Christian tackles the myth of overtraining, why gymnasts and Olympic lifters look the way they do, and how growth occurs in spurts.
1 – Train Hard, Recover Harder
I've said it time and time again: The more you train without exceeding your capacity to recover, the more you'll grow and the stronger you'll get.
I'll go one step further and say that most people don't train hard enough to progress past the beginning of the intermediate stage. When they first start, they gain because any training represents a drastic increase compared to the hole they were wearing through the couch. But as soon as they get past the beginner stage, gains become exceedingly rare because now that their body is used to physical stress, it takes a lot more of it to force adaptation.
One of the reasons why these people fail to train hard enough to stimulate gains is out fear of overtraining (which is often just a justification for laziness).
Well, let me tell you this: True overtraining is exceptionally rare. In all my life as an athlete and coach, I've only seen two real cases of overtraining, and in both the guys were Olympians training over 30 hours per week under tremendous psychological stress.
In reality, most elite athletes train over 20 hours per week, with some even hitting the 40-hour mark. Not all of this is strength training; speed and agility work, conditioning, and skill practices are also on the menu.
Before you throw the doping argument in my face, I've seen a ton of young athletes who were obviously not on drugs follow that type of schedule. I've worked as the head strength coach of a sports academy where kids ranging from 12 to 18 would go to school from 8:30 am to 12:00 pm, then train or practice from 1:00 to 5:00 pm every day. Their programs included daily strength work, agility training, and practices cumulating over 20 hours per week. None of them were overtraining; all of them progressed quite well.
Similarly, most high-level Olympic lifters train for three hours per day spread over two or three daily sessions. Heck, Canadian National team member Marilou Dozois-Prévost engaged in two sessions daily, each lasting two hours, and would often extend these to do additional jumping or gymnastic work... when she was 14!
The benefits of youth? Maybe.
But how do you explain the case of Marcel Perron, who at 68, would lift for two hours in the morning, sprint for 30 minutes before lunch, and train for two more hours in the evening? His partner, Emery Chevrier, who power cleaned 285 and power snatched 225 pounds at a bodyweight of 170 when he was 70, would do the same minus the sprints.
And on the practical side, I've known quite a few farmers who chugged along for eight hours straight day after day, doing work that'd bury the most hardcore gym enthusiasts, without overtraining.
The problem is that most people lack the recovery capacity and don't take the necessary means to recover properly.
The Barbarian Brothers, two of the hardest training bodybuilders mankind has ever known, said that there was no such thing as overtraining, only undereating.
While not 100% accurate, they have the gist of it. Most people who think they're overtraining are simply under-recovering. While you can't make your body invincible to overtraining by pigging out, undereating, and especially undernourishment, can drastically reduce your capacity to recover.
Here are some things you can do to increase your recovery capacity:
A. Optimize Peri-Workout Nutrition
Can you grow without proper peri-workout nutrition? Sure. However, perfect peri-workout nutrition drastically increases your capacity to perform during the session and recover from it.
Peri-workout nutrition is especially important for those who train often. Those training four to seven days per week need to recover fast from their workouts or else their performance in the following sessions might suffer.
Peri-workout nutrition is even more important if you train twice per day because you need even faster recovery.
Obviously, peri-workout nutrition will vary depending on your current goal, as well as the diet you're following.
If muscle growth is the main goal, and/or if carbs are allowed:
Have half of it pre-workout and the other half during the first three-quarters of the session.
1 serving of Surge® Recovery
1 scoop of whey protein isolate, such as Metabolic Drive® Protein
10 grams of Creatine
1 serving of Brain Candy® (for neural recovery)
400-800 mg of phosphatidylserine (to lower cortisol)
0.1 grams per pound of bodyweight of glycine (to calm you down and lower cortisol)
If fat loss is the main goal and/or carbs aren't allowed:
1 scoop of whey hydrolysate or isolate (hydrolysate being the best)
0.1-0.2 grams of BCAA's per pound of bodyweight
Have half of it pre-workout and the other half during the first three-quarters of the session.
0.3 grams per pound of bodyweight of whey protein isolate
0.2 grams per pound of bodyweight of glutamine
5 grams of L-Leucine
5-10 grams of creatine
1 serving of Brain Candy®
400-800 mg of phosphatidylserine
0.1 grams per pound of bodyweight of glycine
B. Give Yourself the Proper Nutrients
If protein is the bricks needed to build the house, carbs and fats are the workers' salary. If you don't pay them enough, they won't build the house, or at the very least the roof will leak and the plumbing will back up.
