Extreme. Insanity. Obsession
Sound familiar? Like words associated with fitness programs that constantly pop up on TV and on your social media feeds, perhaps?
Listen, it’s no wonder that many of us believe that working harder and eating less — or in other words, doing more — is the only way to get amazing results.
For a really long time, I took that message to heart. I wore it like a badge of honor. I exercised for several hours a day, sometimes even doing two workouts in the same day. I also followed a very strict diet that didn’t even come close to fueling the amount of work I was asking my body to do (or allow my body to properly recover from all that work!).
It was only a matter of time before I worked myself into the ground. And you know what’s worse? The results I was training so hard for only seemed to slip further and further away.
And I know this hasn’t just been my experience. I hear stories like mine all the time from women in the Girls Gone Strong community — GGS Coaching clients and fitness professionals alike.
As one client shared:
"I just figured I'm not getting results, I need to do more.
I need to run more.
I need to work out more.
I need to pay attention to what I'm eating more.
I need to stress out more."
But here’s the thing.
There might be another way — a better way — to finally see the results you want. One where, as clichéd as it sounds, less truly is more.
Before we dive in, let me make one thing clear: You get to choose how much and what type of activity you do. Your goals and what motivates you to set those goals are personal and valid.
You’re in charge.
This article is simply meant to give you more information about why people often:
Let’s start by looking at why more isn’t always better.
When it comes to meeting goals, particularly ones like fat loss or improved athletic performance, it’s easy to feel like you’re never doing enough.
If you’re like me, you may have had this reaction after seeing some initial results:
And then you add a little more time to a cardio session. Or add another set to all the exercises in your strength training workout.
Or maybe what started as doing more in the gym has come into the kitchen. You start making changes to your diet. Make your meals a little smaller here. Cut a few more calories there.
At least, that’s what I did, time and time again.
Except it never worked the way I thought it would. All it did was leave me exhausted, ravenous, and burnt out.
As tempting as it is to just keep doing more — I mean, it worked at the very beginning, why wouldn’t it work now? — instead of progressing, you may be…
So many women in the GGS community — myself included — have learned this at the cost of our overall well-being!
I’m going to break down four problems with this “more is better” approach to help explain why it doesn’t work (and what you can do instead!).
Even when you love it, hours upon hours of exercise each week can drain your schedule, your energy, your productivity, and your social life. There are only so many hours in the day, and most of us face competing demands for our time, including:
By constantly trying to increase the amount of time we spend in the gym, we may hit a point where we begin neglecting other parts of our life. This means that:
Plus, because we’re doing so much, our bodies never get to recover fully. We reach the point where we don’t have the energy or mental clarity to engage fully in any part of our life, gym or otherwise.
As my good friend, GGS co-founder and Head Coach for our GGS Coaching program, Jen Comas recalls:
“For years, I put my life on hold. All I did was grind away, working toward fat loss. When I say it was all I did, I’m not exaggerating — my only hobbies were working out, prepping food, and dieting, all in a quest for the ‘perfect’ body. If I wasn’t working out, preparing food, or eating, I was thinking about it.
I would spend all of my free time designing or logging my workouts, planning out my grocery lists and meals, or simply daydreaming about food (mostly because I was always hungry). I avoided doing almost everything that wasn’t centered around fat loss, because I was so nervous that it would interfere with my meal and gym schedule.
Oddly, despite all of that exercise, I wasn’t getting leaner. I wasn’t getting stronger, either. I wasn’t any closer to being able to do a single unassisted pull-up or regular push-ups.
Despite not seeing the results I wanted, I had become quite obsessed about my workouts. If I had to skip a session due to an illness or some other obligation, I was instantly riddled with feelings of guilt. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally.
Finally, on a Saturday afternoon in 2013, after seeing a really fun photo that my friend had posted on social media, it suddenly hit me: My entire existence was centered around fat loss — I had turned fat loss into my sole purpose.”
This mindset can creep up on us, and it can have a profound effect on our lives.
If you’re already...
… but you’re still not achieving the results you want, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you need to do more. We’ve all heard the phrase “no pain, no gain,” after all. Do you find yourself thinking of that as you work harder?
Or maybe you’re thinking, “But I love to exercise!” If that’s the case, then great! It’s when you begin shaping your workouts and diet around the idea that you have to do more, regardless of the side effects, that it might be time to shift the script.
