Training Smart vs. Hard Which Is Better?

By James Walker CCS, STM, BioSig, Master Trainer

I've been telling my clients for decades that it's better to train smart than hard given the choice. I find myself exporting these words to younger athletes almost on a daily basis. It sounds smart to say it but what does it really mean?

You always hear athletes talking about training hard or how hard their training session was. I think they are referring to effort and difficulty, meaning if a workout requires a lot of effort or is difficult to execute then it’s hard, and it must be good.

With this model working out to exhaustion or past muscle failure is the standard for a productive training session. If you’re suppose to do 10 repetitions, do 12 or 15 or 20, it’s better. Maybe the athlete is supposed to run eight, 20-meter sprints but instead they run twenty or even forty. As you can see this type of philosophy were more is better can apply to any type of training. Quality and purpose go out the window for quantity and difficulty.

Workout until you puke or pass-out is the goal and every training session should be like this! I see trainers in the gym doing this with clients all the time. The client has reached muscle failure with reasonable form at 10 reps but the trainer belts out “I want 10 more”. You then see the client attempting the next 10 reps looking like a contortionist with the circus.

Likewise I've heard horror stories from athletes who were injured after being told to lift progressively heavier weights or more reps, without considering correct form, structure, progression or supervision.

The problem that I have with this type of training is that it’s not very quantifiable or scientific, yet it’s hard or difficult. Quantifiable meaning there are no restrictions or limitations or rules regarding training nor any record keeping or training logs. You rarely see the trainer or trainee keeping a record of their reps, sets, or session when doing this type of protocol.

If they did, then it would become obvious after a month or two. Especially when the trainee’s strength, endurance, reps, or composition hasn’t changed. In addition the trainee is consistently tired and has sleep, inflammation, or tendinitis issues. It’s not working!

Training scientifically means using the principles of science to orchestrate, predict, and maximize the client’s progress by planning and prescribing correct protocols.

For example the Principle of Super Compensation states that when your body or muscles fully recover from the workout you have a better increase in strength-performance than with a partial or limited recovery period. So if you’re tired reducing the volume or number of sets in the workout will yield better results vs. doing the entire workout just because it’s scheduled, hard, or challenging.

Likewise waiting an extra day or two to allow complete recovery may yield even better results. Not only better results but possible a reduction in injury and illness by not over exhausting an already tired immune system. That’s scientific or smart training!

Another scientific principle that gets violated when hard misguided training methods are used is called faulty motor pattern, affecting the muscle recruitment patterns in a negative way. For example if a squat is perform with a weight load that is too heavy or the repetition number goes beyond what the trainee can perform with correct form, the central nervous system will recruit additional muscles to complete the task. If those additional muscles aren’t design or trained to perform that task, inflammation, scar tissue, or injuries will result from this compensation.

By knowing scientific principles and how to apply them you can reach your goals faster, safer, easier, and smarter. By having an outline or plan to achieve your goals you will reduce over training, injury, frustration, and optimize results. This is called Periodization, planning your workout in advance by weekly and monthly stages, in order to achieve your goals.

Training this way is measurable, repeatable, quantifiable, reliable, objective, valid, challenging, and more controllable yet yields predicable results, very scientific. Whereas hard training is just hard!