Train Smart; Not Hard - Does Intelligence Mean Less Effort is Required?

Posted on 29 Sep 2014 22:47

Train Smart; Not Hard. This is one of those aphorisms I'm not sure about. It sounds good, doesn't it? On one hand, I've said it myself in regards to strength training. When I said it, I had a fairly specific idea of what I meant. I meant to say that you should ignore the macho caveman bullshit that is such a part of messages about strength training, where people say things like "Just shut up and lift heavy. Work hard. Beast mode!" I meant that you should THINK, PLAN, ASSESS, and, you know, just generally behave like you have something between your ears. Don't live up to the meathead view of strength training. It really does take some smarts to get very, very strong.

We All Know What Hard Work Is, But What is Smart Work?

Here's the problem: People have a fairly easy time of figuring out what 'hard work' means, but it is not so easy to figure out what 'smart work' means. The former is subjective, the latter objective. With that, we reveal the central problem with such cute little aphorisms. They sound nice and simple, but they aren't. They gloss over complicated problems with pat little proclamations or commands. You can't compare hard work with working smart and then just cast aside one for the other like you're choosing an orange over an apple.

Fixed Versus Malleable Intelligence: Am I As Smart As I'll Ever Be?

When this post began forming in my mind, I had two inspirations. One was the aphorism in the title, and the other was a passage in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid. In the Chapter 2 section, The Belief That Intelligence Is a Fixed Trait versus and Potential That Can Be Developed, and subsequent sections, chapter author Carol S. Dweck states that some people view intelligence as a fixed and finite trait. According to this view, some people have it, and some people do not. Others think that intelligence can be increased and that everybody has at least some potential to increase it. They can become smarter if they apply the effort.

Denying the Power of EFFORT!

Effort, though, can have a different connotation to those who view intelligence as fixed. And, as I thought about this aphorism, I realized that this view of effort was embodied in it. That is, those who are smart do not require effort! Say it to yourself and think about it for a moment. Work smart; not hard, contrasts being smart with working hard. It seems to imply that if you apply enough brain power, you will not have to put in as much effort. Another section by Dweck in chapter 2 spells out this belief: Denying the Power of Effort: The Belief That Effort Is Only for the Incompetent:

Many people who hold the fixed view of intelligence hold yet another belief that makes them do dumb things. It is the belief that if you're truly intelligent, you don't need effort. (Or that if you need effort, you're not intelligent).

As the author explains, these people believe that if you are really smart at something, you shouldn't have to work hard at it.1 I think that the key to unraveling the mistake is in the phrase smart AT something, and I'll get to that a bit later. But, first, everybody knows that no matter what, you have to work hard at strength training, right? Surely, nobody will take the titular aphorism literally! Well, perhaps not. Yet, I see so many attempts by strength training experts to deny the need for hard work, that I wonder if everybody realizes how monumental your ongoing effort must be to become truly strong.

Effective Training Means Focused Hard Work, But Nobody's Perfect

You can't just work hard. And you can't just work smart. Neither makes much sense. More specifically, you have to intelligently focus your effort to the task at hand. There really is no replacement for hard work, but that work must be specific to what you want to accomplish. Realizing this, we can begin to unravel why these messages that seem to be deny hard work have become so prevalent. Personal trainers who think that their job is to just send their clients through a gristmill and turn their muscles to jelly, or the horrendous Crossfit sessions that leave people puking and passed out, have caused a backlash. Even as I began writing this paragraph I realized that I was involved in a conversation on Facebook just the other day related to this problem. Someone had posted some quotes and I had a quibble or two with one of the quotes, but the message was simple and apt. It was related to a quote by Mel Siff that was also posted. Now, I've often had some problems with Mel Siff quotes. I am not so enamored and God-smacked by everything he said as some people are. This quote reveals both a truth and a central naivete about intelligent training for performance:

To me, the sign of a really excellent routine is one which places great demands on the athlete, yet produces progressive long-term improvement without soreness, injury or athlete ever feeling thoroughly depleted.

Any fool can create a program that is so demanding that it would virtually kill the toughest Marine or hardiest of elite athletes, but not any fool can create a tough program that produces progress without unnecessary pain." — Dr. Mel Siff.

