Why you don’t always have to work hard to get results

June 9, 2012

Just like mama always said, “If you want something badly enough, all you have to do is work hard and it can be yours,” right? Not always. When it comes to working out, there’s a time to work hard and a time to work smart, and knowing when to do each can mean the difference between success and failure. Here are four reasons why doing less can sometimes mean better results.

Cycle your workouts
Most people enter the gym with one purpose in mind, to get a great workout, but they sometimes fail to understand that achieving this goal doesn’t always mean working so hard you can hardly walk up the steps the next day. Don’t get me wrong; hard work is important, but the body responds best to small, incremental changes that slowly and consistently increase the intensity of the workload. Failure to do this correctly can lead to quick results followed by a steady free fall into a plateau that will yield little to no results. To avoid this, cycle the intensity of the workouts to peak every three to six weeks, and you will constantly make progress.

Master form before adding weight
Lifting challenging weight is important, but too often, people confuse quality with quantity and end up compromising their form. To get optimum results, you must learn to isolate your muscles, recruiting as many muscle fibers as possible. If you’re using sloppy form, your joints will most likely take the brunt of the pressure instead of the targeted muscles, putting you at risk of injury. A good rule of thumb is to take two full seconds to lift the weight and another two seconds to bring the weight back down to the starting position.

Leave a couple reps in the tank
Conventional wisdom says lifting weights until you can’t squeeze out another repetition is a great way to make progress, but all good coaches know sometimes leaving a couple reps in the tank can go a long way toward allowing the body to rest and recover, setting you up for continued progress. There are certainly times when you should work to failure, but not every day, and if you choose to do this you risk overtraining, injury and lack of progress.

Know when to start over and reset your program
Regardless of how great your program is or how well it worked, there will come a time to take a break and switch things up so you can recharge your battery. Don’t wait until you’ve run yourself into the ground, but rather pick a time when you’re still making progress, and take a week to do nothing but rest and enjoy doing the things you love. Then create a new program, get back to the gym and start the process all over again. I always suggest taking two to three breaks a year so you remain mentally and physically fresh and ready to take your workouts to the next level.

Remember, working hard is only part of the equation; sometimes working smarter can be the difference between success and failure.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out