More isn't always better
If something is good, then more of that must be better, right? Well, not always the case. This is especially true for a lot of topics or areas that have to do with our health. Hopefully this list can give you some insight into when too much of something isn't always better.
Too much creatine
Ah yes, creatine. One of the most widely-studied supplements we have today. One supplement, I might add, that I consistently use and promote its efficacy over and over again. The research surrounding creatine usage consistently points to positive gains in strength, power output, and lean muscle mass gains and improvements in overall body composition, with very little drawback or negative side effects. So, something this good must be even better if you take more, right? Well not so fast.
Firstly, if you want to learn all about creatine, you can check out My Definitive Guide to Creatine.
Most creatine supplements suggest a "loading phase" to saturate the body with creatine prior to a fitness program. Although this isn't entirely necessary, loading phases can be beneficial. One should note, however, that a week-long loading phase is about the only time you should take creatine at such a high dose (listed below). Some people report stomach or intestinal distress from higher amounts of creatine, so if this is the case then just take your standard daily dose and you should still experience the positive benefits from supplementing.
So how much should you actually take? Well, research suggests that the average person only utilizes about 2-3g on any given day. Most creatine dosages are 5g (teaspoon), so that is more than enough product to benefit you. Oftentimes, however, I see individuals who think that since 5g is so great, then 10, 15, 20, or even 25g daily much be even better. This is simply not the case. There appears to be a "saturation point" where you body simply will not absorb or utilize any more.
Besides the intestinal or stomach distress from higher dosages, there doesn't appear to be any research pointing towards a threat or negative side effects of overdosing, although why waste product when you can just stick to the regular dosing? Don't let the resident "bro" down at your gym or on Facebook try and tell you otherwise.
0.3g/kg - "loading phase" (days 1-7)
0.03g/kg - "maintenance phase" (days 8+)
I weigh 188lbs (85kg). That means that my theoretical loading phase should be 25.5g and my maintenance phase should be 2.55g.
Too many calories
Too many calories you say? Well, this point is intended for those of you who are trying to bulk or put on some weight/mass. Oftentimes some people may think that by eating a lot of food to put on mass is good, so even more food must be better, right?
It is true, your body needs a caloric surplus (eat more than you burn) in order to build muscle (or fat for that matter!). However, too many calories can result in some unwanted body fat. Your body only has a limited capacity to build muscle at any given time, related to a number of factors.
I actually love the analogy used over on T Nation about building a house:
I like to use a construction worker analogy to explain this. Imagine that your muscles are like a house you're trying to build. The bricks used to build the house represent the amino acids (from the ingestion of protein) while the money you're paying the workers (so that they'll do the work) represents the carbs and fat you eat.
Finally, the workers represent the factors involved in the protein synthesis process (Testosterone mainly) and the truck bringing the bricks to the workers represent insulin (which plays a capital role in transporting the nutrients to the muscle cells).
If you don't give the workers enough bricks (protein) they won't be able to build the house as fast as they could. So in that regard, an insufficient protein intake will slow down muscle growth.
Similarly, if you don't pay your workers enough (low carbs or fat intake) they won't be as motivated to work hard. As a result, the house won't be built very rapidly. In fact, if you really cut the workers' pay, they might even get mad, go on strike, and start demolishing the house (catabolism due to an excessively low caloric intake). So in that regard, not consuming enough protein or calories to support muscle growth will lead to a slower rate of gains.
Now, what happens if you start to send more bricks (increase protein intake) to the workers? Well, they'll be able to build the house more rapidly because they aren't lacking in raw material. However, at some point, sending more and more bricks won't lead to a faster rate of construction because the workers can only perform so much work in any given amount of time. For example, if your crew can add 1000 bricks per day to the walls, giving them 2000 bricks per day will be useless: it exceeds their work capacity. So the excess bricks will go to waste (literally).
In the same regard, if you increase your workers' salary (increase caloric intake) chances are their motivation will also increase and as a result they'll build the house faster. However, just like with bricks, there comes a point where increasing the workers' salary won't have any effect on the house-building rate: the workers will reach their physical limit. Once this limit is reached you can increase their salary all you want; they won't be able to add bricks to the house any faster.
What I'm trying to say is you can't bully your body into building muscle by force-feeding it. Adding nutrients and calories will have a positive effect on muscle growth until you reach your saturation point. After that, any additional calories will be stored as body fat.
So while it's true the more you eat the bigger you'll get, the additional weight will be in the form of fat, not muscle tissue.
So how much should you be eating? Well, most studies suggest anywhere from 250-500+ calories over your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Keep in mind that this is far from a scientific calculation, so you should pay attention to your own body mass over time keeping a few things in mind.
