We tend to think that it takes a lot of time in the gym to build world class strength and muscle, and it’s common for beginners to think that they need to train multiple times a day, or 6 days a week, to see serious progress.
A recent study was conducted on professional, drug-free bodybuilders to see if there’s a benefit to consuming more protein than is commonly recommended in the scientific literature.
Interestingly, they also gathered data on the training habits of these bodybuilders, representing some of the best data we have on the way that pro bodybuilders actually train. Their data might surprise you: these bodybuilders worked out much less than you might think.
It’s likely that the discrepancy between perception and actuality is related to the difference between steroid users (who can recover more quickly from their workouts) and drug free lifters.
We love to believe that muscles are all about hard work.
I remember when I used to watch documentaries about how Kai Greene trained, and he would say that he trained for 3-4 hours per day. I remember when I picked up Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and saw the programs in it - which recommended training 6 days per week, or even twice per day, in order to build serious muscle.
We look at all the biggest dudes out there and think, “wow, they must work out a ton!” Right? They have to. How else do they get so big?
It’s only natural to go from there and think, ok, well to be like them, I have to train as much as possible. The more the better.
The reality is that there’s not actually a linear relationship between how much we work and the results we get. Yeah, we can do more work, and yeah, this can mean more results, but this has to be balanced with how much we can recover. As a result, pushing it too much, too soon, doesn’t actually lead to any results. It's a delicate balance to find just the right stimulus.
One study found that excessive muscle damage (the kind we get from highly varied workouts, or from excessively difficult or frequent workouts) inhibits strength and muscle gains - what’s needed isn’t overdoing it, or working hard, but instead just small, consistent, measurable changes in exercise volume. Only when the trainees’ bodies adapt to the program after a period of a long time did they start to see results.
As a result, you quickly find that many of these bodybuilding splits don’t make much sense. They give us the impression that we have to workout for hours every day, when the reality is that the human body only really adapts and improves when we have a limited amount of work and allow the muscles 2-3 days to recover between training sessions.
I’ve worked with many clients who initially believed that they should be working out much more than the programs I give them. However, when they looked more closely, they realized that when they were working out more, they weren’t really seeing results. That's why they came to me in the first place!
Amusingly, when I googled Arnold’s programs from the Encyclopedia, I found a poor guy in the bodybuilding.com forums copying one of them. The common response was just that he was training way too much to see any serious results!
Likewise, in college, I prided myself on working out 5-6 days per week, and at one point I went a whole month straight of working out every day. I would spend 2-3 hours in the gym per day, lifting weights constantly, hitting an hour of cardio at the end of every session, and so on. What did I get out of it? Absolutely nothing. My strength levels stayed the same, and I didn’t build much muscle since I wasn’t in a calorie surplus.
Recently, a study sought to examine whether purposefully eating more protein than is recommended caused bodybuilders to gain more muscle. They used competitive bodybuilders in this study, and gathered data on their training and diet habits. They excluded bodybuilders who admitted to using steroids in the last 8 months - I’d tend to believe that they really did weed out users, since they’d have no meaningful reason to lie in this scenario.
Ultimately, they found that people who consumed more protein than standard recommendations did tend to be leaner than their counterparts. However, this isn’t a recommendation - this data is just a piece of the puzzle, and more research is needed to tease out exactly why these bodybuilders were leaner. It’s possible that there are other factors not properly examined in this study, so it’s a bad idea to jump to hasty conclusions there.
However, one interesting side effect of the study was that they also tracked how much these pro bodybuilders trained. Remember, these are actual competitors who don’t use steroids. That makes this some of the best data around in terms of how pros actually train. The results?
Interestingly, they only trained, on average, about 5 days a week, for about an hour (plus or minus a little bit) at a time. Yes, that’s right - about 5-7 hours total. Interestingly, the higher protein intake group tended to work out less than their lower protein counterparts, despite generally being leaner and having a bit more muscle.
So why do we think that we have to work out for hours per day to get results? I think that our beliefs are often skewed by the problem of telling natural lifters from steroid users.
In my conversations with users, they’ve often told me that one of the biggest benefits of steroids is that you recover much faster and can thus handle a much greater workload. So, while these high workloads may make sense if you’re very genetically gifted (or getting a bit of chemical assistance), they don’t really make sense if you’re the average natural lifter. Since there’s such a stigma around honest information about steroids, it’s hard to get accurate info on exactly who is, and isn’t, using, and what kinds of programs tend to work well for users versus non-users.
It's also common, in the United States, to think that everything boils down to hard work, something I've written about before. In reality, it's more a product of less but more consistent effort, using the right methods, and having good genetics.
I find that myself and many of my clients can’t handle and seriously improve on much more than 3-4 serious days of training per week, plus maybe a day or two of purposefully lighter work. There’s some leeway in terms of individual tolerance, but if you’re working out significantly more than that, it’s likely that you’re not balancing your workouts with your body’s need to recover in order to adapt.
Working out more causes issues: how to schedule sessions to appropriately allow 2-3 days for full recovery before hitting the same body part again, how to eat enough calories to make up for additional calories burned while still allowing for a surplus to build muscle, how to deal with the psychological load of balancing this with the rest of your lifestyle, and so on.
For some more advanced digging into the research covered in this post, I recommend picking up MASS research review - it’s honestly my favorite way to get good, readable overviews of the latest research. They go over both the above cited studies in much more detail than I can.
- Periodization For Beginners
- The Beginner's Guide To Lifting Weights
- 6 Ways To Save Time At The Gym
- The Simplest Way To Get In Shape (and Why It Won't Work)
- Training VS Maintenance
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