The Long Bodybuilding Tradition of Overtraining

In the long history of bodybuilding tradition, bodybuilders have trained like weightlifters. They were weight lifters or strong men who lifted weights and over time began to care as much about how they looked instead of or in addition to what they could lift.

This trend accelerated in the 1930s with the advent of “physical culture” competitions in which athletes with aesthetic musculature evident through bodybuilding had a distinct advantage in physical development. These events involved things like some sort of athletic performance and sometimes public speaking, but in 1939 the focus shifted to focus on assessing muscle development as competitors flexed and then flexed. made a personal pose routine – in other words, bodybuilding as we know it today.

Some 1940s bodybuilders were still doing things like calisthenics and the kind of hand balances you see in vintage photos of the original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, but in the 1950s there was more emphasis on the type of bodybuilding pose we still see today. such as side chest or double biceps shots. However, the workout routines of that era remained pretty much the same: working mostly the whole body in a single workout three times a week like that of a weightlifter. But gradually a more modern system evolved, using techniques that Joe Weider would codify as “The Weider System”. These included split system training, working only one part of the body in any workout; combining two-joint power exercises and single-joint isolation movements; maximum contraction, supersets and the use of a wide variety of different exercises for each part of the body.

When he hit the scene in the 60s Arnold had a lot of muscle and in the 70s he combined size and definition to win the Olympia Courtesy of Gene Mozee

During the 1960s, thanks to these new techniques, as well as a more advanced approach to dieting (no longer drinking a lot of whole milk, for example), bodybuilders began to appear on stage much more muscular and defined, rather than just big and smooth. This trend continued into the 1970s until we started to see extremely ripped, defined but often far too exhausted contestants (largely due to extreme dehydration and ketosis diets). But also because of overtraining.

Overtraining, as it relates to bodybuilding, comes from training too hard, too often, or for too long, and not giving muscles enough time to rest, recover, and grow. Training stimulates growth that only takes place when you rest and recover. In the 60s and 70s, bodybuilders started exercising as if the more sets and reps you did, the fatter you got. As a result, we started to see very muscular and defined competitors, but not at all fat compared to most professional bodybuilders today.

2021 Ms. Olympia winner Andrea Shaw performs barbell workout
Ms. Olympia, Andrea Shaw demonstrates excellent form doing barbell laterals. wings of strength

An example would be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Standing over 6 feet tall, Arnold as a young man weighed something like 255 or 260 pounds. At his best in the 1970s, he was on stage weighing 235 pounds. Very small by modern standards and very small considering his obvious muscle genetics. Why was this the case? If you compare the two versions of Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, one describing how he trained in his early years and the other his recommendations for new techniques that evolved over the decades. One of the main differences is the volume of training and the amount of rest you need to avoid overtraining. He now recommends shorter high-intensity workouts, fewer sets and reps than back then, and plenty of time to rest and recover between workouts.

Strength training should feel like a series of sprints, not a long-distance run. If you train hard enough, you quickly exceed your body’s ability to deliver fresh oxygen to the muscles. It is an anaerobic activity. You feel the “burn” when lactic acid builds up in the muscles. At this point you should stop and rest and allow the muscle to recover. But these muscles do not fully recover in a short time. So you’re still fatigued when you do your next sets for that muscle or muscle group.

But then you need time between workouts for the body to fully recover. This varies depending on the muscles worked. The biceps recover faster than any other muscle group; the slowest lower back. The legs take longer to rest and recover than the back or the shoulders.

It’s also a fact that in the tradition of bodybuilding, bodybuilders continue to do more sets and exercises than necessary to build a muscle or body part. For example, when dealing with a simple muscle group like the biceps, all of these muscles just curl the arms – contraction from the point of origin at the shoulder to the point of insertion in the forearm and bend the elbow joint.

