If you’ve been following me on social media, you know that I’m a pretty conservative guy. I’m usually talking about topics like,
- Cutting back on how much work you do in the gym
- Saving some energy for when it counts
- Not going to true failure or testing your 1RMs too often
That’s because I find that most people who care enough to go online and try to read and learn about training already work really damn hard. It’s the others – the ones who don’t really bother to improve themselves inside or outside the gym – who need to be working harder. So chances are, since you’re reading it, this article really doesn’t apply to you.
So why write it in the first place? A couple reasons:
- Maybe (like many people) you work hard but wonder if you should be working EVEN HARDER! If so, this article should give you some reassurance.
- Maybe you know a friend or even have a client who needs to step it up in the gym. Instead of having a hard conversation that might not be received all that well, you can share this article with them (casually, of course).
- Maybe you don’t actually work all that hard, and you really do need to step your game up!
Whatever the case may be, I think the information here is useful, and as long as one person learns something from it, it’s worthwhile in my view. So, on that note, let’s get started.
Why Work Hard in the First Place?
I once consulted with an author who was writing a pretty interesting book about basketball. The guy’s name was Asher Price, and he was a smart dude – did his undergrad at Yale and graduate work at Oxford and Columbia – but he had zero athletic background. Asher wanted to learn to dunk a basketball, and, well-educated as he was, pretty quickly realized that he’d need to get stronger to do that. So he asked me for help.
Before coming to me, he had been working with a trainer at his local Gold’s Gym, and he noticed something a bit “off” about the routines he was assigned. It was kind of like carrying groceries, he said: yeah, it felt heavy, but he always knew he could handle the weight. In fact, he always knew he could add a little bit more if he needed to – just like you can always carry one more grocery bag as long as you can fit it around your arm. And with this type of training, Asher said, he wasn’t really getting any stronger.
This is why you need to work hard in the gym. Strength training, at its core, is all about progressive overload, or constantly adding weight to the bar. At first, you might be able to lift more and more weight without working all that hard, but pretty soon, that won’t be the case, and in order to do more, you’re going to have to push it. It’s that simple.
(If you’re interested in what happened to Asher, you can pick up his book on Amazon. Honestly, I’m a football guy and don’t even like basketball at all, so I haven’t read it, and have zero idea whether it’s any good. If you check it out, let me know!)
So How Hard Do You Really Need to Work?
On the other hand, as you’ve probably gathered from some of my other writing, working too hard is also a recipe for failure. To keep that progressive overload going, you do have to work hard – but you also have to recover sufficiently. Work too hard, and it won’t be possible to recover. It’s all about finding that balance.
(Some people claim that there’s no such thing as overtraining. As long as you’re eating and sleeping enough, you’ll always recover. These people are very wrong and probably don’t work all that hard, so that’s why they don’t have problems with recovery.)
So, what constitutes “hard enough but not too hard?” Well, as with everything, it’s individual, but these are some of my guidelines to determine whether I’m working at the right level of effort:
- In a hard workout, I need to have at least one set where a little part of me is unsure whether I can complete the scheduled reps and weight. Note, that’s a little part – if I genuinely don’t think I can hit my planned numbers, then I planned wrong.
- A hard workout itself requires focus, before and during training. If I can waltz casually into the gym, go through the motions, and still hit all my numbers, it wasn’t a hard workout. If I don’t have at least a set or two where I need to meditate or visualize beforehand in order to perform the set with proper form, I’m not working hard enough. On the flip side: if thinking about the workout ahead of time makes me anxious, or if I have to constantly use self-talk just to make it through, then I’m working too hard or planned too aggressively.
- A hard workout requires intra-workout nutrition. If I can finish a session without some type of intra-workout shake and don’t feel flat, weak, or otherwise “off,” then I wasn’t working very hard. If I’m so nauseated from training that I can’t stomach a shake, well, that’s too much.
And here are some clear-cut signs that I pushed too hard:
- I missed a rep. When your goal is strength, training to failure is usually a mistake, because it’s pretty hard – mentally and physically – to come back after a miss. On a related note, if you’re in the middle of a rep and you know you can’t finish it, just bail (safely). Don’t push through hopelessly. You’ll just tire yourself out and risk injury.
- I can’t focus and don’t have an appetite later in the day. Unfortunately, these are lagging indicators: things that become apparent only after a training session, when it’s too late to adjust. Lagging indicators are things to note in your training log so that you can adjust in the future.
- I get hurt. This, of course, is the worst-case scenario, and usually it means that I’ve been pushing too hard for quite a while and ignoring signs from my body that it’s time to back off. Fortunately, it’s been a while since I got hurt (unless you count the time I broke a rib on a new belt because I didn’t realize how stiff it was).
Finally, keep in mind that not every workout needs to be a hard one! There’s a ton of value in having light workouts, and that value can come from a lot of different things (like providing an opportunity for active recovery, to improve technique, to target smaller but lagging muscle groups, and much more). A good training program will incorporate both hard and easy workouts appropriately.
Why Not Just Use Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE)?
In case you’re not familiar with RPE-based training, here’s a great introduction:
You might know that I’m not the biggest fan of RPEs for most lifters, and the article you’re reading right now is why. Unless you’re already very familiar with how hard you need to work, it’s very difficult to incorporate RPE-based effort regulation into a program. Please don’t twist my words here: that’s difficult, not impossible.
Mike Tuchscherer clearly explains how to do so in his books and articles, but it’s a process that can take years without the help of a very skilled coach. Yes, I’m well aware of studies and coaches that argue otherwise. I’m telling you my opinion based on what I’ve experienced as both an athlete and a coach who’s worked with many lifters of all different levels. If RPE-based training works well for you, then by all means, stick with it!
But if you’ve struggled using RPEs, or if you’ve read about them and can’t quite wrap your head around the concept, it’s probably because you realize that hey – it’s really hard to tell whether you could have performed one, two, or three more reps in a given set unless you’ve done enough training to failure to have a really good idea of what your limit is. And, as I mentioned above, I don’t think training to failure is all that great of an idea. So for most people, I believe that a qualitative assessment of effort – alongside a well-written percentage-based program – will work really well.
Again, if you’re reading this, you’re probably already working hard enough, but if you’re not sure for any reason, hopefully now you have a better idea of what to shoot for. Don’t make this stuff more complicated than it needs to be.
One last note: don’t be fooled by the guys who claim that they’re going to outwork everyone else; nor by the ones who act think they care more because they (allegedly) work harder. Hard work is good, but it’s far, far from the be-all and end-all of productive training. If you try to turn it into that, you’re setting yourself up for an ugly disappointment.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image screenshot @phdeadlift Instagram page.