The truth is that there is no one way to train that will be optimal for each individual. Simply because of that word – individual. In the same way it’s difficult to predict what a stranger’s favourite colour is, you can’t just tell someone what workout is going to suit them best, without doing some background work…
Volume and intensity are not just words you should look for on the bottle of a good shampoo – but also the two main things you should look to change up in your workout routine; conventional wisdom tells us that you should pick one, or the other. A high-intensity, high-volume routine is going to be too much for anyone to handle in the long run – their body is going to hit burnout. Unfortunately, a lot of people follow such a routine either because it’s all they’ve ever known or because it’s sold to them as a good idea.
When you think of training, exercise, or just in general, it seems like common sense to think the harder you work the better you will perform and advance – but that’s not always the case. That infamous saying that sometimes less is more is what I’m getting at here. I believe there is an awful lot of people out there who are training too hard.
It’s not always that people don’t know over-training is a common problem, or that high-intensity and high-volume is rarely a good mix. It’s just easy to lose sight of the means when you have a goal in mind, and we all like to pretend we are superman every now and again. So, if you’re training more than 3 times a week – pay close attention to the rest of this article – as it quite likely applies to you.
What it is
When I refer to over-training in this article, I’m talking less about the clinical definition – a state of chronic fatigue, depression, and under-performance that persists despite rest – and more about a simple disproportion of work to recovery. This imbalance can result in stalled or even negative muscular growth, and leave you feeling constantly tired. It’s simple but: your body needs time to recover when you exercise.
If you find yourself in the gym more than 3-4 times a week, and you’re a committed (read: intense) exerciser – you are probably over-training. Yes, really.
The type of person who is enthusiastic enough about their fitness that they go to the gym that often, is usually the same kind who doesn’t know how to reign in the intensity of their workouts. The type that only have one gear: hell-to-leather. It’s that combination of intensity and volume that is potentially holding you back from really getting the best results and performing to your optimum. But how can you tell if that is the case?
How to tell
While this won’t apply to everyone (read: a genetic monster), I believe that for the vast majority:
If you’re really pushing yourself in your workouts – having sub 3 minute rest periods between sets and cranking out more than 4-5 sets per muscle group – and you aren’t improving noticeably every 2 weeks or so, it’s my opinion that you are probably over-training. If you are in a calorie surplus (taking in more than you are using) – then it’s almost definite.
If you feel tired on a daily basis, inside or outside the gym – it’s very likely that you’re a bit burnt out.
For those who prefer cardio – if you’re jogging 30 mins on a treadmill 5-6 days a week, you are not over-training. If you are doing sprints/HIIT or some other intense cardio work 5 times a week – you almost definitely are. Those who mix cardio and weights, you are at the highest risk of being over-trained.
Similarly, when you’re in a calorie deficit, you limit your body’s ability to recover somewhat – and this could cause over-training at levels that wouldn’t be a problem if you were eating a bit more, so you need to keep that in mind.
How to fix the problem
Because over-training is caused by a lack of rest in response to work, you can either increase your rest.. or decrease your work.
The first thing I suggest if you think you’re over-trained, is to take a week off. Let your body de-load and recover completely, and you’ll thank yourself in the long-term. How much damage can you really do in a week without exercise? Plus, if you’re training for size or strength taking a week off every now and again is essentially performing a ‘strategic de-load’ which can benefit your results greatly when performed at the right time.
While you’re taking that week off you should think about adjusting one of these two things:
The intensity of your workouts.
The total volume of your workouts.
There is a number of ways to achieve this. The easiest way is to adopt a standard low-intensity high-volume approach, or the vice versa. But you could opt to mix up the intensity on a per workout basis, and the same with volume – always making sure one is of overall lower level than it was in your previous routine. Play around with it.
When I recently realised I was over-trained, I took the opportunity to look at myself and tailor my workouts to my individuality. I like going to the gym a lot, but I also love intense workouts – giving 100% in every session. Seems like I’m destined to a high-intensity high-volume routine? I worked around it by reducing the volume of each workout. I was still hitting the gym 4 times a week, but I cut the exercises I did from 3 to 2 per major muscle group, and also knocked a set off the total number per muscle group. Since then, my progress has skyrocketed compared to the slow, slow progress I was making before.
That’s the biggest recommendation I can give, tailor your routine to who you are. Because that way, you’ll enjoy it more. And at the end of the day – the best routine is the one you stick to.