By and large, as a country, we are more unfit than ever before. Physical fitness standards have gone way down and it has become acceptable to be fat and weak. At the same time, I have been seeing more and more discussion about “overtraining” recently, and I have to say that most of the times, it makes me cringe. I put the term in quotations because I believe it is a subject that is largely misunderstood and highly overused, both by expert trainers and beginner trainees alike. Let me be clear up front that I absolutely believe that overtraining is a very real phenomenon. I am not one of those people that will call it a myth. I also believe it is an extremely serious problem that is a death sentence for anyone trying to get bigger and/or stronger. However, with that said, I believe it is something that happens to an extremely small percentage of the population and should not even be on the radar screen most trainees. Moreover, this may piss some people off, but I would go so far as to say that the fear of overtraining has led many people to become soft.
There are two main places where the subject of overtraining typically enters the conversation.
Scenario 1: A new beginner training program or article comes out bashing high volume training as a one-way ticket to overtraining.
Scenario 2: I see this one a lot in interviews. A famous trainer or strength athlete will be asked “if you could go back and change anything about your training, what would you do differently?” One of the most oft-used answers is “I would have avoided overtraining.”
Let me address each scenario and why it bothers me. First, Scenario 1. It really ticks me off when people bash high volume training. I completely understand how volume training does not fit into the picture if we are talking about training athletes, but most of these articles are related to putting on muscle. I just don’t understand how someone can say that you can’t build muscle using volume training. If you look back through history, most of the most muscular people in the world have been volume trainers. You can’t just disregard results. Now, I don’t think that volume training is the be-all-end-all of training by any means, and I don’t currently use it myself, but I certainly don’t think it’s useless for everyone. And I certainly don’t think it’s a guaranteed one-way ticket to overtraining. The way it is portrayed now, beginners are led to believe if they do 10 sets during a leg workout, or if it takes more than 45 minutes, their legs will immediately shrivel up and they will become overtrained. Until recently, volume training was pretty much the gold standard, and people seemed to be just fine. I have read about some of Arnold’s insanely long workouts that make today’s volume routines look like HIT training. His workouts would be taboo these days, but I’d say he did pretty well for himself.
Now for Scenario 2. I completely understand when advanced athletes reflect back on their past training experience and regret overtraining, because I do think that some advanced lifters overtrain themselves. But here is how my mind works. If all these guys are at an extremely advanced level, and they all “overtrained” in their youth, maybe there is some merit to what they were doing? I know these guys are trying to encourage newer lifters to scale it back, but why? They didn’t and they turned out to be the successful ones. How many advanced athletes do you hear reflect on their past training and say how they took it easy growing up and really eased into things? I have not heard any. Most of the successful athletes I know (except a select few genetic freaks) trained like absolute animals in their earlier years to get to where they are today. In fact, they trained the exact way that we are encouraging people to avoid. This makes no sense to me. Any time you see a pattern of success, I think you have to look more closely at what is going on. So let’s do that now.
To me, it comes down to the fact that training demands change with time. In my own experience, and from what I have observed, overtraining is a much more present danger for the advanced athlete than it is for the beginner. One simple reason could be age. As we get older we lose some of our recovery ability. This really only applies though after the age of 35 or so. The two biggest reasons why advanced lifters are more at risk for overtraining are 1) heavier weights and 2) increased intensity. As you get stronger and begin to use heavier weights, you find that you simply can’t handle the same amount of volume as you could when you were weaker. A 500 pound deadlift is going to take a whole lot more out of you than a 135 pound deadlift. Now, some people might argue that if both sets are done to maximal exertion, the fatigue would be the same for each. This argument makes sense logically, since both people are going as hard as they can, but I would argue that anyone that says this has never lifted heavy weights. I know for me, when I was doing dips with just my bodyweight for sets of 4, I could easily knock off 10 sets in a workout with no real problem. When I got up to adding 150+ pounds, however, I found I could only handle a couple sets tops before I ran out of gas. This is a result of the sheer weight, but also learning how to recruit more motor units, which comes in time. New lifters using light weights do not recruit nearly as many motor units, so they can get away with more volume before they are fully fatigued. Heavier weights take a great toll on the body, so the program you used when you were weak no longer works, but that does not mean the original program was a bad thing necessarily because at that time it served its purpose.
It’s not just the heavier weights though. The other factor is intensity, which really only comes from the experience of continually pushing yourself to the limits day in and day out. Even though I thought I was pushing myself to my limits in the beginning, I did not have close to the intensity I have right now. Over time you learn the ability to dip deep and learn what hard work truly is. This is not quantifiable, but I know that anyone reading this that trained for awhile knows what I am talking about. I used to be able to handle 50 set leg workouts. Now, 10 sets buries me. Part of that is because I am using much heavier loads, and the other part is that I take my sets far deeper than I could when I was learning. This is why you hear advanced trainers regretting their past “overtraining.” I will submit that if they continued to use those same programs at their more advanced training age, they probably would be overtrained, but they were not truly overtrained at the time or else they would not have become so successful.
I am one of those people that did absolutely crazy workouts myself. When I used the example of 50 set leg workouts, I was not exaggerating. I did this regularly. I once trained 55 days in a row, and all of those workouts were hard. I experimented with all sorts of different training programs, sometimes in the same workout. I would double up on different programs and just do both at once. I did not put on any substantial muscle during this time because I was obviously not giving my body the necessary time to recover. I did everything wrong. But I have no regrets. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Would I have been more successful if I took a “smarter” approach? Maybe, but I believe in the long-term I am much better off for having taken the path I did. I may have sacrificed some muscle gain in that time, but I learned some valuable lessons in the process that will stick with me forever. Most importantly, it taught me the importance of work ethic, good ole’ fashioned hard work, and how to push myself. This is invaluable. In time, I have learned to harness my effort so they will be utilized and not wasted, and I have learned how scaling back is actually more effective, but I believe that you first have to develop that work ethic before anything else can fall into place, and you can only get that by working your ass off. Intensity is a lesson that must be learned by doing. Nobody can tell you to be intense. You have to live it and feel it for yourself.
Talking about the dangers of overtraining really gives the wrong message in my opinion. It is well-intentioned, no doubt about it, but it is misplaced. The people that need to hear the message are unfortunately not listening because they are too busy working. Instead, lazy people latch onto it and use it as an excuse to remain lazy and justify their lack of effort. I have read people say that you can’t do cardio after lifting or else you will overtrain. Or that hitting a muscle twice a week will overtrain you. Or that if you don’t sleep eight hours a night you will not grow. Or even that you cannot lift weights or do hard exercise on back-to-back days. Really? Give me a break. What about all the guys in the military that do incredibly strenuous exercise every day? What about all the professional athletes that lift hard in addition to practices, games, travel, etc.—all on minimal sleep? What about the tri-athletes that train hard 3 times a day? Or the gymnasts that do advanced bodyweight moves all day long? Or the olympic lifters that train multiple times each day? We see examples all over the place that prove that are bodies are capable of much more than we think they are. If you look around you, the most successful people are generally the hardest workers. That is not a coincidence. Since when did it become a bad thing to work hard?
Like I said before, I do think overtraining is a serious concern for some people, and those people must watch out for it and learn to use more restraint. I struggle with this myself at times. Most people, however, will never come close to working hard enough to overtrain and would be far better off thinking less and doing more. You will not become overtrained in a day, a week, or a month. Be smart and listen to your body along the way, but realize that to get results you have to leave your comfort zone. There is no way around that. To know your limits, you have to first push your limits. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.