You Don't Train Hard- But You're Fixable

You Don't Train Hard- But You're Fixable

If I could assign a singular cause for why most trainees don’t see the effect they’re expecting, it would be a severe inability to accurately judge their effort in the gym.

It shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that we’re all susceptible to the occasional subconscious ego-stroking, but the degree to which this happens is slightly unsettling, even for me.

Our self-assessments typically deviate wildly from reality.

The proof is evident across many domains: we think we work harder than we actually do in our jobs; we’re convinced that nobody could be as committed the cause (whatever it is) as we are; and we believe that the sum of our idealized goodness collectively outweighs that of our realized flaws, even when all evidence points to the contrary.

We desperately cling to the idea that we're the hardest working, the most dedicated, and the most on-top-of-our-shit.

It’s not always our faults, though. The problem is often rooted deeper than superficial laziness or inability.

There are physiological and psychological barriers that our bodies just don’t want to surpass. And that leads to tangible restraints on what we’re able to do—not via conscious decision-making, but because of biological adaptations. Evolutionarily, effort has been useful up to a point of diminishing returns. Short bursts of high-output were indispensable when fleeing from a sabertooth tiger, or in a fight-to-the-death with the Alpha for pack dominance. But this was always followed by an much-longer period of mandatory recovery. Or said another way, overexertion led to vulnerability.

Our ancestors—whether they be modern Homo Sapiens or ancient prokaryotes—risked safety and security, individually and collectively, if they pushed too hard for too long without adequate rest.

Luckily for us, modernity has moved past that mortal fragility, but the handcuffs are now hardwired into our DNA. Our systems don’t want to push beyond the danger threshold that’s been reinforced and selected into our genetic code over the millennia. We have intrinsic, delicate tripwires designed to sound the alarm when we approach that point-of-no-return—screaming at us to “STOP!” and “SLOW DOWN!”. Our feeble, physical vessels are constrained by oxygen requirements and lactate clearance and nociceptor sensitivity and ATP recycling. Even the all-powerful brain—the most advanced form of condensed matter in the Universe— is powerless to the whims of glucose availability and afferent impulses and archaic shutdown mechanisms ready to flip on at the first signs of trouble.

Obviously, some of these innate limitations continue to be beneficial for our survival. But some of them can (and, on occasion, should) be hacked, circumvented, and overridden. Staging a coup against millions of years of evolution is easier said than done. And it’s not meant to be easy, but it can be done.



The first step in this process comes via deep self-reflection and honest evaluation of your past and current output, compared to what’s theoretically possible.

In all of the years that I’ve been coaching, there have been only a handful of clients come to me in what I would consider to be a ready state—that of being able to accurately judge and modulate effort. The overwhelming majority come in viewing themselves as “advanced.” They claim to be running some sort of “high-intensity” split, while reporting that they’re looking for something “harder” that will push them “further.”

The harsh reality is that, by my definition, very few people would actually qualify as advanced: being able to take any movement to concentric failure without critical technique breakdowns. Most views of high-intensity are actually closer to high-volume with some drop-sets sprinkled in here and there. And wanting to be pushed harder is generally just lip-service that everyone thinks a new coach wants to hear. Once the data is collected and the bullshit is filtered, the truth comes out very quickly. And it’s often far from what’s first reported.

For context, my litmus test for gauging a client’s ability to train hard is a single set to technical failure on a Leg Press. The process usually looks something like this:

  • ~2 weeks of acclimation with sub-maximal volume-work so I can get a baseline estimate of their strength and perceived effort.

    • For example, Week 1 might be:

      • Leg Press- 3x8-12 (3RIR) with the client reporting 100x12, 100x11, 100x10 for each set, respectively.

    • Then Week 2 might be:

      • Leg Press- 3x8-12 (2RIR) with the client reporting 110x11, 110x10, 120x9 for each set, respectively.

  • The third week is where the fun begins…

    • You cut the bullshit and throw the kitchen sink at them:

      • Leg Press- Slowly work up to a set to technical failure with 120lbs

      • They should have a spotter barking motivation at them and record the set for evaluation.

