In my younger years, I was an exercise nut. The good news is I was fit and lean and loved to work out. The bad news is I overdid it.
One way you can overdo it is to keep going even though you are injured. If, for example, I strained my shoulder doing heavy bench presses, I would gobble down a bunch of ibuprofen to mask the pain so that I wouldn’t miss my next workout. Now I know how stupid that was and that my injury needed to heal completely before challenging my shoulder again. Instead, I compounded my original injury with more trauma, opening the door to osteoarthritis (bone rubbing on bone), and ultimately to major shoulder repair surgery later in life.
Pushing through injuries is a common fallacy in our society, probably stemming from the philosophy of most coaches. Sprain an ankle, no big deal. Run it off or retape it and get right back in the game. When you do this, the original injury is made worse.
In class, I like to ask my students at Hanover College if they can recall any incidents where they were injured and kept going. All who are athletes can recount at least one, and most can recount many. Next, I ask if they think they got away with it and if it was the right thing to do. Most answer yes and yes. In response, I ask that they contact me 20 or 30 years in the future and tell me how they are doing. This is because the body keeps a careful diary of such transgressions, and when the damage is sufficiently advanced, you begin to feel stiffness and pain, wondering where it came from.
And that’s only the starting point. It gets worse year by year as bone rubs on bone, disfiguring the bones, and it if gets too bad, you will need a joint replacement. So here’s how to avoid that down the line:
What is overtraining? And how does it impact my body?
Another common mistake is overtraining, caused by not understanding the relationship between intensity and volume of exercise. In general, this should be an inverse relationship. If you exercise at high intensity, you should cut back on the volume. Similarly, if your exercise intensity is low, you can increase volume. Keeping this relationship in check is especially important when it comes to lifting weights, also known as resistance training.
Novice weightlifters often are guilty of overtraining because they do too much, thinking the more they do the better, and stronger they will become. Not true. Lifting weights taxes the muscles, often causing micro-damage in the muscle cells that require repair. During the repair process, the body will seek to do more than just repair the damage to a former level. It will overcompensate and add more contractile proteins to muscle cells. It does this to strengthen and help muscles cope more easily with challenges encountered in future workouts. However, repair and especially overcompensation take time and resources to accomplish. If you do too much (high intensity and too much volume) you tear down the muscles excessively. This requires more rehab time, but if you don’t provide it, your next workout will be attacking the muscles before they have fully recovered.
What is the value of rest days with exercise?
Perhaps the most important discovery in strength training in the past 75 years is the value of rest. This lesson came too late to the American Olympic weightlifting team back in the 1960s. Up to that time, Americans were supreme in Olympic weightlifting, winning gold medals in almost every weight class. Then something happened.
Yes, anabolic steroids appeared on the scene, but every country was using them, and they weren’t illegal yet. The key development was applying science to training, which is exactly what Russia and Bulgaria did, and in the process, they zoomed past the Americans, leaving us in the dust to the point where we were lucky to win a bronze medal in any weight class.
Two key scientific discoveries catapulted the Russians and Bulgarians forward in Olympic competition. The first was reducing the volume of training which allowed training intensity to increase, leading to more strength. The second was applying more rest between workouts to ensure a full recovery.
Ironically, back then, as their Olympic performance declined, the Americans went in the opposite direction. In an attempt to catch up, American weightlifters increased their intensity and volume of training. Part of this was caused by misinformation from the Bulgarians who purposely, “tongue in cheek,” misinformed the Americans that they don’t train nearly as hard as the Bulgarians and that’s why they keep falling further and further behind. The opposite was true, but we didn’t know better.
It wasn’t until the Iron Curtain came down and communication improved that the truth was revealed that the American squad was duped into grossly overtraining while the Bulgarians rested more, laughing at our stupidity.
How do I balance exercise, diet and sleep?
This brings up another important aspect of training. When you train, think in terms of your overall approach as a three-legged stool. One leg is exercise. It’s important to not only exercise in the right way as described above, but you must pay attention to the other two legs.
The second leg is appropriate nutrition, and protein is a huge factor. The average person requires approximately 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This can increase to 0.55 grams for runners and other endurance athletes. But for weightlifters, the protein needs are at least 0.72 grams and can go as high as 1.0 gram per pound of body weight for those who train hard at very high intensity.
The third leg is sleep. Working out hard is only the prep for making progress. Real progress occurs during sleep because this is when rebuilding and protein synthesis are maximized. In other words, without adequate sleep, you are shortchanging yourself, no matter how dedicated you are to your training and nutrition. The average person requires seven to nine hours of sleep nightly, and those involved in intense training should get at least that amount of high-quality sleep.
The bottom line is that vigorous exercise is great for the body, but you have to be smart about it and not overdo it.
Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at email@example.com.