This is a great time to take a step back. Ask yourself the following questions:
If the answer to either of these is no, it’s a good indicator that you’ve fallen into the unsustainable “more is better” mindset.
When you’re training too much or too hard, chances are you’re also doing one of these two things nutrition-wise:
Obviously, if fat loss is your goal, eating more food than you need is going to seriously hinder your results.
Despite this, have you ever seen an article in a fitness magazine that recommended a 1200-calorie-per-day meal plan? Or have you ever worked with a trainer who recommended both a low-carb and low-fat diet for weight loss?
If so, you’re not alone. Countless women are misled into eating far less food than they actually need to support high-intensity training.
With messages that tell women to eat as little as possible and that glorify diet culture, many women lose their sense of what “enough” food really is — especially when trying to lose weight. This altered perspective can hinder fat loss, strength gain, muscle gain, energy levels, and overall health.
The truth is that if you’re not eating enough food (particularly protein), you can experience a whole host of issues, including:
If you’re under-eating on a consistent basis, you can bet you won’t be performing as well in the gym or losing body fat while maintaining your muscle.
Some of the most common symptoms of under-eating include:
You may also notice that you’ve hit a ceiling on your ability to lift or that you aren’t making progress in certain areas of training anymore.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms regularly and you’re not sure why, then this is a good time to assess your diet to ensure you are getting adequate intake of calories and macronutrients. (Be aware that some of these symptoms can be due to other medical issues that should be treated by a physician; if these symptoms don’t rapidly improve with increased energy intake, you should consult your healthcare provider.)
If you’d like more information on under-eating and how to determine your appropriate energy intake, check out this great article by Laura Schoenfeld, RD.
When you’re training a lot and very intensely (and especially if you’re not eating enough calories to sustain that level of work), your body responds in the way it was physiologically programmed: it starts conserving energy and directing calories to functions that are necessary for survival (like breathing and regulating body temperature). In other words, your body resorts to burning fewer calories.
This worked really well when our calorie restriction was due to famine or poor crop turnout; our bodies had to step in to help us stick out the rough times. The adaptation was necessary for survival, and human bodies got really good at it — it actually increased our bodies’ efficiency. But this adaptation is not so great when we’re trying to achieve goals like fat loss or muscle gain.
When high-intensity training meets energy scarcity, it can become nearly impossible for your muscle tissues to repair after training, let alone to increase muscle strength or size.
This energy deficit can seriously weaken your power in training sessions in general. You’ll have a harder time maintaining your results and making further progress.
What’s more, when you don’t eat enough, your body:
When your cortisol is chronically elevated, you can wind up with both leptin and insulin resistance, an unhealthy hormonal state that promotes body fat and water retention (and causes long-term health issues that go way beyond weight loss resistance).
So basically, over-exercising coupled with under-eating can lead to hormonal imbalances, and hormonal imbalances often prevent weight loss.
On top of this, evidence shows that women who exercise regularly with a chronic energy deficiency (from a lot of exercise, not enough calories, or a combination of both) may end up with:
If you’re in the cycle of exercising at a high intensity on an almost-daily basis trying to get better results, then it’s almost certain that you’ve experienced:
Maybe you’ve continued pushing past these annoyances, or maybe you’ve thought that just “stretching out” the tight area would be enough, or maybe you’ve thought that more exercise was the way to “loosen it up.” Or if you’ve taken a day or two off to try and recover, maybe you’ve felt guilty about taking a break and jumped back in as soon as you could.
When we’re in this cycle of always doing more, we can sometimes get into the habit of ignoring our body’s signals.
As you’ve already learned, the combination of intense exercise and low caloric intake can cause muscle loss, lower power output during training, and reduced capacity to recover after training. This combination sets you up for injury, especially overuse injury.
Overuse injuries are typically muscle and joint injuries caused by repetitive trauma or training errors. Stress fractures, tendinitis, and shin splints are common ones. So if you’re running five miles every day and ignoring that nagging (and OK, maybe increasing) shin pain, you might be developing a problem that is compounded by muscle loss and your reduced capacity to recover after training.
