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Ask The Muscle Prof: The Truth About Overtraining

Overtraining is the bogeyman of the bodybuilding world. But is it really the menace it's cracked up to be? Our Muscle Prof, Dr. Jacob Wilson, looks at the research and explains how to safely increase your workload.
Q
I'm considering a program that would have me working legs three times each week. It seems like a great way to get more muscular, but will it put me at risk of overtraining?

Muscular hypertrophy, or muscle growth, is at the heart of the sport of bodybuilding. But it's not just for the mass monsters; the vast majority of people who start training want to build some muscle, even if they'd never dream of calling themselves a "bodybuilder." However, many fear that the high volume in hypertrophy-focused programs will inevitably put them on a slippery slope to "overtraining," a condition which will end up causing them to lose muscle.

So the real question is: What does it really take to push someone over the edge? The answer is, "Probably more than you think."

First, let's clarify that there is a difference between "overreaching" and "overtraining." Overreaching is a short-term decline in performance that can be recovered from in several days. Overtraining occurs when it takes weeks or months to recover. This is actually an extremely rare occurrence—as long as nutrition and supplementation are adequate.

Further, unlike overtraining, which is negative, overreaching can actually be beneficial in a well-structured training split. Let's take a look at the recent research and see how to make volume work for you.

Frequency and Volume Are Not Your Enemies ///

The two most prominently discussed causes of overtraining are training frequency and volume.1 One of the old school myths of bodybuilding is that training any body part more than once or twice per week will result in "going catabolic." However, there's plenty of research that shows the opposite.

In one recent example, researchers in Norway took elite strength athletes who were training squats, deadlifts, and bench press three times per week and turned up the training frequency to six times per week.2 I'm sure many of your overtraining alarms are going off, but the researchers actually found that their subjects' strength and hypertrophy skyrocketed! This isn't totally unexpected. In fact, many elite athletes, such as the legendary Bulgarian national teams, have been training 3-4 times per day for decades.3

Frequency is important because training increases protein synthesis, but in well-trained athletes, this response lasts only 16-24 hours.4 Thus, if you blast each body part only once per week, you only really boost protein synthesis for a day afterward. If you have specific goals for, say, your arms, legs, or glutes, why would you stop there? Why not allow for growth three times per week or more?

The next issue is volume, which refers to the number of sets performed during training. There are two schools of thought about how volume affects hypertrophy. The first is that all the body really needs is one hard set, as long as it is performed to failure. The second calls for a higher-volume, multiple-set approach. Recently some researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia studied volume in a bodybuilding population with this debate in mind.5 They followed three groups who performed 3, 12, or 24 sets of squats per week. Their conclusion: the higher the number of sets, the greater the gains.

How to Safely Overreach ///

So how do you make this work for you? I recommend that you start by manipulating training frequency before volume. Let's say you presently train 18 sets for legs each Monday. You can start by increasing frequency to three 6-set workouts per week. This would result in greater overall protein synthesis.

Once you have adapted to training more frequently, each session can be increased in volume. For example, you might perform one high-volume 16-set workout, one heavy 6-set workout, and one moderate 12-set workout. Finally, when social and psychological stresses are low and it's easy to plan your life around training, incorporate a purposeful overreaching cycle.

To do this, you would combine high volume with inadequate rest, with the intent of "summating" your workouts collectively into one giant training stimulus. For example, if your legs are lagging, you might train them for five consecutive days. The following week, you would return to normal training frequencies but lower the number of sets by about 40 percent to allow your body to recover. This is known as a "taper" and usually lasts for 1-2 weeks.

It's important to understand that this should only be done with proper supplementation and protein intake. The lab where I work recently did a study where we had bodybuilders lift nearly 200,000 pounds in a week. When these athletes supplemented with anti-catabolic agents such as HMB, their gains skyrocketed after tapering. When not supplementing, they actually declined in strength and didn't fully recover following the taper. The takeaway is that high-frequency high-volume training is a tool that works best alongside proper nutrition, supplementation, and rest.

References

  1. Fry, A. C., & Kraemer, W. J. (1997). Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. Sports Medicine, 23(2), 106-129.
  2. Raastad T., Kirketeig, A., Wolf, D., Paulsen G. Powerlifters improved strength and muscular adaptations to a greater extent when equal total training volume was divided into 6 compared to 3 training sessions per week. 17th annual conference of the ECSS, Brugge 4-7 July 2012.
  3. Garhammer, J., & Takano, B. (1992). "Training for weightlifting." Strength and Power in Sport, 357-369.
  4. Kim, P. L., Staron, R. S., & Phillips, S. M. (2005). Fasted-state skeletal muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise is altered with training. The Journal of Physiology, 568(1), 283-290.
  5. Robbins, D. W., Marshall, P. W., & McEwen, M. (2012). The effect of training volume on lower-body strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(1), 34-39.