When you do dumbbell or dumbbell bicep curls, cable curls, machine curls, or focus curls, you’re essentially doing the same movement over and over and over. There are a few differences between lifting a free weight where joint stabilization is needed and curls on a machine where that is not the case, the biceps are essentially contracting through the same range of motion multiple times. A few bicep exercises are one thing; four or five are quite different. Biceps are so relatively small that it’s easy to overtrain them with too many sets and reps.

Now, there has been an alternative approach to training popular with many. This follows the principles promoted by Arthur Jones, developer of Nautilus, and involves very “heavy” and low rep workouts – including forced reps and forced negatives and negatives. If you were promoting a Nautilus gym, members would go through a circuit pretty quickly, get off the machines, and make room for another group of members to get their own circuits. This allowed a gym to increase its number of active members. . But it’s not the most effective and efficient method to develop a competitive bodybuilding physique.

Lee Haney trains with a barbell concentration curl
By the time Lee Haney arrived in the 1980s, there was far less overtraining in their workouts than in previous decades. Bill Dobbin

There have been bodybuilders who have claimed to have built their physiques using these principles, such as Mike Mentzer and Casey Viator, but they had already created muscular physiques using the traditional method before seeing a Nautilus machine. Dorian Yates won multiple Mr. Olympia titles using this approach to training, but the stress tore his body apart – a penalty he was aware of but willing to pay to become a great champion.

So what is the best and most effective way to train to build muscle? According to powerlifting champion Dr. Fred Hatfield (Dr. Squat), this involves contracting the muscle against just enough resistance for just enough reps – or “Time Under Tension.” The right amount of resistance is around 75% of your one rep maximum. This allows you to do about 8-12 reps for the upper body movements, a bit more for the legs (better blood and oxygen supply). You’re not really training the muscle directly; you are programming the nervous system. In order to send the right signals through the nervous system to create the stimulus needed to build muscle, you need to have about a minute of total time under tension.

The legendary Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman with Joe Weider
Ronnie Coleman was one of the strongest competitors, but trained like a modern bodybuilder, not a weightlifter. Bill Dobbin

Each repetition lasts only about one second. Thus, a total of one minute TUT is achieved by the familiar three to four sets of three to four exercises per body part.

There is also the fact that contracting a muscle against resistance is what stimulates it to grow. Lowering a weight does not have the same result. It just puts a lot of stress on the joints and connective tissue.

Remember that progressive resistance training can be used to create a variety of different responses in the body. Very heavy, low rep training is best for building thick muscle and maximum strength. Using less weight and lots of reps results in a smaller, leaner, well-defined physique like that of a gymnast.

This can vary a lot depending on individual genetics. There have been athletes who have built up a lot of muscle and muscle (but not enough for bodybuilding) just doing calisthenics. I remember being in high school when no one was training with weights. There were teenage classmates who were genetically big and muscular and those of us who weren’t. I was not made for football, or I opted for baseball.

The effect bodybuilders seek is big, round, well-shaped muscle and extreme muscularity. And that’s why they should avoid overtraining – not too many sets and reps, not too much weight, and plenty of time between workouts to allow the body to rest, recover, and grow.

If you look at the progress in performance in sports in general, from tennis, golf and baseball to track and field or boxing, two factors have allowed this to happen. The first is improving equipment. Running shoes are like springs that allow more energy with each stride. Golf clubs and tennis racquets look very little like they did 30 or 40 years ago.

But the most important factor is strength and conditioning techniques, which have produced athletes with much greater physical abilities than in the past. Barry Bonds may have been caught using anabolics, but he was also doing 300-pound bench presses. Tiger Woods was the first modern golfer to work hard on bodybuilding and now every young competitor has followed suit.

And one of the reasons today’s bodybuilders tend to be much bigger than in the past is that they’ve learned to train more efficiently and economically, in a way that creates maximum stimulation for muscle growth. and allows plenty of time to rest, recover and grow. .

Behind the scenes of the final five Mr. Olympia contestants

Teresa E. Burton