The "O" Word:
The Often Misunderstood, Always Talked About Issue of Overtraining
The Barbarian Brothers—those crazy bastions of strength and muscle mass that I often admired in my teenage years—once said: "There is no such thing as overtraining, only undereating." (Or something along that similar vein; could be that I slightly misquoted.) The Barbarians were often derided for that statement. The argument against their statement would go something like this: "It's easy for them to say such a thing. They are genetically predisposed mutants of muscle-building who are on butt-loads of anabolic steroids, HGH, and no-telling what else."
I don't think the Barbarians were exactly dead on in their assessment—don't get me wrong—but they did have a point. Proper training—hard, heavy training in their cases—and diet are the keys to success. Overtraining, in their minds, was just something that was entirely overdone by the magazines and all of the natural lifters out there in the land of the bodybuilding, strength training Weider-verse.
On the opposite end of the spectrum—and this is the "end" that came to be the prevailing viewpoint, even among a lot of steroid users—was the viewpoint that overtraining is not just important, but it's the most important factor when it comes to hypertrophy success. This line of reasoning says that you absolutely must recover between workouts before training again. If you're sore, don't train. In fact, you probably don't need to train again until a day or two after your soreness has dissipated.
Needless to say—and this shouldn't surprise most of you—I don't exactly agree with the second viewpoint.
It is between these two extremes that success in muscle building lies. Let me explain:
First off, you do need to get enough rest and recovery in order to grow larger, stronger muscles. If you overtrain too much then you risk not growing muscles, but it's also not as if overtraining is going to make you shrivel into some 98-pound weakling who will be getting sand kicked in his face all the time.
The Keys to Growing Bigger And/Or Stronger Muscles and Just Where the Hell Overtraining Fits into the Picture
Quickly, let me outline some of the keys to growing bigger, stronger muscles, and just where overtraining—or undertraining, if that's the case (which it could be)—fits into the entire picture of bodybuilding success.
First and foremost, you need to have a goal in your training. If you're still reading this post, then I would imagine that growing bigger and getting stronger are the two keys you're after.
If strength and mass are your primary goals, then you need to be on a program. You should not (or at least only on very rare occasions) just go into the gym, "blast and bomb" your muscles with a bunch of different exercises, and then rest 5, 6, or 7 days until you train those muscles again. This kind of training is just a really crappy, and ultimately fruitless, way to train, despite the fact that a great number of bodybuilders train this way nowadays.
Before we get to the gist of a good program, let me say this: Your nutrition is very important when it comes to gaining muscle mass. The faster you can recover, the faster your gains will come. And one of the best ways to recover faster is through proper nutrition. I'm not going to get into the nuts and bolts of a great diet for mass-building here, however. (I'll save it for another post.)
A good program should encompass several aspects—and overtraining kind of weaves its way through all of these aspects. A good program should involve (a) workouts that use a lot of muscle groups at each session, (b) fairly frequent training of all the major muscle groups (2 to 3 days per week, for instance), (c) heavy training, and (d) drumroll please... ever-increasing workload.
By increasing your ability to handle more workload, you thereby increase your work capacity. As your strength and size increases, so should your ability to handle more and more work. In essence, not only should you be able to out lift other bodybuilders, you should also be able to out train them.
Here is where the aforementioned statement by the Barbarian Brothers fits into the picture. With their level of development and work capacity, that statement was basically true. The more training that they performed the better... so long as they were getting enough nutrition in the form of calories, protein, and good carbs.
Someone who doesn't have a high work capacity cannot make such a statement. For this kind of lifter, the reality of overtraining is a verifiable fact; if he/she trains too much he/she simply won't grow bigger and stronger.
And (by this point) you might be asking: What do I do to increase my work capacity so that I can reach Barbarian Brother status (or at least something that approximates it)?
The Tao of Work Capacity (and Big, Mutha' Truckin' Muscles)
Here are the Ways that I best think allow you to increase your work capacity—while at the same time making you significantly bigger and stronger:
1: Start off with full-body workouts. Full-body workouts allow you to train your muscles frequently—and therefore start you on the path of increased work capacity from the beginning.
2: When you switch over to "split" workout sessions, resist splitting your body more than two ways. Upper body/lower body splits would be a good starting point.
3: Use workouts that utilize multiple sets of low reps. 5 sets of 2 is always better than 2 sets of 5, for instance, even if it's with the same weight.
4: Slowly—and I mean slowly—increase the number of sets and exercises you do in each workout. And never make these increases unless you are already getting bigger and stronger before increasing sets and exercises.