The second part of this quote, I think we can accept without much analysis. It seems to be a truism. Any dumbass, truly, CAN create an exhausting and downright debilitating workout or program. But for the first part, if we assume that a really excellent routine would also be one borne of intelligent planning, we see the naivete I mentioned. Some people see "smart training" as if it comes with an escape clause. A get out of jail free card, if you will. The idea that an awesome trainer should be able to produce progressive long-term performance progression in a trainee without that trainee ever being sore or even thoroughly depleted is not even close to a realistic one. And we could, of course, argue that injuries will occur, at some point, during a strength training career that stretches far enough. We cannot plan for and foresee everything, and we cannot account for every variable, no matter how smart we are. In fact, we cannot get truly strong without at times being sore, and yes, without at times feeling depleted.


No matter how sharp your axe, and your experience with wielding it,
chopping down a tree is hard work. You may even get dirty and sweaty
and mess up your hair!

The Risk Versus the Benefit: How Much Exhaustion Is Acceptable?

During every session, we must ask ourselves a few questions, after all. "How far am I willing to go to reach my training goal today. What is an acceptable risk? What is an acceptable negative side-effect? Can I recover and continue to progress if I allow those risks?" If you are going to be sore, if makes more sense to be sore after training for a targeted goal, than after just training randomly for the purpose of being tired and sore!

Sometimes quotes like the one I'm discussing here are more philosophical than practical. If I told a trainee that I would plan a program for them that would guarantee they would never be sore or depleted, I would be also guaranteeing that I would be holding them back, at certain times, just when I should be pushing them forward! This reveals yet another misconception about strength training: That you can plan ahead for months or years at a time "intelligently." In reality, you must make decisions on the floor and some of those decisions will involve just how 'depleted' you are willing to be! After all, if you feel that, on the day, you have the ability to hit a big PR, but you know it will 'cost' you some fatigue the next day, are you supposed to wimp out? Of course not. That may not be an intelligent decision for someone training for absolute strength. That is not being smart at strength training.

I'm Skilled At Training; I'm Not Skilled At Calculus

I said before that the idea that being smart 'at' something reveals one of the problems with the fixed intelligence view and the idea that intelligence means effort is not required. If you are smart at strength training, it actually says nothing about your overall intelligence (although it may say something about your potential). It only speaks to your skill at training for strength. I'll take a page out of my own life to explain what I mean.

One of the most angry moments I ever experienced was during a calculus class in college. I could not do calculus. I just couldn't. No matter how much effort I put into it, it would not click. In truth, I had taken pre-calculus and done very well, though, because I had a great teacher. But this professor in calculus was horrible. Just horrible. He simply assumed that everyone in the class "should be smart enough to do it" and so he didn't bother to explain anything. He would just put problems rapid-fire on a white-board and then rush through them, skipping most of the steps. He even said it verbally: "If you're smart, you won't need to put any effort into this, you already should know it. If you don't know it and aren't smart enough, you shouldn't be in this class." Message: Smart people know calculus, dumb people do not. He delivered this proclamation in a thick Asian accent, yet, during this speech, he was suddenly more understandable than when he was "teaching" calculus. I was incensed.

So, as I say, no amount of effort, it seemed, would make calculus make sense to me. However, the professor's view of intelligence was a view that many "smart" people hold. A dumb view. It is a fixed view whereby they are so enamored of their cognitive talent, they think of it as resolute and unchanging. They came into this world smart, and they will leave it just as smart. Effort is for the dumb. It all comes easy to them!

I tried to imagine what happened to this professor. How did his career progress? Hard to imagine as he was so smart, he couldn't possibly learn anything new. How can a mathematician who knows everything possible bring anything new to the field? Sarcasm aside, the idea that effort is for dumb people is a common dumb thing that smart people believe.

Confusing Skill With Intelligence: No Matter How Talented You Are, Hard Work Is Required for Big Things!

