You probably think you know how to give it your all when you work out. But are you doing enough? Are you pushing too hard? Are you doing too little?
Finally, are you making progress, or just making yourself tired?
It’s pretty common in fitness culture to glorify the guys and gals puking in buckets, running until their feet bleed, or breaking open their callused hands from far too many pull-ups and then bragging about it with a gruesome picture on Instagram.
However, you need to know something you won’t find on the influencers’ pages… Most all of this feel-good, push-yourself-to-the-brink type of motivation is trite bullshit.
Now, the question you will definitely have an answer to after reading this: How hard should you push yourself?
We Train Smart, Not Just Hard
First, know that training hard is a requirement for improving your skills and reaching your movement goals, whatever those are for you. But life will not allow you, or me, or anyone, to train with maximum intensity every single day.
In fact, to illustrate a point, we break things down into three days and no matter what, your day will fall into one of these categories:
- Amazing Days (10% of your time)
- Good Enough Days (80-90% of your time)
- Not Gonna Happen Days (10-20% of your time)
Here’s how we define these:
Amazing Days 😀
You wake up feeling fully refreshed, maybe even without an alarm. And you can feel it in your bones that today is going to be great. Everything seems to fall into place; you have plenty of time to get everything done, and training is for sure happening. These days, you’ll want to push yourself and aim for new heights. It could be doing more reps, trying a harder variation of your favorite movement, or doing more volume (more on this in a bit).
Due to the nature of life, most people have these days around 10% of the time. You might experience them more if you have less stress in your life and your schedule is fairly free and relaxed. But most people aren’t going to have amazing training days every time they work out. And that’s okay. Expected, even.
Good Enough Days 😏
This is where the majority of your days are going to fall. The good news? It’s the same for everyone, even the most advanced and successful athletes. These are the days where you’re physically and mentally able to train, but you might not actually feel like it.
And this is common. We don’t always feel like brushing our teeth, or showering, or cooking for ourselves, but you do it anyway because that’s what grown-ass adults do.
The same goes with training. So we always urge you to step up to the mat, start your workout and get into the groove. You can always call it quits if it doesn’t feel right. Just start. Chances are starting is all you needed and you’ll end up having a decent session.
Here’s the rub. Most everyone lives in this mundane area and it’s where the magic happens. No one makes progress by only training on the Amazing Days. You make strides by doing the work, even when you don’t feel like it, or your performance isn’t as good as it has been. 80-90% of your time will be spent here, so learn to embrace it.
Not Gonna Happen Days 🤬
These are the days that training is an absolute no-go. These days tend to be where our schedules are too full, or we have work deadlines or other obligations that take priority. These could be days that you just don’t feel good, are sick, or something’s come up at the last minute that makes training impossible.
If you are careful with your planning, you can often know these days in advance (aside from waking up sick). This way you can schedule your workouts around them. 10-20% of your time will be spent here. And that’s totally fine because you need days off as well.
But just because you can’t have a dedicated training time on these days, you could spend 5-10 minutes doing some hip mobility drills, or take a few movements from our Mobility program to do when you have a few spare minutes.
Why Intensity Matters
Pushing yourself and operating at a high intensity is how you create progressive overload.
In an ideal world, you’ll improve workout over workout, but that won’t always happen because progressive overload isn’t linear forever.
Sure, when you start out, you’ll see changes happen quickly. But when you approach the harder movements, things slow down. Progressive overload often happens in spurts as your body adapts.
Let’s look at lower body training. For most everyone, you’ll start by mastering the body weight squat first, and then move onto harder variations, like the pistol squat. But you likely won’t be able to do the pistol squat immediately because, hey… it’s pretty hard.
So you’ll start with variations of the pistol and then as you get stronger, you’ll keep improving until you’re able to do it with control. And once you can get a full, unassisted pistol squat, you can start working on doing them for reps.
This method applies to any skill you want to master, by the way. It’s just a matter of starting where you are and taking the next step. For help, you should check out our self-assessment and then make sure you have a plan.
Having A Plan That Makes Sense
Plans are only as great as what you do with them. And the best way to plan is to look at your schedule as it is, and think about how to fit your movement in. Most of us have pretty static schedules. Work during specific times in the week, weekends off, etc.
It might vary somewhat for you, so keep that in mind when thinking about your plan.
