You have probably heard the saying “Time is Money”. What this adage suggests is that time can make you money, but it can also cost you money, if the time is not wisely spent. This is ALSO true in regards to training – it can make you muscle, and it can also cost you muscle, if your workouts are not wisely planned.
There are a variety of physiological processes at work, when we exercise. The one with which we are most familiar is the one that appears to make muscles grow. This is caused by the body’s tendency to adapt to stimuli. Let’s look at the tanning process, for example. When we spend time in the sun, our skin’s pigment is enhanced (we get darker) – it’s a defense system that prepares us for our next encounter with the sun. Similarly, our muscles tend to grow after a workout, in preparation (as a defense) to our next encounter with the physiological assault we call “working out”.
However, just as we would get a sunburn from too much sun, we would injure our muscles with too much working out. Injuring our muscles, just like getting a sunburn, is NOT productive. It’s counter-productive. Instead of working FOR us, it works AGAINST us. So this begs the question, “what is too much working out?”.
What is Over-Training ?
The obvious answer to that question might be “too many sets” and/or “too much frequency”. Could we add to that “too much weight used”? Or how about “too many exercises per body part, per workout”? Or “too many reps”?
There are other factors too, that would seem to be unrelated to the workout itself, like insufficient sleep or inadequate nutrition, but still matter.
All of these play a role in “over-training”, to a different degree – some more than others. In order of prevalence (most likely to least likely), I believe they are as follows:
1 Too many sets / too many exercises (during a given workout, per body part)
2 Inadequate nutrition
3 Insufficient sleep
4 Too many reps
5 Too much weight used
And these all interplay with each other. For example, “too many reps” is not likely to be a big problem, unless one is doing “too many sets” of “too many reps”. “Too much weight used” is not likely to be a big contributor to over-training, unless one does it too often, with too many sets. And it’s obvious that sleep plays a role in recovery, so “not enough sleep” could sabotage the whole process, if it’s pervasive (keeps happening on a regular basis).
But let’s focus on the first two – “too many sets / exercises” (per workout) and “inadequate nutrition”. They’re really the two most common contributors to over-training. Why? Because muscle growth is really “the accumulation of amino acids and glycogen”. Amino acids are the components of protein, and glycogen is carbohydrate, in muscle-storage form. Plus, carbs play a role in the absorption of protein, into the muscle.
A person with large muscles has more stored amino acids and glycogen in his muscles, than does the person with smaller muscles. So the key to muscle growth is figuring out how to “collect” amino acids and glycogen. That also includes preventing the loss of amino acids and glycogen.
How Over-Training Happens
During a workout, we spend calories – obviously. For the person who’s primary goal is “losing weight”, that would be a completely productive thing. However, for the bodybuilder, it’s not.
The calories that are being spent are mostly a combination of carbs and fats – they’re the two primary sources of fuel for the body. We also “burn” some protein in the process, and that happens more when our bodies have begun to run out of the two primary fuel sources – carbs and fats.
This is why it’s difficult to gain muscle when we’re dieting (trying to lose fat), and it’s easier to gain muscle in the “off season”, when we’re eating an abundance of calories.
So, just as too much sun will produce a sunburn, too many calories burned during a workout will result in protein loss, even if one is eating lots of calories throughout the day. The key is “timing”. A stable glucose level will only last a few hours – often less – especially if one is training intensely (doing too many sets / exercises per workout). And when glucose drops, protein loss happens in spades.
So we’re really looking at two different kinds of over-training. One is the kind that happens to a specific muscle, because we’ve obliterated it during a workout. This is most like the sunburn, where so much damage has been done to that specific muscle, that it likely will not be able to adequately recover – especially if you hit it again soon thereafter. That would be like going out into the hot sun again, before the sunburn has healed. And overzealous, naive bodybuilders unwisely do this pretty regularly. That results in a form of “Rhabdomyolis”, which is severe muscle breakdown due to excessive use. This is clearly bad for the muscle, and also strains the kidneys.
