Dear Mark: Weightlifting Weary

After last week’s great discussion about chronic cardio, we wanted to highlight a related question we received recently.

Dear Mark,

I workout 5-6 days a week and do a lot of weightlifting in my routine. I’ve made good progress in the last several months, but I notice myself feeling more run down lately. Got any advice?

First let me say that weight lifting is, of course, a great way to build muscle mass, which is absolutely key to overall health. It also promotes insulin sensitivity and human growth hormone release. It’s a form of exercise I highly recommend to everyone. That said, there’s the question of how much. There’s always an optimum balance of effort and results. At a certain point, you hit the law of diminishing (and even detrimental) returns.

Our bodies are pretty darn good at regulating themselves, and we should sit up and pay attention when they ask for a day off. Our ancestors spent plenty of time kicking back by the fire, and we should allow ourselves the same much needed slack.

I usually recommend 1-3 weight training sessions a week. Incorporating lifting into 5-6 sessions can take a serious toll on the body. For many people, a routine of three sessions a week doesn’t allow adequate recovery. It’s imperative to allow time for the muscles to repair and rebuild. It’s all too common to assume you’ll lose momentum if you take a day off, but the process just doesn’t work that way: rest is essential for gaining the optimum benefit of resistance training. Weightlifting, by nature, stresses muscle and the body as a whole. (We forget that stress used to be about physical challenge and not office politics or whose turn it is to clean the kitchen.) Recovery periods, however, allow the body to mend and restore. Rest assured that you’ll return to your routine with added strength. For many people, two days in between sessions works well, but others may need three or more. Recovery time is different for everyone, and it’s essential to listen to what your body is telling you. It’s smarter than we think.

The alternating days between sessions are perfect opportunities to work in some moderate cardio like we talked about last week. Think cross-training, and don’t limit yourself to the treadmill/elliptical side of the gym. Dig out the yoga mat or head for the pool. Or get yourself outside and enjoy a local trail/slope or maybe just an afternoon of yard work.

Finally, it’s always worth taking inventory to make sure you have enough fuel. Especially if you’ve made significant strides in your workout recently, your needs simply might have changed. You might benefit from upping your protein intake and/or (no sales pitch intended) adding a critical nutrient supplement. A deficiency in sleep or sun exposure can contribute to general fatigue, as can stress. That yoga class just might kill two birds with one stone!

Comments? Additional suggestions or questions? Keep ’em coming.

Perfecto Insecto Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Sugar Cravings

My Weekly Workout Routine

zenhabits: A Guide to Cutting Back When You Feel Overwhelmed

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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20 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Weightlifting Weary”

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  1. I used to be that person. Then, after reading for some time I decided to take the bait and try the low volume, low frequency, high intensity routines for awhile. It worked great and I have never returned to the old way.

    I spend about 90 minutes per week lifting. One day I spend about 45 minutes from the waist up and another day I work on the waist down. I do 3-4 different movements for each muscle, but only a single set for each exercise (as opposed to the mutiple sets I used to do).

    The brief, intense lifting periods followed by the longer rests allows me to go into each lifting session feeling like an uncaged animal.

    People around me assume that I lift nearly everyday. I stopped trying to explain why it does not have to be that way.

    Less is more!

  2. Primalman,

    I agree fully! It’s amazing how long it takes to overcome the mindset that you have to do umpteen sets and reps to get results and to do that 5-6 days a week!
    I read on CB’s website that he eats oatmeal regularly. What’s your feeling on that?


  3. I totally agree. I do 2/3 full body weight workouts a week with 3/4 cardio workouts on opposite days. I usually schedule 1 day a week to do nothing. I believe that you need to vary your workouts. If I am strength training 3 days a week, I do an A/B workout. If I am training 2 days a week, I do the same workout. Every 8 to 12 workouts, I change it up. Also, vary the cardio through time, effort and cross-training.

  4. My feeling on oatmeal: you sure could do a lot worse for breakfast.

    Having said that, I gave-up the oatmeal less than a year ago when I decided to try this evol. diet experiement. I should say, I phased-out the oatmeal as I make all changes gradual. I have no big desire to start eating alot of oatmeal again, although maybe once in a while as a “treat.”

    Bass has always eaten a lot of grains. It is difference between him and those here. I am having better results without the grains.

    One must ask how Bass is able to stay so “ripped” with all the grains. I think that it has alot to do with the abundance of veggies he eats. The veggies/low GI foods seem to offer protection against a strong insulin response when a person does consume a higher GI meal.

    Grains: who really needs them anyway?

  5. Thanks, was just curious.
    I have phased out grains also.
    3 weeks ago while traveling I had a toasted bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. It did not make me feel bad or bloated or anything. Interestingly though, I was full from it the entire day. Mr. Bass sure is ripped!


  6. I understand the desire to lift 5/6 days a week. There are a lot of things that go along with that. The feeling that you’re doing something, the social aspect of the gym (even if you don’t socialize), often times it’s more enjoyable than what awaits you at home, because you’re only responsible to yourself for that period of time. it’s a positive addiction.

    But Mark (and the other commenters) are correct in that it really doesn’t give you the optimum results, and that’s also increasing shown by the research.

    it is also in no way “natural” from a Paleo point-of-view (which many folks here ascribe to). There is no way our paleo ancestors spent that much time constantly involved in hard physical labor. From all evidence, they engaged in short bursts of intense exercise, followed by a lot of hanging around, eating, resting, telling stories.

    it’s a hard habit to break, that constant working out thing. But as mark points out, it’s important to listen to your body when it tells you it needs rest. Constantly pushing beyond that will not help you achieve your fitness goals, and in fact will prevent you from achieving them.