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About The Author

Dr. Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., CSCS*D is a professor and director of the skeletal muscle and sports nutrition laboratory at the University of Tampa.

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bearcatt14

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bearcatt14

This is fantastic. Finally, an educated writer dispelling the myths that these bros hold dear. THANK YOU

Jun 27, 2013 5:15pm | report
Lunacyy

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Lunacyy

Jacob wilson is a ******* boss! glad he has joined the team of writers!

Jun 27, 2013 6:02pm | report
VonSchwarz

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VonSchwarz

Great article, I have always been a big fan of overreaching!

Jun 27, 2013 6:47pm | report
jamezcatt

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jamezcatt

There goes my excuse to stay home.

Jun 27, 2013 7:45pm | report
Little2Big1990

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Little2Big1990

haha I know right!

Jun 28, 2013 8:14am | report
rexprime

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rexprime

Great article, this seems to match the results I have been seeing by training back and legs twice a week. It may be time to add a third day to both and see what happens.

Jun 27, 2013 7:53pm | report
StckMan

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StckMan

Well there goes it.. Training my legs 5 consecutive days..

Jun 27, 2013 8:03pm | report
Shepherd215

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Shepherd215

Its nothing new. Frank Zane had a strategy where he would train a lagging bodypart three days in a row and destroy it, then take a week off from that bodypart and it would recover and come back even better. The body's limits are much higher than alot of people give it credit for. Bruce Lee once said "Id rather be overtrained than undertrained." And i agree with him.

Jun 28, 2013 8:50am | report
StckMan

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StckMan

Sorry dude, didnt know that.. people have been telling me that since my body fat aint increasing its pointless to overtrain.. but today just did Leg Day 1 out of 5...

Jun 28, 2013 8:36pm | report
dboy2121

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dboy2121

Thats horrible!!

Jul 2, 2013 8:04am | report
Roald94

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Roald94

Am I supposed to lower the sets in all the workouts the next week, or is it just for the bodybart i have been training extra the previous week?

Jul 12, 2013 1:07pm | report
  • Body Stats
  • ht: 17'10"
  • wt: 214.95 lbs
  • bf: 18.0%
jeanvanier2010

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jeanvanier2010

Summer hours at my gym is 9-2 sat and closed sun bullcrap. Guess its time to buy home equipment

Jun 27, 2013 8:05pm | report
XxmetallicaxX

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XxmetallicaxX

I hear ya man, my gym I retarded, only open for 4 hors on the weekends and closes at 8pm during the week

Jun 27, 2013 9:14pm | report
Tharayman

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Tharayman

For reeeal xD Same **** here, but I live at ******* Svalbard ^^

Didnt think it was like that in the civilized world!

Jun 28, 2013 11:37am | report
  • Body Stats
  • ht: 16'10"
  • wt: 202.4 lbs
  • bf: 17.6%
robinjarrell

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robinjarrell

nope just find a 24 hour gym,i did .

Jul 8, 2013 1:13pm | report
2SevensClash

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2SevensClash

Everything old is new again. Anybody old enough probably remembers all the ads for Leo Costa's Big Beyond Belief system from the early 90s. Multiple short work outs a day, 6 days a week. It was based on the "secrets" he allegedly learned from the Bulgarian weightlifting team.

Jun 27, 2013 8:17pm | report
DrJacobWilson

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DrJacobWilson

Thanks a lot everyone! Exciting topic!

Article Rated:
Jun 27, 2013 8:32pm | report
dreambig1993

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dreambig1993

I love this article!!! I hate when people use 'overtraining' as an excuse

Jun 27, 2013 8:45pm | report
XxmetallicaxX

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XxmetallicaxX

This article doesn't really clear up the overtraining discussion people talk about as far as injuries goes, this only mentioned whether or not you can make gains with overtraining......

Jun 27, 2013 9:16pm | report
tmittan

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tmittan

Despite the title, the article isn't even about overtraining, it's about overreaching. Still great information

Jun 28, 2013 8:59am | report
salabajzer

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salabajzer

Exactly. I was hoping for some information about nervous system damage. Because I think the CNS plays bigger role in overtraining than skeletal muscles.

Jun 30, 2013 8:14am | report
Moniquita

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Moniquita

Great information! I am glad to have read this because I would really like to be able to train legs more but I have always been told that it would lead to overtraining. Thank you for the clarification!

Jun 27, 2013 9:19pm | report
DrJacobWilson

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DrJacobWilson

Thanks Moniquita!

Jun 27, 2013 9:26pm | report
casta8

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casta8

I am reading this right before i go to bed, now i dont want to go to sleep i want to hit the gym! lol Great article.

Article Rated:
Jun 27, 2013 9:35pm | report
20fourseven

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20fourseven

have been doing this for long time- training whole body whenever I go to gym and usually take the next day a little easier

Jun 27, 2013 9:46pm | report
Showing 1 - 25 of 121 Comments

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