How Much is Too Much?

By January 7, 2017Blog

It’s the new year as I write this, and while a whole mess of rookies are scampering around the gym doing God knows what, us veterans are just trying to get our regularly scheduled workouts in without catching anyone in the eye with a barbell.

But, after everyone on Earth ate and drank too much during the final week of 2016, how do we know if we’ve overdone it in our quest to return to greatness (or just regularity)?

For different reasons, it’s  essential that rookies and veterans alike understand the importance of listening to what our bodies are trying to tell us and gauging whether we should be continuing to pour gas on the fire or trying to calm it down.

If you ask me what I think one of the biggest fitness trends in 2017 will be; I would say it’s going to be a larger focus on recovery and holistic wellness.

We have been conditioned to always think that more is better – and it is; to a point. In fact, I often tell those new to exercise that some is better than none and more is better than some, when they ask how much they should be exercising.

While I still believe that to be true, it comes with a stipulation. I only ever give that advice to people who come to me having never really exercised before in their life. This is where I would propose something like a progressive exercise routine where you build up your tolerance from 5 minutes up to 10 and so on.

But for those of us who exercise regularly, we need to listen to our bodies and understand when it’s time to ease off and when to put the foot down on the gas pedal. Even those new to it; while it may be on a whole different level; need to ensure they don’t overdo it, especially when just starting out.

You see, unless we’re all single with no real concerns professionally, we have more to our lives than just training. Our careers often take up a lot of our focus, not to mention the responsibility of a family or even just a significant other. Then there’s the necessity to have a social life on top of all that and you can see how it becomes challenging on our bodies and minds.

So how do we know?

How do we know when it’s time to lay the hammer down? How do we know when it’s time to ease off and downshift into a lower gear?

Moving forward with the car analogy, there are a few factors we have to take into consideration.

First, is the engine running smoothly?

We’ve all been there.  You hate to admit it but Ol’ Bessy just ain’t running the same as she used to. She grinds a little when you shift gears and often lurches off the line.

You could ignore it…

That’s when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere with a broken down car a near-dead cell phone and no gas station as far as you can see.

As much as you don’t want to, the other option is to take it in for a tune-up. Maybe all she needs is an oil change. Maybe there’s something more menacing.

But you don’t know until you check. And you don’t check unless you really listen to what all that grinding and shaking is trying to tell you.

Second, are there any major concerns beyond a simple oil change?

Often, when you take the car in, she just needs a quick oil change and you’re on your way. Translate this to life, and maybe you just need a day off and a good sleep.

But, as I said earlier, you may take it in for a simple oil change and find out something more is wrong. You’ve been grinding those gears for too long and now you need more work doing.

Damnit. On the shelf for a week now.

Finally, how hard have you pushed the car? Does it have a few miles on it? Has it been easy highway driving or intense stop-and-go city driving?

Has the car lived through nasty prairie winters or is it always above zero and sunny?

As I was in the process of writing this very article; I came across Dave Dellanave’s most recent article. I have followed Dave’s somewhat contrarian views on the way most people approach fitness for some time now, and I love it.

To say it flipped this entire idea on its head for me would be an understatement. Damnit, Dave.

You can read the article HERE. I would suggest you do, and then come back and finish reading this one. If you want a brief synopsis, here goes.

The point Dave makes is that stress is not a linear process. There is a myriad of factors that go into what exactly causes stress; something that needs to be understood by any trainer or gym-goer, especially in 2017.

The gist of it is this. Different people are distressed by different factors. While one busy executive may be totally crushed by a heavy training session; another, more seasoned trainee with the same commitments outside the gym may actually benefit from hitting some heavy deadlifts.

What I’m going to add to the conversation is this.

>> The type of training stress matters.

In his article, Dave outlines the 2 different trainees I introduced above then states the following,

“The great coach will take advantage of knowing [that the seasoned trainee thrives on training], they’ll also know that volume more than intensity tends to wear down the experienced lifter, and they’ll take advantage of the high sympathetic nervous system tone during this stressful week to have the lifter set some new maxes – doing essentially the opposite of what might sound intuitively best. ”

Oh, yeah baby! Max Day!

So take this into account; whether you’re a trainer or trainee. Let me explain a little more for you.

Volume is defined as the weight lifted times the number of reps.

Intensity is actually the sciency definition of weight lifted. So, we can lay out the following equation.


