I was asked a question here at Orthocore the other week that spurred a whirlwind of thoughts in my head. Someone online asked, “Did Arnold [Schwarzenegger] ‘overtrain?’ Where is the line? How much is too much?” If only there were easy answers to these questions.
Overtraining is a common term in fitness. Most people who have experience in the weight room or with any competitive sport are familiar with the concept. In short, overtraining is exactly what it sounds like, training too much. However what constitutes as too much is the tricky part.
Let’s start with one thing that’s commonly agreed upon, the symptoms of overtraining. These are excess muscle soreness, increased fatigue, sickness, feeling sleepy, decrease in strength and endurance, and finally injury. If you’ve gone from a training program that has yielded success to feeling one or more of these symptoms, start to take a look at your training intensity and frequency as well as your diet and rest habits. You may indeed be overtraining.
Now we come to the complicated part. How much is too much? Let’s start with the base question, did Arnold Schwarzenegger overtrain? No, Arnold did not overtrain. Arnold had a style called volume training. This included high numbers of repetitions and sets for just about every exercise he performed. His idea was the more time under tension the muscles spent; the more they would be signaled to grow. Clearly it worked. However Arnold was a professional bodybuilder. He was literally paid to work out, eat, and sleep. Add in the anabolic steroids that professional bodybuilders take and you have a higher capacity for stress on the central nervous system and the muscles.
You and I however, are not Arnold Schwarzenegger. Odds are most people in the gym have busy lives and may even have physically demanding jobs. Spending hours in the gym vigorously attacking the body is probably not our best bet in the long term. The biggest factor in the average gym-goer’s life will be rest. How much time do you actually have in your day and your week to let your body rest and recover from your training? If you have a lot of time to sleep and relax, you can probably push yourself pretty hard in the gym. If you’re very busy and physically active outside of the gym, you may want to have less frequent and more focused workouts that fit around your schedule.
Now it wouldn’t be exercise science unless there were exceptions to that basic rule. So many other factors still come into play here. Age is a big factor, when we’re young with high testosterone outputs we can handle a much higher training volume with less negative effects. When I was 24 I trained a good 5 times a week and my sessions were heavy and intense. The frequency and intensity continued to produce consistent strength gains as well as progress in my endurance and goals for low bodyfat.
Now that I’m almost 30 and have multiple previous injuries, I workout about 3 to 4 times a week and my workouts are sometimes as short as 30 minutes. But they are very careful and focused. Movement and strength are my key training points now; the more endurance oriented workouts don’t treat my shoulders well anymore. So I make up for that by eating lean and taking walks. I have to make sure I’m always strong and well rested to be able to coach my clients in complex lifts, and to perform my second job which also requires a lot of heavy lifting.
Let’s use another example that isn’t me. Going back to the world of professional bodybuilding for a minute I want to talk about Dorian Yates. Dorian Yates was well known for having the biggest back muscles in bodybuilding for a while. He was in incredible shape and one of the biggest and strongest in the sport. However he would look at Arnold’s volume training and call that overtraining. Yates had a training philosophy of “less is more”. Essentially he would train each exercise just to the point where he felt a rep produce what I call a “training stimulus”. This term is used to identify at what point in a set of exercise that an appropriate challenge has been reached that will produce results in either, hypertrophy (growth), strength, or both. Once Yates reached that rep, he would stop the set and move on. This method is closer to how I train, however I will typically perform more sets than he did.
Let’s look at another anomaly. I’m talking about crossfit; specifically professional crossfit competitors. Now crossfit is a hot button topic in fitness but I’m not going to get into that here. Let’s instead look at what crossfit competitors do. Crossfit is an intense form of circuit training that incorporates lifts from powerlifting, the olympics, and strongman competitions. The workouts associated with crossfit are usually intense times bouts of exercise that are very endurance focused. Why wouldn’t training like this all the time be considered overtraining? Well it would, however your typical professional crossfit competitor is very muscular, very big, and very strong. That’s because these endurance workouts are practiced, but are not their entire training routine. Crossfit competitors actually have a very specific strength training routine to accompany their endurance workouts. The two combined allow them to reach amazing physical condition. These athletes are also professionals with sponsors paying for them to essentially exercise eat and sleep as well. Conversely, the casual crossfit enthusiast who only does the circuit workouts may find they plateau and hit symptoms of overtraining without a focused program to accompany their training.
Let’s close this before I get on another long tangent. The bottom line is this, overtraining is real, however it is also hyped up in a way that may scare people away from trying different training styles that may benefit them. The reality of it is that lots of factors about your life and your body will come into play to determine what kind of training will produce the best results for you. So much of fitness is trial and error. Just know when to stop the error portion before serious injury occurs. If I could drive home the most important factor to avoid overtraining, it would be to make sure you get enough rest. I would recommend at least 2 to 3 days off each week from training, and 8-10 hours of sleep. (get to bed early!) If you would like to know more about overtraining here is one of the easiest to read articles I’ve found on the subject. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/how-to-combat-cns-overtraining.html
Happy lifting! -Adam