We’ve all heard the classic sayings when it comes to working out. People spew out phrases like “No pain, no gain”, “Failure isn’t an option”, or “pain is weakness leaving the body”. Although these phrases come from a good place, they can lead people down the wrong path. Some might assume that they have to suffer and break themselves in the gym in order to see results. This all or nothing mentality does work for some, especially those who have an iron will or relentless work ethic. But for many, this way of thinking only leads to injury, burnout, or plain old hatred for the gym.
There is no doubt that we have to work hard for the things we want in life. Getting in shape and changing our body is no different. However, there is a point where working harder doesn’t actually lead to better results. It may seem logical to simply give 110% in the gym every day. However, in reality, this isn’t always the best way to get the job done. In order to have lasting results and enjoy the process we have to find a sweet spot where our efforts translate into positive results. In other words, we have to make sure we are working efficiently and not just blindly working hard.
More Isn’t Always Better
People often make the mistake of training too much in the early days of working out. It only seems logical that you’d get better results from dong more work. However, our bodies don’t really work that way. In reality, our ability to recover dictates how much training we should be doing. Simply put, if we cannot recover from a given exercise load then we won’t actually adapt. That’s why you can’t just continually do more work without taking some time to recovery.
Think of a time where you had to work in the yard all day or maybe walk for miles while on vacation. You may remember feeling pretty sore and tired the next day. This is your body’s way of telling you that its needs a bit of rest after that hard effort. If we give ourselves a day of lighter work or recovery then all should be good. In fact, you’d probably find that replicating that initial effort a couple of days later is much easier. But what if you were to try and surpass that initial effort every day without giving yourself some rest? Your iron will may carry you to success for a few days but eventually your body would breakdown.
There is also a point where so much work is done that your body is physically unable to recover and adapt. This is something that is referred to as Max Recoverable Volume (1). Essentially this means that there is a limit to the number of sets and reps you should do in the gym. If you surpass this limit you will actually start to do more harm to your muscles than good.
This is why you see some people have great success when lowering the volume in their training. By reducing their volume, they went from working out too much to working out just enough. Just remember that Max Recoverable Volume is highly individual. As such, putting an exact number on the upper limit for volume is tough. It will take some trial and error as well as consideration of lifestyle in order to find the sweet spot where you are working most efficiently.
Taking Life into Consideration
Everyone has a different threshold of volume, intensity, and frequency that will work best for them. Some people need a little more volume than others to see results. Likewise, some people will need to keep their volume a bit lower in order to fully recovery between sessions. Some of this has to do with muscle fiber type and the general nature of the person. For example, Type II muscle fiber dominant people tend to need less volume compared to Type I dominant individuals. However, there are many other factors that should inform your decision about how much work you should perform.
Our lifestyle, stress, sleep, and nutrition are going to have a big impact on how much work we can and should do in the gym (2). Ignoring these things is a sure fire way to fall victim to the over training bug. Blasting yourself in the gym during a week when life’s stress is piling on to of you is not the best way to get results. Instead, reducing volume/intensity during this week will allow you to continue making some progress. Scaling back will allow you to devote more resources to dealing with your stress. Monitoring things like stress, sleep, and mood can be important you want to work efficiently and have lasting success. That’s why each one of our clients is monitored through advanced sports science techniques aimed at keeping them fresh!
It may seem like you are going backwards when you scale back your training on a given day or week. But again, this is about working smarter instead of always working harder. You certainly could try to tough it out and do your normal workout. But somewhere down the line, your body is going to force you to take a step back. Often times, the step your body forces you to make is much larger than the one you could have imposed on yourself to begin with. One session at 75% effort could save you from an injury that will put you out for days or even weeks.
It is tempting to work as hard as possible when it comes to our training program. After all, working out is fun and the effect it has on our body is wonderful. However, there is such a thing as working out too much. Going past a certain threshold of workload actually begins to hurt us rather than help us. Figuring out how much is enough for you is an important step in setting up your training program. However, this number is highly individual and can actually change throughout your life. Having the help of a professional coach or using a well constructed workout plan can help tremendously!
Some factors that dictate your ideal workload are genetic and can’t be changed. However, lifestyle and environmental factors also play a big role in how much you should train. Those with highly stressful lives will need to be cautious about how much hard training they choose to engage in. The last thing you want to do is overtax the system and wind up injured or burnt out. In the end, it isn’t about how hard you can work but rather how hard you should work.
- Israetel, M., Hoffman, J., & Smith, C. W. (2015). Scientific Principles of Strength Training.
- Collette R, Kellmann M, Ferrauti A, Meyer T, Pfeiffer M. Relation Between Training Load and Recovery-Stress State in High-Performance Swimming. Frontiers in physiology. 2018;9