When Training Hard is the Worst Decision You Can Make

Getting after it in the gym is one of the most enjoyable things a man can experience. And probably women, too, since I’m assuming most men leave a lot for women to still desire. Dani, can you chime in on that? I gotta tell you, and some of these other guys on here might disagree with me, but I don’t think training HARD is always a good idea. When I draw off of my experiences, my clients’ experiences, and stress physiology, I can’t always tell you what the best solution is, but I can say with certainty that you need to have (1) a reason for doing it, and (2) an understanding of the potential consequences of your actions.

At the risk of sounding even more like your father, you need to be aware of the decisions you’re making.

Sometimes training ovaries to the wall is the way to go, but not always. Let’s go into some definitions, nuances, and alternative courses of action.

What Does it Mean to Train HARD?

What does it mean to train HARD? It depends on who you ask.

Powerlifters say it’s about picking up a bunch of weight. And maybe screaming. And death metal.

But to Crossfitters, it’s about resisting the urge to puke for as long as possible. It’s about making your muscles burn. It’s about involuntarily peeing your pants and then telling the story to everyone you see.

To me, training HARD is about physical effort. I’ll even call it “dumb” training because you’re usually thinking less in the moment.

What Does it Mean to Train SMART?

SMART training:

- Is goal-oriented

- Respects a person’s individuality

- Manages stress

- Considers recent training history

Ultimately, SMART training acknowledges the individual and how they respond to stress.


You need to have goals if you’re training for any real purpose.

A long-term goal keeps your eye on the prize. It helps remind you to stay focused over months/years and gives you a picture in your head of where you want to be when you reach that goal.

Each short-term goal you set is an actionable step towards accomplishing your long-term goal. They are the blocks that build the monster you want to become.

Figure out where you want to go (long-term goal) and then figure out how you’re going to get there (short-term goal).

As a general example, if you want to lift in the national meet next year (long-term goal), start thinking about what things you might have to do along the way (short-term goals):

1. Find a place to train

2. Find someone to train with

3. Learn how to cook without burning the house down

4. Accumulate work capacity and size

5. Build maximal strength

6. Get in competition shape

7. Win

Respects a person’s individuality

“Training age” is used to define how long someone has been training in the gym. The higher your training age, the more experience you have.

A person with a young training age should probably not train HARD as often as a more experienced lifter should. They don’t have the motor control, endurance, and strength needed to do so safely.

Training is all about making you comfortable with the uncomfortable. Your individuality describes your current level of comfort.

Manages stress

More on this soon.

Considers recent training history

If you don’t use it, you lose it.

^^Cliché, but it’s true.

I don’t care what you did back in high school, college, 3rd grade, whatever.

That’s a lie. I do care, but I also care what you’ve done in the last six months. If all of you’ve done is supported side planks on the couch, then you can’t just pick up where you left off in college. Your gains are reversible.

What is Stress?

A stressor is something that alters your body and can be bad or good. The stress-response is what you do to deal with it. Allostasis is this whole process of trying not to get too out of whack. Allostatic load is how difficult the process is.

Gently place your mind back in 3rd grade mode and think of a seesaw. Your friend pushes into the ground to make you start falling toward the ground (stress). You catch yourself (stress-response) and lightly push back so you guys can go back and forth (allostasis).

Now imagine you’re both fighting to knock each other off. You’re going to push as hard as possible so that joker’s ass slams in the ground. You don’t just want him to quit, you want him to run home while screaming for his mommy. With tears in his eyes.

Now as hard as you try, you guys aren’t going to break this seesaw, so you will maintain some semblance of allostasis. The cost, however, is much greater. You will both incur more wear and tear during the process. So will the seesaw. You have increased the allostatic load.

Coming back to exercise, the act of lifting weights or going for a grueling, week-long run through the Gobi Desert (people actually do thatI know a medalist) is stressful. Exercise is still good for you, though, because your body learns to adapt and grow from the experience. Rinse, repeat, gains.

