How many times have we all heard “if your strength level starts to decrease, you may be overtraining”? I know that everyone is different, but lately I have been training my ass off without worrying about being able to increase the weight or reps with each workout. Instead, I started making a much better effort to slow down my tempo and increase the volume. After doing this for about two months and looking at my progress, I’ve noticed the biggest size gains in my biceps and calves. These are the two bodyparts I’ve been training most frequently, with the highest volume, and with the least amount of rest between sets and between training sessions. My strength in these areas has not improved at all. In fact, it’s probably decreased, although since I’m not attempting heavy reps I can’t be sure. I expect some people to reply that it’s just because I’ve changed things up and my size gains will eventually slow down. When that happens, I might lay off bi’s and calves a little and crank up the volume somewhere else. My point is that once I stopped worrying about always being able to lift more during the next session, the size gains really started to improve. Most people would look at my training log and say I am overtraining, and maybe I am…but maybe that’s what I finally needed to start seeing these impressive results. And I just realized that if size is my goal, why have I been using strength as a measurement of progress? Just thought this might get the wheels spinning for some of you out there who, like me, have always feared the dreaded overtraining syndrome and start to freak out when you can’t lift the same or more on each subsequent session. I think overtraining might mean one thing for those looking just to get stronger and something else for those looking to get bigger. If anyone has had similar (or contradictory) experiences your input would be appreciated.
In the last year or so of his life, Dan Duchaine wrote frequently about the difference between training for size and for strength. He noted that many of the top pro bodybuilders had a surprising lack of strength–for example, using 35 lb. dumbbells for biceps. (One example that really shocked me was learning that Lee Haney in his prime was using 70 lb. dumbbells for one-arm rows.) Duchaine hypothesized that hypertrophy training should focus on A) volume, and B) keeping the muscles “guessing” so that neural adaptation wouldn’t take place. So Duchaine would do something like 8 different exercises per bodypart, one set each, in a random order. He also wrote about concentrating on the muscle pump and “feeling the muscle.” He said that he achieved excellent results with this. It’s an interesting routine. I wonder if it might be possible to train in this fashion and still keep track of relative strength. E.g., one could start each bodypart workout with the same “standard” exercise (bench press for chest, weighted chin for back, etc.) and work to failure, with the object being to keep improving strength from workout to workout. Then the rest of the routine could be the multiple single sets of different exercises.
I overtrain (at least in theory) by busting my ass 5 days a week. I’ve done this for a while with no 'roids, just basic supplements and protein drinks and experience almost NO DOMS! I’m not sure why, but my strenght continues to climb (although progress has slowed down tremendously) along with my size! I think that genetics plays a strong part in how overtraining is defined!
I think there are a few issues here that you should look at…
First, strength increases in the biceps are almost unnoticeable. For example, let’s say you look to increase your 6RM bench press by 2.5% each week, with a 200lb max 6RM to start with. That would mean an increase of 5lbs each week, which is very noticeable and somewhat unreasonable in the long term. A more reasonable goal is to gain 2.5% on your lifts in a given three week training block. Now, let’s say you look to increase your incline dumbell curl by 2.5% each week, and you have a max 6RM of 30lbs. How much of an increase each week is that? Not much at all… in fact it’s not even a one pound increase. So a “reasonable” increase in poundage for you incline dumbell curl would be 0.75lbs every three weeks, or 3 lbs in a twelve week program. Obviously, you probably won’t even notice such an increase without the use of the smallest grade of Platemates. I’m oversimplifying and generalizing a lot here, but you get the point.
Second, increases in size can sometimes be misleading. A muscle can become "bigger" when it's overtrained probably because of the increase in swelling, blood flow, and capillary density. Other factors such as glycogen storage can also play a role. (may be increased with higher volume, higher frequency). The bottom line is this, the increase in size may not be entirely due to an increase in actual contractile protein. That being said, higher volume and frequency, lower intensity work is better suited for hypertrophy with limited neural adaptation, so my guess is what you're experiencing is a combination of both.
Third, you ARE in fact using a technique of progressive overload, namely increasing tempo and volume. That means you are in fact getting stronger. You're probably doing this because of the lack of seeing direct weight increases each week. I would be interested to see if you were able to use the next dumbell weight up if you return to the lower volume method you were before.
I think that you guys are overlooking the fact that calves and biceps seem to be two groups that respond very well to more frequent training. I get the best response for calves working them 2-3 times per week. I think that other muscle groups would also respond well to this “overtraining” and bump up gains, but I wouldn’t think it wise to do it for long.
I’m with you rosheem! It seems that “overtraining” has become “overused” to me. We all know that everyone is different but the best gains, that i kept, were when i went on a mass phase and I intentionally “overtrained” every other week. I would lift 4 consecutive days hitting the same bodyparts two days in a row. the first day hitting 3 body parts heavy with say 6 sets of 6 and then the next day hitting those same bodyparts with a 10-12 rep range 3 sets for 4-5 excercises for each bodypart. I then took a mimimum of 4 days off and if i was still sore did not lift until it subsided. Also, when I was on bodyopus last summer i did some sort of workout every day with my own body weight (pushups, pullups, one legged bodyweight squats etc) and lost 0 muscle, and the only supplements used were whey protien. Personally i think everyone could use a little “shock therapy” once in awhile.
I also remember Duchaine talking about how prisoners lifted every day, had fairly shitty diets but also had some of the best physiques that he had ever seen, so I think that there most likely is a HUGE curve of what comprises overtraining for individuals and it may not be as small as everyone is theorizing right now.
I think you hit on the fact that you just need to experiment and find out what works for YOU. If you found a way to make yourself grow and other people say it won’t work, just say OK and do it anyway. I have to say though that I’ve personally found that changing my routine to ANYTHING different seems to get results. Congrats on your progress and willingness to just try stuff out on yourself. That’s realy the only way to get to know your own body. Be sure to keep informed of all the other ideas, though, so you can keep on with experimentation. Good luck!
Doug- very good points…you’re right, I’m still using progressive overload, just in a different way. And Deniz, I think you’re right on about calves and bis responding better to high volume. I’m gonna see if this new approach works for chest, even though bench press is the one movement I’m most afraid of losing strength in. My other question…how many of you take at least every third day off? I’ve always tried to avoid lifting more than two days in a row, but again, if I go back and look at my training history, my best results have always been when I just train and train and train…sometimes 6x/week (that would be 1 bodypart/day though).
I think intentional ‘overtraining’ has its merits. I’m hitting every bodypart twice a week and I’ve been making good strength gains (some size gains). I may also go 5-6 days without a day off. I ‘try’ to do 3 on/1 off but since the gym is my only stress relief thats hard for me.
A while back, before I knew much about training, I was doin 4 sets of 10 on bench, incline, and decline all in the same day. I only did this for about 3-4 weeks because every week I would use less and less weight. Even though I was getting weaker, everyone around me was saying I was gettin much bigger. Since then I have started using lower reps or much fewer sets and have got great gains in strength and pretty good size gains.
The criteria for overtraining is generalized too often. What may be overtraining for me may be an appropriate workload for you. It’s all relative to the individual as work load capacity will vary from person to person. As far as classifying someone’s program as overtraining, you can’t unless they’re showing some symptoms of overtraining, just intense.