Less Is More – Overtraining

I’ve noticed some changes in the past 2 weeks or so.  While I already have long-standing problems with insomnia, I’ve had a hard time staying asleep and sleeping deeply once I do manage to fall asleep.  Instead of being awake until midnight or 1 AM (which is typical for me), I’ve experienced a few nights recently where I was still awake at 3 AM.  I’ve come down with a series of nagging colds and coughs.  There were several days where I had no appetite at all – I felt as though I could have gone all day without eating (which of course I did not do).  I’ve also had more joint pain than usual, including a nagging injury to the back of my left knee that prevents me from doing full flexion without pain and popping.  I’ve been fatigued at work and during the time immediately after I get home from work, and usually end up sleeping for about an hour in the late afternoon/early evening.  Many of my workouts have been a drag, and I’ve had to rely on pre-workout supplements with caffeine to get through them.  I typically shoot for a target HR in the mid 140’s to 160’s when doing cardio, but a few of my sessions each week felt impossible to complete even though my heart rate is only in the 120’s or 130’s.

So…what’s going on?  These symptoms are common indicators of overtraining.  I’ve been consistently training for almost 4 months.  In the past 6-8 weeks, I’ve been lifting heavy 4-5 times per week, and doing cardio 6 days per week for 45-60 mins per session.  As of mid-October, I was still making decent progress with regard to lean muscle mass and fat loss, and I haven’t re-checked my measurements yet, but I have a feeling my progress is also slowing down.

I have always subscribed to the school of thought that in order to get extremely lean (i.e. for a competition), you have to do endless hours of cardio and lift five or six days per week while incrementally cutting calories (usually carbs and sometimes fat).  This is the approach I took to preparing for my first show.  However, I’m beginning to realize that tons of cardio and training 6 or 7 days per week isn’t the only way to achieve an outstanding physique, and may not even be the best way to do so!

I thought this article from Charles Poliquin was really eye-opening about all of the negative effects of aerobic training.  For those of you who are looking for the Cliff’s Notes version of the article, aerobic exercise does the following:

  • Raises cortisol and accelerates aging
  • Increases inflammation and oxidative stress
  • Decreased reproductive size and function (ouch guys!)
  • Compromises the immune system

He recommends strength training in combination with HIIT training (high intensity interval training) in order to get leaner.  HIIT basically means you do cardio in short intervals of intense activity followed by recovery intervals of low to moderate intensity.  An example would be sprinting for 30 seconds followed by walking for 60 seconds repeated several times (depending on how long you want your total HIIT session to be – usually, HIIT is limited to 15-30 minutes).

I’m also in the middle of reading a book called Pure Physique by Michael Lipowski.  It’s a little bit more technical than what I’m used to reading and I’m only about a quarter of the way in, but my biggest takeaway so far is the importance of rest and recovery.  Your muscles do not grow and get stronger in the gym – this happens during the time after your workout when your body is repairing the damage you did to the muscle while you were working out.  By lifting 5 days per week and doing cardio 6 days per week, I don’t think I am allowing myself sufficient time to rest and recover in between workouts.  In addition to compromising the actual recovery, I also think it’s impacting my progress because I’m only putting forth partial effort during my workouts due to fatigue.  This means less intense workouts, which means a less effective stimulus to grow bigger or get stronger.

So, what does this mean in terms of changes to my current plan?

  1. Lift 4 days per week – Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays ideally.  This gives me 3 rest days per week with only two workouts back to back – but Saturdays are good for me because it means I am well-rested from sleeping in!
  2. Do cardio for 20-30 minutes immediately after lifting on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays – no cardio on rest days!  At least 2 cardio sessions per week will be HIIT workouts (probably sprints or speed intervals on the stairmill).
  3. Start carb cycling.  I pretty much eat the same every day at this point, unless it’s a cheat day.  To compliment my new training schedule, I’m going to start utilizing high and low carb days to correspond with my training and rest days.  My carbohydrate intake will be twice as much on training days (carbohydrates are necessary not only to fuel my workouts appropriately, but also to recover adequately from them), while protein and fat intake will remain the same.  On rest days, my total caloric intake will be about 300 calories less (due to the reduction in carbohydrates).

I have to admit that I love training and being in the gym.  Cutting back from 6 days of training per week to 4 days per week is mentally challenging for me.  However, I’m convinced that if I give the “less is more” approach a shot, I will feel better, look better, and perform better, while having more free time for the other fun things in life.  Let’s see how I’m doing at the end of the year!

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