On the other hand we have psychological stresses. You know, the thing that makes you take a crowbar to the RAV4 who just cut you off. Or the one that makes your heart race when your girlfriend tells you she’s late (and I’m not talking about dinner).

These types of stresses are relatively harmless in the short-term and they’ve evolved to keep us passing on copies of our genes. When you get startled, you’re better able to react. Even nowadays, when you get cut off while driving, you get alert because, for a few seconds, you’re more likely to be in an accident. Your alertness helps you look for danger.

Problems arise when these stresses (1) don’t require physical action, and (2) keep happening over and over and over again.

All of these different types of stressors need to be managed. If you have too much on your plate at work, you can’t train as hard. If you trained HARD last week, then you probably won’t be able to do it all again this week.

The ebb and flow is constant. And remember: everyone is different. More on that later.

Stress can be bad or good

Stress is not inherently a bad thing. Stress hormones help you wake up in the morning. Stress keeps you alive by helping you react when a lion (either a literal or metaphoric lion) enters the room.

Problems arise when the lion never leaves the room. You’re always reacting to stress and you’re never resting from it.

Not all stress is the same

Lots of life stress--a big project at work, for example--can wear you down.

A heavy training session also wears you down. But as long as you remember to eat and go to bed before tomorrow starts, chances are you’re going to recover from it.

Necessary vs unnecessary stress

The act of waking up is stressful, but without it you have no life. Literally.

Another, more complicated example: worrying about what your boss is going to say about the project you’re working on is also stressful. And it drives you to be good at your job. But worrying about it for 6 hours straight is crippling and unnecessary.

A hard training sessions is stressful, but you grow from it. Do it for 3 hours and you’re probably beating yourself down unnecessarily.

Again, not all stress is bad. It is necessary to have a purpose in life. But ask yourself next time you’re in traffic if getting cut off is worth the freak out.

Overreaching vs overtraining

Overreaching is meant to represent the act of stressing yourself out enough that it brings you down a little, but your body can still recover from it. This is like a carefully placed HARD training session.

Overtraining, on the other hand, is about breaking yourself down over and over and over again until your body forces you to take a break. You get tired and weak. You don’t think as well.

Now, it’s not like there’s a switch that’s flipped and all of a sudden you go from overreaching to overtraining. This is why I try to teach everyone I work with to pay attention to their body. It will send you signals. Sometimes it’s best to ignore them, sometimes you need to listen.

I need to make one thing clear: I’m not demonizing hard training. I’m just trying to illustrate that it isn’t always the most appropriate decision.


Everyone is different. And that means everyone will respond differently to stress.

What is your training age?

The longer you’ve been training, the longer you’ve had to develop your physical and mental qualities. Pro athletes have accumulated a lot of movement experience, so I can expect them to be better at that. They’ve also been playing and conditioning for years and years, so I can expect that they will have a certain level of work capacity they can use when training. A CEO who has trained 2x/week for the last year does not have that same capacity. These two people cannot be trained the same: the CEO’s training load would be too low for the pro athlete and vice versa.

Another example: kids are NOT just little adults.

- They don’t know how to perform lifts without massive compensation (that’s why Youth Nationals is only a good idea if you want to make sure your athletes peak too early)

- They can’t maintain high intensities for longer periods of time

- They’re still growing

- Their bones are softer

- Their brain is less developed

- They usually don’t comprehend healthy eating and sleeping habits

Main point: you and your training partner don’t have the same training history and won’t respond the same to the same type of training. So customize! All you can try to do is keep improving. The training process (and management of stress in general) works best if you be like water.


Even former athletes get fat.

Like I mentioned earlier, being a star athlete in high school doesn’t mean a thing if all you’ve been doing for the last six months are sidelying supported couch planks and remote clicks.

So even if you have years of training under your belt, you can’t just jump right back into doing what you did back in your prime.

What is important to you?

This is, in my mind, the biggest question everyone has to ask (I talk about this more in The Pyramid Method).

