Today I’m going to give my opinion on whether overtraining is an actual thing or if it’s just broscience. So grab some popcorn and make yourself comfortable!
There are 2 types of people/views when it comes to overtraining.
- It doesn’t exist, people who believe in it are pussies, who don’t have the commitment or discipline to spend hours in the gym at a time.
- Of course it exists, those who think it doesn’t are naive/stupid.
And because of these 2 very conflicting mindsets, it isn’t too regularly discussed in the gym (unless you want an excuse to hulk smash that numpty curling in the squat rack).
Recently some personalities in the bodybuilding world, have also put on their brave boy pants and voiced their opinions on the matter. Rich Piana strongly put across his views in a 30 video on youtube, referring to people who think overtraining exists, as “lazy” and looking for “excuses” (with a few f words inbetween).
CT Fletcher and Kali Muscle are other bodybuilding figures that agree with Rich Piana on this one.
Alternatively, other people in the bodybuilding world believe it is possible to overtrain and you’re likely to enter this undesirable state:
- If you train a certain muscle group more than once or twice per week
- If you spend more than 45-60 minutes in the gym.
- If you do HIIT (high intensity interval training) for more than 15-20 minutes.
And if you want your muscle to grow, the last thing you want to do is overtrain due to its catabolic (muscle wasting) effects.
My view is even more controversial because it falls in neither of these 2 categories. I believe the truth lies actually somewhere inbetween. Here’s my verdict:
It’s impossible to overtrain a muscle. However, it IS possible to overtrain your central nervous system.
It’s Impossible to Overtrain a Muscle
I’m now going to explain what I mean by this. If you could overtrain your muscles then these real life examples simply wouldn’t have happened.
. Real Life Proof #1 – Gymnasts
Yep, you noticed it too when the olympics comes on and you’re all ‘mirin the male gymnasts (no-homo).
90% of these guys are natural ectomorphs, with little frames – yet they’ve got bulging biceps, boulder shoulders and lats so big; they could be mistaken for half man-half bird.
The ironic thing with gymnasts is, they actually don’t want to build muscle. Being heavier makes it increasingly difficult to do their movements, as muscle is very dense.
This means that muscle is very heavy for the amount of space it takes up. And being heavier, makes it increasingly difficult to perform their exceptional bodyweight-based movements.
So their naturally muscular physiques are the by product of the training they do.
So, why is their training so much better than lifting weights? Should everyone be practicing calisthenics (gymnast movements) instead?
No. In fact doing pull ups, squats, dips are also bodyweight movements that are equally as effective as gymnastic training. The difference lies in training volume and TUT (time under tension).
How often does a weight lifter train arms? once or twice per week. Thus giving a total of 1-2 hours of time under tension for the biceps (excluding rest).
Gina Paulhus who took part in the USA olympic program, says gymnasts train for 30 hours a week. So that works out as 6 hours a day x 5 times a week. Gymnasts have 6 different events to train for which are: floor, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar.
Out of these 6 events, 4 stand out as being particularly demanding on the upper body being: pommel horse, rings, and the 2 bar events.
If we minus 1 hour out of their schedule for a warm up and a warm down, this gives them 5 hours to perform six different events. This gives them 50 minutes on each. And in total the 4 demanding events that work the upper body will make up 200 minutes = 3 hours and 20 minutes.
Multiply 3 hours 20 minutes by 5 = 16 hours of upper body per week.
Muscle time under tension for an average weight lifter/bodybuilder (main muscle groups and over the course of a week):
- 1 hour chest, 1 hour back, 1 hour arms, 30 minutes shoulders = 3 hours, 30 minutes
Conclusion: An olympic gymnast’s muscles will be under tension for almost exactly 5x longer in comparison to the average weight lifter.
This certainly disproves the bodybuilding theory that anything over 30-60 minutes a week for a muscle group is overtraining.
Josh Hewett (owner of Top Form Fitness) is also a fan of TUT – listing it in his top 3 ways to keep your muscles growing.
