How Trying Too Hard is Killing Your Gains, Plus How to Fix It

Earlier this week, my colleague Matt Bowers wrote an article about challenges facing the parents of young athletes. Matt’s a smart dude: he’s a professor of sports management at the University of Texas, co-founded a youth sports consulting firm, and has written for Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal. In his article, Matt explained that, “The pursuit of winning is (pretty much) ruining youth athlete development in the United States.” That’s because when parents focus so hard on helping their kids win, that they overlook helping them develop the right habits that they need to keep winning in the future.

Matt is writing about soccer moms and dads, but I think many lifters – and I’m including myself here – do the same damn thing. They get so wrapped up in hitting huge numbers right now that they don’t focus enough on the foundational skills that are vital to success: things like optimal technique, injury prevention, and mental health. Just think about how many guys you see going way too heavy in the gym, with cringe-worthy form, and then complaining about aching joints and frustration over missed lifts.

Sound familiar? If so, good: just being aware of the issue will probably help you to hold back a little when the urge to max out strikes. In my opinion, though, it takes a little more concrete action to really change ingrained habits. Here are three strategies you can try to keep your inner beast in check:

1. Set Process Goals, Not Performance Goals

Most people understand the importance of setting goals, and it’s true that having goals can keep you focused, efficient, and even motivated. Goals are important, but they can be limiting, too: it’s easy to get so attached to a goal that you make poor decisions (like training too heavy) in pursuit of it. And how many times have you set a goal for a daily workout and have gotten frustrated when you can’t lift as much as you expected?

In these situations, it’s better to set process goals, ones that keep you accountable for doing the things that you know will pay off in the long run. Process goals are all about the how, not the what. Instead of setting a goal of gaining 10 pounds, for example (an outcome goal), you might instead set the goal of hitting your target macros every day for the next month. Or, if your problem is training too heavy, then instead of setting a goal of squatting 500 pounds, you might set a goal of training between RPE 8 and 9 for 80% of your sets this training cycle.

Process goals are especially powerful tools because they’re entirely under your control. Athletes in particular are likely to pick outcome goals that involve factors outside of their own influence. For example, if you catch a cold, you’ll probably have a hard time hitting your target numbers for a workout. But you can always train at an RPE 8, regardless of if you’re feeling under the weather – and therefore still hit your process goal.

And on side note for what it’s worth, I don’t think RPE training is the best tool for everyone – you can learn why below.

2. Put the Phone Down, and Stop Comparing

A huge part of the emphasis on winning, I believe, comes from social media. It’s nearly impossible to use Instagram or Facebook and avoid seeing all the awesome numbers other people are putting up – and when you see those people doing those things, it’s nearly impossible to avoid comparing yourself to them.

Unfortunately, that comparison is hugely detrimental. It devalues your own accomplishments and creates an enormous amount of pressure to move at someone else’s pace rather than your own, and that’s when you decide to load up the bar for a 25 pound PR and end up tweaking your hamstring.

This one doesn’t have an easy answer, because social media has become such a huge part of modern life, and avoiding it altogether can cause you to miss out on a lot of valuable opportunities. The best you can do is to be careful. If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your explore page or news feed, stop.

If you see some huge PR and start feeling disappointed in your own awesome workout, put the phone down. Just go do something else. The things you see on social media are meaningless. They’re just a bunch of words and pictures, and you shouldn’t let them take on any more significance than that. They have literally no impact on or relevance to what you have accomplished or to who you are as a person.

3. Get a Coach

If all else fails, and you just can’t seem to hold back when you know you should, I suggest hiring a coach. Offloading the responsibility for your programming to someone else can be a huge relief. A good, knowledgeable coach has the objectivity necessary to keep you on the path to success and off the path to instant gratification.

Of course, you don’t want to become dependent on him or her: it’s important that if you choose to go this route, your coach helps you to learn how to do those things for yourself. A great coach will:

  • Recognize what needs to be fixed.
  • Be able to explain to you what’s wrong, why it needs to be fixed, and how to fix it.
  • Have the patience to work with you long enough to create new habits.

If your coach isn’t able to willing to do those things, you either need to find a new coach, or take it upon yourself to understand why your habits need to be changed.

Ultimately, the level of effort you put in at the gym is probably the single most important aspect of your long-term success. But you have to direct that effort carefully. If you’re going all-out, balls-to-the-wall all the time, guess what? You’re going to find yourself running into wall after wall. If you plan carefully and direct your energy towards the long term, rather than the short term, you’ll do really well.

Editor’s 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 from @phdeadlift Instagram page.