What are your goals? Are you willing to do what it takes to accomplish those goals?

If your goal is to be a monster, you need to train HARD often. That’s why every video you see of Triana and Zach Hadge gives you nightmares. They are pure savages.

But what if someone would rather focus on their career and just look good? They don’t need to train balls out nearly as often. Training stress competes with their goals of killing it at work.

I just had a conversation about this with a recent Rebel Performance contributor. He asked me to help him do some movement preparation for his upcoming powerlifting meet. He told me that this will be his last meet because he’d rather fight off a knee replacement for as long as he can. Powerlifting has just become less important.

What is important to you?

When You Shouldn’t Train HARD

When are some times that you shouldn’t train hard?

- When you’re sick

- When you’re really low on sleep

- When you’ve been eating poorly or not enough

- When your morning resting heart rate is way higher than it normally is

- When your subjective readiness to train before your workout is low

- When you’ve got other goals or life stresses

- When you’ve been training HARD lately and need a break

- When your training age is young

What to do Instead of Training HARD

Not training HARD doesn’t mean not training. Just turn your training session into an active recovery session.

Train easy

If you have a workout planned for the day, but you’re just not feeling it, then turn it into an easy circuit workout.

- Halve the number of sets

- Lower the weight 10-20%

- Shorten the rest periods to 30-60 seconds

- Try to keep your heart rate between 120-150 beats per minute

The goal is to keep moving, get the blood pumping, and get a sweat in. This is going to move nutrients around in your body so that you can recover.

Other low-intensity exercise

There are a few other options here

- Go for a walk

- Go for a jog

- Go for a hike

- Have some other workout planned

- Ride a bike

Get your heart beating preferably somewhere between 120-150 beats per minute so that you can maximize the efficiency of your heartbeats.

High Intensity Continuous Training

High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT) is a method from Val Nasedkin of Omegawave fame.

You have two types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch and fast-twitch.

The slow ones are really good at not fatiguing.

The fast ones fatigue quicker, but can contract more forcefully.

HICT attempts to make the fast-twitch fibers more resistant to fatigue. This focuses on your aerobic energy system and doesn’t fatigue you like a more intense conditioning method would (e.g. Tabata intervals).

HICT is usually more appropriate when you’ve already planned a rest day in your training week. It is a much more advanced method, so I would not use it unless you have a solid movement foundation.

How to perform

Get something that you want to do at a really high intensity over and over and over again for 5-20 minutes. My two favorites are HICT Step Ups (HICT Cycle Jumps if you don’t have a weight vest) and HICT Spin Bike. Videos for each are above.

Perform one rep every 3 seconds. Alternate sides. This gives you plenty of rest so that you can produce as much force as possible on each rep, but not get that “burny” feeling of fatigue in your muscle. If you start to feel that, you should slow down.

If you notice your speed is dropping off, cut the set. This is an example of when pushing through is not the appropriate decision. Train smart, not just hard.

Get a coach

Honestly, there’s a lot to this management of stress, fatigue, and training. There’s no way one article could discuss everything. And even if it could, most of it wouldn’t even be relevant to you anyway.

I’ve written more programs and seen more rundown people than non-trainers. And I’ve studied this for years and years. It is my job to make people enjoy training by helping them effectively manage their stress, fatigue, and training.

When in doubt, refer out.


- Training HARD is not always training SMART.

- Pay attention to your body to learn when to push forward and when to back off.

- Try out some low-intensity aerobic training or high intensity continuous training when you need a recovery day in the gym.

- Get a coach if you need it

Agree? Disagree? Let’s discuss it below in the comments.

For more Lance, go to www.lancegoyke.com.

P.S. If you liked this, send it to your training partner.

about the author


Lance Goyke, CSCS, is a Nerd Extraordinaire and secret admirer of lesbians everywhere whose expertise focuses on the human body. His clientele ranges from other trainers to kids to house moms to fighters to baseballers to anyone who needs to be taught how to exercise. Go invade his home base at www.LanceGoyke.com.