When it comes to training, a faction of people seem to want everyone to “just work hard.” The opinions of this group are to stop thinking so much, put some weight on the bar, and eat more. Apparently, in the eyes of this sphere of influence, everyone is reading and thinking too much and should just be training harder.

On the other side of the coin are those who are extremely detail-oriented and spend a lot of time studying the training process. These types are always searching for the newest information to see if there is something that can bring their training to the next level. However, in their search, they may not be spending enough time focusing on one thing or putting enough time in to realize what is working and what isn’t.

In this article, I want to examine the positive and negative aspects of both sides and understand that some aspects of each are productive to training. Hard work and smart planning are necessary parts of the process, but extreme sides of the spectrum should be questioned and examined.

Hard work

I'm not someone who is opposed to hard work. In fact, I do think that many people really aren't working hard enough in training. However, there has to be context for all this. Many people discredit smart planning, and the examples they use to support the hard work extreme don’t exactly acknowledge the amount of thought that may have gone into the training principles used.

We need to look at who we are telling to work hard. It's one thing if we're addressing a bunch of teens or twenty-something gym rats who just want to be “big and strong, bro.” These guys may be well served if they let their nuts drop, put down the books and magazines, lift some heavy shit in large compound movements, and eat something. I agree with all the oversimplified “don’t be a pussy” type articles that wipe their asses with science and tell people to just work hard. For this faction of skinny or skinny fat guys who just need to work, it's fine. These guys don’t need complicated periodization schemes, tempos, accommodated resistance, advanced nutritional protocols, and so on. They just need to work, eat, and repeat until they reach a level where the basics stop working.

However, where I get off the boat with this is when the hard work faction thinks that this is the only way to train. It doesn't work for more experienced lifters or athletes in sports where they need to be able to perform a certain set of motor skills and tasks, as well as stay injury free in order to participate in their sport. Telling someone not to be a pussy and get under some weight works fine for a guy who works out for shits and giggles after school or work, but for those who are already strong or are athletes in other sports, this doesn't apply.

There are a few members of the hard work brigade telling everyone that anything besides large compound movements is a waste and that corrective exercises are bullshit. For the most part, all compound movements are general for anyone who doesn’t compete in those lifts, so for an athlete who has dysfunction and can’t squat, finding another movement he can perform with proficiency doesn’t make him or his coach a pussy or wrong for going that route. There is a big difference between sitting around doing flyes on a pec deck and performing corrective exercises to rehabilitate, prevent injury, and correct dysfunctions. For lifters who are advanced, some thought must go into their training in order to provide certain stimuli so that they keep progressing. It stops being as simple as just adding weight to the bar, eating some more, and drinking another gallon of milk. In addition, at the advanced level, an eye has to be kept on recovery. The lifter needs to prioritize what movements will have transfer and perform exercises to stay injury free or rehabilitate prior injuries.

My next bone to pick with the hard work faction involves old-time lifters. The hard work faction seems to think that the old timers just went to the gym and threw around heavy shit without any real plan other than to add weight to the bar. This discredits the amount of thought that these lifters put into their technique, exercise selection, and loading. There's a video on YouTube of Bill Kazmaier, who is probably the poster boy for the romanticized decades of the 70s and 80s, discussing his training. He talks about the thought behind some of the things that he did, why he used certain movements, and who should use them to correct specific weaknesses. I won't say that he's splitting the atom or that everything is 100 percent scientifically accurate, but if all he did was told the people at this seminar to lift heavy and eat more, the video wouldn’t be over an hour long. Also, if we look at some of the greats of Olympic lifting such as Vasily Alexeyev, Leonid Taranenko, and so on, they were doing much more thinking than just picking up heavy shit and eating more.

My last issue with the hard work faction is this—working hard will only work for so long. After a while, becoming smarter about training will allow you to direct the hard work. Let’s use an analogy here for a second. Let’s say that you have an issue with your plumbing at home. You may not really know a whole lot about plumbing, but you decide that you'll make up for this lack of knowledge by just working harder. After this doesn’t work, you might decide that you're just going to get more pissed off, blast a bunch of loud music, snort some ammonia, and try to fix your problem by working even harder. Before you know it, there is water all over the place, you are even more pissed off, and you sure as hell will have to work a lot harder now because you will be cleaning up all the water and shit all over your house. In addition, water damage may have occurred, which opened up a whole lot of other problems.

Now, let’s bring this back to training. Let’s say that in a lifting sense, the plumbing issue is your squat, bench, or deadlift. You don’t know it, but you have a structural limitation or some other flaw that needs to be corrected. Instead, you decide to just work harder, eat more, and motivate yourself. Eventually, this limitation may manifest itself to the point of stalled progress and injury, which will halt all progress. The fucked up pipes are the stalled progress, and the injuries are the subsequent mess and water damage that you now have to correct. In the realm of athletics, this is similar to not correcting poor motor patterns or structural limitations that an athlete may have, which will eventually cause similar “water damage” in the form of injury.