You’ve probably heard that old saying “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” While it is an overused cliche, it has some truth to it. Nothing is worse than wanting to do something, not fitting it into your schedule, and looking back a month to realize you never did what you wanted.
First, set some goals.
Then think about how to work on those goals during the week. Come up with 3-4 days that you want to do dedicated, focused work. Then put them in your calendar. This way, you have time set aside for the training. This way, it’ll get done, and you can make progress steadily over time.
Keep in mind that you will likely miss a day here and there. The main thing is to stick to your schedule as best as you can and aim to give your best effort every session. Speaking of missing the occasional session, here’s a concept we like to use: autoregulation.
Autoregulate Your Way To Consistent Progress
Autoregulation is a simple idea, yet it’s not always easy to implement. In short, autoregulation means to adjust your training workload within each session based on two variables:
- How you did previously
- How you feel right now (compared to before)
Maybe today’s movements aren’t feeling as fluid and strong as they did last week. Maybe you feel like you don’t have enough gas in the tank to hold a position for as long as you normally do. These are signs that you might need to dial it back, just for this session.
This concept is helpful for those days that you don’t really feel like working out, but you know you should because you scheduled it and you want to continue making progress. Some days you will feel great, and that’s when you push it. But other days, you might need to just go through the motions, get some practice in, and call it done.
Autoregulation, as a practice, is important because you won’t always be able to make gains every workout, and it’s not always the best to push it to your absolute max every single session.
Autoregulation In The Real World With The Bear
In Elements, we have you practicing locomotion, where you get down on all fours and do the Bear Crawl.
When you perform the Bear, you can set a timer for 15 minutes. Now, if you’ve never done the bear, you might be thinking “how will I crawl around for an entire 15 minutes?!”
The truth is, you won’t.
The goal is to get to a point with your conditioning and ability that you can spend the majority of your time doing the Bear.
But that’s not going to be possible for most people starting out. And that’s where the concept of autoregulation comes into play.
You’ll set your time, get down into position and start crawling. And you’ll go for as long as you can in good form. And when you get too fatigued, you stop. Take a breather. Shake your arms out, and catch your breath. Once you’re recovered, you start again.
Take note of how you feel and how it goes. You can even mark it down how long each mini-session is during your 15 minutes. During your next encounter with the Bear, you might be a little stronger, and a little more conditioned. This will allow you to spend more time on the movement, and less time resting.
But some days, you might not be able to make improvements. And you might even need more rest than before. That’s totally okay. The goal is to focus on doing your best, and managing fatigue.
Get the work in as your body allows for it. Remember… you’ll have good and bad days, but what matters most is that you show up and get the work done.
Practical Ways To Push Yourself
Here are 7 ways you can increase the intensity of your workouts without adding extra resistance or time.
Pushing yourself doesn’t mean always going your hardest and stretching your limits. Some days you’ll feel incredibly able, and other days, you’ll feel fairly normal. While other days, you can’t be bothered.
So instead of pushing for personal bests every session, here are ways you can increase the intensity of your workouts.
- Embrace variations. Some examples are making push-ups harder by elevating your feet on a box or chair. For the Bear, pause your reps by holding your hand/foot up for 2 seconds, and take it slower. This sounds easy, but doing it for one minute might change your mind.
Here are some Bear Crawl variations:
- Take Your Training Outdoors. When you work out on a mat indoors, or on your living room floor, your environment is static. But if you practice your handstands on the soft, uneven ground, you’ll be challenged in different ways. This will force you to make minor adjustments with your movement, and all these small tweaks will pay off in the next few sessions when you’re back to your familiar training environment.
- Restrict Yourself To A Movement And Focus On One Thing. For example, let’s think about breathing. When you get into your training session, you build fatigue over time. And that’s about when you start to breathe heavily. Most of us will begin to mouth-breathe as soon as we get fatigued because this allows for more oxygen intake. An example to try is to get into the Frogger or Bear for one minute and only allow yourself to breathe through your nose. You’re likely to notice the movement gets harder as time goes by because you’ll want to open your mouth to take in more oxygen. This is a chance to practice mastering your breath and make any movement harder.
- Go Longer With Movement Combinations. Take three movements and string them together and set your timer for one minute. Aim to move through these movements fluidly as quickly as you can but with full control. Make it harder with nose-breathing only.