  • The result?

    • When the pressure is on, the client will generally blow past their previous efforts to the tune of 15 to even 20+ reps. When this happens, and it always does, your response can accurately be that they need to train like that ALL the time—not the set to failure itself, but the absolute focus, toughness, and effort.

This test tends to be peculiarly effective because, more than any other exercise, the Leg Press can filter through the bullshit narratives we tell ourselves. We’re forced to see the evidence and take a hard look in the mirror. Few other variations or schemes allow for comparably-maximized levels of misery and unilateral exertion, with similarly-depressed levels of complexity and risk.

Plus, as a coach, it’s a bit fun to watch your clients occasionally suffer through 3+ minute sets.



In a sick and twisted consequence of fate, I learned most of what now informs my thoughts around effort because I was guilty of the same fuckin’ thing!

Since I was a just young lad beginning to scratch his fitness itch, I operated with the belief that my training was harder, crazier, and more optimized than everyone else’s. I thought I was consistently pushing my intensity to the max, and it was impossible to outwork me. Every set was to failure and beyond. Every session was 2+ hours. Every week was a minimum of six training days…I was intensity!

(Any of this sound familiar?)

Then came my wake-up call.

I started interning (and later, working) at a private gym. The staff was exclusively powerlifters, strongmen, and athletes, with me being the lone “bodybuilder”. What I thought was hard training was laughable in this environment; like, I actually got laughed at. My perception of failure was their warm-up intensity. 3-4 sets of 6-8 exercises per session quickly compressed into only a couple sets and only a few exercises.

It was shitty, and my ego got absolutely rocked. But luckily, I was surrounded by even larger egos at the time that enabled mine to more gracefully dissolve. The entire identity that I had been mistakenly clinging-to had to undergo a hard reset.

From this blank-slate, I was able to more objectively reevaluate the flimsy scaffolding of my past training. Then, I was able to chart a new trajectory for my future training; one informed by the experiential knowledge and understanding that can only be gleaned through widow-makers, clusters, and Rest-Pause sets.



Now, I do want to circle back and say that not being able to train with these supra-human levels of intensity is NOT a dealbreaker.

It doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to make progress. And it says nothing about who you are as an athlete, your probability of future success, or your character. I’ve had plenty of clients (actually, I’d say most of them), who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to consistently reach these upper echelons of effort and focus.

Shit, this was me for the majority of my training career as well.

Far from being apocalyptic, all this means is that there has to be a certain degree of probabilistic error correction ingrained into your programming. Understanding WHAT true failure feels like is the absolute minimum, especially for advanced trainees (less so for intermediates and beginners). From this point, a baseline can be established and extrapolated from. Whether you’re someone who’s capable of taking every set beyond failure, or someone who feels more comfortable hanging around 5RIR, truly doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things.

All that matters is that you have a realistic view of what you’re capable of consistentlydoing and can integrate that view into your programming.



At any given time, there needs to be a clear understanding of your present state, both physically and psychologically.

Both of these factors play incredibly important roles in our abilities to sustainably train hard, and the periodization of your programming should be set up in a way to broadly and granularly play off this phenomenon.

  • Plan for volatility within your own motivation, energy, and effort.

  • Train in various ranges of intensities, across different rep ranges, and utilizing as many exercises as possible—This will show you how accurately you’re gauging your intraset effort and where your weaknesses lie in this regard.

  • In conjunction with the above, record as many sets as possible to combine visual assessment with sensory to create a more complete picture.

  • Track your subjective biofeedback and objective performance data over time, and look for trends in things like energy, soreness, sleep quality, endurance, and strength.

  • Structure mesocycles so that some put more emphasis on intensity, some more on volume, while others allow a bit of a reprieve.

  • Structure microcycles so that you can effectively modulate recovery, balancing high-effort days with equivalent recovery (either via rest days or deliberate lightersessions).

  • Structure each training session in a way that maximizes the stimulative effect of each unit of effort while minimizing the fatiguing effect.

  • Hire a competent coach, and outsource all of this to them.

