As perhaps the longest continuously writing author in the field of bodybuilding, I can tell you firsthand that the subject of overtraining has been, and continues to be, one of the most frequently covered topics. The theme of overtraining syndrome (or “OTS,” as it’s called) enjoys a regular, cyclical resurgence in magazines, with near-assured mention in some publication at least every month. The fact is, even yours truly covered the topic right here in this column just last May.
But I can see from the questions I’m getting that it’s time for some clarity.
OTS in bodybuilding is a very real, albeit misunderstood, phenomenon. Because so many serious bodybuilders strive for delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), when it stops appearing, it’s all too often taken to mean that the training for a particular muscle group wasn’t enough. As a result, we see hardcore gym rats get drawn into adding sets and reps, doing more frequent workouts, and taking fewer days of , all in the pursuit of muscle growth.
Yet this lack of DOMS may actually be a sign of overtraining, not undertraining. Of course, that’s not to say all muscles respond the same way. In fact, some muscle groups get sore much more easily than others. But generally speaking, you’ll find that the more muscularly developed areas of your body tend to experience DOMS more easily than those stubborn, less-developed areas. That’s why experienced bodybuilders have a love affair with soreness— if they’re sore, they feel like they really “got to” a particular area. That feeling of soreness is taken as an indicator that the area has been hit hard enough, thus the impending recovery will result in muscle growth.
In response to these situations, as one reaches further and further into training, despite an increase in gym workload DOMS does not result. Overtraining has occurred.
Yet the sick thing is that one is so easily sucked into the concept that more needs to be done in the gym, not less. The result of pushing even harder by adding more time in the gym—with more reps, more sets, and more training frequency—is actually the very reason the body responds negatively. When formal OTS sets in, the muscles really flatten, development stalls and actually goes backward, and the body becomes more vulnerable to injury.
So, among advanced bodybuilders, the signs and symptoms of being overtrained often go unnoticed, or are misinterpreted or ignored. But they’re very real. Yet the greater reality is that true overtraining really happens far less frequently across the entire gym population than my articles and those of my collegial pundits might lead you to believe.
All this begets the question: With such a small minority of the gym population so committed to bodybuilding training that they risk overtraining, and with only a small sub-population of that group actually suffering OTS, why does the subject continue to get so much attention?
I surmise the answer starts, more than anything else I can think of, with the notion that people who come to the gym want to believe they’re training hard. With that in mind, the very notion that there’s such a thing as OTS gives them free license to feel they just might need to cut back on what they’re doing in order to see better results. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get more for less? It’s actually human nature to want to get a bigger return on less effort, to get more out than you put in.
So the point of all this is to encourage you to take a step back and examine what you’re doing in the gym, and honestly assess your workload. Before you so quickly label yourself “overtrained,” be sure you’re not, in fact, undertrained. And don’t be so sure that counting up the number of hours spent in the gym or the total number of sets completed will give you a good answer. I can’t even begin to describe how many unfortunate souls I’ve seen over the years who’ve spent countless hours in the gym, yet had pathetic development.
As I’ve always preached, pay careful attention to the quality of your training, as it’s far more important than the quantity. - FLEX