Going back to that “no pain, no gain” thing. If we’re in that mindset, then it makes us more likely to look at pain as a sign that “Hey, maybe this thing’s working. If I just push a little harder, I’ll do even better.”
Pain, though, is a signal from our brain that’s warning us that something might be amiss. This might be a perceived threat of instability or weakness we need to keep an eye on, or it may be an indicator of actual tissue damage.
It’s super important to tune in to our bodies, especially when we are working toward a goal. As you’ve already learned, it can be easy to fall into always wanting to push yourself to get results. Push yourself to run faster, train harder, lift heavier.
But pushing yourself too hard when you’re already dealing with the other issues we’ve talked about (like muscle loss) makes injury a much bigger risk.
Generally, exercising consistently and eating mindfully help us meet goals such as fat loss and strength gains. As such, we tend to see these as healthy behaviors. But excessive exercise and calorie cutting (just like excessive anything, really) can actually drag us down instead of lifting us up.
In addition to the problem with sustainability, you’ve just learned how these habits can wreak havoc on our body and our health — and in many cases these practices can move us away from our goals, which is the exact opposite of what we want!
While dedication and commitment to reaching a goal can certainly be a good thing, it’s helpful for us to take a step back and look at the big picture. Do our endeavors really contribute to us feeling better?
So how do you break out of the “more is better” mindset and find a training and eating program that will help you achieve your goals in a sustainable, healthy way?
We gave you the link earlier to an article by Laura Schoenfeld, RD, that will help you determine how many calories (roughly) you should be eating. (Here it is again.) You also learned how to spot the signs that you might be under-eating, which may be hindering your ability to lose weight and gain muscle.
The amount of food you need will depend on...
… and it may be higher or lower than the recommendations you’re seeing on social media, in advertisements, or elsewhere — and that’s OK. In most cases, you should avoid cutting your calories to the bare minimum. Instead, what we encourage our GGS Coaching clients to do — and what we are encouraging you to do too! — is practice staying aware of how you’re feeling, accepting those feelings, and acting in a way that nourishes you while still moving you steadily toward your goals.
Now, we’re going to dive into how to determine what amount of exercise is right for you and your goals.
How much exercise is optimal for you will be different than how much exercise is optimal for someone else. And even how much is optimal for you may vary throughout your life — or even throughout your week!
Instead of constantly trying to do more, we encourage all of our GGS Coaching clients to figure out their own exercise “sweet spot,” or Optimal Effective Dose (OED).
Your OED exists on a continuum between your Minimal Effective Dose (MED) and your Maximum Tolerable Dose (MTD). Let’s look at each of these in turn.
In training, the Minimum Effective Dose is the minimum amount of stimulus needed to achieve a desired effect. MED is appropriate for people who want to generally improve their health, are already struggling with very high levels of chronic stress, or have very busy schedules. Think of the MED as doing the bare minimum to move forward (which can be very beneficial and appropriate for some people).
The Maximum Tolerable Dose is the highest amount of stimulus a person can handle before experiencing negative consequences. Following an MTD approach with training is for professional or competitive athletes who have plenty of time and resources to focus on optimizing their nutrition, getting plenty of rest, going for massages and other recovery care, and prioritizing sleep for the best recovery possible. Training using an MTD approach is a full-time commitment that requires time and dedication, and it also comes with the most risk for overtraining and injury.
Somewhere along the continuum between the MED and the MTD, there is a vast middle ground referred to as the Optimal Effective Dose (OED), which provides results in a relatively timely manner if you’re working hard and staying consistent while still living your life.
You don’t need to suffer to see results (and that goes for both exercise and eating). I realize that doing anything less than the Maximum Tolerable Dose may sound counterintuitive, but take it from me and many GGS coaching clients who have worked at both ends of the exercise spectrum: Achieving great results is possible without going to extremes.
Whether your goal is to get lean, get strong, build some muscle, or improve your overall health and performance, following our OED approach to training will help you:
Another major benefit of aiming for your OED is that it’s much more sustainable. Training to the max might work for a little bit, but soon enough, you may be faced with all of those negative side effects we mentioned above, like burning fewer calories and risking overuse injuries.
And wouldn’t you rather get the results you’re looking for in six months to a year versus working intensely for two months only to have your efforts stall (and even start working against you)?
