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, you can still build muscle with shorter workouts. According to research, training intensely for around an hour each day is an optimal amount of time for productive muscle growth. If you’re training daily for an extended period of time, you may be running the risk of overtraining—which, as you highlighted, can actually lead to a decrease in performance. You raised concern about muscle catabolism; catabolism occurs when your body breaks down muscle for fuel. This process occurs when your body gets insufficient nutrients and is forced to get its energy from muscle and fat. As such, catabolism is typically a concern for athletes who aren’t able to rest or refuel properly. A lack of sleep is also shown to decrease athletic performance across the board: so, if your main concern is to build muscle, prioritizing rest can be key.

When you lift weights, muscle fibers tear and start to repair themselves during sleep and breaks from training.  In addition to a balanced weightlifting regimen, eating a nutritious diet and getting quality sleep at night can help to ensure that you’re building muscles to maximum strength and size in a healthy way.

But the question remains, how much weightlifting and to what extent is recommended? While there is some disagreement about the exact number of sets needed to induce maximum hypertrophy, there is consensus about three main factors that influence hypertrophy: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. By changing the volume (i.e., sets per muscle, muscle group per week) and load (i.e., percentage of the most weight you can lift for one repetition (rep), also known as your one rep maximum), you can increase the likelihood of hypertrophy. Most advanced trainers and professional athletes aim for 1 to 12 reps per exercise for three to six sets at 70 to 100 percent one rep maximum. For beginners, 8 to 12 reps per exercise for one to three sets at 70 to 85 percent one rep maximum is recommended. Repeating reps back-to-back and then resting 60 and 90 seconds between sets can help you catch your breath and decrease the possibility of exercise-induced injury. You may also benefit from reflecting on your current workout routine and consider trying one of the following methods:

  • Tempo eccentric technique involves changing the tempo of a movement as you are lengthening the muscle (also known as eccentric phase). While a faster tempo may increase the number of reps, a slower tempo might increase the time your muscles are resisting weight.
  • Cluster sets technique is a technique that incorporates more inter-set rest intervals and fewer reps; this may allow for more volume of resistance training. This technique can help reduce the amount of time needed for resistance training.
  • Supersetting is a method in which two or more exercises (it’s recommended to use two different muscle groups) are performed back-to-back followed by a rest period. This method may be more time efficient because more than one muscle group is targeted during each set.
  • Pre-exhaustion technique is a method in which you work a particular muscle group using a single joint exercise followed by a multi-joint exercise to fatigue the muscle.
  • Drop sets and sarcoplasma stimulating training (SST) technique are methods in which you work a muscle until fatigue with a given weight, then you reduce the weight and work the muscle to fatigue with the new weight.

It’s also good to keep in mind that each muscle group will respond differently to different training volumes. Working with a professional trainer or coach might help you to get a better understanding of different weightlifting techniques and schedule so you can better decide what’s best for you.

Your concern shows that you're on the right track to building a bigger and stronger you in a healthy and productive manner. If you apply your demonstrated discipline to maintaining a balance between training, eating in a well-rounded manner, and prioritizing adequate sleep, you’ll likely see sustainable results that are more in alignment with your goals.

Here’s to healthy lifting!

Last updated Mar 10, 2023
Originally published Apr 28, 2006

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