The other kind of over-training happens when one’s blood sugar drops too much, too often, during workouts. Low blood sugar can happen any time of the day, of course. When we go too long between meals, we dip into low blood sugar. But it happens with more regularity during intense workouts that last too long. Make no mistake – low blood sugar is bad anytime. And for bodybuilders, it’s like driving into a mud pit, where our wheels just spin with no forward movement (no muscle growth)- maybe even some backward movement (muscle loss), despite “forward” effort.
When the body senses low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), it begins producing Cortisol, which is a “catabolic” hormone. It’s job is to break down existing cells in the body, for the purpose of using them to “create” glucose internally.
I’m no bio-chemist, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on the science of nutrition and metabolism, but the fact that Cortisol breaks down muscle – thereby extracting the required amino acids as part of the process by which the body creates glucose internally, when in the absence of an external supply of carbohydrates – is elementary.
(The breakdown of muscle is referred to as “catabolism”.)
Needless to say, breaking down muscle to “fix” a low blood sugar issue, is completely counterproductive for a bodybuilder, and yet it’s so easy to avoid.
Keeping one’s workout from becoming a marathon (under two hours….some experts recommend keeping it under 90 minutes) is one way of preventing the production of Cortisol.
Eating frequently is another. Generally speaking, meals should be no more than three hours apart – ideally. Meals don’t have to be big. In fact, they shouldn’t be. They should be small enough to allow for another feeding three hours later.
And carbs play an important role in muscle building, so don’t avoid them – especially in the “off season”. Carbs help “push” protein into the muscle, as a result of their insulin production. They also help keep glycogen reserves full, which helps fuel your next workout and also contribute to muscle size.
Supplements help. Sipping an amino acid and carbs drink during the workout can help keep the blood sugar up, thereby preventing the body’s need to produce Cortisol. For example, I like to sip Labrada Nutrition’s “BCAA Power” mixed with “Powercarb” during my workouts. It’s a convenient (and very effective) way to maintain blood sugar, and prevent the loss of amino acids.
“More is better” is NOT a good training strategy, for the bodybuilder. Selecting ONLY the exercises that are most productive, is a very sensible strategy. Why spend valuable calories on exercises that are not highly productive? That would be like driving in mud – spending energy (and gas) but without forward progress, or with limited progress. Only do exercises that are worth the investment of energy.
The best way to make every bit of energy you use in the gym useful, is to use efficient exercises. An example of an in-efficient exercise? Hanging Leg Raises (actually, any kind of leg raise exercise, intended for abdominal development). Since the abs do not connect directly to the legs, other non-ab muscles are doing the majority of the work. Why bother doing an exercise in which 80% of the work is being done by “non-target” muscles, while your target muscle (the abs) are only getting 20% of the work. That’s like paying $100 for something that only gives you back a $20 value.
Keep the sets down to no more than 10 per body part, but make them intense. Doing 20 sets per body part only spends more fuel, but doesn’t give you more stimulation.
Bodybuilding workouts can be anabolic (building) or they can be catabolic (destructive), depending on how you approach them. Train smart, eat right, and use supplements wisely.
My Personal Workout Plan
Since I know many of you may be wondering how my workouts look like, I decided to give you an overview of my training routines.
My routine is as follows:
Day One = Chest, Back and Forearms
Day Two = Shoulders (side, front and rear delts), Traps and Abs
Day Three = Arms (biceps, triceps) and Legs (quads, hams, glutes, calves)
In the off-season, I rotate those days around four days per week – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
So – Monday would be Day One, Tuesday would be Day Two, and then I skip Wednesday entirely. When I resume on Thursday, I pick up with Day Three. Friday, would be Day One again. I skip Saturday and Sunday, and when I resume on Monday, I pick up where ever I left of on Friday – in this case, Day Two.
Pre-contest, however, I make those three workout days (Day One, Two and Three) coincide with my diet – which is a three days on, one day off diet.
So, pre-contest (the final 12 weeks before competition), I’ll workout and diet for three consecutive days (regardless of what day of the week it is), and then skip one diet of workout, and carb-load on that same day. Then I just continue repeating that sequence – three on / one off – until the contest.
