufficient time to recover between exercise sessions. If everything works right, the body compensates for the damage incurred by trained muscles, not only repairing the damage but also adding a buffer of protection that involves upgraded muscle protein synthesis and new muscle.
The process of adding new muscle is termed anabolic. When any particular muscle is subjected to too much exercise or not enough rest occurs between training sessions, the normal anabolic process that leads to added muscle mass is curtailed and catabolic effects, which involve a breakdown of muscle, kick in. The result is what scientists call the overtraining syndrome.
Sports scientists differentiate between short-term and long-term overtraining. The short-term effect is known as ‘overreaching’doing extra sets, reps and exercises for a short time. You overtrain but stop soon enough for the body to recover in a few days. In some cases that can temporarily benefit you, acting as a kind of shock to spur new gains or pull you out of a training slump.
On the other hand, if overtraining continues, you may slip into full-fledged overtraining syndrome. Scientists are still mystified about precisely how the OTS occurs, but they think it may relate to the function of the autonomic nervous system, which is divided into two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Each part opposes the actions of the other. Most often, the sympathetic nervous system is involved in body arousal, most familiar as the fight-or-flight instinct. The parasympathetic nervous system slows the body down, modulating sympathetic stimulation.
Overtraining is an out-of-control form of stress that exceeds the body’s limits, leading to indications that something is going wrong. Scientists divide overtraining into sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects. The sympathetic form is most linked to power activities, including bodybuilding, and produces the same effects as a general stress syndrome.
Sympathetic overtraining may lead to stress while at rest, including increased resting heart rate, decreased muscle mass, decreased appetite, poor sleep, decreased workout progress, decreased recovery following exercise, increased irritability and lack of interest in training. The other form of overtraining, parasympathetic, is most linked to aerobic or endurance activity and is far more subtle. Parasympathetic OT generates low resting heart rate, quick fatigue, decreased performance, the need for more sleep than usual and depression. Scientists think that the parasympathetic version represents the more advanced stage of overtraining and reflects impending exhaustion of the neuroendocrine system.
Outside forms of stress, involving work, personal life and so on, aggravate the problems produced by overtraining. In addition, people who handle stress more efficiently’the type Bs’are more resistant to the effects of overtraining. Conversely, the type A person breaks down under continued stress. Overall health also plays a role, since medical problems add to overtraining stress.
Overtraining itself can lead to a number of stress-related physical maladies, including a lessening of immune response that opens the door to a host of infectious diseases. Some scientists contend that the immune-blunting effect of overtraining results from a more rapid use of the amino acid glutamine, which certain immune cells use as a direct source of fuel. Since overtraining strains immune function, the theory is that high-stress conditions exhaust glutamine. The depletion of glutamine compounds immune suppression.
Various tests have been proposed to identify either existing or impending overtraining in athletes, but none of them pinpoints the problems encountered during typical overtrained states. One idea is that the stress of overtraining results in an imbalance between testosterone, an anabolic hormone, and cortisol, a catabolic one. That’s true for endurance athletes, who often show low testosterone levels coupled with higher-than-normal cortisol levels, which is consistent with muscle catabolism. Studies of people engaged in excessive weight training, however, have shown little or no changes from normal in both testosterone and cortisol levels.3
A recent evaluation of the process that underlies overtraining suggests that excessive training leads to tissue trauma in muscle and connective tissue. That results in chronic whole-body inflammation and the release of cytokines, which are body chemicals that coordinate the various symptoms recognized as OTS.4 That theory further suggests that the OTS may be the body’s way of forcing the overtrained person to engage in the ultimate cure for OTS: rest.
How to Deal With Overtraining
One form of overtraining not often recognized is monotony, which comes from doing the same exercises, sets and reps and using the same level of exercise resistance without change. The lack of stimulation, both physically and psychologically, leads to burnout, and no progress occurs. The cure here is obvious: Change your workouts. You might simply change the order of exercises, train different muscles on different days or experiment with new exercises.
Most sports scientists believe that the body can’t handle a high level of training stress year-round; they suggest a periodization system, whereby the training year is divided into periods of varying intensity lasting weeks or months. So one cycle may focus on using lighter weights and higher reps with a quicker tempo of training, meaning less rest between sets. That cycle would give your muscles and connective tissues a break from constant heavy poundages. Another cycle would focus on medium weights, and another cycle would return to heavy weights, low reps and so on. The whole point is to vary the stress on your body.
When you increase training intensity, do it gradually to give your body a chance to adapt to the newly imposed stress. For example, don’t increase training loads more than a maximum of 10 percent each week; that should provide good progress while maintaining a buffer against unmitigated stress. Carefully examine how you’re splitting your workouts. If you train triceps the first day and chest the next, you may overtrain your triceps, since the triceps is involved in most chest-press exercises. Ditto for shoulders and triceps; back and biceps and so on.
Muscles grow during rest, not exercise. Exercise is merely the stimulus for growth, which occurs only when you’re at rest. You should evaluate your training progress objectively and determine the number of total rest days you need each week. Some may only need one day of rest a week, while others may need more. Not resting at all’that is, training seven days a week’is a good way to promote overtraining and burnout. Even God rested on the seventh day.