- "Clean" bulks, where you are mainly trying to add just muscle tissue with limited fat gain are going to put you closer to the 250+ caloric surplus range. I don't want to say that this method is impossible, because it's not, but it certainly takes much longer to bulk this way is incredibly more difficult. Only the most seasoned of bodybuilders and physique competitors (or those who get lucky) are able to put on just muscle mass. It takes a lot more time and dedication, so be prepared for this option.
- Weight gain at the beginning of a bulk is generally much quicker prior to your weight plateauing a bit. If you are working out and supplementing with creatine, then your body will retain glycogen and water causing your weight to spike quite a bit in the first few weeks. Keep in mind that this does not necessarily mean that you are eating too much, so stay committed and watch your weight trend over time and adjust accordingly.
- With absolute prime conditions, you are only going to be adding about 0.25-0.5lbs of muscle mass in a week. So, after that initial weight spike has happened, focus on aiming for maybe 0.5-1lb of total weight gain in a week. If you aren't gaining weight, eat more. If you are gaining too much weight, eat a bit less.
- As you gain weight, you will need to continually up your calories. Bodies with heavier mass have a higher resting metabolic rate, or in other words, burn more calories throughout the day. So, as you pack on some muscle, you will need to continue to eat more and more to continue to gain weight.
Not enough calories
This list is about more, so why is something that is about less on this list? Well, for many, this is all about cutting calories. In other words, some people think that since reducing calories must be good for weight loss then cutting calories even more calories must be better, right?
Well not exactly. I consider about 3 different "phases" the body transitions through during times of calorie restriction.
- Safe and effective caloric deficit of 250-500 calories below your TDEE.
- "Grey area" between safe weight loss and starvation. You may lose weight in this zone but your body and your mind are not going to be happy about it.
Keep in mind that any and all weight loss will result in a decrease of both fat mass (adipose tissue) and fat-free mass (muscle tissue). This is where exercise (including resistance training) and proper dieting can try and minimize the effects of muscle loss as much as possible - although not entirely.
A caloric deficit means that your body is not getting all of its energy requirements from food intake so it must result to metabolizing tissues (catabolism) in order to meet all of its energy demands. So, assuming you are consuming enough calories to signal to your body that "times are good," and that you are healthy and active, you will continue to lose weight as a steady, slow drip.
A pound of body fat is worth roughly 3500 calories. Basically, if you were to burn that body fat, that is the chemical energy that you would yield. Great. So, if you theoretically cut 500 calories out of your diet every day, then you should see your weight go down by 1 pound in 7 days (500 calories x 7 days = 3500 calories). Sure, and this may happen in the beginning, but it is not something that is consistent.
Let me refer you to a blog I wrote a while back about what is known as "set point theory." The set point theory is an idea that everyone has a hypothetical "basement" and "ceiling" for their weight. For a while I was right around 170lbs body weight. I always considered my "basement" weight during that time to be 160lbs. What I mean by basement weight on my set point theory is that I could lose weight quick and easy to get me to 160lbs, but beyond that would be tough.
Our bodies have defence mechanisms set in place to prevent us from starving to death. This comes from many years of evolution. Our early ancestors that used to hunt and gather may have gone days without food during times of famine. They didn't have the convenience of having a McDonald's on a street corner to go get a cheeseburger. So, instead of dropping dead after a day or two of not eating, they could go days by catabolizing their own tissues. This is often referred to as "starvation mode."
One thing I will clarify about starvation mode, you should not be gaining weight during starvation mode. It is physically impossible to gain weight if you are on a caloric deficit. Your weight loss, however, can slow or even stop completely for a couple of different reasons.
First, you may have lost weight too quickly by restricting too many calories. Your hormonal profile goes all wonky and your body hits that theoretical "basement," so it puts on the brakes as a defence/survival mechanism. This is generally when you begin to not feel so well because your metabolism has slowed to a halt.
Secondly, you simply may not be eating enough. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that women intake at least 1200 calories/day and 1800 calories/day for men. Keep in mind that these are the absolute lowest calorie intake numbers, and for those of you who lead an active lifestyle whether through work or exercise should consider those factors.
Here's a very simple and basic way of calculating your resting or basal metabolic rate:
BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years)
BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)
So, using myself as an example:
BMR = 66 + (6.23 x 188) + (12.7 x 71) - (6.8 x 29) = 1,941 calories
That means, that if I was to sit on my butt all day and do nothing but breathe and eat, then I should consume 1,941 calories to maintain my current weight. Factor in activity (work, chores, chasing my sons around) and exercise and you can imagine how many calories I would need to sustain my current weight.
- Calorie calculations, regardless of how accurate they claim to be, are meant to give you a ballpark figure. You should adjust your caloric intake over time based on what your goals are and how you are progressing towards said goals.