For the natural individual, protein should be around 1.25 to 1.5 grams per pound when trying to add size, and 1.75 grams per pound when trying to lose fat. There's more protein when dieting down because when you're trying to lose fat you'll be forced to cut carbs and/or fat. In that energy deficit, the body will look for other ways to produce the required energy.
Under the best circumstances, this energy would come from stored body fat. But in reality, some of it can come from protein. The liver will also transform some of the amino acids into glucose. Sadly, this is unavoidable. You want to minimize it, but some neoglucogenesis is bound to happen.
The increase in protein, while it can't prevent protein from being used to produce glucose, will at least protect your muscles from being broken down. The body will prefer to break down the readily available free-form amino acids than destroy muscle tissue.
After protein, you need to adjust your energetic nutrient intake (carbs and fat). The amount of each will vary depending on your goal of gaining mass or losing fat.
But simply put, the more training you perform, the more energetic nutrients you'll need. This energy can come from various ratios of fats and carbs, depending on how you react to each.
If you feel like you aren't recovering from your workouts and you're lacking energy, gradually increase your energetic nutrient intake.
C. Reduce the Inflammatory Response to Training
While the inflammatory response is a necessary step in stimulating growth, the body often overdoes it. As a result, you may start to suffer from nagging aches and pains that reduce the efficacy of your workouts.
A good fish oil supplement like Flameout® is the perfect first line of defense in reducing excess inflammation.
D. Go Alkaline
An acidic diet has several downsides: reductions in most metabolic processes, the anabolic response to training, and the ability to mobilize fat, and an increase in the inflammatory response to training.
Sadly, for us, protein sources are generally acidifying. And it's the same story for grains and refined carbs. Since, as bodybuilders and strength athletes, we ingest a lot of protein every day, we must counter the potential increase in acidity by ingesting alkaline foods.
Most fruits and veggies are alkaline, except:
Canned or glazed fruits (because of the added sugar)
Glutamine can also have a positive impact on acidity by helping clear the acid components.
So, consume something alkaline (shoot for veggies as much as possible) every time you eat protein or grains. If you don't get enough in your regular everyday diet, consider using Superfood.
E. Quality Sleep
With our current lifestyle, it's hard to get those eight to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep because of elevated cortisol and catecholamine levels. When these are high, after a stressful day of work for example, it's hard to get that deep sleep you need for optimal growth and performance.
Furthermore, a lot of us train after work, around 6 or 7 pm. Training also elevates cortisol and catecholamine levels. Ironically, in that case, we don't get the full benefit of our training because of our training!
To get a good night's sleep:
- The room must be completely dark. No light source, regardless of how faint. If you have an alarm clock, turn it so that you won't see the time while in bed. If you can't get the room completely dark, wear an eye mask. Yeah, it looks stupid, but who cares? Nobody sees you.
- Don't leave your cell phone or computer in the room. The fewer "computerized" items you have in the room, the better.
- Set the room temperature a bit colder than the rest of the house.
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques.
- If you need some help relaxing and falling asleep, I suggest Z-12™. Melatonin is also good, but it can leave you groggy.
- The use of cortisol-lowering supplements in the evening will be of great help to those who live a stressful lifestyle and/or train late. Phosphatidylserine at 400 mg plus glycine at 0.1 grams per pound of bodyweight post-workout and around one hour before bed will help.
2 – Progress Comes in Spurts
Whether we're talking fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains, progress is never linear. You normally have a short period of fast and furious progress followed by a relatively long period of either very slow progress or even stagnation.
Recently, I've seen it with four of my clients.
Client A is a 34-year-old female with three kids. She's a very good looking woman, but she had a bit too much extra baggage. During our first month together, she made good progress (as is to be expected when someone starts training seriously after a long layoff). The second month the progress was slow, and it all but stopped during the third and fourth months.
Then, all of a sudden, in ten days she made more progress than in the past two months. My administrative assistant didn't even recognize her; she thought that it was a new client. In ten days, she lost eight pounds and didn't change anything in her diet and her training wasn't that different. She now looks almost like a Figure competitor, after having three kids, and gym members ask me how I'm able to keep my concentration while I'm training her.
Client B is a pretty big and muscular guy at 6'2" and 215 pounds with less than 10% body fat. He's been stagnant for quite some time, and even regressed some. Last week, he walked in looking jacked, and rightfully so because he'd gained seven pounds in the past seven days without gaining fat. His diet and training weren't any different, and he didn't use anything illegal either.
Client C is an athletic guy at 5'9" and 193 pounds. He's one of the hardest training individuals I've ever worked with. His most recent goal was a 225-pound power clean (he was using 155 when we first started in August). He progressed fairly well, quickly building up to 200 pounds, but for some reason he couldn't get past 205 even if his leg and back strength increased and his technique was flawless. He was starting to get frustrated, then one day bam. Not only did he hit 225, but he nailed 235!