Day One (Chest, Back and Forearms)
Superset: Decline Dumbbell Press / One-Arm Lat Pull-Ins (as described in my article “The Best Lat Exercise” – Iron Man blog).
I do six total sets of each, starting with 50 reps on the first set. I add a bit of weight to each exercise, for the second set, and do 40 reps. Then I add a bit more, for the third set, and do 30 reps. Fourth set, I add a bit more weight, and do 20 reps. Fifth set, I add a bit more weight, and do 15 reps. Sixth and final set, I add weight and do 10 reps, followed by two breakdown sets of 10 reps each, for a total of 30 reps.
My next superset is: Extreme decline cable cross-over (very similar to a dipping movement, but with cables) – as I describe in my article “Evaluating Parallel Bar Dips as a Pec Exercise”…..and I alternate that with T-Bar Rowing.
The sets / reps are similar to the first combination, although I usually start with 30 reps, and decrease each set by five reps, as I increase the weight.
Finally, I do barbell wrist curls, supersetted with reverse barbell wrist curls – five sets, with a similar pyramid (increases weight as I decrease the reps).
Day Two (Shoulders & Abs)
Standing Side Cable Raise, with the similar breakdown as above: 50, 40, 30, 20, 15, 10….and 5 reps, followed immediately by four breakdown sets of 5 reps each. That’s a total of 7 sets, but that’s it for side delts. They’re done – cooked.
I follow that with a superset of front and rear delts. The rear delt exercise is usually Reverse Butterfly Machine, and the front delt exercise is “Incline (30 degrees) Front Press (elbows in, palms facing toward you). This is the “pathway” of the front deltoids.
Again, I do a pyramid – starting with the lightest weight and highest reps, but in this case, my first set is 30 reps. I then decrease by 5 reps per set, as I increase the weight. Again, my final set is a breakdown set of three or four sub-sets.
Then I do standing dumbbell shrugs, with the same pyramid – 50, 40, 30, 20, 15, 10 and a breakdown or two.
Abs is actually a “rectus abdominus / lower back” superset. My ab exercise is always the Seated Cable Crunch, with pulley coming from behind. I alternate that with “Seated Spinal Deadlifts”, which is an emphasis on spinal movement, while leaning forward, with weights in my hands. Sets go from 30 reps, 25, 20, 20, and 15.
Day Three (Arms & Legs)
Superset: Supine (flat bench / facing up) Dumbbell Triceps Extension, alternated with Alternate Dumbbell Curls.
Again, I do the same pyramid as the first chest / back combo – 50, 40, 30, 20, 15, 10 with a couple of breakdowns. Completely fries the arms.
Then, in terms of Legs, I do EITHER a compound leg day, or an isolate leg day (alternated…..back and forth). If it’s a compound leg day, I squats until I can’t walk (……10 sets, with a similar pyramid approach), and then I do calves (five sets). If it’s an isolated leg day, I do Leg Extensions supersetted with Leg Curls – 50, 40, 30, 20, 15, 10 with two more breakdowns. Cooked ! I follow that up with Glute Extensions supersetted with calves (calves is always Seated Calf Raise, followed immediately with a set of no-weight standing calf raises for 20 reps). Similar pyramid, five total sets. Done.
The point of the article, is to emphasize doing the highest intensity, in the shortest amount of time, with the fewest number of sets. The goal is to create maximum stimulation, with the least number of calories spent.
Generally, people do too many sets and too many exercises, and not enough reps. My progress has skyrocketed, since learning this lesson.
About the Author
Doug Brignole is a veteran competitive bodybuilder, currently in his 38th year of competition.
Having started at the age of 16, and winning numerous teenage competitions in addition to the Overall Mr. California, and his weight division in Mr. America and Mr. Universe, Doug now has his sights set the World Championship of 2014.
He has been an enthusiastic student of biomechanics for many years, writes for a number of websites and magazines, and is now working on his second book.
He has been certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.