Ultimately, the OED approach is about finding your sweet spot. It’s doing enough exercise to elicit the desired result within a reasonable time frame — without all of the negative side-effects that come with training more often or more intensely than necessary.
Want to run a 5K, 10K, or marathon? Compete in powerlifting? Be healthy enough to play with your grandchildren? Improve your blood pressure?
What about other goals in your life? Are you working toward a degree or certification? Do you have children or aging parents who rely on you as a caretaker or a source of emotional support?
As we discussed earlier, the Optimal Effective Dose takes into account all of these factors, including (but not limited to):
The Optimal Effective Dose considers your own goals, preferences, and environment, and how they all work together. In other words, the Optimal Effective Dose is realistic and sustainable.
To determine your Optimal Effective Dose, you first need to assess your goals and priorities.
Depending on your goals, your OED may require quite a bit of time and effort, or not very much at all. If you have a demanding job plus family responsibilities, your goal may be to maintain your current level of fitness or to stay healthy in general. That’s a perfectly fine goal! In this case, your OED will be very close to your Minimum Effective Dose — that is, as we covered earlier, the minimum amount of stimulus needed to achieve a desired effect.
Ultimately, it may take some soul searching to decide what’s most important to you. Is an Ironman on your bucket list? You might be willing to put your social life on hold for several months while you take the time to train for the race of a lifetime. Or you might really need to focus on your family right now — so although you’d like to improve your fitness, you’re OK with maintenance mode until life settles down a little bit.
As a part of your soul searching, think of what you’re willing to give up to reach your goal, and what you’re not willing to give up. Many people find that training for an event or working toward a big goal — such as a marathon, triathlon, or powerlifting competition — requires some tradeoffs.
You may be willing to skip Sunday brunch with your friends for a few months so that you can attend your marathon training group’s weekly long runs. Or you might decide to cut back on other parts of your household budget so you can afford a biweekly massage. In general, the bigger the goal and the more time and effort required, the more tradeoffs you’ll need to make.
Here are some questions to consider when setting and prioritizing goals:
Your ability level and exercise experience will have an influence on your training plan. Naturally, more advanced athletes will be able to handle more intense and frequent training because their bodies have built up a solid muscular foundation and they’ve practiced proper movement patterns.
It’s important to realize that people at every level — beginner, intermediate, and advanced — need adequate rest. “Doing too much” is possible no matter your training background!
Identifying your level is helpful for a few reasons:
In a bit, we’ll tell you about the signs that you’re doing too much and show you how to adjust your training plan accordingly. But first, let’s look at how your ability level and exercise experience have an influence on your training plan.
You’re considered a beginner if one or more of these statements apply to you:
(Note that there’s nothing wrong with being a beginner. What’s important is to determine the level that’s appropriate for you so that you can make progress and achieve your goals.)
You are at the intermediate level if:
To be considered advanced means that:
As a very general rule, these classifications are pretty solid. Choose the ability level that sounds most like you. If you feel like none of these classifications feels quite right, choose the one you think most closely describes your ability level. If you’re wavering between two, choose the lower one just to be safe. You can always adjust as you go.
If you’re looking to find a healthy balance between your ability level, your schedule, and your goals, here’s a template to help.
These general guidelines are for someone who is interested in balancing health, lifestyle, aesthetics, and performance. None of these goals take top priority; they’re all taken into account when creating a training plan, and there’s a little give and take in each category.
Keep in mind that I recommend as much low-intensity movement (like walking) as someone has the time and desire to do each week, so I’m not including it in this chart because the recommendation is always the same: move as often as you can.
HIIT: high-intensity interval training — broadly defined as a short period of intense work performed at a 9.5–10 out of 10 on the GGS Perceived Effort Scale, followed by a period of rest, repeated for time or for a number of sets.
HIT: high-intensity training — otherwise known as vigorous-intensity cardio and defined as activity performed at a 7–8.5 out of 10 on the GGS Perceived Effort Scale. Some examples include hiking, rowing, jogging, and cycling.
MIC: moderate-intensity cardio — can be hiking, biking, swimming, fast-paced yoga, or circuit training. This is about a level 4–6 on the GGS Perceived Effort Scale.