The professor, as it turns out, was confusing skill with intelligence. Even if every student in the class was known to have the same level of intelligence (supposing we could measure it), some would be more skilled at the task at hand, calculus, than others. Those students would require less effort to be successful in the class. It would stand to reason that those same students might have less skill in other subjects. For instance, I might have required less effort in a language class than the young fellow student who tried (valiantly, I might add) to help me understand the calculus problems.

At some point, however, each of us would have to put in a lot of effort to accomplish something BIG. But that doesn't necessarily reveal the whole problem with this belief about intelligence and effort. The big problem is that if you think you are so smart that it all should come effortlessly to you, you will shut down when you find that more effort is required that you thought! I see this happen all the time with those who think they have strength training all figured out, and certainly, it is even more apparent in more cognitively centered pursuits.

Hidden Facets of the Fixed View of Intelligence, and of Skill

Even if you are very smart, you can become smarter. Even if you are very skilled at strength training, you can become more skilled. But to do either will require hard work. We often hear people say things like "I strength train to prove to myself what I'm capable of." Follow that to its conclusion. Something in there, somewhere, implies that this person already has some belief in the proposition that they are extremely capable. They are saying that something is clouding that belief and that they are seeking, therefore, to prove that their belief is valid by doing strength training. The same kind of attitude is inherit in this fixed view of intelligence and of skill. If I am smart, I am smart. If I am good, I am good.

You can imagine how a strength trainee who believes not only that he is very smart, but that he will be very good at strength training might run into some challenges and may not be able to overcome them. Let's say this person decides that the deadlift may be a good way to prove how strong he is. Being an average male with average weight, he begins to train 'intelligently' and before he knows it, he's surpassed 350lbs. As he hones in on 400lbs, things stop coming so easy. It appears that the same smart training that served him so well has suddenly failed him! Ah, but it is okay because:

1. He has already proven that he is good at strength training.
2. He has proven that he is smart about strength training.
3. And, to some extent, he has proven that he's just awesome in general.

There is no need to worry about getting that 400. Proves nothing. He's already shown he can do it and the numbers never really meant that much to him. I've seen this same kind of reaction from those who failed to train smart, got themselves hurt lifting heavy weights, and then declare that heavy weights are for dumb asses. This person adopts very absolute views about strength training, and those views are designed to protect his self-assessment of his ability and intelligence.

Smart People and Absolute Views: "Perfect Form"

There is not a better example of absolute views for smart people than the view concerning perfect form. Ideas about perfect form help insulate lifters from lifting challenges. Matthew Danziger in his article Defining Good Form2, reveals that defining good form is far less clear than the ever-present "form police" would like to believe. He says that good form is goal specific, using the example of good form for a bodybuilder versus good form for a powerlifter. They lift weights in ways that is relevant to their goals. But then, in regards to the most popular cited reason for form being absolute and never-changing, because it is safe and effective, he says:

The short and honest answer is that no one knows for sure…much of the information in the world of sports and fitness is based primarily on anecdotes and inferences. This information is still valuable and it would be foolish to overlook it, but you can’t factually state that any one way is the best way to do something. If you adhere to the basic principles of physics and physiology while embracing the wisdom of the past, you’ll probably end up with pretty good form.

Most smart people would embrace the concept of training safely and preventing injury. However, Matthew seems to be saying that what is safe and effective, in terms of form, is not as clear-cut and absolutely known as we have often been led to believe. This may come as a shock to many readers: The bad form that you have been guaranteed will produce injury, has in no way been proven to be a sure path to injury. The idea that a personal trainer can "predict" an injury based on your form doesn't hold much weight. Regardless, we can still hold a reasonable belief that certain ways of lifting are probably more safe, in the long run, than others, given what we know about the limits of our tissues when challenged in certain ways. Still, most injuries in strength training come from over-work rather than from one, or even several, deviations from perfect form.

We Cannot Provide Absolute Proof For Most Training Practices: I Can't Prove You Won't Get Injured!

