You’re exercising, you want to be fit, toned, and you have great intentions. But how much exercise is too much?
After all, as you know from reading my articles, everyone is an individual. Why is it that some people can exercise 4-5 times per week, and for them, that’s too much, whereas others, like Dr. Cliff, (whom we helped get a very impressive transformation in 7 weeks. You can check out his before and after pictures HERE), can exercise 12 times per week, and be just fine?
That’s what we’ll explore in this article.
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The Risks of Too Much Exercise
Wait. Isn’t exercise good for you? Can you really do too much? Just as with anything, there is too little, too much and just right. For example, you can eat too little, you can eat too much, or you can eat just the right amount. You can work too little, you can work too much (but not me… 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week sounds good to me :), and you can work just the right amount. Or, if you’re little red riding hood, your porridge can be too cold, it can be too hot, or it can be just right. The same applies to exercise.
If you do too little, you might be:
Out of shape
Low in energy
But yes, there are very real risks to doing too much, like:
Low energy (yep, it’s true for both too little, and too much)
Increased risk of injury
Increased risk of hormonal imbalances
So what determines your exercise capacity? Quite a few variables (in no particular order):
Factor #1: Nutritional Status
If you’re consuming inadequate calories to sustain your activity, you will under recover. After all, calories are energy. On a simple level, if you burn 2000 calories per day from all sources (not just exercise), and you consume 1800 calories per day, it won’t be long before you “break down.”
But it goes deeper than that. You also need to consume the appropriate amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. What’s the “appropriate amount”? Unfortunately, that also varies on a person-to-person basis.
Generally speaking, protein requirements are about 1.2-1.4 grams/kg if you’re only doing cardio. They’re 1.6-1.8 grams/kg if you’re doing a combination of cardio and strength training, or only strength training. So if you weigh 70 kg (154 pounds), you should be eating somewhere between 112-126 grams or protein per day. That’s approximately 4 chicken breasts. Or 2 chicken breasts, and 2 salmon filets. Or 1 chicken breast, 1 salmon filet, and 2 protein shakes. However you want to get it, get it. If you’re wondering about what the best protein sources are, read this article.
They’re even higher than that if you’re over 60, and exercising intensely, because your ability to absorb protein is diminished. The exact amount is still up for debate. If you want to know more about the specifics of nutrition for people over 60, read my article on how to avoid losing muscle after 60.
Carbohydrate and fat requirements fluctuate even more. But generally speaking, you should be having more carbohydrates than protein. So if you are consuming about 120 grams of protein per day, you should be consuming 180-250 grams of carbs per day. Might be lower than this, might be higher than this, but that’s the ballpark.
And calories from fat (like olives, nuts and seeds, avocados, butter, etc.) should make up the remainder.
So not only are calories important, and not only are the ratios of carbs to proteins to fats important, but also, the vitamins and minerals are important. That’s why things like “if it fits your macros” are stupid. You can get lots of calories, and lots of carbohydrates, proteins and fats without a lot of vitamins and minerals. It’s easy: go to almost any fast food place, and you’ll see it. On the other hand, you also want to get lots of vitamins and minerals, too. That’s simple as well: just eat natural food. For example, something like broccoli is rich in both vitamins C and vitamin K. Plus, a bunch of other plant nutrients that aren’t vitamins or minerals per se. Or, beef liver for example is an excellent source of vitamins A, B2, B12, and copper.
So anyways, suffice it to say that nutritional status has a very significant role to play in your recovery capability, and therefore in how much exercise is too much.
Eat right, and you recover better, and therefore, your capacity for exercise is greater.
Factor #2: Exercise Experience
Here’s something interesting: you would think that the more advanced a person is, the faster they recover. And that’s partially true. But actually, beginners recover slightly faster than the advanced trainee (by “advanced”, I don’t just mean someone who’s been going to the gym for a long time, and doing the same workout. By “advanced” I mean someone who’s been progressively and systematically increasing the difficulty of the workouts). Why would that be?
The reason for that is that strength has the potential to improve 200%. So if your very first time exercising, you could lift 100 pounds, with a lot of effort, and after many years, you could potentially lift 300 pounds. Whereas recovery capability improves only 20-30%, and that’s all. That’s why guys like former Mr. Olympia, Mike Mentzer and powerlifter, Dr. Mauro DiPasquale used to exercise so infrequently.
