I was reading this post by Seth Godin the other day, and it applies in movement like it applies in business. Optimal and maximal are not the same things. We are so focused on maximizing, that we are often confused by optimizing. Most of us feel that if some is good, more is better.
I remember one athlete that fit this to a “t”. He had been struggling since his knee surgery to get rid of pain and get his range of motion back. I remember he was warming up one day in the gym, and when I came up to start his appointment, he looked at me with desperation in his eyes, asking me what more he could do. I could tell he was at that point where he was feeling like he would be limited forever and may never be able to return to his favorite activities. The problem was, as a dedicated athlete, he was doing everything he could. In fact, he was overdoing his activities. If I gave him an exercise, he would do it 2-3 times more than what I would tell him. If he was supposed to bend his knee, he would bend it as far as he could as hard as he could as many times as he possibly could. He was panicked when I told him what was missing: rest and decreased intensity. (He could still push as far as possible a few times, but not with every rep.)
Muscles need stimulus to change, but they also need recovery time to make those physical changes happen. I see far more people trying to do more rather than learning what is optimal. Fortunately, this patient trusted me enough to listen, and while there was no magical recovery, he did eventually get back on his bike.
Intensity is not the only place where we confuse “maximal” and “optimal”. If we want to improve our squat, we only want to focus on the weight we are lifting, not whether our ankle range of motion is enough to allow good form. On the bike, we tend to focus on how much power we can push, and do not want to improve our form, especially because fixing form usually causes an initial drop in power. Form is necessary for optimal outcomes, though. Poor form increases likelihood of injury. In the long term, good form is more efficient and allows us to do more of what we want, sustain it longer and generally have fewer injuries.
One little note is that one place few people take the time to think about at all is standing or sitting or walking. We tend to figure that we can do those things, but forget that doing them in a less than optimal way puts a lot of strain on tissues, strain that eventually comes back to haunt us. If we are going to optimize our movement throughout our lives, these are areas that we have to address more.