- Losing weight, like gaining weight, takes time. If you want to look a certain way by summer, let's say, then you should put a plan in place 6, 9, even 12 months prior to your goal date. Don't try and lose a bunch of weight in a short period of time because your body will rebound and put that weight back on.
- Don't restrict your calories too much because you will either stall your weight loss, or worse, your body will catabolize itself, including muscle tissue. Extreme calorie restriction is dangerous!
Too much exercise
I see this one all the time, and probably one of the most common issues on this list. This happens at the beginning of a New Year when someone has made a New Year's resolution to get fit and healthy, and they go to the gym for an hour and a half their first week. Or, someone is doing a workout program and are either not getting the results they're looking for (generally due to neglecting their diet), or aren't getting the results they're looking for fast enough, so they figure that since exercise is good, more exercise must be better, right?
- Not enough recovery
- Increase volume/intensity too quickly
- Not consuming enough calories
- Too much "muscle confusion"
Number 3 was covered above, and number 4 will be covered next, so let's take a look at numbers 1 and 2.
Exercise causes endorphin rushes in the body that can be very addicting. This is one of the contributing factors when it comes to an individual overtraining. Whether it is the allure of getting healthy after finally committing to change, or the addiction to that great feeling of exercising that pulls people to push the envelope. Either way, one of the most vicious cycles of exercise for a lot of people is pushing themselves too far, causing a burnout or injury, forcing them to have to be sedentary again for a while.
Exercise is great because it forces our bodies to adapt to a stimulus or stimuli. Adaptation is what causes growth and change, improving us both mentally and physically. Most people are just trying to "burn calories" because that is what is thrown in their face all the time, however, exercise does so much more.
The adaptions from exercise are first and foremost caused by a stimulus during exercise. If you are running, you are forcing your muscle cells to become more aerobic in nature. The heart and lungs start working more efficiently. When we do push-ups, our muscle fibers are getting stronger and our brain to muscle connection is improving (neural adaptations).
However, what most people don't realize, is that exercise only provides the stimulus for change. The improvements and adaptations occur long after the workout is over during the recovery. If, however, you are exercising and pushing your body all the time and not allowing for sufficient recovery, then your body will not adapt to the stimulus which can lead to injuries.
Another thing that can cause overtraining or improper recovery is an individual pushing things too hard, too quickly. For example, a beginner starts out by doing 3 total-body workouts in a week. After only a week or two, they start to feel pretty good about themselves so they start adding in a few mile runs here and there as well as some bonus strength training sessions and before they know it, they are worn down.
I also see this with beginners, or folks returning to exercise. The start of a new year is synonymous for this. An individual feels great about making a change to their lifestyle. They probably already raided their cupboards, throwing out all of their junk food and have got themselves a new gym membership. So what do they do? They head to the gym on January 2nd and do a 90 minute total-body workout. It then takes them 5 days to recover, making them miserable and already dreading going back.
Exercise needs to be progressive. You start forcing your body to adapt to certain stimuli, allow it to recover, and then come back stronger than before.
I'm telling you right now, the biggest issue with overtraining is that individuals don't reach a state where they are experiencing symptoms until it is too late. Here are the symptoms of overtraining (from Wikipedia):
- Excessive weight loss
- Excessive loss of body fat
- Increased resting heart rate
- Decreased muscular strength
- Increased submaximal heart rate
- Inability to complete workouts
- Chronic muscle soreness
- Increased incidence of injury
- Depressed immune system
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Absence of menstruation
- Frequent minor infections/colds
- Heart Palpitations
- Lower Testosterone Levels
- Higher Cortisol Levels
- Loss of appetite
- Mood Disturbance
- Loss of motivation
- Loss of enthusiasm
- Loss of competitive drive
- Early onset of fatigue
- Decreased aerobic capacity
- Poor physical performance
- Inability to complete workouts
- Delayed recovery
Too much "muscle confusion"
Here's another common one that I see all the time. The term "muscle confusion" gets thrown around by so many, making it seem as though it is this magical potion that produces results. Based on the "general adaptation syndrome," the term muscle confusion refers to something known as periodization. Periodization refers to changing a training schedule every 3-6 weeks for a number of reasons. In athletics, this can be useful to "build" an athlete up systematically so that they can perform at optimal levels during their sport season. For the average person, however, it can refer to introducing new stimuli every several weeks in order to prevent an individual from plateauing results or getting bored with training due to monotony.
So, if we change our training schedules every 3-6 weeks to introduce new workouts then "confusing" our muscles produces results then "confusing" our muscles more frequently must be better, right?
In order to discuss why this is a potentially bad thing, let's first understand what happens when we train. As discussed previously, resistance training forces our bodies to adapt to stimulus. For example, if you were to squat 135lbs for, say, 8 reps, you are stimulating your muscles to adapt to that weight. The next workout you come back, assuming you recovered well, ate enough solid food to aid in recovery, then you should be able to squat either more weight for 8 reps, or the same weight for more reps (depending on your goals). This is known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).
