When it comes to fitness and bodybuilding, there are many different schools of thought.
You have CrossFit gyms that push you like you’re a fresh recruit going through BUD/S trying to become a Navy SEAL. Then you have laid back gym-goers who would rather chat and scroll through their smartphones than actually get their hands dirty and do a set.
So what exactly is the happy medium? How hard should you really push yourself in the gym?
Let’s dive in and explore this conundrum a bit further…
What are YOU Training for?
Before we can uncover any meaningful answers here, you have to be aware of what it is that YOU are training for.
If you’re like most guys, then you probably just want to build muscle and burn fat. And that’s completely fine.
But maybe you’re preparing for a specific event. Maybe you’re a basketball player who needs to be able to jump higher, improve your agility, and increase your lung capacity. Maybe you’re preparing to go to BUD/S and become a Navy SEAL and you need to be able to do lots of push-ups and pull-ups, hold your breath underwater for long periods of time, and build trust in yourself that you can keep going and going even when you feel like quitting.
Who you are and what you’re training for directly dictates the type of training you should do. The average dude who’s just trying to look better naked doesn’t need to go as hard as the aspiring athlete or Navy SEAL. At least not in regards to his conditioning and lung capacity.
Sure, he needs to go hard on the weights to see results, but he won’t get to his goals any quicker by pushing himself to the point of exhaustion and nausea every workout.
But tread carefully: this is NOT an excuse to take it easy…
You Probably Could Be Going Harder
Most people don’t push themselves anywhere even remotely close to their limits. And it’s usually due to pure laziness.
Before you get defensive and place yourself above this mistake, realize that just because you go to the gym consistently and work up a sweat doesn’t mean that you’re pushing yourself.
I can tell you from my years of experience as a trainer that people tend not to push themselves when they workout alone. Nearly all of my private clients have told me that they fail to match the intensity of our workouts when they hit the gym without me. They usually claim that they feel like it’s not even possible!
If you played high school football or basketball, then you can probably remember a whole bunch of times when your tank was empty and you felt like quitting, but your coach kept you going for hours longer by challenging you and screaming like a madman…
For me, I tend to hit PRs at the gym when I’m with a buddy who’s pushing me to get better. His expectations elevate my strength. And when I train at my Muay Thai gym, my coaches constantly push me and remind how much more I actually have in the tank, even when I feel like I’m about to collapse.
I’m no exception to this rule. Neither are you.
Pushing Yourself Has Many Benefits
This ability to deal with discomfort – or become comfortable being uncomfortable – will do a lot more for you than just help you build muscle and perform better.
It builds mental toughness… and this is invaluable.
When you’re able to enter a situation where you feel uncomfortable, and stay focused and present instead of feeling sorry for yourself and quitting, you become stronger and more confident. You build trust in yourself and your ability to accomplish difficult tasks that most people wouldn’t be able to.
This could mean anything from staying alive in a hypothetical life-threatening situation like being lost in the wilderness or held captive, to staying focused in a high pressure business or social setting like a interviewing for a new job or approaching a cute girl.
Keep these less-obvious benefits in mind when you feel like bitching out and taking the easy route at the gym. Giving in and giving up will only train your mind to be weak in other areas of your life as well.
So Exactly How Hard Should You Go?
Simple: as hard as you possibly can… and then some.
There’s no downside to going hard. Only growth and gains – both physical and mental. Just be sure to pick a workout routine that matches your goals.
The best way to make sure you’re actually giving it 100% is to work with a coach, trainer, or motivated workout buddy. If you’re a solo gym-goer then your best bet is to increase your focus during your workouts. This means dialing in and focusing completely on the exercise at hand. Push any extraneous thoughts out of your mind, turn your smartphone on airplane mode, and concentrate fully on what you’re doing (check out these other ‘hacks’ to increase focus as well).
You need to train your mind to deal with the discomfort of feeling completely exhausted and pushing on anyway. This means focusing on what you’re doing rather than how shitty you feel in the moment. Stay present and don’t let your mind wander, otherwise you’ll just convince yourself to just take a break or call it a workout.
A Note on Overtraining and Overdoing It
I’ll end this article with a quick word on the dangers of pushing yourself.
The term ‘overtraining’ gets thrown around in the bodybuilding world a lot. What it usually means is that either your connective tissue (ligaments and tendons) or your central nervous system is stressed and needs time to recover.
The dangers of this are injury (if you strain or tear a ligament or tendon) and just feeling like shit (if your nervous system is fried). But all of this is extremely rare in the general population. It applies more to athletes doing intense two-a-day workouts or powerlifters capable of lifting serious weight.
However, one risk that you do need to pay attention to is injury as a result of poor form. You can easily avoid this by making sure your form is on point for every rep. This doesn’t mean to use light weights and take it easy. It just means to drop the weights and end the set when your form breaks down… even if it’s just a little bit off.