Simply put, the fitter you are, the more of a hole you can dig yourself into. So, the people who actually recover the fastest from exercise are those with 3-12 months of training experience. Not those who are complete beginners, and not those who are the elite.
Factor #3: Choice of Workouts
Are you doing either cardio all the time, or strength training all the time? That will actually diminish your capacity to exercise. The reason is that cardio is one form of stress, and strength training is another form of stress. And yes, light cardio is recovery from strength training, and strength training can be recovery from cardio. So combining cardio and strength training in the same week may not be additive stress, but it could be that one form of stress is “de-stressing” your body from another. Pretty cool, eh? But, you do have to program both cardio and strength training intelligently into your routine.
Factor #4: Intensity
The more intense your workouts, the less of them you can do. It’s easy to exercise 6 times per week, for years, when each workout is done at 40-70% of your maximal capacity. But it’s not easy to exercise even 2-3 times per week, when you’re exercising at 90% or more of your capacity. You might be able to do it for 1-4 weeks, but then, you burn out.
So high intensity all the time is a decidedly bad idea. The elite know this, and that’s why only 4-20% of their workouts are truly high intensity. The majority of their workouts are either moderate, or low intensity.
Factor #5: Sleep
Sleep has likely the biggest impact on how much exercise is too much. What happens during sleep? Recovery! If you don’t sleep well, or you don’t sleep long enough, recovery doesn’t happen the way it should. So your tolerance for exercise decreases.
A hard-training individual may require as much as 10 hours of sleep in a day. Many professional athletes sleep 7.5-8.5 hours per night, but take an additional 1-2 hour nap during the day.
Factor #6: Other Life Stresses
Exercise is a stress. And your body can only handle so much stress. Whether that stress is physical (exercise), or mental/emotional (relationships, finances, deadlines, etc.). The more non-exercise stressors you have, the less exercise your body can tolerate. Are you a new parent, and your child is taking up a ton of your time? Your capacity for exercise is diminshed temporarily. Are you working 60-80 hour weeks, at a job you don’t like? Your capacity for exercise is diminished. You get the idea.
Factor #7: Recovery Strategies Used
There are certain recovery strategies that you can use to speed things along, like saunas, or cold therapy, or nutritional supplements, massage, etc.
All these things can speed up your recovery as well, and therefore increase your exercise capacity. I talk about specific recovery strategies in much greater detail in my article on how to speed up your recovery.
Factor #8: Personal Recovery Capability
Some people can tolerate a ton of work, and others can’t. But that’s just the way you are, and that’s out of your control, so I left it for last. Remember Mike Mentzer, the Mr. Olympia that I mentioned earlier? Pretty impressive body, right? And he used to exercise relatively infrequently, and for fairly short workouts. Yet, he was Mr. Olympia. He had the world’s best body. Whereas a predecessor of his, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had an equally impressive physique, exercising for very long periods of time, and very frequently.
So as you can see, you can get impressive results exercising a lot, or very little, as long as you understand your personal recovery capability, and use appropriate exercise and recovery programming to take advantage of what you have.
Igor’s 3-workout Rule
So I just listed eight factors that determine how much exercise you can tolerate. But I guess I still haven’t answered the question of “how much exercise is too much?” As you can see, I can’t give a blanket answer of “4 times per week is too much” or “12 times per week is too much.” After all, the previous 8 factors (and others) affect really how much is too much. After all, Dr. Cliff was exercising 12 times per week. Whereas Oren was exercising 3 times per week.
But since I don’t want to leave you hanging, how do I determine how much exercise is too much for a specific person?
I use what I call “Igor’s 3-workout rule.” What is it? It simply states that if for 3 consecutive workouts, your performance is either stagnating, or declining, it’s time for either a new program, or to re-evaluate and adjust your current program.
Why do I like this rule? Because rather than deciding on a theoretical basis what’s too much, and what’s not enough, the 3-workout rule lets actual performance dictate that. No guesswork necessary.
If you really want to know how to put all these factors in favour for you, fill out this questionnaire to see if you qualify to work with us.