To improve your health, build a leaner body, or establish new habits …
Sometimes the solution is to work harder.
Sometimes the solution is to simply work smarter.
Sometimes what you really need, is to do both.
Smarter may mean being more efficient with your efforts. Or doing fewer things, but doing them better.
Harder may mean putting more effort into your actions, spending more time on activities that lead you to success, or simply taking action even when it’s difficult or something you don’t feel like doing — when motivation is absent.
When to Work Harder and How to Work Smarter, With Strength Training
When to work harder. Do you use a challenging load when lifting weights? For example, do you perform 8 reps with a weight you know you could easily crank out 12+ reps with? (Do you even know if you’re using a challenging weight?) You could benefit from working harder and putting more weight on the bar.*
Why is it a common mistake for women to not use enough weight, even though they could handle it? For many, particularly those new to lifting weights or performing the big basics (e.g., squats, deadlifts) the feeling of resisting a weight or straining even slightly to lift it is foreign and uncomfortable. Though she can physically handle the challenge, her brain is screaming, Holy crap what are you trying to do to me this is uncomfortable and I don’t like it one bit, DAMN YOU!
This is one of the biggest benefits of working with a coach. The coach can see what’s going on and knows if you can handle more weight. For example, I’ve seen women exclaim a 45-pound barbell felt too heavy for squats. But I’m watching them perform perfect reps with plenty of bar speed. I nudge them into adding more weight to the bar each set, and they continue to crush it. The same woman who said 45-pounds felt too heavy was able to work up to squatting 95-pounds for six reps perfectly. It felt heavy, but she was capable of lifting it properly and safely.
She had to break past the mental barrier that told her hard work was bad or scary and discover she was more than capable of performing the task.
If you don’t have a coach to guide you, then it’s your responsibility to see what’s going on and determine if you’re challenging yourself properly. A simple suggestion: record your work sets and see what’s happening for yourself. Pay attention to your form and bar speed. (I still record my heavier sets for exercises such as squats and deadlifts to make sure I’m using correct form with every rep.)
*Always use proper technique — never add more weight at the expense of correct form. Lifting heavier weights is good. Lifting heavier weights properly, and with confidence, is what matters most.
How to work smarter. Perhaps you don’t have limitless time to work out and need to be in and out of the gym within 45 minutes. Let’s say you, like many women, want to improve the appearance of your arms. You have to add in lots of extra isolation exercises like curls and push-downs, right?
No. You need to work smarter.
This can be achieved by training efficiently. Since time is limited you need to use exercises that will provide most of the results: use big compound exercises that give your arms more work. This would include pulling exercises that use a palms-up grip (this causes the biceps to get a bit more work than a palms-down grip), such as chin-ups, inverted rows, barbell rows, and seated cable rows. Instead of triceps kick-backs perform large compound exercises like close grip bench presses and push-ups, and even parallel bar dips if your shoulders tolerate them well.
A woman who progresses to busting out chin-ups and close grip push-ups for several reps will have strong, “toned” arms. Not just that, but her entire body will be strong. That’s efficient training in action.
This isn’t to say you should never include curls and triceps extensions if you want to give your arms extra work; you can include them when you have extra time. But most of the work you do in the gym should revolve around the big basics that allow for increased loading over time, because they provide most of the results.
When to work harder AND work smarter. Continuing with strength training, let’s say you want to achieve maximum results from your efforts, but don’t want to spend more time than mandatory at the gym. In this case you would benefit from working smarter by using the best exercises. The “best exercises,” again, would be those that provide most of the results you could expect to achieve. These would be compound exercises that allow for incremental loading: e.g., barbell exercises such as squats, deadlifts and presses; bodyweight exercises like pull-ups and push-ups; you can also use dumbbell exercises like goblet squats, presses, RDLs, etc.
Exercises like barbell squats and deadlifts are already hard because they use so much muscle mass and require coordination, but make sure you work hard by using a challenging load (discussed above) and by improving your performance each time a workout is repeated. This could be achieved by increasing the weight, performing more reps with the same weight, or combining both into what’s called the double-progression method (use a rep range of, for example, 5-8 reps; start at 5 reps and use the same weight until you perform 8 reps for all sets, and then increase the weight the following workout and start at 5 reps again).
