You want to get the most out of your hypertrophy training. Who doesn’t? You might have limited training time if you work a full-time job and an appointment book full of commitments. However, if you DO have more time to work out, the temptation might be to train MORE often. The goal, of course, is to make gains without overtraining and exhausting your muscles and brain. Yet, sometimes we want to see those gains SO badly that we push ourselves a bit too hard or work out too often. You’ve probably heard that muscles need to rest for at least 48 hours between training sessions. That’s good advice! Your muscles need to rest to experience growth. Let’s see why.
Hypertrophy Training: What’s Going on Behind the Scenes When You Train
When you lift weights or work your muscles against resistance using your own body weight, machines, or bands, you create tiny micro-tears in the muscle fibers that you worked. Within muscle fiber are tiny microfilaments called actin and myosin. These are the contractile units of the muscle fiber and they slide past one another when a muscle contracts. These minute filaments also sustain damage when you work your muscles harder than they’re accustomed too and the damage must be repaired. To make the necessary repairs, a sequence of events takes place that helps the fibers rebuild and the muscle to become larger and stronger.
Fortunately, damaged muscle cells get help from cells called satellite cells. When a muscle fiber, also known as a muscle cell, is damaged, satellite cells are activated and they start dividing. Each division produces a satellite cell as well as a new muscle cell. To help with muscle repair, the newly created muscle cell, born from the satellite cell, fuses with the damage one and donates its nuclei. It also donates its myofibrils and repair machinery to help the damaged cell make new proteins. The muscle fiber can now repair itself, thanks to the generosity of the satellite cell. So, you have damage followed by repair, thanks to the altruism of the satellite cells.
When does all of this activity take place? Not when you’re weight training but during the recovery period after a workout and this type of repair takes time. Science shows that if you train too often, it can actually interfere with gains in muscle strength and muscle by interfering with the repair process. Repair can’t take place if you stress again when it’s still in a damaged state. Not only is rest time between training sessions important – so is adequate sleep.
Hypertrophy Training: Sleep Well for Muscle Growth
Why is sleep so important for building muscle? A significant part of the repair process happens while you’re sleeping. Sleep takes place in four stages. During stages 3 and 4, growth hormone production goes up. Growth hormone provides the hormonal support your muscles need to repair and grow. As you age, growth hormone production slows down and sleep becomes even more important for maximizing the output of this anabolic hormone. If you’re sleeping less than seven hours nightly, you’re not creating an environment that supports muscle growth.
Another way sleep helps with muscle repair and growth is by countering the effects of cortisol. Unlike growth hormone which is anabolic, cortisol is catabolic. In other words, it breaks down muscle tissue. While you’re working hard to gain muscle, cortisol sabotages your hard work by harvesting muscle tissue to use as a fuel and by redistributing fat to your tummy. During times of stress, including when you over-exercise, cortisol enhances muscle breakdown so your liver can make glucose to supply cells the extra fuel they need during times of stress. When you curtail sleep, your cortisol level rises – for good reason. Cortisol is called the stress hormones and lack of sleep is a stressor on your body. Even one night of poor sleep, four hours or less can enhance the release of cortisol. If you chronically get under 6 or 7 hours of sleep nightly, it can boost your cortisol level as well.
Hypertrophy Training: Rest and Recovery
So, overtraining, hitting the weights too much or too often, can also cause a rise in cortisol and sabotage your muscle gains. That’s why rest and recovery are an important part of any muscle building equation. Rest and recovery are more than simply limiting the days you train and waiting 48 hours before training the same muscle again. Make sure you’re taking at least one whole day off from training each week. You need it physically, for optimal muscle growth, and for mental clarity. Do something you enjoy! Get outdoors. If you want to do some form of structured training, do a yoga or stretching workout. Doing this will help keep your cortisol level in check too. You’re in this for the long haul – not to burn out.
After a week of hard hypertrophy training, you might need a longer break. Don’t be afraid to take a few days off to restore your peace of mind or recover physically from hard training. There’s a phenomenon called super-compensation. It simply means that taking a break helps your body rebound and become even stronger and more capable. The best time to do this is after you’ve worked unusually hard for a few days.
Also, make sure you’re getting adequate calories, enough protein, and eating nutrient-dense foods to allow your body to repair and prevent a rise in cortisol. When you’re not eating enough, your cortisol level may rise and promote muscle breakdown to supply fuel for your under-nourished body.
The Bottom Line
Yes, you can train too often and it can interfere with muscle growth. The way to avoid it is to give your muscles the rest time they need between workouts (at least 48 hours) – and if you work particularly hard one week, give yourself an extra day of rest. Remember, you’re in this for the long haul, don’t burn out by overtraining.
Cell J. 2017 Winter; 18(4): 473–484.
J Pediatr. 1996 May;128(5 Pt 2): S32-7.
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