- Adding Additional Sets For More Volume. If you’ve completed three sets of a movement and you have more in the tank, do another set or two. If these are easy, congratulations, it’s time to make this movement more difficult with an advanced variation.
- Add A Burnout To Your Final Set. A burnout set is a single set you do AFTER all your work sets. Let’s say you were doing handstand push-ups practice. At the end of your workout, you can do a set of inverted presses and crank them out until you can’t do one more rep. You don’t need to count reps here. Just focus on quality movement until exhausted. Once you’re done, you’re free to cry in the corner. We won’t shame you.
- Try A Finisher. Instead of going to ‘failure’ (we don’t care for that word), consider adding a finisher to the end of your workout. Let’s say you’re doing Integral Strength. Once you’re finished with your session, you can end it with a movement for 30 seconds. Set your timer, and do that movement for time. Get as many reps as possible in that time frame and then call it a day.
- Consider Cluster Reps. Let’s say you have a hard movement, like pull-ups, where you can only do one to two reps at a time. You would do one rep, then rest for 10-15 seconds, shake your arms out, and then do another rep. You could set your sights on a rep goal that is reasonable (it could be 10 total). Repeat this process until you get all 10 reps. It helps build volume, and it’s good mentally to see yourself doing more reps in a short period. And this not only builds strength, but confidence as well.
- Try Drop Sets. A drop set is where you take a movement to fatigue, and then drop the intensity and continue the movement to get more volume. For instance, let’s say you’re proficient doing the Shrimp or Pistol squat. You’d do as many reps as you can, and then drop to an easier movement, like lunges. Then you’d do a set of lunges for as many reps as possible. From there, you’d regress to a regular body weight squat for more reps. The way to think about this is by consciously cycling through regressions. Start with the hardest variation you can do, and move downward to the easiest variation.
- Be Super With SuperSets. A superset is when you take two movements and do them back to back with minimal rest. For example, you could start with a front lever for your desired reps, rest 15-20 seconds, and then do a planche for your desired reps, followed by another 15-20 second rest. After your superset is over, rest about 60-90 seconds and repeat the superset for another 2-4 rounds.
- Circuit Training. We use circuits in both Elements and Integral Strength. A circuit is where you’ll choose four to five movements, do them for 45 seconds each and follow it up with the next movement. After you do the four to five movements (called a round), you’d rest for 30-60 seconds, and then do another circuit. To make this even harder, you can decrease the rest time between circuits.
- Accommodating Resistance. For the harder movements, you can use something as an aid for the movement. For example, when practicing one-arm pull-ups, you can use a band to help offset your body weight. For push-ups start at the top position, and slowly lower yourself to the ground. To make pushing your body up easier, you can put your knees on the ground at the bottom to aid yourself in getting back to the top position.
- Finally, Play! This is especially important on the days that you feel pretty ‘meh’ and need to get some exercise in for the sake of moving your body. Instead of pushing yourself to the limits, you can pick three to four movements you’re familiar with and just have some fun with it. Here’s an example of how we play:
How To Push Yourself Properly: The Checklist
To sum it up, remember the following:
- Train Smart And Hard. but don’t push yourself so hard to the point that your form suffers or that you get hurt. Remember to give a lot of effort on the Amazing and Good Enough Days, and respect your limits on the Not Gonna Happen Days.
- Your Intensity comes from giving it your best effort, not necessarily making gains every single workout.
- Schedule Your Workouts and do the best you can. You will miss days here and there, but consistency wins in the end.
- Use Autoregulation As A Tool to adapt your workouts to the day. Some days you feel great. Others you won’t. Let your body dictate how much you push and don’t be afraid to take it down a notch or two and just get your body moving.
- Increase The Intensity with variations, volume modifications, and shortening rest periods. Any exercise can be made harder by slowing it down, or working through regressions to create fatigue.
One of the best ways to learn how to push yourself is by going through Elements and building up your intensity and work capacity over time. We start off easy to help you adapt to the movements, and each week we help you improve on those, one step at a time.
Learn How To Push Yourself With a Foundation in the Basics
With Elements, you’ll build a foundation of strength, flexibility, and control over 8 weeks, setting yourself up for a successful lifetime of staying fit and active.