So when Dave said that volume more than intensity tends to wear down an experienced lifter; here’s how he came to the conclusion that we should be setting new maxes for weight lifted.

If volume is intensity multiplied by reps, then it would make sense that to increase volume, we could either increase intensity OR increase reps.

100lbs x 5 reps = total volume of 500lbs

100lbs x 10 reps (intensity stayed, reps increased) = total volume of 1000lbs

200lbs x 5 reps (reps stayed, intensity increased) = total volume of 1000lbs

250lbs x 2 reps (reps dropped, intensity increased)= total volume of 500lbs

Make sense? Capiche.

So, if you’re wanting to add some muscle, you come in fresh, well rested and full of piss and vinegar; I’m probably going to increase your total volume for deadlifts that day.

I may add a set or two if you’re feeling good after your prescribed sets and the bar is still moving fast. I may tell you to slow down the tempo and add 3 seconds of time under tension to each rep. You can find more ways to add to your workouts right here.

I’ll push your body and I’ll push your nervous system because I know it can handle it.

But if we have heavy deadlifts on deck one day and you come in having had a baby up all night screaming, a deadline to hit at work the next day and still nursing a slight hangover from your rec game 2 nights ago, I’m going to approach things a little different.

So what does this mean for the regular gym-goer who just wants to lose the gut they’ve accumulated over the season of binge drinking and crushing sweets?

Most importantly, listen to the signs your body is giving you.

1) Everything Feels Heavy

We’ve all had those days. You set up with your warm-up weight and have to take a look at the number on the side to make sure it’s not your max.

Or maybe you take a weight your normally hit for an easy 8 and struggle to get 6 reps.

These are the days you have to accept the fact that you’re not going to set any records, own it and dial it down a bit. Maybe cut a set, increase your rest between sets or lower the weight and work on moving it quickly.

On the flip side: If you get into your warm-up sets and find you’re feeling great, use that. Even though you’re just getting back into a routine, the time off may have been just what the doctor ordered to crush some heavy sets.

2) You Feel More Exhausted the Normal

Let me guess. You didn’t wake up or go to sleep at your “normal time” once over the holidays. Am I right?

Now, we all just expect to get back to going to bed 1-2 hours earlier and get up 2-3 hours earlier with no change in how we feel.

Of course you’re going to be tired. It’s completely normal.

So, if you’re generally feeling tired or you get into a circuit and find you’re gassed after 2 sets when your program calls for 4, that’s okay.

First, it will take 2 or 3 good sleeps in your normal time slot for your body to normalize again. Make sure that’s on point.

Second, maybe now’s the time to focus more on strength (like Dave mentioned) and keep it a little simpler and less taxing when it comes to sweating your ass off near the end of your workout.

On the flip side: If you are getting your sleep and feel great, don’t hold back just because of this article. Go crush your workout, get a good sleep and see how you feel.

3) You Feel Sad

While the New Year often brings hope and optimism, the middle of January is called the dog days, especially for those of us who choose to live on the frozen tundra up here in Canada.

I truly believe in seasonal depression and it’s something that cannot be ignored. Much like points 1 and 2, the first step is to accept it and understand that it’s okay and it’s normal.

Next, we have to figure out how to move on with our lives. First, I will suggest eating the best food you can and ensuring you get your sleep. If you’re having difficulty waking up, something like a light therapy alarm could do you a lot of good.

Here in Winnipeg, we don’t get much sunlight in the winter and this is almost essential.

Finally, do things you enjoy when getting active. If running clears your head and you try starting a heavy weight training program in January, things probably aren’t going to get better for you. Weight training is great for almost everyone, but maybe put it on the back burner for now and do what you love.

In conclusion, this is clearly a confusing and sometimes frustrating part of life. The ongoing battle to be at your best needs to be monitored and understood so we can make the necessary changes.

But the most important piece is understanding your own body and knowing when the time is right to push and when you need to take a step back and allow your body to heal for the next time you want to push it to be better.

Here’s to your best year yet,


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Gavin McHale

Author Gavin McHale

Online training and nutrition coach, retired semi-pro hockey goalie, and ex-skinny kid. Currently a beer league superstar, and lover of lifting heavy things, Gavin will help you reclaim that athletic, dead sexy body, and shrink your clothing budget. Because tarps are always optional.

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