Many professional bodybuilders appear to spend their lives in the gym, training up to three times a day. But how realistic is this for regular people? Can you train every day? Or, perhaps a better question, should you? I examine the evidence.
Pro Bodybuilders are able to train every day through the use of anabolic steroids. Regular lifters would only be able to train every day at a high intensity for a brief period of time before the effects of overtraining led to injury or illness.
In this article, I will explore how bodybuilders can train every day without getting injured or suffering from overtraining, I will also explain why it is not possible for non-steroid takers. Finally, I will provide you with a more realistic schedule to follow.
Okay, technically it would be possible to train every day, provided your workout was low-impact and low-intensity. You could probably perform 10 push-ups and 10 bodyweight squats every day for the rest of your life without any real side effects (unless your form was bad). But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about proper bodybuilding workouts. High intensity, medium to high reps, and lots of heavy weights.
This all comes down to the principles of strength and hypertrophy. To increase muscle size and strength you need to overload the muscle, getting them to do more than they have previously done. This is called overload, when programmed correctly it is called “Progressive Overload”.
The idea is that over time you will slowly increase the weight you lift or the number of reps you perform, or both. This overloads the muscle and the muscle is forced to adapt. The adaptation process involves inflammation, protein synthesis, and eventually leads to stronger or bigger muscles (or both).
If you just trained the same weights and reps every day you would not overload the muscles and would be unlikely to see any progress. But you would also be able to perform those exercises every day without needing to rest and recover.
But who wants that?
When training without steroids (more on that later) your body needs to recover from workouts that employ progressive overload. Think of it like a 100m race. If you ran a new PB and put in 100% effort you would probably collapse to the floor post-race breathing heavily. Could you then repeat that 100m race an hour later? Of course not. You’d still be tired from the race.
This seems like a silly comparison, but actually, it’s pretty dead-on (if a little exaggerated). A 60-90 minute workout where you are striving with every fibre of your being to perform at your best may not feel as tiring as a 100m sprint, but your muscles will be just as exhausted afterwards. They need rest and recovery.
For non-steroid users, the time between training is necessary so that their muscles can recover and adapt. Muscles can become fatigued and sore or stiff. Meaning that your next workout won’t be as good. There are ways to “cheat” your body, such as high doses of caffeine (that can reduce pain and improve performance), but they will only work for so long.
If your muscles aren’t given sufficient time to recover and you keep training, they will eventually become injured. This is a scientific fact.
In an article for T Nation, Christian Thibaudeau lists four elements of workout recovery:
You may have noticed how two of these (muscle and neurological recovery) are issues that you have little control over. Glycogen replenishment can be improved through diet (eat more carbs), and mental/emotional recovery can differ from person to person (but should not be overlooked).
This is a good question, while the most obvious answer is steroids, that’s not the only one. Firstly, a professional bodybuilder who regularly competes at Mr Olympia is for all intents and purposes a professional athlete. Asking how a Pro Bodybuilder can train every day is a little like asking how Cristiano Ronaldo can score so many goals.
Here are four main benefits that Pro bodybuilders will have compared to regular lifters who may want to embark on a bodybuilding career.
I always strive to create balanced content when it comes to bodybuilding and steroid use. Too many people dismiss the hard work and effort of Pro bodybuilders as “just steroids”, but I know that this is just lazy thinking.
There is a lot of hard work, talent, genetics, and professionalism within the sport. That being said, I can’t for one second pretend that the use of anabolic steroids isn’t a major factor in how bodybuilders train every day.
It is important to note that there are many different types of steroids, which can vary in what they do. But overall, a bodybuilder taking anabolic steroids can expect the following benefits.
As you can see, the increased replenishment of creatine and glycogen stores allow bodybuilders to train at high intensities/high volumes on a daily basis. The increased protein synthesis means that their muscles can recover much faster and that their genetic ceiling for muscle growth is much higher.