If it is not even an absolute given that certain practices will result in injury, even when we know a great deal about injury mechanisms, can you see that other absolute rules about strength training are probably not so valid? This is especially true since not every practice in strength training can be proven or disproven based on a scientifically empirical refutation. That is, certain practices may be refutable, but it may not be possible to refute them in purely scientific ways. Yet, those who would hold themselves as being smart strength trainees, or smart trainers, would tend to shy away from such refutations! These require a lot of effort and they are also very good at revealing the limitations in our knowledge and experience. I once used a non-scientific reasoning process to back up my view that "I will not get injured during the deadlift today," using inductive reasoning. With that, I was able to show that I had reasonable doubts about the possibility of getting injured.

I will NEVER be able to prove, beyond all possible doubt, that I will not get injured during a deadlift session. Extend that. The reality is that most of what we do in strength training we will never be able to prove that it is right beyond all possible doubt. Part of what those that talk about evidence-based training or practice seem to want is evidence that shows us things beyond all possible doubt. Hardly anything in human performance seems to work that way (a future article addresses some of my views on evidence based training). But this gravitation toward things that prescribe practices in absolute terms are attractive to certain people.

If There is No Hurdle, You Haven't Proven Anything!

Let's go back to the guy who fails to get to that elusive 400lbs deadlift and stops training, declaring that he's proven he could do it. This scenario is a typical one for those who view their ability as a fixed, non-dynamic trait. To be truly great, on the other hand, instead of wanting to prove our intelligence and skill, we have to set out to live up to our potential. We have to know that in order to grow and overcome challenges we have to accept that challenges will occur, and also, that circumstances will occur where we do not know the one absolute correct course of action.

Training Smart Means Being Sure? Absolute Rules and Defense Mechanisms

Training smart would seem to entail always being sure. It does not. When we limit our learning, we limit our challenges. The problem with going into training with a goal of "train smart" is that more people than not will seek out absolutes. And they will find them being served up by hundreds of strength trainers and writers. There is a right way. There is a wrong way. If you're smart, you'll do it the right way. Certainly, this means that you will always abide by a certain set of absolute rules, and if you do so, you will become as strong as possible. This kind of thinking handicaps you from the start. Not only that, but as soon as your absolute rules fail you, you will self-handicap. This is similar to thinking that failing means you are a failure. If how smart you are about your strength training, or anything else you do, defines how intelligent you are in general, then everything you do in strength training must be successful, and be correct, or you will reveal that your intelligence is not as high as you would like it to be. The same thing goes for strength training performance itself. If you believe yourself to be a strong person, and set out to show that through strength training, you have built-in the prerequisite that you always must be successful in performance, lest you show your weakness.

This creates not success, but a whole set of defenses designed to distance you from the reality of the task you have set out for yourself! One of those defenses is to avoid opportunities to learn something about strength training, or yourself. Let's face it, if you are convinced that you are a super-intelligent strength trainee who only trains smart, the last thing you want to do is have an opportunity to learn you're not!

Modifying the Aphorism

With that, I think we have learned how to modify this aphorism to make it a bit better. Instead of "Train smart; not hard," it should be "Train smart AND Hard." Strength training is hard work! In fact, it is one of the most demanding physical undertakings in which you can partake. But being smart is also hard work. How smart you are about strength training, or about anything, is not fixed. It is malleable, but to pound your strength training skills into shape, you need not only a good maul, but a lot of effort. Abraham Lincoln once said that if he was given 8 hours to chop down a tree, he would spend six of those hours sharpening his axe. Well, as wise as this sounds, sometime the tree is of harder wood than you expected, and no matter how much time you spent sharpening your axe to a razor-like edge, you're still going to have to swing the hell out of it, and perhaps even stop to hone it a few times, before you finally get that tree to fall.

One thing that the smartest people will tell you about training for performance is that it is, to a large extent, not only a scientific and reasoning process, but also a creative process. To be creative is not to deny the need for intelligent solutions. Indeed, creative thinking, by definition, embodies flexibility, learning, and growth.

So stop worrying about how smart your training makes you, and start training hard!

1. Dweck, Carol S. "Chp. 2: Beliefs That Make Smart People Dumb." Why Smart People Can Be so Stupid. Ed. Robert J. Sternberg. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. 25-34.
2. Danziger, Matthew. "Defining Good Form." True Movement. N.p., 17 June 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

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This page created 29 Sep 2014 22:47
Last updated 05 Aug 2016 01:02

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