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How hard should you train?

Wie hart solltest Du trainieren?

Here's a quick summary:

  1. You need to train hard to make optimal progress, but if you train so hard that it affects the quality of your other workouts or causes so much stress that your performance declines, then this is a bad approach.
  2. If you train a muscle once a week, you can push it much harder without too many negative effects than if you train a muscle several times a week.
  3. Testing your performance with workouts that challenge your body is a good way to find out what you're capable of, and preparing for these challenges can give your training motivation a significant boost.
  4. If you don't push yourself to your limits from time to time, you'll lose sight of what it means to train really hard. An occasional lesson on pain in the gym will allow you to look at things soberly.
  5. Throwing up during a workout may seem hardcore, but throwing up during a workout simply means you've misjudged your food intake and your workout, which doesn't make you truly hardcore.

Feeling the burn. Training yourself into the ground. Feeling a killer sore muscle. Throwing up. Not being able to walk after a leg training day. Not being able to drive after an arm training day. All of this is something of a medal of honor for many exercisers, but none of it will guarantee that your training session was positive and will lead to improvement. Despite this, many of us prefer to focus on these elements rather than objective progression.

Why? Because seemingly insane workouts make you seem hardcore - like a warrior. Your training often turns into a test of how much pain and suffering you can endure. But do you really have to train yourself into the ground in every single training session to make progress?

I have the feeling that I have achieved something

I used to train TV sports presenter Joe Buck. We did a lot of training with the weight sled, tire flipping and farmer's walks in conjunction with strength training. We didn't give ourselves much rest during the workouts (partly due to the fact that we kept conversation to a minimum) and as a result, every single one of those workouts was extremely challenging.

Then he said: "What I like about training with you is that I feel like I've achieved something."

At first glance I took this as a compliment, but after giving it some thought, I rethought my approach to training. I wanted to be known as the guy who gets results, not the guy who can inflict pain on you. Totally killing a client in the gym is easy - you don't have to be particularly intelligent to achieve this. Achieving results over the long term is a different story. This takes knowledge and athletic ability.

However, this experience still taught me the lesson that the average exerciser judges the value of a training session by how uncomfortable and painful it felt.

Many of my clients had previously been trained by sadistic trainers, so when they started training with me, I had to work hard to convince them that being able to walk after a training session didn't mean it wasn't a good training session. However, they only accepted what I told them when they started to get good results.

Is it really necessary to literally kill yourself in the gym? If you want to make rapid progress, you need to train hard - much harder than most people train. Unfortunately, once you're past a certain threshold, training even harder won't lead to faster gains and could even hinder your long-term progress.

I'll give you a few examples from my own training. I recently performed a CrossFit/strength training session that consisted of 10 rounds of the following:

  • 4 * Atlas deadlifts from floor to shoulder (175 pounds)
  • 4 * front squats (225 pounds)
  • 4 * Bench press (225 pounds)

This was performed every minute on the full minute, which meant that I started with one exercise at the beginning of each full minute and had one minute to perform that exercise before moving on to the next exercise. If performing 4 reps took 30 seconds, this meant that I had 30 seconds rest before moving on to the next exercise.

Even though the weights on this workout weren't gigantic, I can tell you that 4 front squats at 225 pounds twenty seconds after atlas lift is tough. I felt great after the training session. Completely drained, everything hurt and I felt more tired than I had in a long time. I was excited. I had the feeling of having "achieved something". I was so proud and pumped up that I planned to do similar training sessions three times a week. However, this resolution didn't last long. The next morning I had the worst sore muscles of my life - quadriceps, biceps, shoulders, back - everything felt like it had been through the wringer. And I felt exhausted, tired and unmotivated. These sore muscles and my generally poor state of health lasted for 5 days. I tried to exercise once during those 5 days, but stopped after 10 minutes because it wouldn't have helped.

Now I'm not someone who would give up training because of sore muscles, but this soreness was excessive. The question I had to ask myself was: "Was this workout really so productive that it was worth missing four other workouts?" Any fool could see that this answer is a definite "no". You need to train hard to make optimal progress, but if you train so hard that it affects the quality of your other training sessions, or causes so much stress that your performance diminishes, then this is a poor approach.

Those who are literally killing themselves and making progress

I'm going to say it anyway - it's hard to argue with results. In fact, there are many guys and gals who achieve very good results by pushing themselves to the brink of death every time they train. I have the following thoughts on this: How far you can go into the danger zone depends on your training frequency. If you only train a muscle once a week, you can "punish" it much harder without any negative effects than if you train it several times a week. What difference will it make if you can't run for five days after a leg training day if you only train your legs once a week? However, for someone like me who believes in the importance of training frequency and considers it more important than other training variables, it is much more difficult to find the right dose. You need to stimulate your muscles enough to make progress, but not push them so hard that it interferes with the next training session.

How much 'punishment' you can handle during a training session and recover sufficiently also depends on the amount of weight you move relative to your 1RM weight.

If your average weight during your training sessions is 60 to 70% of your 1RM weight, then you will be able to venture much further into the pain zone without any negative effects than if you use 80 to 90% - let alone 90 to 100%.

