Avoid Overtraining: What’s the Best Exercise Program?

To avoid the effects of overtraining, your exercise program must allow for adequate recovery. Don’t succumb to the misguided theory that if a little bit is good, more must be better.


Q: I’m currently training on a split routine. Since I’m working different muscle groups each time I train, can I work out every day?


A: No, at least not over the long term.

You can get away with increasing the frequency of your workouts for short periods of time (I often do this when training elite fitness and figure competitors for a show), but extended periods of continuous training without allowing for recuperation is bound to lead to overtraining, regardless of the training split.

Simply stated, overtraining is the product of performing too much strenuous physical activity. However, the exact threshold for overtraining varies from person to person. Everyone responds differently to exercise. Some people can tolerate large volumes of training while others tolerate much less. What’s more, factors such as nutritional status, sleeping patterns, hormonal and enzymatic concentrations, muscle fiber composition and previous training experience can have an impact on recuperative capacity and, therefore, affect the point at which overtraining rears its ugly head. But ultimately, anyone and everyone can and will become overtrained if they perform too much exercise.

The idea behind a split routine is to provide an optimal balance of volume and recovery, conceivably helping to stave off overtraining. Push/pull, agonist/antagonist and upper body/lower body are popular choices for training splits. When properly implemented, this method can elicit superior gains in toning and firming by permitting more frequent training capacity.

Unfortunately, though, a split routine doesn’t completely isolate muscles to the degree that most believe. You see, during the performance of exercises, there’s a synergistic interaction between muscle groups. The biceps, for instance, are integrally involved in the performance of back maneuvers; the shoulders and triceps are involved in many exercises for the chest; and the glutes and hamstrings are activated during compound leg movements. Other muscles function as stabilizers: the abdominals and erector spinae (the muscles of the lower back), in particular, help to provide stability in a variety of upper and lower body exercises, contracting statically throughout each move. The fact is, when a muscle is repeatedly subjected to intense physical stress (even on a secondary level) without being afforded adequate rest, the rate at which microtrauma occurs outpaces the repair process. The end result: less firmness and more fatigue and muscle aches.

To avoid the effects of overtraining, your exercise program must allow for adequate recovery. Don’t succumb to the misguided theory that if a little bit is good, more must be better. By shortchanging recuperation, your body never has the chance to adequately recover from the extreme demands being placed on it. Inevitably, you become grossly overtrained and results come to a grinding halt. With respect to exercise, less can be more!

Although everyone has varying recuperative abilities, a period of about 48 hours is required for adequate recovery between strength-training sessions. Research has shown this to be the approximate time for protein synthesis to fully run its course (protein synthesis is the phenomenon where muscles are “rebuilt” from the breakdown that occurs during training. But don’t be fooled. While this rebuilding process is needed to tone and firm your muscles and the surrounding areas, it will not make you look like a bodybuilder!). Accordingly, for most strength-training protocols, a three-day per week routine is ideal, with training performed on non-consecutive days (i.e., Monday, Wednesday, Friday, etc). This is true even for split routines. You can perhaps get away with a four-day split, such as a two on/one off, two on/two off (i.e., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday) if the routine is structured properly. But any more than four days of hard training per week and you begin to risk overtraining – certainly a seven-day a week routine is bound to leave you overtrained.

Moreover, it’s important to make judicious use of your sets. Marathon sessions will only serve to overtax your neuromuscular system and deplete your energy reserves. Even at the highest levels of fitness, large muscle groups generally require no more than nine to 12 total sets while smaller muscle groups need only six to nine; any more is basically superfluous.

Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., CSCS, CSPS, FNSCA is an internationally renowned fitness expert and widely regarded as one of the leading authorities on training for muscle development and fat loss. He is a lifetime drug-free bodybuilder, and has won numerous natural bodybuilding titles. He has published over 60 peer-reviewed studies on various exercise- and nutrition-related topics. Brad is a best-selling author of multiple fitness books including The M.A.X. Muscle Plan (Human Kinetics, 2012), which has been widely referred to as the “muscle-building bible” and Strong and Sculpted (Human Kinetics, 2016), which details a cutting-edge, body-sculpting program targeted to women. Brad also has authored the seminal textbook Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy (Human Kinetics, 2016), the first text devoted to an evidence-based elucidation of the mechanisms and strategies for optimizing muscle growth. In total, Brad’s books have sold over a half-million copies. For more information, visit http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/ For more information, visit lookgreatnaked.com

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