Client D, well, isn't a client. It's me. At one time, my bench press was stuck at 385 for what seemed like forever. I tried numerous approaches, and although I'd get stronger everywhere else, my bench wouldn't budge. After two months of frustration, I felt fairly good one day and actually hit 405. Three days later, I hit 425! Not a huge lift, but it's pretty decent for someone who'd been stuck 40 pounds lower for ages.
The moral of the story is to not get discouraged when progress is slow or non-existent. Progress comes in spurts as long as you keep working hard.
3 – Why Ring Training Didn't Get You Podium-Ripped
I see this with people who look at the physique of an athlete — a gymnast for example — and automatically assume that adopting a few of their exercises will give them the same type of physique.
Sadly, it doesn't work that way. Gymnasts aren't super lean and muscular because they do bodyweight exercises. They're that way because they do this type of training six hours per day for years. Eventually, they're bound to be super lean.
Not to mention that the individuals you see at the Olympics are the absolute best in the world. So not only have they trained like crazy, they're also the top genetic freaks in that sport.
Finally, gymnasts arguably have one of the most regimented diets in the world of athletics because, although they need strength and power, they also need to be as light as possible.
There's a huge difference between:
Being genetically gifted for gymnastics and training 30 hours per week on an extremely severe diet for years.
Your average Joe, training four or five hours per week while eating a diet that swings from good to horrible over the short term.
The end result won't be the same.
I'm not saying that gymnastic-like exercises aren't effective. However, it's unrealistic to think that simply adding 30 minutes of them three times per week will give you the same results as someone who does this for a living.
4 – Adding Olympic Lifts Won't Lead to Olympic Looks
We find that same "monkey see, monkey do" phenomenon when we look at the elite lifters during the Olympics. There's always one or two with great physiques, and this starts the "I'll do the Olympic lifts to look like that" syndrome.
The same things I mentioned about gymnastics can be said about Olympic lifting, plus:
- The Olympic lifts have a short time under tension because the movement is explosive. Each rep lasts a second or less. And if you consider that three-quarters of the rep is performed mostly by the initial burst, the actual amount of time where the muscles are producing a forceful contraction is around one-third of a second. If you perform a set of six reps (which is fairly high by Olympic lifting standards), it puts the muscles under tension for around two seconds per set. Considering that maximum hypertrophy stimulation occurs with sets lasting at least 20 seconds (30 to 50 seconds being better for most), it's easy to see why the Olympic lifts might not be ideal.
- Another important component when it comes to stimulating growth is the eccentric, or lowering, portion of the movement. It's during this phase that most of the muscle damage occurs, and this is one of the main stimulators of hypertrophy. In the Olympic lifts, the eccentric portion is de-emphasized, if not completely taken out by dropping the bar after each rep.
- People look at elite Olympic lifters and see the huge legs, shoulders, and traps and assume that the Olympic lifts are the best exercises for these muscles. Let me be clear on several aspects:
- Not all elite lifters are very muscular. Most of them look athletic, but their physiques wouldn't really stand out in most gyms. Yes, a few of them are freaky, but they aren't the norm.
- Olympic lifters have very muscular legs and shoulders. And that's it. But, arguably, these aren't the result of the Olympic lifts themselves. Don't forget that Olympic lifters squat, and squat often! As in three to six times a week. Contrary to the Olympic lifts, the squat has a longer time under tension and an eccentric phase, which means that it'll build a lot of muscle. As for the shoulders, they're under tension more so simply because Olympic lifters hold the weights overhead for three to five seconds per rep. As for traps, deadlifts and pulls are part of the training of most lifters.
- Until the late '70s, they didn't have bumper plates (which can be dropped), so lifters from that era had to lower every rep under control, while today's lifters even drop their warm-up reps.
- The overhead press was contested until 1972. This is a slow-speed strength movement much like the bench press, and to perform well on that lift, Olympic lifters did a lot of accessory work like the incline bench press, military press, flat bench press, dumbbell press, close-grip bench press, etc.
- The average number of reps per set has dropped significantly over the years. Back in the '60s and '70s, a lot of lifters did sets of four to six reps on competitive movements and up to ten reps on assistance work. Today, you'll rarely see an Olympic lifter do more than three reps on a competitive lift or more than five on assistance movements. Heck, Bulgarian lifters will do 90% of their workload with sets of one or two reps.
The Olympic lifts are great at building power and can be useful when adding mass too by potentiating the nervous system, but to base a whole hypertrophy program on them is asking to be disappointed.
Don't be misled by a few elite examples.
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