I believe that the body can recover from super intense muscle training and metabolic training, which is especially the case when using the right pre-, intra- and post-workout nutrition. The problems start when you combine training sessions that literally kill yourself with the use of heavy weights, which is why I am not surprised when I see bodybuilders who are able to literally kill themselves when training using techniques such as descending sets, rest-pause, partial repetitions, etc., as they are using weights that are quite low relative to their capacities.

One should also not overlook the role of "altered physiology" when it comes to recovery.

Drugs such as steroids, growth hormones and others can help you recover much faster from training. If you train with chemical support, a workout where you are literally killing yourself will not have a long-lasting negative impact on your training capacity. I'm not saying that everyone who makes good gains by training like a maniac is on steroids - I'm just saying that chemical support is one of the factors that can allow an exerciser to train longer and harder and still recover adequately.

We all have our specific physiology and respond differently to training Some people respond better to volume and others to heavy weights. Similarly, some people seem to be "indestructible" while others can only cope with a limited amount of stress.

I once trained an Olympic athlete who was super explosive - the most explosive person I had ever seen. He was very strong (he was bench pressing almost 200 kilos at a bodyweight of under 80 kilos), but he could only cope with a maximum of 6 to 8 work sets in a training session - not sets per exercise, but total sets per training session. On the other hand, I also know guys who can do set after set for 2 to 3 hours day after day.

We get good at ignoring fatigue associated with training At first we may feel a little tired and our motivation wanes a little, but as dedicated strength athletes we force ourselves to go train anyway. After a while, we start to get used to the state of exhaustion, which we soon see as our normal state. And even if we are only functioning at 70% of our capacity, we don't even realize it.

Someone who has nothing else to do but train, such as a professional athlete, will obviously recover from training faster than someone with a full-time job, especially if it is a physically or mentally demanding job. A Russian weightlifter who is paid by the government and has unlimited access to massages, physiotherapy and recovery methods such as ice baths and saunas will be able to train for six hours a day, whereas the same workload would kill you in no time.

Can training like a madman in the gym be beneficial?

While I believe in focusing on progression and being able to train each muscle more often, I do believe that truly grueling workouts to the point of death may have some merit. Going to muscle failure and beyond (with descending sets, rest-pause, partial reps after reaching muscle failure, etc.) is indeed justifiable when it comes to stimulating muscle growth.

If I were an advocate for training to complete muscle failure, I could easily make a solid case for it. I could start by quoting Dr. Vladimir Zatsiorsky: "A muscle fiber that has been recruited but not fatigued has not been trained." While you may not have to go to muscle failure and beyond to train the fiber, training to muscle failure provides you with some sort of insurance that you have fatigued a lot of muscle fibers.

The counter-argument is that exhausting motor units is not the only way to make a muscle grow. Cell signaling (including mTOR activation) and hormonal responses are examples of other things that can lead to muscle growth. Similarly, muscle exhaustion is not necessary for strength gains, as improving neural factors will lead to gains in strength without exhausting every muscle fiber.

Testing your mettle with challenging workouts is an excellent way to test your physical abilities.

Plus, preparing to be ready for these challenges can significantly increase your motivation to train. I use challenge-based workouts in my training once or twice a month. These can take different forms: the Atlas stone/front squat/bench press workout I mentioned above; a 100 repetition bench press; 100 repetitions of power cleans with 90 kilos, 50 repetitions of squats.... These are things I have done in the past. Even though all these workouts have immobilized me for days, they have also given me a lot of motivation and taught me to push myself hard.

Working out like a maniac in the weight room can change your perception of heavy training.

You don't have to kill yourself in the weight room to progress at an optimal rate, but you do have to train very hard. However, if you don't really push yourself to your limits from time to time, then you will lose the sense of what hard training really is. In fact, you may lose your drive and train a little less hard from month to month. You won't even notice that you're slacking off! On a scale of 1 to 10, your average training intensity should be 8, but if you never go up to 10, then you will lose the sense of what an 8 on that scale really is. For this reason, many exercisers actually only go up to a 5 or 6 when they think they are at an 8. An occasional lesson in pain will allow you to see things in perspective. Performing level "10" workouts can be useful, but you need to understand how they affect your body and plan your training accordingly. You should realize that you won't be in optimal shape for a few days after such a training session, so you should plan either rest days or a few lighter training days in the days following your challenge.

More on training to muscle failure...and beyond

There are insane Crossfit/GPP and insane bodybuilding workouts. The former involves killing yourself with metabolic training to the point where you throw up. The latter refers to inducing as much pain as possible on every single set, going to the point of complete muscle failure and beyond. As I mentioned earlier, there is indeed a possible benefit to training to muscle failure. You will ensure that you have exhausted a maximum amount of muscle fibers and thus made that set as effective as possible to stimulate adaptation. Remember that muscle failure itself is not necessary to optimally exhaust the muscle fibers, but it is a useful insurance policy. I want to emphasize that muscle failure does not always have to be due to complete muscle fiber exhaustion. Muscle failure can occur due to depletion of energy reserves (depletion of the phosphagen system also known as the ATP, creatine phosphate energy system), an inability of the nervous system to continue recruiting motor units, a loss of muscle fiber response to neural drive (this can be caused by muscle acidosis) and muscle fiber exhaustion.