As far as I know, none of us are robots operating in a Petri dish of carefully optimized and controlled variables, though the probability of this is never exactly zero. But until we have empirical data validating that this is all a simulation, we should probably plan for the cyclical waxing and waning that comes with being a human.



Whereas the above speaks more to those attempting to handle their own training (not advisable but alas), the same general principles and logic can be applied to those who are coaches overseeing the training of their clients.

Understand the limitations of your clients. Predict that they’re fallible and will, more often than not, overestimate themselves. Rather than relying exclusively on their often-unreliable feedback to determine progressions and periodization plans, build preemptive peaks and valleys into the structure. Account for your athletes’ faults ahead of time, and be pleasantly surprised when they exceed expectations.

Here are a few mental models to use in these scenarios:

  • Less intensity means more volume will be needed to create the same training effect. If you program 3 sets to 2RIR and your client is consistently waving the white flag with 4 reps in the tank, you can counter by increasing the set count to 4 or even 5 sets to offset the intensity deficit.

  • Periodically, program Gut-Check sets. Pushing hard is a skill that can be developed with practice, but it can also be detrained or forgotten if those intensities aren’t incorporated regularly. To work around this, I like to throw in AMRAP sets at least once per mesocycle (as long as it’s not contraindicated by the overarching goal) on a movement that will test the resolve of my athletes. We’ve discussed the Leg Press test, but Bulgarian Split Squats, Hack Squats, and high-rep Single Arm DB Rows can be extremely effective here as well.

  • Notice how most of the movements alluded to above are lower-body; that’s not a coincidence. Intensity is most frequently overestimated when it comes to leg training due to the sheer magnitude of discomfort that comes with taking those sets to failure. Though doing so too frequently or haphazardly can create some serious problems, utilizing this feature every so often can be a good way to keep those muscles (figuratively and literally) fresh.

  • Additionally, lower-body intensities will generally be depressed while upper-body tends to be overshot. As alluded to above, this is pretty clear when you compare something like a Machine Pulldown to a Hack Squat—Which are you more likely to take to failure? Program for your clients accordingly.

  • Not all intensity is created equal. Some exercises when taken to failure will create recovery deficits that last for days while others have a negligible impact both locally and globally. Think about Conventional Deadlifts versus DB Lateral Raises—Which will have more impact when taken to failure? Program for your clients accordingly.

  • Intensity techniques are a phenomenal tool, but most trainees won’t be able to take full advantage of them. The underlying concept is that, once traditional methods of failure have been exhausted, additional stimuli for adaptation must come from somewhere. And that somewhere is what we know of as intensity techniques—or taking sets beyond conventional failure points. This might seem obvious, but intensity techniques lose some of their efficacy when even normal standards of failure can’t be achieved. Trying to circumvent training harder with the addition of intensity techniques is putting the cart before the horse.

  • Stage intensity progressions that account for realistic undulations. This is critically important whether programming for yourself or a client, and can be applied to pretty much every level of training periodization from macrocycle design all the way down to how we approach individual sets.

  • Break training down into easily digestible components. I like to think of things in blocks—blocks of training weeks that are progressively more intense followed by an intentional reduction in intensity (i.e. deload), and blocks of mesocycles that are progressively more intense followed by an intentional reduction in intensity (i.e. maintenance phase or active recovery). By utilizing this approach, we can ensure that no single training week or phase is overwhelming, they each build off the last, and they strategically reduce intensity periodically to allow for recovery.



We can all train harder. That’s not really the point of it all.

The idea is to understand what training hard, like really hard, actually feels like, so we can tap into that every once in a while when needed. The rest of the time, we should be still training hard, but within a more accurate framework of what intensity actually is.

The differentiating factor isn’t whether training to failure is better than 2RIR, or vice versa. This isn’t a battle of ideologies; progress isn’t monopolized by a particular training ethos. And nothing matters, no matter how idyllically optimized, when up against the inevitability of human fallibility.

Those who actually realize their latent capabilities must start from an embryonic awareness of their effort. With a little time and a lot of nurturing, they learn how to listen to their bodies, titrate their intensity accordingly, and eventually, step into a new world of unbounded( except for muscle-bound) potential.

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