This is a great example of working harder and smarter, and as long as you’re consistent, the results will speak for themselves by rewarding you with a stronger, healthier, and, if you eat properly, a leaner body.
Should you work harder, or work smarter? Let’s say you want to lose fat. You’re already making good food choices and you’re trying to decide whether to add HIIT (high intensity interval training) or long slow cardio to your routine. Both are useful, and both have pros and cons.
A HIIT workout (e.g., using a stationary bike sprint 15-30 seconds, rest 30-60 seconds, repeat for 5-10 total rounds) is more time efficient, but it’s much harder. It can also detract from your strength training workouts, because the body responds to hard sprints in a similar way as a bout of strength training.
Slow cardio is much easier, it doesn’t detract from strength training, but it takes more time. Instead of performing sprints for 10-20 minutes as with HIIT, you’d generally need 30 minutes or more of traditional cardio.
Which should you choose? If time is an issue, then HIIT is likely the way to go. (But you must program it intelligently if you’re also strength training hard, and frequently). If you want to reap the greatest possible benefits from strength training, slow cardio is likely the best option. The HIIT is certainly harder, but in this case the slow cardio may be smarter, depending on your priority.
When you probably shouldn’t work harder with your workouts: During a particularly high-stress time. If you’re dealing with personal issues or you’re going through a period that’s extremely chaotic and stressful, adding more stress in the form of really hard workouts isn’t the best idea. Training should have a natural ebb and flow; it’s okay, and beneficial, to not go as “hard” during high-stress periods.
When your life goes through a higher than usual stress level, don’t pile on more with brutal workouts. Continue training, for sure, but don’t go all out trying to set new records; it’s okay to stay further away from failure (e.g., perform 5 reps with a weight you could lift for about 8 reps) so you don’t overtax your body and do more harm than good.
Another option is to continue using heavy weights, but scale back the total volume. For example, if you typically perform 4 sets of 6-8 reps, perform 2 sets instead. Another option is to perform 2 total body workouts per week instead of 3. The options here are many, but the point is, when real life stuff is happening and stress is higher than usual, approach your training wisely.
When to Work Harder and How to Work Smarter, With Nutrition
When it comes to a healthy lifestyle, most people say nutrition is the most difficult portion to conquer, or improve consistently.
How to work smarter. When it comes to improving, or tweaking, nutrition habits, one of the smartest things you can do is set yourself up for success and choose an eating style that works best for you. Let’s tackle both.
Set yourself up for success by first identifying where you struggle most. In other words: which meal(s) tend to be not-so-healthy? Maybe it’s breakfast because you’re in a rush and grab something like a donut or a not-so-healthy* breakfast sandwich you heat up in the microwave. Identify your weakness, and come up with a practical solution.
If you’re strapped for time in the morning, prepare something healthy the night before. Whip up some overnight oats; put them together the night before then pull them out of the fridge in the morning and chow down. Portion the ingredients for a tasty, nutrient-packed smoothie the night before, then blend it up in the morning and pour it into a travel container.
If you struggle with dinners and tend to grab or make something convenient, embrace tools that make life easier, like a slow cooker or, my new personal favorite, the Instant Pot. This way healthy, tasty meals can be prepped and cooked in a matter of minutes. Another helpful tip I use frequently: keep bags of frozen veggies on hand so you have a quick side to add to your meals.
Take a few moments to identify where you tend to slip up or make less than ideal food choices, and come up with a smart solution. Don’t wing it — have a plan.
The second part of the work smarter nutrition example is choosing an eating style that works best for you. The fundamentals of healthy eating have been proven: eat mostly real foods, include plenty of fruits and veggies, and eat a good source of lean protein with each meal. I’d also add drink calorie-free beverages with, and between, meals.
How often or how many meals you eat every day is up to you, your schedule, and preferences. Some people like a form of intermittent fasting for convenience; some like a more intuitive approach and eat when they’re hungry (but not ravenous) and stop when satisfied (but not stuffed); some prefer a simpler form of calorie control and drink a protein shake instead of eating a meal.
Do whatever you enjoy and makes your life easier.