Training to muscle failure is therefore not necessarily an indicator that you have completely exhausted the maximum amount of muscle fibers and training to muscle failure does not necessarily make a significant difference to finishing the set one repetition before reaching muscle failure. However, training to muscle failure and beyond can increase cell signaling, which is responsible for an increase in protein synthesis and can also lead to a local release of growth factors. So it makes sense that training to muscle failure can effectively stimulate muscle growth.

The downside is that the cost-benefit ratio prohibits this. There is no doubt that you can stimulate muscle growth by training beyond muscle failure. I will use my economics analogy at this point: You have a finite amount of money to spend on your training. A set where you go to muscle failure or beyond is more costly than a regular set where you stop one repetition before reaching muscle failure. So if you decide to go the super-intense route, you'll need to cut back elsewhere to prevent your training budget from running out - which will lead to stagnation and even overtraining. You should also be aware that as a steroid-free trainee you will have less training money available. Anabolic steroids provide you with a higher amount of training money to invest.

However, if you are a bodybuilder who only trains each muscle group every 5 to 7 days, then it is probably fine to use a reasonable number of sets to muscle failure and beyond. However, if you're training each muscle group three times a week (or even just twice a week), then you're probably begging for trouble.

Throwing up during your workout: A badge of honor for particularly hard exercisers?

These days, throwing up during a hard training session is considered hardcore or a sign of an extremely hard and intense workout, but is it really? The main reason you throw up during an intense training session is a redirection of blood flow away from your stomach and towards your muscles. The body will always send more blood to where it is needed most. During intense workouts, your muscles need extra oxygen and more metabolic waste products need to be transported away from the muscles. As a result, the body will send more blood to the muscles to supply them with more oxygen and at the same time transport waste products away from the muscles. Of course, this also means that less blood is transported to the stomach. This is where the problems start. If you are still digesting a large meal when the blood flow is diverted away from the stomach to the muscles, then nausea and vomiting can occur. So if you are vomiting during a training session, it simply means that:

  1. Your workout is causing a very large shift in blood flow towards the muscles.
  2. You have poorly timed your food intake and training in relation to each other, which doesn't really make you hardcore.

So which types of training are most likely to make you vomit? Logically, anything that requires large amounts of blood to be sent to your muscles. This applies to any type of exercise that requires high energy production, but of particular interest here is physical work that leads to a large accumulation of metabolic waste products. Hard training with the weight sled, 400 to 800 meter sprints where you give it your all, CrossFit WODs and bodybuilding workouts that cause a large accumulation of lactic acid are types of training that can cause vomiting during the workout due to the need to remove the accumulated metabolic waste products. So yes, the more intensely you perform these types of activities, the more likely you are to revisit your lunch.

So in a way, it's true that working out to the point of vomiting could mean you're able to endure a lot of pain and suffering in the gym. Reaching the point where your muscles produce so many waste products that you feel sick requires a very high pain tolerance - so you're probably hardcore in that respect. If you are able to reach the point where you throw up, you are probably someone who is physically and mentally very tough. But is this a goal worth striving for? Training in extremely humid weather to the point of heat stroke is also a sign that you can endure some pain and discomfort, but it's not really conducive to rapid progression with optimal gains. Throwing up is not an anabolic stimulus. The act of throwing up will not cause gains in strength or muscle mass, but can it hinder your progress? If you occasionally throw up during training, it probably won't affect your gains. However, a few things happen after you throw up that can make it harder for you to get the most out of your training session:

  • You lose electrolytes, which will make it harder for you to perform at your maximum and recover
  • You waste nutrients that could be used for growth and recovery
  • You can ruin your appetite for several hours after training
  • You can ruin your training session. Not everyone is able to continue training hard after throwing up.
  • You risk becoming dehydrated. And dehydration leads to a significant reduction in your performance.

As you can see, there is no huge risk of muscle loss, but it still remains counterproductive to optimal training, growth and recovery.


  1. Training a muscle to the point where you are unable to move at the end of a training session can limit your capacity to train that muscle again in the near future. It might work for those who only train each muscle once a week, but if you train each muscle more frequently, this type of training could be counterproductive.
  2. We all have limited recovery capacity and limited capacity to grow through physical work. If you are investing in sets beyond muscle failure, then you should realize that you should reduce your overall volume, otherwise your progress may stagnate.
  3. Some people can recover faster due to their physiology (genetics or chemical support) and benefit from training cleans with near-death experiences, but most can't if they do these types of workouts too often.
  4. Irregular, demanding workouts performed once every few weeks can be a very effective strategy from both a physiological and psychological perspective.
  5. Progression is everything. If you are not making progress in strength, performance and/or body composition from week to week, then it could be that your training or nutrition is not optimal.

If pushing yourself to the extreme limits and beyond in training isn't leading to progression from week to week, then it's likely that this very training is holding you back.

By Christian Thibaudeau

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