Is overtraining real?
Training is a process of applying stress to your body that breaks it down; you improve because in the following days after your workout the body adapts to prepare itself if such a stress is applied again.
So if for example you are training for muscle size you actually micro tear the target muscle tissue when you perform repetitions. In anticipation of this stress being encountered again the body will rebuild the muscle larger than before, provided you eat the nutrients required. This repair also takes time and rest.
This is one reason why if you don’t push yourself when you train you won’t see a development or change; the body is only broken down and adapts if it has reason to.
If you are lifting the same weight you were lifting 6 months ago for the same reps the chances are your body has not been improving and so there will not be any noticeable change.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
You might notice that you are sore after a session the next day, or the day after that but don’t initially feel tiredness in the muscle. This is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS); the theory of why this pain only occurs 24 to 48 hours after exercise has not been clearly established but it generally accepted as to be a symptom of having caused ‘microtrauma’ to the muscle.
When you first begin training, or if you are returning to it after a long time off the DOMS you experience will be much more significant than in a person who has been training regularly, even if they are lifting a lot more weight.
This is because the body is not used to having to repair itself and so its recovery efficiency is much less than for the experienced, regular trainer.
This is why an advanced trainee can cope with a 4 or even 5 times a week workout schedule, while the new trainee is best advised to stick to a maximum of three, to give the body adequate time between workouts to rest and recover.
Recovery is also dependent on genetics, nutrition and sleep; there are also ‘active’ recovery techniques, such as light cycling or jogging which can in theory speed up the reduction of DOMS by increasing blood flow to the sore muscle area.
There is a widely accepted school of thought that rest and recovery is just as important to muscle growth and training performance as what you do in the gym; maybe even more important.
As the saying goes, ‘you build muscle outside of the gym’. You break down the muscle in the gym, but it grows when you’re sleeping and resting afterwards.
Is it ok to train when your muscle is still sore?
A common ‘worry’ of many gym goers is whether they are ‘overtraining’. They might have seen their progress stall for a few months, or start to feel like they have less energy each session. If you flick through muscle magazines or search the internet you get conflicting answers.
However as with everything in today’s 100 mph, I-want-it-yesterday world there seems to be more and more support for the theory that overtraining is actually a myth; it is an excuse for the weak, for the wimps who don’t want to work hard.
Check out this clip from a popular YouTube name, CT Fletcher:
As you can see CT Fletcher thinks overtraining is “a fallacy”; if you scroll down the comments you’ll see people agreeing with him and stating that “overtraining is just an excuse for pussies,” “there’s no such thing” etc.
You might also notice he’s a pretty big guy. He must know what he’s talking about then right?
He’s got the results to show for it!
There IS such a thing as overtraining, if you are NATURAL
Before I really had any experience or had done any research on steroids and realised just how many well-known fitness ‘gurus’ were not natural I definitely would have believed guys like CT Fletcher.
You get conditioned from images of drug-using models and athletes to believe that it is possible to get as huge all natural.
Then you start thinking people like CT Fletcher have naturally attainable physiques and so they have advice worth listening to.
People like CT Fletcher post videos like the one above that tell you if they can do it and are doing it so should you.
I could have picked any one of a number of other well-known figures in the fitness world who are saying the same thing but essentially their message is this:
Overtraining is not real; if you train super hard with the right mindset and eat enough, your body can not only take it, it will grow faster and better than before. Their logic works like this: if you spend three hours a week in the gym how much better are you results going to be by cutting out those rest days and spending 7 hours a week? You’ll get bigger quicker right?
It is pretty convenient that on the basis of ‘advice’ (i.e. broscience) such as this the industry encourages us to just consume more- ‘buy this caffeine drink for motivation!’ ‘buy more of these supplements to fuel your body and never overtrain!’
Drugs make you recover much faster
Obviously we all well know by now that food and training do not determine how big or strong you will get (check out my post on natural muscular limits), the final say comes down to your natural hormone levels (if you stay off the syringes).
The ‘double the speed of your results by spending more time in the gym’ approach doesn’t work for naturals, as muscle growth is a gradual process.
PED’s give you a lot of advantages as a lifter or trainer and one of them is ability to recover super quick. You probably could feel fresh to train even twice a day when on steroids, and your body could take the workload.
For naturals though the adage of muscle being built outside the gym holds true and you need to give yourself time to recover to make continued progress and not hit a wall. This is particularly true for taxing lifts like the squat and the deadlift.
Be wary of following high volume squat and deadlift programs advocated by Russian Olympic coaches such as Smolov: he was working with elite level athletes on high doses of gear that enabled them to squat heavy 5 days a week, they won’t work for natural lifters and you risk injury and overtraining.
On the other hand, overtraining is probably not a massive problem for most people
Surprisingly however I do agree with guys like CT Fletcher on one thing: overtraining can be and is used as an excuse sometimes.
I’ve trained with guys who will tell me they are still really sore from their leg workout 4 days ago so they’re going to skip this session so they can ‘recover’ and not risk ‘overtraining’.
Sure, the half-assed leg presses you did whilst talking to your buddies and texting between sets really destroyed your central nervous system.
You can definitely overtrain as a natural but I don’t think many people will really have the consistent dedication and intensity to really push this limit too hard.
It would differ for everyone dependent on their experience level and genetics but from my own experience I would say you’d have to be pushing near maximal weights at least 5 days a week for a few weeks before you started feeling fatigued to the point where you’d need a week or two off to recuperate (provided you were eating well and sufficiently and sleeping enough).
Be aware of it
In short be aware and understand the importance of sleeping well and eating well as well as having days off in between workouts to allow you muscles to grow and recuperate, to lessen the risk of injury and to ensure continuous progress.
Overtraining does exist, and if you are natural don’t listen to or try to emulate the routines or logic of a steroid user. To quote a favourite YouTuber of mine, Dom Mazzetti of Brosciencelife (check out the channel):
When you’re on juice you’ve downloaded the expansion pack; if you don’t juice, you’re not even in the game. You literally can’t play on that level. (Dom Mazzetti, BroSciencelife)
Train hard and smart!