When More Isn’t Better

More isn’t better! You all shuld know this!

Ok, look, let me preface this article by admitting that I used to do all of the same shit that I am about to tell you not to do. This list includes, but is not limited to:

  • 2-a-day resistance training workouts. Sometimes 3…
  • 2,000 push-ups a day. (Admittedly this wasn’t sustained long). Also, once 3,500, just to prove someone wrong. (I WON, Torrey…the crusty old Chief Petty Officer beat you!)
  • 30+ mile runs.
  • Back to back long runs for not reason, with no ambitions to run an Ultra.

Naturally, this list isn’t all inclusive.

Before you go off and get yourself in a huff, understand that I’m not saying that his is ALWAYS contraindicated. It isn’t, but there is a time and a place to employ this time of overload.

By training Hybrid athletes, military folk, and other assorted maniacs, I tend to attract more of the same. Make no mistake: this is a GOOD thing, as these people tend to keep me on my toes while simultaneously taking everything I throw at them with very little complaint. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I am cut from this same cloth…so we are all like a huge family of overachieving nutcases living happily ever after.

Life is good!

Of course, there is a dark side to trainees with this sort of “beat-the-shit-out-of-me-I’m-super-Alpha-more-more-more-more” attitude. The problem is that they always want, well, more.

And sometimes more isn’t better. In fact, MOST of the time, more isn’t better.

As I recently posted in a Facebook status, the Military’s attitude toward training (particularly remedial training) always made me chuckle. Whenever I would have a Sailor fail the semi-annual Physical Readiness Test (PRT), I would have a conversation with my superior officers that would go something like this:

Department Head would be like:

“Chief! Petty Officer Jones failed his PRT. Put him on two-a-day workouts!”

Then I – in my infinte smart-assery – would be like:

“Sir, our latest PRT demonstrated that he can’t even handle ONE fucking workout a day.”

Ironically, my most impressive PRT performances, consisting of maxed-out calisthenics and sub-8 minute 1.5 milers, came when I actually did LESS (!!) overall training. My easy days became REALLY easy – tethered to a Heart Rate Monitor and slogging along at 70% HRR or less, and my hard days became brutal: increased intensity, increased speed, far more weight moved in the gym. The net result was less “junk miles” and “going through the motions”; more quality training. As I aged, I began to notice that this was even more important. Yes, folks, recovery is just as critical as the workout. (If you are 20 years old and don’t believe me, please come back in 16 years and talk to me). When Alex Viada tells you to “be lazy”, he isn’t bullshitting you: in most training situations and particularly in multi-sport/military/hybrid situations, minimum effective dose and max recovery often mean better performance.

Among the hard-chargers out there, there is a tendncy to want more work and want it now. Similarly, there is a tendency to try to add work to “make-up” for various shortcomings: missing a workout, not feeling tired enough, feeling ‘really good’ even after the prescribed work sets are complete, etc. Or, even worse, as punishment for other shortcomings.

Issues arise when that excessive work gets in the way of the long term programming vision, which leads to stalled progress or even injury.

This can be a colossal challenge to address, both as a coach and as an athlete, but here are a few tips to keep you from driving yourself and your coach crazy, as well as to get you to understand that more isn’t better:

  1. Stick to the plan – More often than not, deviations from programming stem from a lack of communication between coach/athlete, or simply a lack of trust. This is one of the reasons I am so proactive with communication and encourage all of my athletes to question me freely if they are unsure. Oftentimes coaches (and I include myself here) can do a poor job of communicating the LONG TERM vision and planning. For example, a marathon client may look at the base phase and think: “This slow LISS is boring! I’m going to add some intervals!” In this case, indeed the work can be tedious, but without base aerobic capacity in the short term, later development of speed and threshold will only be limited.
  2. Keep modifications in the sprit of the original workout – Shit happens, which means that sometimes workouts will not go as planned. This is fine, but keep the modifications within the parameters of the energy system that was intended to be worked. So, if you can’t perform 5 x 5 Back Squats, don’t substitute it for 200 Air Squats. At worst, you are going to hurt yourself, at best, you are going to intefere with future workouts that week by hampering recovery or having excessive DOMS. Likewise, not being able to perform a LISS run outside due to inclement whether is not a valid reason to substitute this for HIIT on a treadmill.
  3. Understand your own physiological and psychological biases – Often, especially with military folks, pure strength training can seem too easy. When an athlete shifts from higher intensity calesthenic workouts or metabolic conditioning, pure strength work can seem like it isn’t doing much: they aren’t sweating as much, they aren’t gassed, and 3+ minute rest periods leave them feeling like they aren’t working heard. Does this sound like you? I was this guy at one point. What we fail to realize is that these workouts are very taxing neurologically, just in a different way. Coming to grips with this can be daunting, but, once again, communicating with your coach and being honest with yourself are critical.
  4. If something feels hurt, just stop. Assess. Live to fight another day – If your shoulder is screaming with every repetition of Overhead Press, don’t substitute this for a similar movement that “hurts less”. Ditch the workout. Reassess yourself the next day and don’t be afraid to seek medical attention if things still don’t feel right. I see this ALL THE TIME with military folks, and I can relate to living a lifestyle that preaches “no pain no gain”.
  5. Give yourself a break. Fitness, health, performance – it’s all part of a long process, and if you are constantly beating yourself up with the feeling that you aren’t doing enough, your compliance and motivation will eventually take a nosedive. Be active in the decision-making and programming process, but if the trust is there in the coach/athlete relationship, allow them to do the heavy lifting with regards to the program design. This reason is precisely why I almost always pay someone to program for me  it takes the stress off of me and allows me to simply execute at provide feedback.
  6. Perhaps most importantly, if you are doing extra, are you able to justify the added work? Does the extra training stimulus serve a purpose that goes beyond merely making you tired or fulfilling a psychological need to have worked hard? I am fond of telling people that any coach work his salt will be able to justify each exercise within their program – why is it included, why it is in that specific place ok the workout, why it has its specific number of sets/reps, etc. If you are unable to justify the addition of movements or mileage, there is a fairly solid chance that this is just filler exercise done to plug a psychological gap, rather than provide a legitimate physiological stimulus leading to improvement.

So, to wraap this up, there is a time and a pace for going nuts with volume, but, in many cases, more isn’t better. Think of the big picture when making plans to deviate from your program, and remember that doing less can sometimes result in doing more…or doing it better…or both.