Almost any form of exercise will stimulate some degree of strength and muscle development. Unfortunately, misconceptions, myths, and misunderstandings plague the fitness industry, especially in regard to strength training. There is a huge attrition rate among those starting a strength training program primarily because most people are not taught the principles essential for a safe and effective program.
This article is part five of a five part series discussing the very important principles and guidelines of a safe and effective strength training program. This article discusses exactly how to avoid the common mistake of overtraining. The previous article, part four of this five part series, discusses the importance of using the right amount of weight and number of repititions for each set, so you can achieve the results you desire. The following exercise guidelines are extremely important for your safety and the effectiveness of your strength training program.
If you feel burnt out, weak, and/or sore, you are probably overtraining. Not providing your muscles with enough rest will often prevent you from making improvements. Training the wrong muscle groups on consecutive days will also counteract your good results. Doing too many sets and exercises per muscle group will also cause overtraining.
Remember that weightlifting, especially in an intense program, produces tissue microtrauma, those tiny tears in the muscles that temporarily decrease strength and cause varying degrees of muscle soreness. It is absolutely necessary to provide ample rest time between successive training sessions. Muscles generally require about 48 hours for the resting and rebuilding process before you work them again.
You should never train the same muscle groups on two or more days in a row (abdominals are the exception). Hypothetically then, you would do your chest, shoulders, triceps, and abdominals on Monday; on Tuesday you would train your legs, back, biceps, and abdominals; you would take Wednesday off to give all your muscle groups extra rest; on Thursday you'd do chest, shoulders, triceps, and abdominals again; and on Friday you'd do legs, back, biceps, and abdominals again. This would allow two days (48 hours) of rest for each muscle between training days.
Those of you who train very intensely, would benefit greatly by taking even more rest time between sessions. A week does not have to be limited to only seven days--you can expand it to eight, nine, or even ten days. Think about it: why not? Day one could consist of chest, shoulders, triceps, (pushing muscles) and abdominals on Monday. Take Tuesday off. On day two, Wednesday, the routine could consist of legs, back, biceps, (pulling muscles) and abdominals. Take Thursday off. On Friday you do chest, shoulders, triceps, and abdominals again--and so on. This is especially important when mixing pushing and pulling muscles for different sessions. For example, if you train your chest on Monday and then triceps the next day, your triceps never really get a complete rest because they are indirectly trained with your chest on Monday and directly trained on Tuesday. But if you split up chest/shoulders/triceps or back/biceps, working them on different days, you can implement this eight day program for maximum muscle resting time. Remember: always allow your muscles a chance to grow, especially when you are feeling overtrained. If needed, give yourself an extra day off to grow. Never feel guilty about skipping a workout. That extra rest could be exactly what your body needs.
Many people make the mistake of doing too many sets per exercise, and/or doing too many exercises per muscle group. It's very common for people who want great muscle size and strength gains to simply do too much for each muscle group and overtrain to the point where they do more harm than good. A common weightlifting recommendation is to do at least four sets for each exercise and at least four exercises for each muscle group. This idea that "more is better" is a big misconception in the strength training industry and is recommended in many "muscle magazines" and other sources.
But when you see Mr. or Ms. Olympia in muscle magazines describing their workouts of four to five sets per exercise and four to five exercises per muscle group, do not be fooled into thinking that if you want their results you have to do what they do. These are professional body builders, quite likely to be on steroids; they can get away with these very intense long programs because their muscles are able to rebuild very quickly. If you are not on steroids--and for the sake of your health I hope you are not--your muscles will not be able to rebuild themselves quickly enough to make gains.
For each of the large muscle groups in the body such as back, chest, shoulders, quadriceps, and hamstrings, two to four exercises for each muscle is enough. For the smaller muscle groups such as biceps, calves, trapezius, etc. one to three exercises are enough. Because your back, for example, has specific muscles that need to be isolated, it is important that of the three exercises you perform, you do one that primarily targets each of the three areas: upper-middle back, lats., and lower back.
When you're doing two to four exercises for each muscle group, make sure you don't duplicate movements of specific muscle groups. For example, it makes no sense to do three sets of Bench Press using a barbell and then do three sets of Bench Press using dumbbells or Push-ups. Each of these exercises requires exactly the same movement and works the same specific muscle. Instead, it would make much more sense to do bench press for overall middle chest (either barbell, dumbbell, or machine); do incline bench press for upper chest; and do dips for lower-outer chest.
One point--maybe the most important of all for ongoing strength training programs--that is absolutely imperative to understand and implement into your training regimen is the need to overcome training plateaus. Ideally, you want to always be going through a momentum phase in which you try something new and "shock" your muscles, forcing them to make gains. Eventually however, you will come to a point in your training where you either get bored or stop seeing results.
When this happens it is absolutely crucial that you change what you are doing; this is when you need to get creative by incorporating something new into your program. You can make effective changes in your program in many ways: try new or alternate exercises, change the order that you train your muscles or the order of the exercises, and so forth.
I hope you have found the information in these five part series of articles helpful. You now have the knowledge to achieve the results you desire and the benefits your body deserves. Your greatest challenge, however, is not learning new exercises or the proper technique; it's not learning how many sets or reps to do or how much weight to use. Nor is it deciding when or how to change your routine. The greatest challenge facing you at this moment is deciding whether you are willing to take action and make strength training a priority.
When you begin achieving great results, the excitement and fun you experience will make the change well worth the effort. Action creates motivation! Good luck: I hope you enjoy all the wonderful benefits of an effective strength training program.