Let's use our example from above when referring to the above image.
- Phase 1 would be squatting 135lbs. We have introduced a stimulus, which is forcing the body to adapt.
- Over the following few days, the muscles involved in squat progress through Phase 2, or the "Compensation Phase." For athletes, this is a troublesome phase because this is where one may see a drop in performance/strength/power. The reason for the drop in performance/strength/power is due to stressors placed on the body. This is alarming for our bodily systems. For fitness enthusiasts, this can be a beneficial stage, however, because in the case of
- Not to fear, however, because with proper rest and recovery, our bodies then force the muscles involved in a squat to adapt and progress into Phase 3, or the "Resistance Phase." Notice that we have now improved over our baseline level in phase 1. By using our example from above, we should now be able to squat more weight for the same number of reps or the same weight for more reps (depending on the goals). With periodized training, this cycle will start all over again.
- If, however, we cause too much stress (refer to the "Too Much Exercise" section of this blog) without sufficient or proper adaptation (recovery), then our bodies can actually enter Phase 4 or "Decompensation." This is not a good state to be in and one can actually see a rapid decline in both health and performance.
So, with a well-structured periodized program, working towards a specific goal, one can assume they will progress through phases 1, 2, and 3 for a few cycles, ratcheting up their improvements. A period of recovery is needed, however, whether that be a de-load week for heavy resistance training, or complete recovery from the same stressors by taking time off from training completely.
Common amongst many fitness enthusiasts, however, and this goes for nearly all poorly-executed programs, is that a schedule contains too much variation of stimulus. For example, an individual may say, "I want to improve my bench press and squat strength, but also maintain my aerobic conditioning and vertical jump, all while growing big muscles and burning fat!"
Ok, so that training block, based on their goals would have to include chest and leg strength, possibly on the same days, but could be split. A couple days of distance running. Some plyometrics work to maintain or improve vertical jump. Some hypertrophy training to try and increase muscle size. All while cutting calories to reduce body fat.
I can tell you right now that there isn't enough time in a single week to schedule all of those things effectively to improve on all goals at once, while still maintaining proper recovery (eating enough calories). You could create a schedule to fit all of these things in, however many of these goals will get stuck in phase 1 and 2 of the GAS.
People who use Beachbody products are guilty of this all the time. I see people all the time combining programs like Body Beast (primarily designed for hypertrophy), with Asylum (primarily designed for athleticism), because they want to grow big muscles yet keep their athleticism and cardiovascular levels at the same time. The problem is, their conflicting goals are trying to do too much with their muscles at any given time causing them to spin their wheels and not really improve in any given area at once.
Here is a very basic idea of how a male football player may prepare for their season:
- Season ends, take a few weeks of recovery time to allow body to relax and recover from stressors placed on the body from the previous months.
- Start to get back to training with next season in mind. Coach wants player to gain some weight to help him on the field next season and not get pushed around so player starts hypertrophy training in the gym while increasing calories with his diet. Training includes some compound movements to start to increase overall strength combined with some hypertrophy training. Very little "cardiovascular" conditioning involved. No football-specific training at all.
- After several weeks, the player has put on 15lbs of weight, only 6 of that is muscle. Strength training intensifies, hypertrophy training transitions to agility and more sport-specific training. Some light aerobic conditioning is done through agility work. Still no football-specific training at all. Diet is targeted at maintaining muscle mass and energy levels while slowly chipping away at body fat.
- A few weeks away from training camp, the player really ramps up the intensity of the strength training. Although personal records are now being reached with strength training, the volume is actually dialled back to allow sufficient recover during lifting. Agility and conditioning training is now intensified in preparation for upcoming training camp. Football skill-specific training is fully underway now. Body fat is coming off through stricter dieting.
- Player enters training camp up in weight from pervious season, also stronger and faster even though heavier. Strength training is highly intense, but not a lot of volume (maybe only a couple lifting sessions per week using the main compound lifts). The player is peaking just in time for the start of the season. The dietary goals now are to maintain weight and energy throughout the season.
You will notice that really only 1 or 2 "types" of training are focused on at once. The football player first focuses on gaining some weight, then slowly begins to ramp up strength and conditioning while cutting body fat, not trying to do everything at once. This is the most effective way of improving something.
So that's nice for a football player, but what about the average person, what if they don't want to improve in any particular area besides just getting "fit?" Well, by constantly introducing new stimuli, your body can and will head towards phase 4 or "Decompensation." Exercise-induced stimulus is stressful on the body. It causes a response. Sure, this is good to grow and improve, but too much stress in a short period of time without proper structure can lead to overtraining and/or stagnation of results.