When I take a gander at the muscle building and fitness magazines on the market, it doesn’t surprise me why so many body builders and fitness enthusiasts are confused. These periodicals often contain not just bogus information, but conflicting stuff as well. For example, you might see an article one month that’s titled ‘Can You Work Out Too Much.’ The author of this article will likely warn you of the pitfalls and symptoms of overtraining. By the following month or so, another author might write about how overtraining is overly-emphasized and convince you that the “can you work out too much” question should be better left asked by the wimps of the world. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Yes… it often seems the publishers of these magazines (and their accompanying websites) care of the superficial only; stuffing their pages with drug-built bodies and printing information, ANY information, just to justify it. But let’s not be too hard on them. The costs of printing a magazine necessitate accruing the ad revenue for products to which the reader’s attention is ultimately drawn. It’s a legitimate and in-demand business, for sure. However, the need for continual dissemination of content within a relatively confined context means the publishers are willing to print anything appearing like fresh information. This results in an onus on readers to imbibe the content of informational articles with a critical eye.
Let me give you an example of using just such a critical eye. What better topic to use as an example than the one asking “can you work out too much?”
‘Can You Work Out Too Much?’ T-Nation in the spotlight
A section of an article within the online version of just such a magazine (T-Nation) inspired from me both agreement and contention worthy of strong rebuttal. It actually addresses the overtraining issue as being one of four “myths” exposed by the article. The piece was authored by a regular contributor to the magazine, Nate Green, who’s referenced by the publication as an expert in fitness and bodybuilding. The expert to whom Nate Green refers in the article to allegedly “bust the myth” of overtraining is one Craig Weller, a veteran of Navy Spec Warfare Training.
Mr. Weller proceeds to use his experience in BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training as an illustration upon which he views the concept of overtraining a myth. Paraphrasing his reasoning could go something like this:
‘In SEAL Training, our bodies were incessantly pushed to the limit while we were expected to constantly outperform ourselves. Therefore, average bodybuilders and workout enthusiasts only think they’re overtraining while they’re really not.’
I wholeheartedly refute this line of thinking with two experiences to back me up:
- I’m a veteran of the same unbelievably demanding military training to which Mr. Weller refers in the article.
- I’m a natural bodybuilder who makes ongoing muscular gains by making sure I don’t over train.
‘Can You Work Out Too Much?’ SEAL Training is a terrible example
Before I first entered BUD/S Training back in January 1984, I’d thought the training was designed to “get us in shape.” It didn’t take long to realize that this was no ordinary daily workout routine. The instructors constantly reminded us that the training was designed under the premise that the human body is capable of ten times the output than is normally believed possible. They’d say this as we were getting an 11PM physical pounding (the tenth one that day) while being expected to wake up at 4:30 AM the following day for a two-mile ocean swim. It was beyond rigorous; it was a constant assault on the body’s nervous system and ability to absorb stress.
But stress-testing each individual trainee’s body and psyche was the training’s real objective. An orientation on the second or third week by the command XO (executive officer) revealed as much. He said the training was designed to “test our reliability under extreme pressure”… not to ‘get us into shape.’
Using BUD/S Training as an example for the ‘can you work out too much’ question is ridiculous for yet another reason. It implies that muscle building routines and the extreme endurance training done in BUD/S are in any way similar. They’re not even close. And yet the “myth busters” article by Green is clearly about the muscle augmentation of weight training and bodybuilding.
This is a clear case of comparing apples and oranges: Muscle building workouts are about creating hypertrophy through myofibril tissue breakdown and subsequent compensatory recovery. Basic SEAL Training is a combination of extreme cardio-respiratory conditioning along with working the muscles to mitochondrial failure through high repetition calisthenics, rope climbing, obstacle courses, etc. Muscle building workouts ask the body to not just perform the workouts, but grow bigger and stronger tissue between those workouts. SEAL Training asks for a higher level of endurance conditioning; not a bit of myofibril buildup.
Even with this contrast, to say we weren’t over-trained in BUD/S Training is ridiculous. In the article, Mr. Weller contends that trainees are expected to constantly outperform their prior best. That’s true. But expectations and reality were often at odds. I recall most of us improving our swimming and running times for a short while during the twenty-six week ordeal. But we understandably hit plateaus early on, with painful, hobbling injuries becoming prevalent among trainees as the weeks wore on. We were beyond over-trained; much of the regimen became a game of physically surviving the bodily breakdown while occasionally eking out some higher exercise reps or better swimming/running times.
The only parallel I see between BUD/S Training and bodybuilding is the need for discipline and determination within both contexts. But the similarity ends there; using BUD/S to argue that overtraining is a myth for bodybuilders is inaccurate enough to create a myth itself.
‘Can You Work Out Too Much?’ Know what you’re aiming for
There’s one paragraph within the ‘Craig Weller’ section of the “myth busters” article for which I’m generally in agreement. I’ll copy and paste it right here:
In most cases, the body's capacity for physical punishment is not the limiting factor. The problems start when people vary their training volume and intensity with little regard to their recovery. The body doesn't adapt because it's never sure just what you're trying to accomplish.
This statement is on the right track because it emphasizes trainees being clear about goals and adjusting training and recovery to achieve those goals.
However, I’m “generally” in agreement – not fully so. That’s because the ironic thing about this paragraph is that it possesses a glaring contradiction. By saying that regard for recovery is important in relation to training volume and intensity, the assertion that “the body’s capacity for physical punishment is not the limiting factor” becomes negated. ‘Recovery’ can only be an issue BECAUSE the body has a limited capacity for “punishment”… or work… or ‘energy output’… or whatever we want to call it.
One thing’s worth mentioning: For some people, under-training is as much a limiting factor as overtraining is for others. Some individuals don’t put forth the required intensity-of-effort to strengthen the body and/or augment muscles. As much as I’m a stickler for avoiding over training, I’m also one for putting forth an intense work ethic while working out.
The take-away here is this: You must have a very clear goal for your body in order to pinpoint the right amount of training and recuperation for reaching it. Vagueness of objectives will only lead to nebulous feedback. This, in turn, causes lackluster and un-motivating results.
‘Can You Work Out Too Much?’ It’d be a myth to say you can’t
In the so-called ‘Myth Busters’ article in T-Nation magazine, another “myth” that Nate Green attempts to bust is addressed just prior to the one relegating ‘it’s easy to over-train’ as a myth. He labels this other myth ‘steroids make all the difference.’ The thing I find most ironic about this is that steroid use is exactly what allows bodybuilders and athletes to make progress while training so haphazardly that they’d otherwise be over-trained. Steroids speed up recuperation and override what would be an “over-training plateau” in their absence.
Yes… I agree that it takes much more than steroid use in order to succeed as a pro bodybuilder; there’s discipline, dedication, attention-to-detail, hard work, and the all-important genetic potential. But with these other factors present, a bodybuilder wouldn’t even rank high enough to earn a pro card without using steroids and other pharmaceutical aids. That’s a fact with which the “myth buster” needs tempering.
My point is this: To build your body naturally, you’ll need to apply discipline, dedication, and a good work ethic. But failing to balance these with attention-to-detail in applying adequate rest and recuperation will definitely result in over-training. I know from experience that the hard-working natural bodybuilder needs more inter-workout recuperation than the “genius” writers of these magazines realize.
“Can you work out too much?”
If you’re attempting to actually ‘build’ your body without drugs – you’re damn right you can.