Your current routine may be very different than these guidelines, which is OK. However, if you’re working out significantly more than this template recommends, it’s a sign that you may be doing too much. Don’t feel like you have to overhaul your workout plan just yet! Below, we’ll cover how to adjust your plan depending on how you’re feeling and your results.
Before you make any changes to your current routine, however, let’s discuss another important aspect of training: consistency.
If you’ve been training consistently and not seeing the results you want, your first impulse might be to adjust your training program. Maybe you start toying with trying out longer cardio sessions, adding an extra day of strength training, or starting a group class on top of your individual workouts... But not so fast! You might not need to tinker with that aspect of things just yet.
Consistency with all of the other things that affect fitness and health, like sleep, stress management, and nutrition, can be just as important (if not more so!) as your workouts, which is why we focus on all of these aspects with our GGS coaching clients.
To make progress, you need to be consistently addressing all of the elements that work together to produce results:
If you’re not seeing the results you want, ask yourself: Have I been consistent with every part of my plan, including nutrition and recovery? Have I been...
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, spend some time focusing on those areas for the next two to three weeks, then re-evaluate your progress.
Remember, each element affects the others, and to get the best results possible it’s critical to address all of these areas. If one or more of them are suffering, that’s probably what’s hindering your progress.
If you’ve been following the same routine for four weeks, you should have enough information to know if you need to scale back or if you’re ready to amp it up.
Here’s a good rule of thumb if you’re being consistent with your eating and exercise but not making progress:
For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on the latter situation, where your body’s signals are telling you that you may be doing too much.
Here are three different options for doing less that you can choose from based on how you’re feeling and on how drastic of a change you might need to make (or would be willing to make).
You’re not seeing results and:
In this case, you might not need to make drastic changes. Here are some ways you can do a little less and recover more:
Pay attention to how these changes make you feel. Do you have more energy during your workouts or throughout the day? Are you looking forward to your workouts again? If so, that small change may be all you need to reach your Optimum Effective Dose.
You can also try these smaller changes if you’re nervous about cutting back too drastically. If you’re used to doing a lot of exercise or watching your nutrition very closely, it can be scary to suddenly start eating a lot more or working out less often. You may be worried about going too far and losing progress on a goal that means a lot to you. If this sounds like you, it’s OK to start by doing a little less and see how you feel.
You’re not seeing results and:
In this case, I recommend increasing your rest by swapping out a regular workout for an active recovery day or a less-intense form of that type of exercise at least once per week. For example, you could:
Take note of how you’re feeling after your recovery session, both mentally and physically. You might feel great that you took some time for yourself to rest and nourish your body, or you might feel a little anxious about scaling back a bit. Both of these reactions are normal! Keep in mind that changes may not happen immediately. Stick with it and reassess after 3–5 weeks.
Ideally over time you’ll notice:
You’re not seeing results and:
In this situation, I would recommend dropping down a level (from advanced to intermediate, or from intermediate to beginner) in terms of your overall exercise volume and frequency. Reference the chart above for some general guidelines on what a balanced program should look like at each ability level.
Another option would be to take a full week off of intense exercise. Only do walking and gentle mobility exercises, such as stretching, easy foam rolling, or a gentle yoga class. If you feel anxious about taking an entire week off, consider timing it with another life event that makes sense — like a leisurely vacation, your holiday break, or the week your sister is coming up to visit.
I want to say it once more: You don’t need to suffer or go to extremes to achieve great results (and that goes for both exercise and eating).
If you’re still thinking, “I’m not sure about this, I’m worried that doing less will just stall my results...” that’s understandable. It can certainly seem counterintuitive that doing less can actually give you better results, and it’s a concept that some of our GGS Coaching clients struggle with at the beginning too.
But the consequences of continuing to do too much can be pretty big: exhaustion, hormonal issues, an out-of-whack appetite, and overuse injuries. If you recognize the symptoms of doing “too much” that I outlined above, but you’re still a little worried, I challenge you to do two things:
I’ve seen so many women in the GGS community feel better and get better results when they embrace the OED approach. Going hard, hard, hard, just isn’t sustainable (unless you’re an elite athlete with plenty of time and money to devote to training, nutrition, and recovery). And for many of us, it isn’t very fun!
As I said earlier, fitness should add to your life, not detract from it.
By rethinking the “more is better” approach, you can have a more balanced life and achieve better results.
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