Training Hard vs. Training Smart

Are you a geek or a meathead? There’s a sweet spot to be found between training hard and training smart. In that sweet spot lies success.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. What better describes your training personality? Are you a detail-oriented training geek who’s read all the studies? Or are you an intensity-focused, leave-blood-on-the-bar meathead?
  2. Ideally, a combination of both is best, and the key is to find your sweet spot.
  3. If you’ve never been injured you could be a really smart lifter… or you could be just not working hard enough.
  4. If you fall too far on one end of the spectrum, answer a few questions honestly and you can trend toward your ideal sweet spot for making progress.

There are a number of ways you might break down the various elements that result in a successful training program, but let’s look at a hypothetical “sweet spot” that resides on a continuum between two of these elements. Namely, training smart and training hard.

Meathead vs. Nerd: What’s Your Personality Type?

Over the course of my coaching career, I’ve noticed there are two basic personality types when it comes to lifting weights: Those who seem to prioritize the value of working hard, and those who prioritize the value of working smart. Put another way, some lifters are lead by visceral cues and others by cognitive instincts. On the surface, you might assume that these two strategies might co-exist on some level, and I suspect that on a macro level, they can, but on the micro level (let’s say during the performance of a simple lift), I’m not so sure.

After all, we’re all familiar with the term “paralysis by analysis,” which is simply another way of saying that you can’t apply coordinated, maximum, all-out effort against a heavy weight if your brain is tied up in knots. This is why I always tell my clients that the heavier the bar gets, the fewer cues you should have in your head, and the more you should allow “the body to drive the mind” rather than vice versa.

Now of course, it might strike you as odd to think that it’s not ideal to be training both 100% hard and 100% smart, but the dynamics of the recovery process dictate this reality. Nevertheless, there have always been those (and CT Fletcher is one popular voice for this notion) who claim “there is no such thing as overtraining.” However, if you have even half a brain, you know that this isn’t the case. Yes, there are those who train harder than others – much harder in some cases – but there are both physiological and practical limits to how hard and how much you can, or should, train.

Now of course, it may well be true that many or perhaps even most people should train harder and more often then they currently do, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t limits. And truth be told, if you forced me to pick which strategy I’d choose if I had to limit myself to only one, I’d pick training hard over training smart. When I think back to the 100 most successful athletes I’ve either known or coached, they ALL trained very hard, but less than half of them trained in a way that gym geeks would consider “smart.”

Finding Your Sweet Spot

So let’s come back to the sweet spot. There are a few ways to identify whether or not you should move closer to the “hard” end of the spectrum or the “smart” end. In no particular order they are:

  • Identify your instinctive preference. What’s more appealing to you, watching a “blood and guts” type training video featuring some jacked up Neanderthal lifting incomprehensible weights, or reading a 5000-word treatise on Eastern-bloc periodization by a leading sports scientist? If you identify more with the first example, move toward the “smart” end of the spectrum. If you find the geek stuff more appealing, you might be better off focusing on hard work.
  • How often are you sore and/or injured? Injuries certainly aren’t a good thing, and if you’ve never been injured, it could be a sign that you’re training smart. But, and I suspect this is somewhat more likely, it could be because you’re not training hard enough. If you’re training hard enough to get optimal results, you’re going to feel the effects of that training on a fairly regular basis, whether that takes the form of injuries, soreness, or just being “wiped out” from time to time.
  • How adaptable are you? Do you painstakingly write out 16-week training plans down to the smallest detail and completely lose your focus when a particular workout doesn’t go exactly as planned? If so, you might be a bit too far on the cognitive end of the spectrum. On the other hand, if you train completely by instinct and almost never have a real plan, it’s likely that you need to be a bit more thoughtful about your training.
  • Would friends call you more of a “Type A” personality, or more of a laid back, easy-going type of person? By this point, I’m sure you can interpret the implications of this particular assessment.

Making The Shift

As you consider the four questions, don’t put too much stock in any single one of them. Instead, consider the bulk of the evidence and revise your strategy accordingly. If you’ve determined that you might be a bit too intellectual about your training, look for opportunities to do something just a bit dumb or reckless – nothing crazy mind you, but maybe it won’t kill you to train legs two days in a row, or to do a 50-rep back-off set, even if you’re a powerlifter.

And conversely, if this little exercise left you with the impression that maybe you should smarten up a bit, there’s certainly lots of great info right here at T Nation. Make it a resolution to read one training article here, every single day, for an entire year. If you manage to do that, you’ll be well on your way to a genius-level gym IQ. And don’t worry, you won’t lose any of your passion – that’ll always be there by default.

Clearly, we all need to train both hard and smart, but brawn without brain is a disaster waiting to happen, while brain without brawn leads to disappointment and unfulfilled promise. Like virtually everything else in life, the truth resides in the middle, not on either extreme. So if you’re personally in need of some recalibration, take this as your call to action.