A recent study sought to determine the optimal level of training for strength development in athletes.5 It was a meta-analysis, meaning that it examined many previous studies to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. The researchers found that athletes develop maximum strength by using weights equal to 85 percent of one-rep maximum, twice a week, with a maximum of eight sets per bodypart.
Another good way to avoid burnout, staleness and overtraining is to alternate light and heavy training days. That means training any particular muscle group heavy during one workout, lighter the next’a form of periodization more suited to those who don’t care to divide the whole year into periods. On the heavy days, ensure that you limit the training volume, since heavy days require more recuperation than lighter days.
If you’re a competitive bodybuilder, consider entering fewer competitions, focusing instead on a few select events. That reduces both mental and physical stress, and pacing enables you to appear in better condition for the contests you do enter. Most professional bodybuilders use that system, knowing they can’t be in peak condition year-round.
Although it’s far easier said than done, try to avoid external sources of stress, since they merely add to the stress of training by depleting body resources. If you can’t control the level of stress you face outside the gym, it’s prudent to decrease your training volume inside.
Nutrition plays a major role in preventing and treating overtraining. Glutamine, as we’ve seen, may help prevent immune system burnout or at least modulate it. Some types of herbs, such as ginseng, are termed ‘adaptagenic’ because they help modulate physical and mental stress by affecting secretions from the adrenal gland, the gland in the body most involved in stress reactions.
An herb called Rhodiola rosea appears to be especially effective at blunting stress reactions in the body. Look for a supplement that contains 3 to 5 percent rosavins, the active ingredient in the herb.
Theanine, an amino acid found naturally in green tea, is excellent for curtailing the mental effects of stress without making you groggy or tired. A good dose is 200 to 300 milligrams. Since depression occurs frequently during OTS, consider some nutritional treatments that are free of side effects and far less expensive than prescription antidepressants’for example, tyrosine (three to five grams) and L-5 hydroxytryptophane (100 to 300 milligrams), which act as the nutrient precursors of catecholamines and serotonin, the brain neurotransmitters involved in depression. Another supplement, called SAMe (200 to 400 milligrams), is also an effective natural antidepressant.
Overtrained athletes frequently show abnormalities in glycogen restoration. That’s significant because muscle glycogen, a long-chain form of carbohydrate, is the primary fuel for anaerobic exercise, including weight training. Not having sufficient glycogen stores can lead to premature muscle fatigue during training. In addition, glycogen is required for maintenance of blood glucose levels and for full training recovery.
The best nutrient for restoring the body’s depleted muscle and liver glycogen stores is carbohydrate. Stick to low-glycemic-index carbs to avoid an insulin surge. Good sources include most whole fruits and vegetables. Such foods are also rich in antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation. Additional antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, are helpful as well, since they are difficult to get in significant amounts from food sources alone.
Several minerals are vital to immune function, such as magnesium and zinc. If you don’t eat a large variety of foods, it’s wise to consider a well-balanced multimineral supplement to help modulate the effects of overtraining on immune function and connective tissue.
Some emerging studies suggest that creatine may help prevent overtraining due to its effects on replenishing muscle energy stores. Creatine alone, however, won’t offset overtraining.
A technique that counters many of the effects of overtraining, yet is not recommended, is using various anabolic drugs, including anabolic steroids and growth hormone. I mention that only because it helps explain why many athletes appear to be protected from overtraining, even when they are obviously training far too much. Anabolic steroids unquestionably increase workout recovery, but the risks they pose are neither necessary nor desirable for those who seek to build an impressive, drug-free physique.
Don’t skimp on sleep. Sleep is the body’s primary restorative, when growth hormone peaks and the body breaks down chemicals linked to excessive stress. One theory about sleep even suggests that the main need for sleep is to help the body deal with accumulated stress. The relevance to overtraining here is obvious. Aim for at least seven hours a night, but don’t oversleep. New studies show that sleep has a paradoxical effect: Too much can cause health problems and premature mortality.
If these various measures fail to cure your overtrained condition, consider the most direct and certain cure: total rest. Take a layoff, let your body recuperate, and then come back to the gym. When you do, listen to the signs your body is providing, and take measures to avoid overtraining so it doesn’t hamper your overall bodybuilding progress.
1 Adams, J., et al. (2001). Exercise dependence and overtraining: The physiological and psychological consequences of excessive exercise. Sports Med, Training, Rehab. 10:199-222.
2 Van Borselen, F. (1992). The role of anaerobic exercise in overtraining. Nat Strength Cond J. 14:74-78.
3 Fry, A.C., et al. (1998). Pituitary-adrenal-gonadal responses to high-intensity resistance exercise overtraining. J Appl Physiol. 85:2352-2359.
4 Smith, L.L. (2004). Tissue trauma: the underlying cause of overtraining syndrome. J Strength Cond Res. 18:185-93.
5 Peterson, M.D., et al. (2004). Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship. J Strength Cond Res. 18:377-82. IM