Real Life Proof #2 Prisoners
We all know of someone who’s been to prison and has come out absolutely jacked. There have been a few theories from fitness experts as to why this is, but none have really sussed the exact reason as to why prisoners experience such amazing transformations.
Several fitness ‘experts’ say things like:
- “They have access to steroids in prison“. This is debunked because there are several accounts of people who swear to not taking steroids and that they would’ve told people close to them if they really were on them.
- “They have low stress“. I agree that they don’t have to worry about paying bills, a moany wife, long hours at work etc. so their stress is lower.
However, they certainly don’t live completely stress-free life. Approximately 7,000 people die in prison every year (1).
Also by having low stress levels, doesn’t mean you’ll get jacked.
- “They lift heavy/do compound exercises“. Oh right, and millions of people who go to gyms don’t?!
The truth is prisoners are on nutrient-deprived diets, they don’t much protein at all, they don’t take any supplements and they don’t have access to the “weights” room for most of the day.
So how do prisoner’s get so jacked?!
Alright alright, I’ll spill the beans! The reason why is because although they don’t have “weights” in their cells, they still find ways to stimulate muscle growth with exercises such as:
- Doing curls with a five gallon jugs filled with water (2)
- Different variations of pushups: including standard, diamond, elevated, one handed and clap.
- Pullups/chin ups, holding onto metal water pipes.
- Dips on stairs or “half wall” like things (2).
- Bodyweight squats/lunges
Now you’re thinking – ‘But surely anyone can do all of those exercises out of prison?!”
Yes you can, but like gymnasts, prisoners have all day to workout – and they practically do.
For example, Charles Bronson, says in his book, Solitairy Fitness, that he does 2,000 pushups every day.
So, say the average weight lifter does 1 hour of chest a week. At least, 30 minutes of that session is likely to consist of purely resting; leaving 30 minutes for actual lifting.
We’ll assume that it takes 2 seconds per rep (1 second for the concentric part of the lift and 1 second for the eccentric part).
So 30 minutes divided by 2 seconds (1 rep), means that the average weight lifter will complete 900 reps for chest per week.
So if Charles Bronson and other inmates are performing 14,000 reps a week for chest, and the average weight lifter is doing 900 reps. Prisoners like Bronson are doing 16x more reps.
There’s an clear trend here; it’s quite obvious that the more time a muscle is being worked, the bigger it grows.
Real Life Proof #3 Tom Platz
Tom Platz had the greatest legs in bodybuilding history hands down. They were practically tree trunks.
And he used to have squatting workouts that lasted as long as 3-4 hours (3). This is the definition of commitment (insanity).
He had incredible leg strength and could squat 227.5kg for 23 reps. However this strength resulted from training with lighter weights and doing higher reps (4).
Again this points to the same philosophy of more time under tension, as his legs will be working for 2-3x longer doing 23 reps, compared to the average 6-10.
Other examples of increased time under tension include: mechanic’s forearms, dancer’s calves, footballer’s calves and a gorilla’s arms.
With the last example of a gorilla, their arms looking as big as their legs. This is because they walk on all 4’s throughout the day – time under tension.
As a result of this they have six times more power in their upper body compared to humans (5), and exceptional muscularity.
Some may argue that they have different DNA and genetics, but in reality our genes are 98% identical to a gorilla’s (6).
It IS Possible to Overtrain Your Central Nervous System
What I mean by this statement is that when a person lifts weights, this stimulates the central nervous system and adrenaline/cortisol levels shoot up.
The higher these stress hormones are, the more fatigued your body will be. This decreases your ability to recover, and increases the risk of overtraining.
Stephen from Built Lean made a cool analogy regarding your CNS and overtraining:
The difference between overtraining and overreaching. Overreaching is when someone increases their exercise intensity, and the body adapts to this intensity by growing stronger/bigger for example.
Overtaining is when a person increases their exercise intensity to a point where the body begins to break itself down instead of making gains, making short-term recovery impossible.
Here are some common signs of overtraining:
- Elevated resting heart rate (evidence of higher adrenaline levels).
- Always thirsty. This is because when your body is catabolic, it makes you dehydrated.