Smart work

I'll preface this by saying that I'm a guy who likes to read and discuss training. I wouldn’t exactly call myself smart, but I do like to have a systematic, well thought out approach to what I do, and I like to have an idea of what variables to adjust to get certain desired effects. I also like to experiment with different protocols because I'm always open to finding better and more efficient ways to reach the results that I'm after.

For the reasons listed above, I'm an advocate of learning and understanding how the process of training works. As I alluded to earlier, I think that hard work will only take people so far. It's similar to life in that you'll eventually need either a directed education or specialized training to reach a certain career level. It wouldn’t matter how hard I promised to work as a cardiologist. No one in his right mind would let me hold the scalpel and perform a triple bypass without having some kind of proof of my knowledge. Likewise, after a certain level of hard work is attained, researching the how and why behind training can lead to further development. I'm not against this, even for those who are just getting into training, as I know the feeling. When I was bit by the lifting bug, I wanted to read as much as I could.

However, here is where too much thinking can go wrong. With beginners and even intermediates, a side effect of research is the tendency to hop from program to program without actually allowing anything to have a measureable effect or correlation. While I'm all for using certain training protocols as experiments to see how they work, I don’t think that this should be done at such a high turnover rate that it becomes counterproductive. For those with a limited training age, the basics have to be learned before the need arises to constantly switch stimuli. I don’t think it is productive to get bogged down by too much thinking at the rudimentary levels because the reality is, most people will get caught up in all the wrong details as opposed to what is really important—putting in some time and work.

The training needs to be appropriate for the level of athlete that you might be working with. I'm guilty of this. When I first started working at the high school level, some of the concepts that I used were more appropriate for a college level athlete who can understand things like how to apply force to a load or when different loading parameters are needed. However, with my high school athletes, some of this was a waste of time because they simply weren’t ready for it. I remember being caught up on some advanced concepts of transfer of training and sport form, but in reality, the athletes I was working with didn't even have a base of general preparation. Because of this, I was putting the horse before the cart in some aspects.

Lastly, some use the guise of playing it smartto not work very hard. Years back, I had a training partner who liked to deadlift. He was a very good deadlifter for his weight class. He liked to come in, squat high for six to eight sets of two with all his gear on, work up to a heavy but still fast single in the deadlift with all his gear on, say “I think I’m going to leave some in the tank here so that I can recover,” and call it a day. The problem was he never worked very hard at any of the stuff that he wasn't good at or any of the things that he needed to get better at. I also have been guilty of this in the past. I'll admit that I'm a fairly shitty raw bencher. I always use to shy away from this and used the excuse that it didn’t have a lot of transfer to my competition shirted bench. However, now that I've focused on it and gotten stronger, my shoulders feel better and I also feel a lot stronger overall. While there is a lot that education and science can help with, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not get in work that you need to do.

Putting both hard work and smart work together…

My biggest issue with hard work versus smart work is that both sides seem to think that the other can’t exist in the same context. The hard work faction thinks that any type of thinking is for pussies, and the smart work guys are so caught up with not overworking an athlete before he's ready that they'll send people home because an Omega Wave or heart rate monitor read one way or the other.

Just because a training process is well planned out doesn't mean that it won't require hard work. Many things on paper look a lot less daunting than they might actually be in practice. This is how I thought about volume based training before I switched over. In my younger years, I thought that if it wasn’t maximal, it wasn’t hard enough and there wasn't any way it could get me stronger. It wasn’t until I started experimenting with block models revolving around volume that I realized working up to a single and hitting a bunch of random work was way less daunting than multiple sets of multiple reps. In reference to athletes, many coaches don’t understand that true speed work may not be hard in the sense that you feel like you're going to throw up or that you're bathing in lactic acid, but after hitting a certain volume of sprints at 95 percent speed and up, you will be fairly wiped if it's performed correctly. While the volume on paper looks low, it has to be to actually achieve the correct efforts or else you're left with something that isn’t true speed work.

On the other side of the spectrum, just because we have certain tools that can let us see how athletes are recovering doesn’t mean that the results should be taken as gospel. Is the athlete gassed from just the training or is he not sleeping, not eating, and going out drinking? Are there lurking variables causing the results that are out of the coach's control? I’m all for science and monitoring, but at some point, people have to work hard even when they aren’t ready to do it. While I don’t advocate this as an absolute, we, as coaches, do have to teach our athletes to have a work ethic because it isn’t necessarily being taught elsewhere anymore. While I do believe in slow cooking the process and allowing room for adaptation, when working with young athletes in a setting like I do, there are certain thing that you have to do to get their attention. The key is to do this while not taking away from the big picture or turning every workout into a punishment session.


Hard work and smart work shouldn't be two things that can’t coexist. In order to get the desired results, we should be able to objectively look at the entire process, the individual, and other variables and know when to default to hard work and when to play it smart. Having a methodical, well thought out approach doesn't signify a desire to not work hard. We can reach greater levels of performance by having the ability to work and understandingwhy the work is being performed.