P.S. Pushing yourself hard without following an effective program won’t get you anywhere, so I suggest getting on a proven routine like Shredded Beast 2.0 for optimal results.
Great article! I agree that the majority of us never go anywhere near as hard we could.
I think there’s a typo under the first section about what you are training for though; you say most guys want to burn muscle and build fat?
Thanks man! And thanks for catching that, I just fixed it. We’re not trying to burn any muscle over here!
Thanks for this, I enjoyed reading the article a whole lot as well, David!
Thanks Oliver! I appreciate it man.
David, I usually do between 4-5 exercises of 8-10 reps in the gym…upper body one day, lower the next, and so on. My workout usually lasts about 45 minutes, followed up with 15-20 minutes of cardio. I eat very well and never drink alcohol. I am 22. Do you think this is enough work to progressively see gains?
That seems like enough volume to make gains if you’re consistent, you’re getting stronger, and your diet is on point.
I can’t tell you how invaluable your books have been in my life, I still have a ways to go, but I’m am more confident in the process on how to get there when the time comes. Thanks Dave
Thanks Sukant, I’m humbled by your kind words.
Funny thing is this article comes around just when I was starting to wonder if I were going hard enough. I’m just trying to increase my physical strength so I go in and follow a planned routine with machines and squats, and when I leave, I feel worn, but not that worn. I worry that I’m going to injure myself and be useless at work the next day and end up not going back to the gym for a week or more (it’s happened in the past) so I’m trying more brief workouts more frequently (like every other day). This article inspired me to push a bit more.
Thanks JP. Push yourself, but make sure to stop right when your form begins to break down to prevent injury.
Hey man I found your site through Prsuit and glad I did! I’m a trainer too and this one resonated a lot with me. Motivation being a big part of what we do and learning when clients need it the most, I’ve sort of realized when I am not pushing myself enough with my own training. It’s helped a lot with solo workouts, but 100% on the part about having someone else there to push you past your “perceived” limits.
Hey Karl, thanks for the comment man! As a trainer, I agree that it’s easy to let our own training become too “routine”.
I went to the Gym last week and then i trained until i almost collapsed. I needed to recover for 5 days. Today i’ve gone to the gym again but i felt weak AF.. Btw it’s cold outside and warm in the gym and i changed my sleeping patern because of the vacation. Is it because of the sleep or?
Meh, imo it’s better to be consistent than to go really hard, especially if you’re a beginner.
If you aren’t used to working out you just destroy your body and it takes way long to recover. And then you just end up skipping gym altogether after you make excuses, saying you’re still aching from that one workout 5 days ago – especially if you’re solo and nobody to hold you accountable. Then you just never build up that habit of going everyday, which is worse.
Not saying this is your particular situation, but the case with many people who suddenly get motivation to lose weight, then it dies down again.
Also if you’re a beginner and have the mindset you HAVE to go hard every time, then you’re less likely to go cos in your mind you feel like you’ve got another 2 hours of hard work ahead of you, which isn’t appealing at all. I find that people are more likely to step in the gym and at least do SOMETHING if you set the bar really low. And then when they do a little bit, convince them “just one more set” and then after that “just another set”. And then you end up with a full workout eventually.
I workout 4 times a day. I do it a medium intensity because I’m lazy and don’t feel like pushing myself. I know I should go harder but since I workout at home in my mini-gym 2 days a week I don’t have the motivation to be better. Should I try to make my workouts more intense, stick with my current routine, or go to a public gym where they can push me all the time and I would actually try?
I recommend you do what’s best for you and what makes you happy. Definitely push yourself because that’s when you see real results but also know that you don’t have to go full out and work supper hard every time you workout. Maybe make it a goal that you push yourself harder for longer. When you are feeling tired and done lift those weights 1-2 more sets or do your cardio for 5-10 more minutes. Because in the long run what counts is that you are trying your best and making an effort at the hard stuff.
My previous comment said day and I mean WEEK NOT DAY. Sorry typo.
I have lumbar spine issues and herniated disks in my cervical spine due to degenerative disk disease.
I feel like I am capable of handling more weight muscular wise, but I am afraid I will make more damage by giving it my true 110%.
What should I do?
I am doing progressive overload focusing only on more reps for now and delaying adding more weight/intensity because of my disk issues.
I don’t want to be doing the same weight for an eternity and never grow.
I’ve been doing a daily morning routine for about a month now with 1 rest day a week, and I’ve seen some pretty good results. I’m only at 1 round right now but I want to get to 2. but I find myself fatiguing and thinking I cant. should I just push through and force myself to adjust?
thanks for this, ima going to push myself harder now to get more energy and mental resilience for school