The long bodybuilding tradition of overtraining

In the long history of bodybuilding traditions, bodybuilders trained as weightlifters. They were weightlifters or strong men who lifted weights and who over time began to be just as worried about how they looked instead of or beyond how much they could lift.

This trend accelerated in the 1930s with the emergence of “Physical Culture” competitions in which athletes with distinct aesthetic musculature from weight training had a clear advantage in physical development. These events involved things like a form of athletic performance and sometimes public speaking, but in 1939 the emphasis shifted to focusing on judging muscle development as competitors bent over and then made a personal posing routine – in other words, bodybuilding as we know it it today.

Some bodybuilders in the 1940s still did things like gymnastics and the kind of hand balancing you see on vintage photos of the original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, but through the 1950s there was more emphasis on the kind of bodybuilding posing we still see in day, e.g. as a side chest or double biceps shot. But the training routines of this era remained largely the same: for the most part, the whole body worked in one workout three times a week as a weightlifter. But gradually a more modern system evolved using techniques that Joe Weider would codify as the “Weider System.” These included split-system workouts, where one only works with one part of the body in any workout; combining two-stage strength exercises and one-stage isolation movements; peak contraction, supersets and the use of a wide variety of exercises for each body part.

Young Arnold Schwarzenegger in California
When he first came on the field in the 60s, Arnold had lots of muscle, and in the 70s he combined size and definition to win the Olympia Lent by Gene Mozee

During the 1960s, thanks to these new techniques, plus a more advanced approach to dieting (no more drinking lots of whole milk, for example), bodybuilders began to appear on the scene much more muscular and defined, rather than just large and smooth. This trend continued through the 1970s until we began to see extremely ripped competitors, defined but often overly exhausted (largely to extreme dehydration and ketosis diets). But also because of overtraining.

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

2021 Ms.  Olympia winner Andrea Shaw performs a dumbbell workout
Ms. Olympia, Andrea Shaw demonstrates excellent form by making dumbbells on the side. Wings of strength

An example could be Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he was over 6 ‘tall, Arnold as a young man weighed something in the direction of 255 or 260 pounds. At his best in the 1970s, he stood on stage, weighing 235 pounds. Very small by modern standards and very small if you think about his obvious genetics for muscle. Why was this the case? If you compare the two versions of Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, one describes how he trained in his early years and the other his recommendations for the newer techniques that have evolved over the decades. One of the big differences is the training volume and how much 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.

Bodybuilding training should be like a series of sprints, not long distance runs. If you train intensely enough, you quickly surpass your body’s ability to supply fresh oxygen to the muscles. This is anaerobic activity. You feel the “burning” when the lactic acid accumulates in the muscles. At this point, stop and rest and let the muscle recover. But these muscles do not fully recover in a short time. So you are still tired when you do your subsequent sets for those muscles or that muscle group.

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

It is also a fact that bodybuilders in bodybuilding traditions continue to do more sets and exercises than necessary to develop an individual muscle or body part. For example, when dealing with a simple muscle group such as the biceps, all these muscles do is curl the arms – contraction from the starting point at the shoulder to the point of insertion in the forearm and bending the elbow joint.

When you do biceps dumbbell or barbell curls, cable curls, machine curls or concentration curls, you are doing essentially the same movement over and over and over again. There are some differences between lifting a free weight where joint stabilization is necessary and curling on a machine where it is not, the biceps contracting substantially through the same range of motion several times. A few biceps exercises are one thing; four or five are quite different. The biceps are so relatively small that it is easy to overtrain them with too many sets and reps.

Now there has been an alternative approach to training popular among many. This follows the principles promoted by Arthur Jones, developer of Nautilus, and involves a lot of “heavy-duty” and low reps training – including forced reps and negatives and forced negatives. Promoting a Nautilus gym resulted in members going through a circuit fairly quickly, getting off the machines, leaving room for another group of members to get their own circuits in. This allowed a gym to increase the number of active members. But this is not the most effective and efficient method to develop a competitive bodybuilding physique.

Lee Haney trains with dumbbell concentration curl
When Lee Haney came into being in the 1980s, there was much less overtraining in their training than in previous decades. Bill Dobbins

There have been bodybuilders who have claimed to have built their physique using these principles, like Mike Mentzer and Casey Viator, but they had already created muscle bodies using the traditional method before ever seeing a Nautilus machine. Dorian Yates won several Mr. Olympic titles by using this approach to training, but stress tore his body apart – a punishment he was aware of but willing to pay to become a great champion.

So what is the most effective and efficient way to train to build muscle? According to the powerlifting master Dr. Fred Hatfield (Dr. Squat) involves pulling the muscle together against just enough resistance for just enough reps – or “Time Under Tension”. The right amount of resistance is about 75% of your maximum for one repetition. This allows you to perform about 8 to 12 reps for upper body movements, slightly more for the legs (better blood and oxygen supply). You do not really train the muscle directly; you program the nervous system. To send the right signals through the nervous system to create the stimulus needed to build muscle, you need to have approximately one minute of total time under tension.

Legendary Mr.  Olympia Ronnie Coleman with Joe Weider
Ronnie Coleman was one of the strongest competitors, but trained as a modern bodybuilder, not as a weightlifter. Bill Dobbins

Each rep is only about a second long. So 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 contraction of a muscle against resistance is what stimulates it to grow. Lowering a weight does not have the same result. It just strains the joints and connective tissue a lot.

Remember, progressive resistance training can be used to create a variety of reactions in the body. Really heavy training with low repetition is best for developing thick muscles and maximum strength. Using less weight and many repetitions results in a small, slimmer and well-defined physique like a gymnast.

This can vary quite a bit depending on individual genetics. There have been some athletes who have developed a lot of muscle and musculature (but not enough for bodybuilding) who have done nothing but train. I remember I was in high school when no one was training with weights. There were some teenage classmates who were genetically large and muscular, and those of us who were not. I was not built for football or I chose baseball.

The effect that bodybuilders are looking for is large, round and shapely muscles 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 or boxing, there are two factors that have made that possible. The first is the improvement of equipment. Running shoes are like springs that allow for more energy in each step. Golf clubs and tennis rackets look very little like what they did 30 or 40 years ago.

But the most important factor is strength and conditioning techniques, which have provided athletes with much greater physical abilities than before. Barry Bonds may have been caught using anabolics, but he also made 300-pound bench presses. Tiger Woods was the first modern golfer to work hard on weight training and now all the young competitors have followed suit.

And one of the reasons why current bodybuilders tend to be so much bigger than before is that they have learned to train more efficiently and economically in a way that creates maximum stimulation for muscle growth and allows for all the time needed to rest, recover and grow. .

Behind The Scene of the Last Five Mr.  Olympia participants

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