Trainer Confessions: Why Harder Workouts Aren’t Always Better

By Kedric Kwan

It’s not hard to spot deceitful marketing.

Even the most gimmicky sounding “get abs in 60 seconds” protocols can deceive the layperson if they’re presented well.

On the other hand, certain fads or trends are more subtle. These ideas can confuse even the most informed fitness junkie and create misconceptions that many view as gospel.

Being a coach and having the opportunity to train a large number of clients daily, I’ve observed a general misconception among most trainees.

“Harder is always better.”

With the number of motivation quotes and images floating on the internet, it’s not surprising everyone thinks that doing the hardest form of training will bring you the best results.

The hardest exercise will challenge me and bring me the most gains.

The longest and most puke-inducing workout is the one that will bring me the most results.

You know, because no pain, no gain.

I’m here to tell you that this is far from the truth. In fact, puke-inducing workouts are usually the type that will detract from your goals.

Harder Workouts Aren’t Always Better

Let’s put this into perspective.

Joe’s main goal is to lose fat and gain strength. Because of that he has been following a well-planned training routine.

One day, Joe stumbles upon a crazy workout online that requires him to perform insane repetitions of multiple different exercises, probably something close to 1,000 reps.

Because it sounds extremely difficult, Joe decides to take on the challenge. Without a doubt, the words “do not quit” and “go hard or go home” ring through his head throughout the entire workout.

He finishes it after an hour and half.

Well done.

Now there are two possible scenarios.

**Scenario 1:** Joe finishes and feels accomplished, but finds himself sore for the next few days. Because of that, his movement is restricted and his training suffers greatly.

Regular activity suffers which causes a drop in energy expenditure. Not to mention that he starts consuming more food as reward. Paleo ice cream anyone?

Some research shows that more intense exercise actually causes higher hunger levels despite burning fewer calories compared to slower endurance training.(1)

With a decreased level of energy expenditure and increased consumption of food, this doesn’t exactly sound like a fat loss plan to me.

**Scenario 2:** Joe finishes, but because of the difficulty of the workout, injures himself in the process.

Due to the injury, Joe stops training for two weeks. He keeps eating the same amount which results in weight gain.

Not to mention after a few weeks of detraining, strength levels can drop and this would sidetrack Joe from his goal.(2)

Scenario 1 would be the best case scenario and yet it still can bring some not-so-favorable “side effects.”

How Harder Exercises Can Hurt Your Progress

Arbitrarily making your exercises harder than necessary is another common mistake.

Training on unstable surfaces like BOSU balls, balance boards or even standing on top of a kettlebell are good examples.

While this might look cool, there is no evidence that training on an unstable surface brings superior results.

In fact, unstable surface training is less effective for gaining strength compared to normal strength training.(3)

Besides that, training on unstable surfaces with an external load increases the risk of potential injuries.

So unless you’re training to be in a circus or are in some form of rehab, please ditch the unstable surface training.

Here are some more examples of how making your exercises harder than necessary actually hurts your progress:

– Randomly going as hard as possible to fuel your ego or because you were bored.
– Doing an extra ten exercises because you wanted to “blast” some body part.
– Increasing the weights long before you’ve mastered basic technique.
– Adding complex movements like Olympic lifts to your routine with no idea why.

There will be times when implementing harder variations would bring additional benefits.

Increasing range of motion by performing deficit deadlifts can help improve strength from the floor.

Doing pause squats can help [build power]( out of the hole.

Training when glycogen depleted [may help improve aerobic performance.(4)

Those are training methods that can bring better results by increasing the difficulty.

However, it’s not as simple as performing all of them at once, thinking you’ll be able to reap all of their benefits.

Difficult training methods are tools in your toolbox. The key here is knowing when to use the right tools for the right goal.

I’m not saying training should be easy and a walk in the park.

I’m trying to point out that staying on track with your goals is the most important factor when it comes to training, not how hard an exercise protocol is.

So instead of thinking harder is always better, think of the things that would bring you closer to your goal.

That’s definitely better.


1. Deighton, K., Barry, R., Connon, C. E., & Stensel, D. J. (2013). Appetite, gut hormone and energy intake responses to low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(5), 1147–1156.

2. Lemmer, J. T., Hurlbut, D. E., Martel, G. F., Tracy, B. L., Ivey, F. M., Metter, E. J., et al. (2000). Age and gender responses to strength training and detraining. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(8), 1505–1512.

3. Saeterbakken, A. H., & Fimland, M. S. (2013). Muscle force output and electromyographic activity in squats with various unstable surfaces. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 27(1), 130–136.

4. Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Wong, S. H. S., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29 Suppl 1, S17–27.

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