Effort, How Much is Too Much

Effort, How Much is Too Much


If I could wave my magic wand and change one thing about how people approach strength training, or training in general for that matter, it would be their perspective on and application of effort.

That’s right, biofeedback testing wouldn’t be the first place I would start. (Don’t get me wrong, I think you should test, too, since this hypothetical mutually exclusive scenario doesn’t exist—but testing wouldn’t be The One Weird Trick™ I’d lead with.)

In general, if you ask someone how much effort they apply in their training they’ll give you the answer they think you want to hear which is: ALL OF IT. But I think there’s a problem in the way most people define “effort.”

Effort as it applies to training is strenuous physical or mental exertion. Effort implies straining or probing the limits.

And yet, you can get better, more consistent results without straining.

The Elements of Effort

The very first topic I teach in my workshops is the concept of excessive effort to clarify exactly how we should navigate this term. Excessive effort is anything more than the minimal effective amount of effort, or anything that involves the elements of effort. All credit goes to my mentor Frankie Faires for outlining this spectrum of effort:

  1. Speed: When reps slow down
  2. Tension: When “poop face” occurs
  3. Breathing: When respiration gets ragged
  4. Alignment: When your form changes
  5. Failure: Missing a rep
  6. Pain: Shit starts to hurt
  7. Damage: Shit breaks

Can we agree that when things go south on a lift, you generally exhibit changes in these characteristics? Whether or not it happens in this exact order, you usually have a change (loss) of bar speed, which coincides with an increase in tension (usually not directly related to moving the weight, such as gritting your teeth or grimacing), that changes your breathing (i.e., going from not holding your breath to holding it), and results in a shift in your alignment (which hopefully doesn’t cause injury) as you struggle to complete the lift or ultimately fail it.

These elements of effort consistently show up when shit gets ugly.

Now, there’s a bit of a divide between trained and untrained individuals. Usually people with no training background find it perfectly reasonable to stop before excessive effort is applied. Trained individuals, on the other hand, have typically been indoctrinated with this special brand of “beast-mode thinking” that doesn’t benefit them and often leaves them with a laundry list of pains and injuries to show for it. They’re the ones who stand to benefit the most by stopping before effort shows up.

Say you don’t believe me and you remain utterly convinced that grinding to the limit is a prerequisite for improvement. Let me ask a few questions:

Have you ever watched the Olympics? How often do they exhibit the elements of excessive effort when they’re competing at the absolute top of their game?

Watch this video of IPF world-record holder and one of the strongest raw powerlifters alive Mike Tuchscherer pulling 755×4. With the order of the reps shuffled would you even be able to tell which rep is first and last?

Have you ever heard someone exclaim with admiration, “Wow, nice job! You really made that look hard!”?

Mastery is when you can make hard things look easy. If we believe that the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) governs our training, then doesn’t it make more sense to specifically train the way we want it to eventually look: easy?

Embrace Effortless 

At first it may seem that this approach is either exceedingly simple and can’t make much difference, or you may think it’s just flat-out wrong. As with anything I write or speak about, the ultimate test is up to you to perform, but it requires action, not thinking, on your part. I believe you will find that this makes a profound difference in your training experience and will be transformative in your practice.

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  1. Shane Mclean says:

    Good point David. Embrace effortless, making it look easy. That is the way to go and my new catch phrase.

  2. No question, true mastery requires grace and ease. And certainly if I can do the same lift today with less effort and more grace than yesterday, that’s an improvement.

    But are you saying I should never attempt a lift where I don’t yet have mastery? Or that I should always strive to increase mastery on lifts where I don’t yet have (enough of) it?

    There is no way I can make a 85% lift look like 60%. So should I never lift 85%? Or rather, should I strive to improve my 85% lift to look more like what 60% is today?

    I’ve been doing sets of 8-10 trap bar deadlifts at around 75% of 1RM. That definitely takes effort, but if I try, I’m able to smile throughout the top part of the lift which does reduce the effort. So do you recommend I try to smile more during the lift as is, or drop the weight so I can smile the entire lift now?

    • Bob, while I’m a huge advocate of making the vast majority of your training LOOK easy, the point to be clear on is that if anything changes it is an indication of elements of effort creeping in. If it looks like that on rep 1, it’s up to you to determine if that’s appropriate for a new PR 1RM or whatever, or if it’s an indication that your state is worse than it should be.

  3. Nice, heard of your blog today over on IcePact. Had to laugh at: “Have you ever heard someone exclaim with admiration, “Wow, nice job! You really made that look hard!”? Mer and I, being skaters, are allowed to whine about how we not only have to do hard things, we have to do them while smiling and looking relaxed and happy. Yesterday in practice I tried really hard on my sit-change-sit (sit spin with a change of foot) and stuck my tongue out with the effort. That is so not allowed!


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