This morning I overheard a guy in the gym justifying that, since he performed a split routine that worked different muscle groups each session, he was able work out everyday. It’s a claim that I hear a lot. It’s also misguided. While you can get away with increasing the frequency of your workouts for short periods of time (I often do this when training elite fitness and figure competitors for a show), extended periods of continuous training without allowing for recuperation are bound to lead to overtraining, regardless of the training split.
First a little background info: Overtraining is the product of performing too much strenuous physical activity. The exact threshold for overtraining, however, varies from person to person. Everyone responds differently to exercise. Some people can tolerate large volumes of training while others much less. What’s more, factors such as nutritional status, sleeping patterns, hormonal and enzymatic concentrations, muscle fiber composition, and previous training experience all can have an impact on recuperative capacity and, therefore, the point at which overtraining rears its ugly head. But ultimately, anyone and everyone can and will become overtrained if they perform too much exercise.
The idea behind a split routine is to provide an optimal balance of volume and recovery, conceivably helping to stave off overtraining. Some of the more popular training splits include push/pull, agonist/antagonist, and upper body/lower body. When properly implemented, these routines can potentially elicit superior gains in muscular development by permitting more frequent training capacity.
That said, a split routine doesn’t completely isolate muscles to the degree that most believe. You see, during the performance of exercises, there is a synergistic interaction between muscle groups. The biceps, for instance, are integrally involved in the performance of back maneuvers, the shoulders and triceps in many exercises for the chest, and the glutes and hamstrings during compound leg movements. Other muscles function as stabilizers: the abdominals and erector spinae (the muscles of the lower back), in particular, help to provide stability in a variety of upper and lower body exercises, contracting statically throughout each move. The fact is, when a muscle is repeatedly subjected to intense physical stress (even on a secondary level) without being afforded adequate rest, the rate at which mitrotrauma occurs outpaces the reparation process. The end result: impaired localized muscular development. And this doesn’t even take into account the systemic effects of repeated exercise bouts on your neurological system.
To avoid the effects of overtraining, your exercise program must allow for adequate recovery. Don’t succumb to the misguided theory that if a little bit is good, more must be better. By shortchanging recuperation, your body never has the chance to adequately recover from the extreme demands being placed on it. Inevitably, you become grossly overtrained and results come to a grinding halt. With respect to exercise, less can be more!
Although everyone has varying recuperative abilities, a period of about 48 hours is required for adequate recovery between strength training sessions. Research has shown this to be the approximate time for protein synthesis to fully run its course (protein synthesis is the phenomenon where muscles are “rebuilt” from the breakdown that occurs during training). Accordingly, for most strength training protocols, a three-day per week routine is ideal, with training performed on non-consecutive days (i.e. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, etc). This is true even for split routines. In certain cases it can be beneficial to periodize this type of schedule with a four day split, such as a two on/one off, two on/two off schedule (i.e. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday) if the routine is structured properly. But any more than four days of hard training per week and you begin to risk overtraining when such a schedule is maintained over time. Without question, a seven day a week routine is bound to leave you overtrained.
Moreover, it’s important to make judicious use of your sets. Marathon sessions will only serve to overtax your neuromuscular system and deplete your energy reserves. Even at the highest levels of fitness, large muscle groups generally require no more than nine to twelve total sets while smaller muscle groups need only six to nine; any more is basically superfluous.