These are not things that even the greatest natural bodybuilder can realistically compete with.
Some of you reading this may have spotted a flaw in the discussion. Which may look something like this:
To get results, isn’t it necessary to overtrain? Well sort of. You need to train past your comfort zone, but there is a world of difference between pushing the boundaries and overtraining. This is why the term “overreaching” is being used more often in coaching.
Overreaching is the grey area between not training hard enough to see results, and training so hard that your body buckles under the pressure. Overreaching can be both a positive and a negative. British Cycling has two definitions for overreaching:
They then describe overtraining as too much exercise and insufficient recovery.
The difference between non-functional overreaching and overtraining is that non-functional overreaching can occur in just one session. You train just that bit too far and suffer some serious Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) the next day.
Overtraining could involve multiple good or bad sessions that are performed too often. The sessions could be perfect, but if recovery is bad then eventually it will become too much.
Bodybuilders can get away with non-functional overreaching and overtraining thanks to the combination of natural benefits (training history, genetics, education) and performance-enhancing drugs (steroids, insulin, HGH).
Even with all the natural (and unnatural) benefits in the world, pro bodybuilders can still suffer from overtraining. While natural bodybuilders are most at risk (they train harder than regular lifters but without the anabolic benefits of steroids). Whatever path you decide to follow, it is important to note the common signs of overtraining. So that you can identify when your training is leading towards it.
Overtraining affects the body in three different ways. It affects the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and it can affect the body in general. Here are the common signs of overtraining split into three parts. This comes from A Practical Guide to Overtraining Syndrome published in the Journal of Sports Health, Kreher & Schwartz (2012).
As you can see, PNS and SNS symptoms can differ wildly, in one your heart rate may be too low while in the other it may be too high. Weightlifting is a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. But it is more likely to affect the SNS.
Anorexia might sound like an odd issue for bodybuilding. But anorexia does not mean “stick thin” it means a lack of appetite. Weight loss is also a difficult one, as it is more likely to occur during a cut (as you are eating less and therefore your recovery is harder). How can you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy weight loss at this point?
Here is a combination of the most likely signs of overtraining for bodybuilders
How often you train will depend on many variables. How fit and healthy you are, how intense your workouts are, what your mental health is like (stress can really affect recovery). How busy you are at work, how crazy your family/social life is.
Don’t get sucked into thinking that stuff like mental health and stress are unrelated to overtraining or your ability to recover. Because they massively are. The effects of extended sleep (for example) on athletic performance are well established. Stress can affect sleep which can affect performance. Stress can raise cortisol levels, which can harm recovery. Chasing after small kids for 2 hours can slow down recovery.
We are not robots, we are humans, and humans need rest and recovery … or Trenbolone (kidding). A bodybuilder who takes steroids could probably train seven days per week, but even with all the help from added testosterone, it would still be wise to train 5 days per week with 2 days of rest. Particularly during a cut.
A natural bodybuilder? 5 days per week with 2 days rest is the maximum you should attempt, and 4 days on 3 days off is probably better. The fitter you are, and the healthier your lifestyle (diet, stress, sleep, family) the more you can train.
But it’s not just about an arbitrary number of days per week or per month. Natural bodybuilders will also want to vary the intensity of their workouts. You can’t train 4 sessions at 100% and expect your body to recover every single week for a year. You need weeks where your training load decreases, you may need a week off every now and then.
It’s almost a cliche but listen to your body. One morning where you wake up stiffer than usual (heh) may not be a sign of overtraining, it may just be overreaching, or bad luck. But two days? Three? This could well be a sign to take a short break and focus on recovery.
I hope this has helped you, while I enjoy the macho side of bodybuilding and lifting in general, sometimes it can be a detriment to our health. I find the term toxic-masculinity as irritating as most of you do, but overtraining is definitely a symptom of it. Not that women aren’t just as likely to overtrain (but the reasons why women overtrain is a whole other article, which I may write).
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.