We are a society with a "more is better" attitude. More money, more convenience, more luxury and more, more, more! However, when looking to build more muscle, sometimes more is less. One of the major reasons that trainees fail to build the physique they desire is they do too much in the gym!
They either do too many sets, work out for too long, or train too many days per week. The result? OVERTRAINING! And with it comes little to no gains in size or strength (and in severe cases, muscle loss, illness, and/or depression).
What many trainees fail to realize is that every time we workout, we make massive inroads into our recovery abilities. We put ourselves in a situation where our bodies need to actually "heal" before it can grow. And this does not only go for our muscles, but our CNS (central nervous system) as well.
Not only does the body need to repair the micro trauma that occurs within muscles during training, but it must also restore hormonal and neurotransmitter balance, reboot the immune system, and clear free radicals from the system.
Think of a workout as digging a large hole in the ground, complete recovery as filling the hole, and muscle growth as creating a mound of dirt on top of the filled up hole. When you overtrain you will be digging a hole that is too big for your body to fill, which means you will never have the opportunity to pile dirt on top! No extra dirt means no extra muscle!
My feeling is that the problem lies in most of today's bodybuilding publications. We see the professionals looking freaky and massive, and read how they train twice per day, six days per week, and do 20 or more sets per body part! Most figure, "If that's how they got that massive, the same principals must work for me!"
What many fail to realize, however, is that because of steroids, growth hormones, and a plethora of other drugs, coupled with ideal genetics, and quite possibly no 9 to 5 job to worry about, the pros are able to train far more than most without suffering any ill effects.
In fact, their bodies actually thrive on it! That is not the case for the genetically average, drug free trainee, with a regular job to tend to daily.
Trying to follow the routine of a pro bodybuilder will spell disaster for most of us, leading many down a road of frustration, and some to even quit altogether!
So, what is the ideal way to train for maximum gains in size and strength? Well, there are several effective ways to train, but to list them all goes beyond the scope of this article. However, there are some general rules that I feel should be followed by the drug free bodybuilder in order to avoid overtraining and to optimize gains:
Train No More Than 4 Days Per Week
There is simply no need to train more than 4 days per week. Some people with poor recovery ability might be better off with only three training days per week. Train on the days that are most convenient for you, but make sure you pay attention to rule #2.
Train No More Than 2 Days In A Row
In my experience, with myself and with those I have trained, after two straight days in the gym there is a need to take 1-2 days off. I have seen how time and again, strength and muscular endurance take a large dip after 2 straight days of intense training.
Also, I have noticed that when the average person trains 3 or 4 straight days, that the immune system becomes compromised, making you more susceptible to illness or injury. Remember, we do not grow in the gym, but at home while we rest.
Workouts Should Last No More Than 60-75 Minutes
There is scientific evidence that after this period of time, that testosterone levels begin to drop and cortisol begins to rise dramatically. This will drag your body down by making it more difficult to achieve an anabolic (growth-inducing) state once the workout has ended.
Besides, there is no reason a workout should take longer than this. If it is, chances are you are doing to many sets and/or exercises, or, you are being far too social in the gym. If you are serious about getting big, get in the gym, do what you have to, and get out.
Work Sets For Larger Muscle Groups Should Be
Between 7 And 9
If you focus and concentrate 100% of your mental and physical effort into each working set there is no reason you need any more volume than this.
Those that do 12, 15, or 20 sets for large body parts are obviously not training very hard, or there would be no way they could withstand this many sets. Once you have stimulated a muscle to grow, doing more sets will not stimulate the muscle any further, but will only take away from your ability to recover from your workout.
Work Sets For Smaller Muscle Groups Should Be Between
5 And 6
See above rule.
Mostly Free Weight Compound Movements Should Be
While I have nothing against machines and cables, there is no doubt that the best muscle builders are free-weight compound exercises. Huge physique were built in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s with little more than barbells and dumbbells.
The balance and concentration is takes to lift free weights activates more muscles, more muscle fibers, and "excites" the nervous system more than machines or cables do.
If you talk to most of the biggest guys around, almost all of them will tell you that they built most of their mass with basic exercises like bench presses, deadlifts, squats, military presses, bent rows, barbell curls, and lying tricep extensions. There is nothing wrong with using machines or cables, but if you want to get huge, make free-weights the cornerstone of your program.
Most Work Sets Should Be In The 6-12 Rep Range
Studies have shown that lower reps (1-5) tend to build strength and higher reps (13 -20) muscular endurance. That does not mean that they cannot build ANY muscle, just that those rep ranges are not optimal when hypertrophy is the main goal.
The rep range of 6-12 keeps the muscle fibers under tension for an ideal amount of time, and with enough resistance to affect growth. For your work sets you should shoot to reach momentary muscular failure somewhere between the 6th and 12th rep.
Strict Form Must Be Used
Using strict form on all of your exercises will assure that you are stimulating the muscle that you are wishing to target. Those that "throw" the weights up when doing side laterals or barbell curls, for example, are only cheating themselves out of growth. The primary reason that people do this is to create the illusion that they are stronger than they are. But take anyone that can "cheat curl" 150 lbs and make them do the movement strictly and you will find that they might barely be able to curl 110 lbs.
Interestingly, if someone were to strictly curl 110 lbs for 6 reps vs. swinging up 150 lbs for 6 reps, they would receive much more biceps growth with the lesser weight. Once you reach failure using strict form, THEN it is ok to use momentum (to a reasonable degree) to try and extend your set a bit further.