    My ex-wife was a professional athlete, and the hardest thing for her to do was rest, and not work out constantly. But when she did (duct taping her to the couch seemed to do the trick sometimes) she performed better, period.

    So will you if you vary your routine, and do some stuff that is different, and maybe even fun. And let your body rest and recover.

  7. Muscle grows outside of the gym. Train hard 2-3x a week, recover and you will see the results you want. More is not better.

  8. Hi
    Its the overall combination of intensity, frequency and duration of reps and sum total of exercises thats important. You can shift&move weights up to 5-6 days a week but only work out at a “medium to hard” pace (see later) for 2-3 days AND you need to have breaks every few weeks for a week or so (ie either complete from weights or do a lot less. Also you need to cut back if you feel tired etc. I have been training this way for the last 10 years or so and keep on making gains in strength and endurance. Its all about getting the balance between stimulus and rest\recovery right (diet, sleep, stress etc.) If you watch an animal hunting they dont push everything to the wall (like civilised humans who lift weights tend to) Animals have a definite put in with effort but give up if it gets difficult attitude. Animals only put all in 101 pc if there is a serious immediate risk to their life or limb. Trying to mimic this is what “intuitive training” is all about. Unfortunately, many of us find it hard to learn, I wish I’d picked up on this concept a decade or 3 ago as I’d have avoided a few overdoing\under-resting injuries.

  9. you are so right…Ill never forget when I first discovered my love for weight training (ahhh youth. about 14-15 years ago!).
    I enjoyed it so much I did it every day.
    the same exercises (who knew?).
    I GREWGREW for about a month and then–duh–commenced both getting smaller and feeling horrible.


  10. it has been talked about already but i agree that one has to have variation in their training. vary exercises, weight, and rep/set schemes. i am not sure if you know this but big compound movements will give you the most bang for your buck.

    also, this will be hard but take a week off every once in a while. just throw on your ipod and go for a few long walks that week. your body will love you for it.

  11. I’m sure everyone is different but I’ve found that doing 4 workouts a week leads me to overtraining and illness, and I need at least 2 in order to maintain strength. 3 seems to be optimal for me right now. I’m 51, I expect at some stage my overtraining point and my maintenance point will meet and then I will stop making progress. I guess that will be when I start getting old. I’m curious to know how others have addressed that. I know people much older than myself are still able to exercise frequently and make progress so there is hope. I know the answer lies in periodization and training a variety of modalities and I’m working on that along with nutrition and recovery. I really appreciate articles like this that help be make sense of what I’m experiencing.


  12. Stu: I’m 56, and I’ve gone through the same cycle. But I’ve seen overtraining in 20- and 30-something professional athletes who trained more than 4 times a week, so it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting old! At least I hope not.

    I’m pretty sure I just read some research that indicated that even people in their 90s could put on muscle through weight training, though not as fast as younger people. So I’m hoping that maybe we’ll never reach that point of diminishing returns.

    I’m definitely finding that variety and intensity are keys. I never do the same workout twice in a row, I vary between sprints in the pool, short, intense weight workouts, some hill-walking or running outside, monofin workouts in the pool. But following to some extent Art DeVaney’s approach (and Tabatha training principles) I rarely workout more than 20-30 minutes per workout. I have never been stronger or more fit.

    But that’s just me, and everyone is different. Although it seems like more and more research is coming out supporting the short, intense effort approach, with intermittency and good rest periods.

    I know (as I alluded to in a post above) that I would go to the gym for a lot of reasons other than hypertrophy of muscles. And working out too long or too often as a result of other motivations would lead to, as you mentioned, overtraining, injuries, or illness.

    So it’s kind of a complex interreationship of a lot of factors. And I think that’s a result of the fact that we are trying to artificially reproduce conditions that used to be (in our hunter-gatherer days) simply a fact of life.

  13. We have all been there. At one point I followed a 6 day per week routine published by some professional bodybuilder. I also tried double sessions, 4 days a week. In all cases I became worn down and burnt out. Recovery is what makes muscles grow. Try a 3 day per week, full body training routine, using varieties on the basic exercises deadlift, bench press, squat, overhead press, pullup, row, and situp.

    Also, don’t forget to eat.

  14. Great article! When I first started lifting, I tried doing it every day… after about two weeks, I could barely move. Now, I make sure I rest a day in between any heavy lifting, and use the off days for cardio training.

  15. Sweet great Weight training write up!

    Obviously this is a popular blog with great data so well done on your seo success..

  16. Hi, I am a 63 yr old male who has been lifting for about 8 wks. I have always been an athlete but don’t like the idea that I am losing my muscle mass.

    I lift every second day with complete rest every other day. I am getting stronger every week. I consume various amounts of protein supplement with at least one good ‘normal’ meal a day.

    Is there any advice/webbsite, anybody can give me to help me with my ambition to build muscle mass ?

    Thank You


  17. This is why deload weeks rock. I can push hard 4 days a week (2 upper, 2 lower) for about 2-3 weeks, then I need an easy week. When I was 18-20, I could go a lot longer, but even at 28, I just don’t have the recovery capacity I did back then. I’m sure it’ll be more pronounced in another decade or two as well.

  18. If I’m thinking of going down to 2-3 intense weight workouts a week from 5-6, how should my food intake change? Should I eat less, or stay at the same level?

    My goal is to gain a little mass, but mostly I’d just like to maintain lean muscle without hurting myself by over training.