Working Hard, Hardly Working, and Being Stupid

I got my first job in high school, working for a guy from my church who owned his own landscaping business. Green Side Up, it was called. Like and egg, sunny side up, only because we mowed grass and grass is green, it was Green Side Up. Except one summer it was 110 degrees outside every day, and then the grass was brown. But brown side up doesn’t sound as cool and probably wouldn’t be good for business. That summer we hardly worked, but most summers we worked hard, shoveling dirt, digging up trees and hauling wheelbarrows and wheelbarrows of stone, sand, and gravel.

Because I worked for a man who went to my church, every time I showed up on Sunday, all the old guys of the congregation would come up to me before the service and ask me “Working hard or hardly working?” chuckling to themselves about their witty turn of phrase. They didn’t really care about my answer.

So that their witty turn of phrase isn’t lost on me, let’s apply it to the gym, with the addition of

Some definitions so we are on the same page:

Being Stupid: An athlete is performing on the “being stupid” side of the spectrum if they’re so wrecked its hard to decide whether the stuff on the floor is vomit or brain tissue, or their deadlift/squat/thruster/barbell thing makes their spine look like its made out of ramen noodles. I GO SO HAWRDDD. 

Working hard: The perfect balance between physical effort and mental engagement. Full physical effort without a brain is reckless. Mental engagement without physical effort is useless. Combining these two things is where the magic happens.The athlete is in the zone, the flow. Controlled and focused intensity. Speaking as a coach, watching athletes operate in this zone is a joy to watch. 

Hardly Working: Either the athlete is not disciplined enough to get uncomfortable and work hard, or they are afraid to do so. Where a “being stupid” athlete can at least be commended for trying hard, these athletes are not and should be shot on sight.

Differences between these three qualities is not always black and white, so they lie together on a spectrum that looks something like this:  


i drew this in paint so shut up

The Three Training Frequency Curves

It’s easy to say “stay in the middle and work hard”. Based on experience, though, our training sessions can be all over this spectrum, so the key is aiming for the middle in order to improve the frequency of full physical effort/mental engagement experiences.

The Being Stupid Curve

This is a bad spectrum frequency curve:


I drew this in paint so shut up

This is being stupid. You don’t get a trophy  for a torn rotator cuff, you get a torn rotator cuff. Yes, injuries happen, aches and pains will happen. Training hard is necessary. But for 10 out of 10 people, injury prevention is numero uno mucho importante (that is Spanish for important). 

For example, the average full recovery time for a SLAP tear is six to nine months with a beginning cost of $25,000. This….would suck for your health. Or performance. Or for hanging out at the gym and doing physical things with people in a social setting, because you will be the awkward kid sitting on the bench with their arm in a sling watching other people work hard as you try to look enthusiastic cheering them on. 

If the issue is a mental one – be smarter. Be more strategic on when you need to pull back the reins or when you can let it rip. Don’t lose your brain. Don’t panic. Don’t lose focus and become careless.

If the issue is a physical one, take the time to fix problems with movement, muscle imbalances, or decrease volume and/or intensity to allow chronic pain to heal. It’s the right thing to do.

So do the right thing.

i am seven years old for remembering this quote

i am seven years old for remembering this quote

Also notice that being stupid also leads to a higher frequency of being fearful or lazy. Ever do something dumb and slip a disc underneath a max effort back squat? After you recover from having to lie still in bed for four days, it’s going to take a long time to mentally get back on that horse. Even if the injury isn’t catastrophic, fighting back pain after a poor work for months is a great way to kill intensity and obliterate training quality.

This lack of intensity and training quality leads to laziness. “I’m scared to do something so I just won’t do something” turns into “I won’t do something.”  Which turns into NOMNOMNOM I LUV DOUGHNUTS!!!!!

At this point you’re screwed.

Doughnuts are awesome though.

The Laziness or Fear Curve

Looks like this;



These athlete might be afraid; prior injury, reputation of the training program,or the know  “someone who was doing this was paralyzed and died shortly after”.

It can also be because they are lazy piles of shit.

Nothing happens here. No progress, however they define it. They take up space in the gym, they take all the five and 2-1/2 pound plates so no one else can use them. They walk in front of you on the platform just as you’re about to pull a PR attempt. They whine about training being hard, are apathetic about everything, and coaches will want to punch them in the throat. Not in the mood, not feeling good, things are just off, taking it easy today. Weight is too heavy, this workout is not fun enough.

Also notice it can lead to an increase of Being Stupid. When the magical gym gods bless this athlete with a moment of motivation and ethic, they have no idea how to handle it.


They crash and burn and the cycle repeats itself.

The Working Hard Curve

The perfect curve looks like so:


This is the ideal spectrum – low frequency in the bad stuff, high frequency in the good stuff. Working hard is more than just physical effort – it’s the cooperation between full physical effort and complete mental engagement.

Honesty is the Best Policy

If we’re honest to ourselves, we are a mix of all three curves. Yes, even the most elite of us will come into the gym and sit on the floor for an hour before getting to work. Even the most knowledgeable of us will do something we know we shouldn’t because of pride and pay the price for it.

Sometimes entire workouts are defined by one single quality, or you might see all three within a single training session.

So how do we get more “working hard” workouts?

How To Get There

It takes good coaching, experience, and practice. Good coaches can see things you can’t, and can push you when you don’t want to be and should be, or can rein you in when you start being dumb. Experience will also teach the lines you shouldn’t cross, on either side of the spectrum. It should only take one “I’ll just try ittttttttttohshitmyback” to let you know what being stupid feels like. And the “UGHHHHH I don’t want to be here” is a pretty obvious mental state to recognize, and so ignoring it simply becomes a matter of self-discipline. 

But the single best way to increase the frequency of quality training is to take ownership of your training by practicing full physical effort with complete mental engagement. Full physical effort without your brain is reckless. Mental engagement without physical effort is useless. Combining these two things is where the magic happens, and magic takes practice. Your coach is there is help you, other athletes are their to push you, encourage you, and compete with you. But ultimately your commitment to the practice of hard work determines your level of success.

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