By Bryan Haycock Flex
One of the most common temptations when gains begin to slow or even stop is to increase the training load. The first thought that comes to mind is, “Maybe I’m not doing enough.” So we add another exercise, then another set—the more desperate might even add more workouts. Urban legends about Arnold and the like busting plateaus by squatting for hours on end don’t help the matter. Add to this the gym culture that reveres long and hard workouts that supposedly test your mettle, and all of this can lead to overtraining.
Most overtraining research focuses on endocrine symptoms such as elevated catecholamines and cortisol levels, and also metabolic and nervous system problems that lead to poor insulin sensitivity, sleep difficulties, and reduced appetite. But could there be more direct negative effects from overtraining that are important to bodybuilders?
A recent study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine shows that overtraining may in some instances directly prevent muscle growth by elevating levels of myostatin within the muscle. Myostatin is classified as a negative regulator of muscle tissue; it inhibits muscle stem cell proliferation and differentiation, and attenuates adult muscle fiber protein accretion, resulting in decreased skeletal muscle mass.
In this study, researchers used an overtraining model in mice that involved downhill running on a treadmill. Downhill running involves mostly eccentric muscle contractions and leads to significant muscle microtrauma, muscle soreness, inflammation, fatigue, and loss of strength. If you’ve ever gone on a hike up a mountain, you know that it’s the way back down that causes so much soreness the next day. Mice were divided into four groups; control (no training), trained (flat treadmill running), overtrained (downhill treadmill running) and supplemented overtrained (additional carbs were given to this group after each bout).
The main findings of this study were that overtraining led to low-grade chronic inflammation in muscle, liver, and blood. Providing additional carbs following each training bout reduced signs of inflammation in liver and blood, but not in muscle. Finally, overtraining led to myostatin upregulation in muscle tissue. Aside from the negative efects of chronic inflammation, an increase in myostatin is bad for growth.
In a nutshell, overtraining generally won’t increase your gains but will instead hamper them, and—because of the chronic inflammation—will also lead to nagging joint and tendon pain.
I’ll admit, at times it’s difficult to know just where training becomes overtraining. In truth, it varies from individual to individual and depends a great deal on training state and supportive factors such as diet and sleep. Bottom line: More is not always better. Stay tuned in to what your body is telling you, and don’t be afraid to increase recovery time when things get stagnant.