- Insomnia. Not being able to sleep is normal when overtrainined. Because your nervous system is so stimulated, you will find it hard to calm your mind and switch off. Resulting in racing thoughts at night time.
- Depression. The more cortisol that’s in your blood stream, the less testosterone and serotonin you will have. Testosterone the male anabolic hormone can greatly impact wellbeing, and serotonin is the neutotransmitter in your brain responsible for making you feel good.
- Anxiety. Cortisol makes your body enter “fight or flight” mode. Because you’re in this aroused state, you begin to see everyday harmless situations as threats – causing anxiety.
- Moody/Irritable. This is the same principle with when you’re hungry (hangry!). Have you ever got really shitty when you haven’t eaten anything for ages (my girlfriend can account for this!). This is because the longer you go without eating, the more cortisol spikes.
- Becoming ill. This is a sign of a weakened immune system.
If overtraining is severe and the person doesn’t stop exercising, this can eventually result in the immune system becoming frail. And a weakened immune system can increase the chances of cancer developing.
As the body is in fight or flight mode when cortisol is high, the body attempts to give you as much energy as possible during this situation. It does this by increasing glucose levels. The body taps into protein stores, enabling more glucose to be produced. This conversion process is called gluconeogenesis.
Cortisol also increases blood pressure. This increases the chances of a heart attack or stroke.
And these reasons are precisely cortisol’s nicknamed the “death hormone“.
Tip: Anyone who has these symptoms of overtraining or is experiencing unavoidable stress in their lives, supplementing with 1000mg of vitamin C has proven to slash cortisol levels significantly (9).
Why Gym-Goers Are More at Risk of Overtraining
If you were to lift heavy weights for 5 hours every day; there’s a very strong chance you’ll overtrain, because lifting weights increases your adrenaline levels significantly and will tax your nervous system.
The reason however, why prisoners and gymnasts don’t overtrain despite working out for hours is because:
- Prisoners exercise out of boredom, so they are doing their exercises leisurely. This means they aren’t going to failure or lifting ridiculously heavy weights – which will cause less of an adrenaline rush.
- Gymnasts’s on the rings will perform for approximately 60 seconds (6), and they don’t train to failure either. Plus aren’t training ridiculously heavy by their standards; and so their adrenaline levels won’t rise too much.
Thus lifting lighter weights is key to controlling adrenaline levels, and avoiding entering a state of overtraining.
There are also more factors that effect adrenaline levels including:
- Diet. If you have a lot of stimulants in your diet such as coca cola, coffee, energy drinks, sugary foods/drinks then you are at more risk of overtraining.
Equally there are some foods/drinks that reduce adrenaline levels such as: eggs, chicken, turkey, mozzarella cheese and milk.
This is because they all are rich in the amino acid l-tryptophan, which soothes the nervous system, reducing adrenaline levels.
This is partly the reason why everyone goes into such a post-christmas dinner coma, due to the rich l-tryptophan content in the turkey. You know, the festive moment when your grampy starts dribbling all over the sofa during his power nap.
Also the amount of food you eat can affect adrenaline levels. Being in a calorie deficit has shown to increase cortisol levels considerably (6). And a bigger deficit will provoke an even bigger rise.
Thus eating a good amount of food will produce a sedative effect on the nervous system, reduce the chances of overtraining.
- A lack of sleep. The recommended sleep is 7 and a half to 9 hours (7). If this sleep is compromised then you can experience a cortisol increase by as much as 45% (8).
Wrapping it all up
In this article we have concluded that overtraining is very real, especially if stress hormones such as cortisol are spiked; because this causes your body to become catabolic (muscle wasting).
However, assuming you can keep your stress hormone levels (cortisol) in check, you simply cannot overtrain a muscle.
And this is why prisoners, gymnasts amongst others can train the same muscle groups for hours each day and have amazing gains in terms of muscle strength/size – without overtraining.
So, who’s up for a 8 hour arm workout then?!
(9) 12) J Strength and Conditioning Res,1998,12(3):179-184