So just how much is "too much"?
(1) It’s a matter of tissue CAPACITY…
I’m taking this concept directly from a brilliant Physiotherapist in Australia--Jill Cook--who describes rehab and injury in terms of this “tissue capacity”. Essentially the concept is this:
Your musculoskeletal tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones) all have a sort of ceiling for what they can handle. While that ceiling is a lot higher than a lot of us realize, it still exists. Push past that ceiling, and that’s where the injury zone is. Muscles and ligaments (e.g. think quadriceps or ACL) most commonly suffer injury when that ceiling is smashed into and forcefully/quickly exceeded (e.g. quadriceps strain/tear or ACL tear). Tendons, on the other hand (think biceps tendon, achilles tendon), are more commonly injured gradually and over time as that ceiling is exceeded less aggressively but very repetitively on many occasions (ever heard of “tendinitis/tendinosis” or “tendinopathy”?). But regardless of how injury occurs and to what structure, the main mechanism that causes it is exceeding the CAPACITY that your tissues have to accept, move, or absorb the loads that are placed on them.
That being said, the answer to the “how much is too much question” is always the cliche, “it depends”. How much is too much to squat depends on the capacity of your spine to stay braced and stable, your glutes/quads/hammies to control the down and up phases of the movement. How many is too many pull-ups depends on the capacity of your rotator cuff to maintain a stable connection of the bones in your shoulder, your lats and teres’ muscles to control your bodyweight through the up and down phases of the movement, and the capacity of your forearm and gripping muscles to maintain a solid grip on the bar. I’m sure you’re getting the point...
That’s a lot of words, but here’s the takeaway and the good news: the whole point of training (and physical therapy for that matter) is to develop and improve your body tissues’ capacity for more or different kinds of load. And we know that training our musculoskeletal system does a great job at this. By stressing your body just underneath that capacity ceiling, and by challenging that tissue capacity ceiling, we can very effectively RAISE it.
This is why tracking your numbers (your PR, your 1RM, your mile run time, your 20 mile bike pace, your AMRAP of push-ups or pull-ups) is so crucial. To develop a more resilient, higher-capacity body...you have to develop a better self-awareness.
Simply put: if you don’t know your ceiling, if you don’t know that 255# is 35# more than what you’ve been able to handle in the past for a front squat or deadlift, if you’re just guessing - then consider this a wake up call. It’s time to get in the game and start tracking your metrics.
Because if we want to have strong, resilient, versatile bodies--bodies that can still do pull-ups at 70 years old, that can pick up and throw our kids in the air without pain well into our 40's and 50's, that can run a sub-7 mile for years on end, that can compete with the best of other CrossFit athletes...
then we have to start with self-awareness and knowing where our current capacities are at...so we can make them better!
(2) understand and separate "pain" from "injury"
If you are curious about diving a little deeper into the pain conversation, I highly encourage you to check out and go through Greg Lehman's Pain Science Workbook - click here.
(3) Focus on the long game
I'll say it again from point #1 above:
if we want to have strong, resilient, versatile bodies--bodies that can still do pull-ups at 70 years old, that can pick up and throw our kids in the air without pain well into our 40's and 50's, that can run a sub-7 mile for years on end, that can compete with the best of other CrossFit athletes...
If that's our goal (which I would argue we should aspire to things such as these in our future), then we have to start thinking long-term instead of short-term.
work on those weaknesses...take care of that nagging injury you've been meaning to do something about...get your nutrition on point...
If your current actions don't line up with your future goals, it's time to make a change!