Overtraining – Why Less Is More

It is often the case that when someone discovers the gym for the first time and really gets into training they will work out for hours upon end hitting the same body part 3-4 times per week, training 7 days a week. This article will explore the reasons behind over training, it’s easy to be told ‘Your workout lasts too long’ or ‘you’re doing too many sets’ but people often ignore this advice. Hopefully after reading this article you will understand WHY you are over training and make the necessary changes to your routine to start gaining some serious muscle!

What is Overtraining?

Overtraining occurs when you push your body too hard and pass the point that your body is able to recover from. To make gains you must overload the muscles and then allow adequate time for recovery and growth by resting. Overtraining occurs when either the overload is too high, or the rest period aka recovery time is too low.

Workout Intensity and Overtraining

Now, you must train with a high enough intensity to overload the muscles which cause’s tiny tears to occur in the muscle fibres. After training these tears start to repair and then grow back slightly larger than before when your body has fully recovered from training.

Training with an intensity that is too low, for example not completing enough sets, or not using enough weight will not effectively break down the muscle fibres meaning no growth will occur as the fibres will not grow back larger and stronger than before if they have not been effectively overloaded during training… If the muscles can handle the weight that is being moved easily then there is no need for them to grow bigger and stronger.. So they won’t!

On the other hand training with an intensity that is too high will cause the muscle fibres to break down past a point of recovery, meaning the tears in the muscle are more severe and will require days of rest, or even weeks and months of rest and therapy in some more severe cases of over training.

When the intensity of your training is too high you are not allowing the muscles enough time to recover and rebuild. Over training can occur from training a muscle group before it has had time to fully recover from a previous session, such as training each body part 2-3 times per week… After you have finished training, the muscles that you worked will take usually somewhere between 24-48 hours to recover from training. It is only AFTER this period of recovery that any growth occurs, this is why for example training your arms on a Monday and again on a Wednesday is not recommended as although you may feel ok and ready to train them again and any soreness from the previous workout may have gone, the reality is that the muscles have only just entered the window of time in which any growth will occur, and working the same muscles again will break them back down and prevent any growth.

Less is More.

Many people are under the impression that more is better, however this is often not the case when trying to gain muscle. To break this down and make it a little easier to understand, think of digging a hole, the time that you spend in the gym training is equivalent to digging a hole, the time your body needs after to recover from training is how long it takes to re-fill the hole, and piling a mound of dirt on top of the hole is growth of the muscle. So, you can pile extra dirt on top ONLY when the hole has been re-filled, which takes time! If you dig a hole that is too deep, it will take too long to re-fill… and there will be no time to place extra dirt on top… this means no muscle growth!! Training a body part 2 days in a row would be equivalent to digging one hole, and then continuing to dig the same hole even deeper the next day… you will never have the chance to pile any dirt on top which means you will never gain any muscle training like this…. In fact you are moving backwards, you will probably be losing muscle and almost certainly over training!

How Many Sets Should I do?

The key is to find a balance between training with a high enough intensity to break down the muscle fibres without training so much that your body cannot recover from the training. This will vary from person to person and there is no exact routine of method of training that will guarantee the best results for everybody, you have to find what works for your own body.

I often see people asking how many sets they should complete for each muscle group and although each individual is different and there are no exact numbers that will work for everyone I can give a recommended set range for each muscle group, this is aimed at those who are training for muscle gains and have some background training under their belt, preferably at least some sort of beginners routine for 10 weeks or so.

Larger muscle groups like back and legs can obviously be trained with more sets than the smaller muscle groups like biceps that can get an intense workout from just a few exercises. Another common mistake of overtraining is hitting the biceps with too many sets, you could walk into almost any gym and find someone doing 20 odd sets on their biceps being under the incorrect impression that ‘more is better’.

Recommended Sets Per Week for Each Muscle Group

The rep ranges for muscle building is 6-12 reps per set and you should be lifting with a weight that you struggle to complete the last couple reps on each set with good form. Once you hit your rep range with good form it is time to move up in weight. It is important that no one under the age of 18 is lifting heavy weights and/or using a low rep range. If you are under the age of 18 and looking for training advice visit the Muscle and Strength forum where you can find articles and routines specific to teenage trainers.

The numbers listed do not include warm up sets. (Warm up sets should always be done first, usually one set very light weight and one set at approx 50% of your training weight as well as stretches.)

Some muscles such as the Abdominals and Calves do recover faster than other muscle groups and can be trained twice per week but again the effectiveness of training them once per week or twice per week will vary from person to person. The figures listed above are just a general outline for those who are confused as to how many sets each muscle group can take, or indeed to highlight to some people that they may be over training a certain muscle group if they are not seeing results. I am not saying everyone should stick within these ranges by any means, if you find that 15 sets for your triceps is most effective for you and provides the best results for you then stick with it! However most natural trainers will find that the most effective number of sets to complete in their workout will be within the above ranges.

As I have just explained, rest is important and you only need 3-4 exercises max per muscle group per workout, now the ideal rest between sets is 60-90 seconds, and 2-3 minutes between each exercise. If you do the math then these numbers should mean that your workout is easily completed within an hour, possibly if training 2 muscle groups and then abs as well it may last a little longer but should never be more than 90 minutes as again this is overtraining.

Not including warm-ups and stretching I would advise to keep your workout time below 60 minutes, after this time your body starts to break down its own muscle tissue to use as fuel. This is due to a stress hormone called Cortisol that is released in high amounts after you have spent so much time lifting.

Recommended: Need help building muscle? Take our Free Muscle Building Course

Man doing leg press in gym.

The Muscle Building Routine

Now that I have told you how to avoid overtraining and more importantly the reasons why you should avoid overtraining, I will show you an example muscle building workout routine that I have created. The routine is a 4 day split and follows all of the above guidelines, you should never be working out for longer than 60 minutes using this routine:

More workouts listed in the workouts section. You can find my full 4 day split muscle building routine here.

Monday – Chest & Triceps

Notes: Alternate between DB and Barbell for the incline bench press exercises. Alternate between flat bench and incline DB flyes. Superset: DB press with DB flyes.

Tuesday – Legs

Notes: Superset leg press with leg extensions. Triple drop set on leg curl machine.

Thursday – Shoulders

Notes: Military press in front of head, use full range of movement right down in front of the shoulders. Superset Olympic bar shurgs and Plate shrugs for 10 reps on each 3 sets.

Friday – Back and Biceps

Notes: Try negatives if you dont have a spotter or assisted pullup machine. Dropset: Lat pulldowns

Full workout here: Shaun’s 4 Day Muscle Building Split Routine.

So remember to train hard, but it’s the quality of your training not the quantity that will bring you the best results.


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