Weightlifting 5 hours per day — Too much?

Hi Alice,

I am a wrestler and have very great ambitions within the sport. I lift weights for five to six hours a day, making sure I perform every set to failure often including negatives as well. In addition to working each muscle group two 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. I have also learned that cardio and even sleep can have a catabolic effect. I will have to cut my training time eventually due to time restrictions during the season because of school day and team practices, including traveling time and homework. 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 five to six 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,

As an ambitious athlete, it can be difficult to parse through all the (sometimes conflicting) information about the “best” way to train and stay healthy. The short answer to your question is that yes, reducing the total time of your current workout doesn’t have to interfere with muscle building, called hypertrophy in the field. In fact, it’s possible that training for five to six hours a day could be doing more harm than good (more on that in a bit). Additionally, you also raised concern about muscle catabolism, which occurs when your body breaks down muscle for fuel. To break it down a bit further, when you lift weights, micro-tears are created within the muscle fibers. Once these tears repair themselves (during sleep and breaks from training), the muscles increase in size and strength. As such, catabolism is typically a concern for athletes who aren’t able to rest or refuel properly. However, incorporating a balanced and efficient weight lifting regimen, eating a nutritious diet, and getting quality zzz’s at night can help ensure that you’re building muscles to maximum strength and size in a healthy way.

According to research, training intensely for about an hour per day is a pretty optimal amount for productive muscle growth. If you’re training for an extended period of time on a daily basis, you may be running the risk of overtraining — which can actually lead to a decrease in performance. It can also deplete your testosterone levels (which help you build muscle) and cortisol levels (which protect your body against the damaging influence of physiological or psychological stress). Besides overtraining, lack of sleep is shown to decrease athletic performance across the board: so if your main concern is to get “swole,” prioritizing rest is key. Also, keep in mind that exercising for a long period of time each day might get in the way of the finer (or not so fine, but necessary) things in life: spending time with family and friends, getting your homework down, sleeping, or eating well. If you find the amount of time your exercising interferes with your daily life, you might want to try speaking with your health care provider, a coach, or a counselor to figure out an ideal balance between training and the other fun and important areas in life.

So, when you crunch the numbers, how much weight and lifting to what extent is recommended? While there is some experimental disagreement about the exact number of sets needed to induce maximum hypertrophy, there is a window of consensus. Most trainers and professional athletes will pursue three sets of six to twelve repetitions of weights. Resting between 60 and 90 seconds between sets can help you catch your breath and decrease the possibility of exercise-induced injury. Check with a trainer or coach about the best technique.

A proven rule of thumb states that per repetition, spend about one to two seconds on the concentric movement (that results in a shortening of a muscle) and about two to three seconds on the eccentric movement (that results in lengthening of the muscle). If you spend about five seconds per repetition and execute ten repetitions per set, that’s about a minute for each exercise. Add in a minute rest between sets and you’re up to a good 30 sets in an hour’s workout. If you choose to do three sets per exercise, you have ten different exercises you can perform in an hour! So if you pick two muscle groups per day, you can get in five exercises per muscle group, and choose another two muscle groups the next day. It seems like you already understand that taking time off for recovery is really crucial to building muscle. Researchers and physiologists have also found that training in cycles, such as three to six weeks of training to failure (when you can no longer complete a repetition) followed by approximately the same length of time of not training to failure, can yield maximum results.

Your concern shows that you are on the right track to building a bigger and stronger you! If you apply your demonstrated discipline to maintaining a balance between school work, training, time with family and friends, eating well, and sleep, you’ll likely see sustainable results. Before changing your training regime, however, it may be a good idea to check in with your coach or trainer.

Here’s to healthy lifting!

Last updated Dec 26, 2014
Originally published Apr 28, 2006

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