A lot of people report feeling really good after a great workout session. In fact, I have a sign at my bootcamp studio which says, “No matter how you feel walking in, you always feel great walking out.” That adrenalin pump people get from exercise sure does a body good. But, there comes a point when too much exercise can actually have negative consequences to our health and fitness. This thought came to me again while taking a certification course with Z-Health. Dr. Eric Cobb, creator and co-owner of Z-Health, said that exercise is a drug which means we have to find its minimum effective dose (MED) in order for us to get the benefit we’re looking for while applying the most minimum effort. In general, MED is defined as the smallest dose that will create THE desired outcome. This leads us to the question, “What can too much working out do to your body?”
While I knew exercise works wonders for the body and our health, I never really stopped and thought about at what point it can start to hurt us. One good example Dr. Cobb mentioned while discussing exercise MED is from a study published in March 2011 in the journal, “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” (1). This study, which was done in Finland, enrolled 172 sedentary adults and put them in an exercise program for 21 weeks. At the end of the study, the researchers found that 30% of the participants improved by 42% whom they called high-responders, 35% improved by 17-18% whom they called average responders, and lastly 35% got worse by -8% whom they called non-responders. The researchers attributed the lack of improvement in the non-responders to genetics.
While the researchers may blame genetics, it could be that the people who did not respond to exercise may have been given the wrong dose of exercise, either too much or too little, to a point where they actually became weaker or less fit. Whether we can blame genetics or not is still up for debate. I suspect the answer is more complex than just blaming genetics.
However, here are some known symptoms of too much exercise:
We all have heard of people getting injured due to over-training. Over-training may result from working out too often (frequency) at a higher intensity and longer duration. Sure, we have heard of professional athletes who have done this but it is not uncommon for regular exercisers to experience this as well. Part of the reason this happens is people may do too much, too soon. An example of this would be people who are gung-ho about starting a fitness program as part of their New Year’s resolution. The journal of American Medical Association cited that 85% of people stop exercising in the first six weeks because they get injured. When people start from being sedentary to going to the gym or playing a sport 5-6 times a week because they want to get quick results in less time, there is no doubt that injuries will start to occur. Of course, over-training is only one factor that can affect the probability of injury, another factor is…
Imperfect Exercise Form
Imperfect form can arise from improper posture, previous injuries, and simply not knowing how to perform an exercise with perfect form. Injuries can happen if a person has improper posture due to rounded shoulders because their chest muscles are tight. When this person starts to do military presses, he/she will not be able to perform this exercise efficiently. Then, when this person repeats this movement in the gym week after week in this position, the probability that they will pull or strain muscles in their upper body is high.
A previous injury can also cause people to not practice perfect form. For instance, a person who has limited mobility in their ankles due to a previous sprain or fracture may not be able to perform a squat well. This is because in doing a squat, the ankle joint also has to move in conjunction with the knee joint. If this does not happen during squatting, this person may compensate by using their hips or knees more causing either of the joints to have more problems, pain, or injury.
Here is a video of how not to squat for a little fun 🙂
Last but not the least, many people may not know how to perform an exercise properly. Some signs of imperfect form is holding your breath during an exercise, bending your neck when you’re not supposed to, and making faces or tensing your facial muscles just to lift the weight up. In other words, if it looks like you’re about to hurt yourself while doing an exercise, you’re most likely doing it wrong. If you need more of a visual, just watch any sporting event where professional athletes seem to make extraordinarily difficult things look like they are easy to do.
In contrast to the squat video above, here is a video of Michael Jordan making extraordinary moves look easy:
There are also effects on our hormones when we work out too much. But, that needs to be an article all by itself because it can be a little complex.
What to Do to Make Sure You are Achieving the Minimum Effective Dose with Your Exercise Regimen
There is no argument to the fact that physical activity and moving well is crucial to maintaining good health. Here is a good guideline to use during a specific workout session to avoid over-training:
#1 Check your posture: Your joints should be stacked right on top of each other. For instance, your ankle should be right under your knees, your knees should be right under your hips, and so on. Your head should also be in what is called as the neutral position where your head is always in line with your spine.
#2 Breathe in synchrony with the movement you are performing. If you feel you have to hold your breath during a lift, your weight is probably too heavy for you or you are doing too many repetitions.
#3 Balance your tension and relaxation. Most of the time, when our muscles get tired or we lift a weight that is too heavy for us, we tend to compensate by tensing our facial muscles or bending joints we are not supposed to bend. If you cannot imagine this, visualize a person who is doing barbell bicep curls who is training to failure. This person will most likely grunt, squeeze their eyes together, and bend backwards (bend their lower back) in an attempt to lift the barbell towards their chest.
The points above happen to be the signs of lifting or moving efficiently. If violated, we can get injured and we can develop bad posture through multiple repetitions of imperfect form. If we approach each exercise session or sporting event applying the above techniques, we should not have to worry about exercising too much because when one of them suffers, we cannot do any more repetitions. At the same time, we can expect to get stronger, faster when training this way because we’re not training our nervous system to fail. Remember, only perfect practice makes perfect. Train smarter, not harder.
1: Karavirta L, Häkkinen K, Kauhanen A, Arija-Blázquez A, Sillanpää E, Rinkinen N, Häkkinen A. Individual responses to combined endurance and strength training in older adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Mar;43(3):484-90. PubMed PMID: 20689460.