*I abhor terms like “dirty” or “cheat” when describing processed foods, or foods that simply aren’t very healthy. There’s just food, and some are better than others. Eat the better ones (i.e., real, minimally processed foods) most of the time.
When to work harder. Everyone is different, and some people need to work a bit harder at their nutrition, at least at first to develop new habits. If you’re struggling to make good food choices consistently, then you may want to experiment with preparing meals in advance so when it’s time to eat, your food is ready.
Once or twice a week, cook a bunch of food and portion it for meals you’ll eat throughout the day, or week (whatever you need). Each meal should revolve around a good source of lean protein, and include other real foods like veggies, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds, etc.
There’s a reason diets like Nutrisystem and food-delivery services help people lose weight: they remove all guesswork (and work from having to plan, prepare, and clean up) and control total calories. All you do is eat the food.
So, if you need a way to jump-start better eating choices, try prepping most of your meals. You don’t have to do all meals per day — begin by identifying the ones when you tend to make poor choices, or hit the drive through instead of cooking something healthy. If you typically get fast food or eat from a vending machine for lunch, then prepare a week’s worth of meals to eat for lunch.
Yes, cooking numerous meals at a time can be a pain. But, if it’s what you need to get you going in the right direction, it can be a good start. Then after a few weeks, you can continue to implement the habits you’ve created (eating lean protein with all meals, including plenty of veggies and fruit) but, hopefully, without having to prepare everything. These meal choices will hopefully be an established habit, not something you have to really think about doing.
If you go this route, do yourself a favor and make sure the food tastes good. You will develop a burning hatred that will get rooted into the deepest parts of your soul and cannot be removed if you attempt to subsist on plain boiled, rubber-texture chicken breasts and bland vegetables. It’s important that you actually enjoy what you put in your mouth.
Learn a new cooking method if you must, or find new recipes. Change things up; if you eat chicken for every lunch, prepare it different ways (bake it, grill it, stir-fry it, make shredded chicken in the slow cooker, etc.). Even good seasoning is enough to take bland chicken to super tasty chicken (works for frozen veggies too).
Ideally what will happen with this meal-prepping method is this: you’ll prepare several days’ worth of meals at a time and will get in the habit of eating real foods, and plenty of protein. Then, hopefully, after several weeks you’ll know how to prepare numerous tasty, good-for-you meals. You won’t necessarily have to keep preparing all that food (unless you want to) but the new framework you’ve established will help you make good choices going forward. And you’ll have plenty of “staple meals” — good-for-you meals you know how to quickly prepare — to choose from when you don’t feel like trying new recipes.
I credit my daily rotation of a few meals as one of the simplest things I do to keep me healthy and strong. My breakfast, most of the time, is either oatmeal or a smoothie. If I’m eating out for breakfast it’s usually an omelet with veggies and maybe a side of toast.
You are your habits. Build, and maintain, the right ones.
How to Work Harder or Smarter When You’re Not Motivated
I have no idea how this whole “You just need to get motivated and you’ll achieve all of your goals!” nonsense came about. Like you can shop for some artificial form of motivation and add it to your online shopping cart when you’re buying dog food and toilet paper.
What if you have zero motivation to work out or eat well? Waiting for motivation to show up so you feel like doing those things will typically result in not a damn thing happening.
Motivation is, in many ways, a scam. It’s not something you can buy at the grocery store when you pick up a gallon of milk and eggs. Sometimes you’ll “feel like” making good food choices and working out. Sometimes you won’t. If you only do things when you feel like doing them, results will be sub-optimal.
Just think about what would happen if you only went to work or paid your taxes when you “felt like it.”
If I only worked out when I felt like it, I’d miss a lot of workouts. If I only ate healthy foods when I felt like it, I’d be consuming massive quantities of ice cream on a frequent basis.
When even the tiniest sliver of motivation is absent, you have to do the hard thing — show up and do the work.
You can buy into the drivel that promises to GET YOU AMPED-UP FOR SUCCESS and says you’ll be bursting with motivation will and never get derailed again, or you can accept that, yes, there are some things you can do to increase motivation, but it won’t be limitless and sometimes you just have to show up anyway and do the work.
Sometimes you have to work harder. Sometimes you just have to work smarter. Sometimes, you need to do both.
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