Weightlifting 5 hours per day — too much?

Originally Published: April 28, 2006
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I am a wrestler and have very great ambitions within the sport. I lift weights for 5 to 6 hours a day, making sure I performed every set to failure often including negatives as well. In addition to working each muscle group 2 times a week, I make sure to give each muscle group 48 to 72 hours of rest. Recently though, I have learned that training longer than an hour a day can have a catabolic (muscle breakdown) effect on your body. This was very concerning to me because muscle-wasting during my training seems truly counter-productive, but I am also aware that a decrease in training may lead to muscle atrophy and that also poses a deep concern. By the same token, I have also learned that cardio and even sleep can have a catabolic effect, so I am led to questioning the actual danger of lifting weights for over an hour a day. I am also aware that whether or not the catabolic danger is a legitimate cause for concern, I will have to cut my training time eventually due to time restrictions during the season because of the 7 hour school day and 5 hour team practices, including traveling time and 2-3 hours of homework a night. I am posing a couple of questions within this letter: 1) Can I reduce the volume of my routine to about an hour and still make gains that are comparable or better to those I experience with my 5-6 hour workouts and if so, how? 2) Is catabolism truly a legitimate matter to be concerned with?

Thank you very much for your time.


Dear Confused,

Catabolism, the breakdown of muscle that is caused by using up all of the energy stored in your muscles, is like a speeding ticket for the body.  It's one of the ways our insides tells our outsides to slow down.

You are right that weight training for more than an hour a day can cause catabolism.  If you use all of your glycogen stores during a very long workout, your body will use muscles as a food source.  Just as you thought, catabolism is counterproductive to your training.  Luckily, though, you can tailor your workout to be more efficient and at the right intensity.  Moreover, workout times of about an hour can still help you achieve your training goals. 

Contrary to what you've heard, cardiovascular exercise done in moderation does not deplete muscle, but can actually aid in the muscle building process.  Adding an eight to ten minute cardio warm-up and ten to fifteen minute cardio cool-down will help loosen the muscles to prevent injury and facilitate the healing process by releasing lactic acid that builds in muscle while training.

When you lift weights, you create micro-tears within the muscle fibers.  Once these tears repair themselves through sleep and breaks between trainings, they increase in size and strength.  The more muscle you have, the more beneficial this repair cycle.  This is because muscle increases your resting metabolic rate which helps burn fat, while studying or sleeping.  Sleep does not cause catabolism.  In fact, ensuring that your muscles are well-rested is just as important as the workout itself.

Eating properly can also help ensure that you do not lose any muscle mass.  It may be a good idea to eat five to six smaller, protein-packed meals per day spaced about three hours apart.  This will ensure that your body's metabolic fires remain stoked to capacity.  Also, research shows that if you are as physically active as you are, you need a minimum of .8 grams to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to maintain and see gains in muscle mass.  Good carbohydrates, such as whole wheats, fruits, and vegetables are important in maintaining a well balanced diet, which will fuel your body so it can reach its full training potential.  You might also want to talk with a nutritionist, who can help you create a meal plan that meet your needs.

It sounds like you are the definition of dedication to your sport, and it's great that you are so passionate about something that you love to do.  Have you ever wondered, though, if you might be too extreme with your workout?  Sometimes when people are intensely focused on achieving a goal, they can become a bit overzealous in how they choose to try to reach it.  You may want to consider if it is necessary to lift weights everyday for five to six hours and then practice with your team and if there is a better, time-saving way to go about all of this without sacrificing gains.  You may want to consult with a trainer or coach to develop a workout that not only fits your athletic goals and needs, but maximizes your results in the shortest amount of time.  This may leave you with more time for schoolwork and time to enjoy family and friends.