“Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” – John F. Kennedy 



A conversation with one of my Efficient Exercise clients this past week reminded me of my Return on Investment  post from awhile back.

This is an intelligent and super-motivated 50-ish male client who has been with me for a couple of years now. A client who has, within that short period of time, put on appreciable muscle mass and significantly cut his overall body fat percentage. Sounds like a win-win, right? Now the guy was in fairly good shape to begin with, so I don’t want to blow any hyperbole, “immaculate transition” smoke here. Let’s just say though, that in a large part because of his motivation and drive (both in nailing his workouts and dialing-in his diet), and coupled with some intelligent programming (pat on the back, here), he has produced a fantastic body comp and some excellent resultant health parameters. He’s also got some legit genetics on his side (think Frank Zane-like build), so his efforts are rewarded favorably. By his own words, he’s thrilled with his look, feel and performance.

So what, you may ask, is the problem?

Well, the “problem” is that “driven” can be a double-edged sword. There’s a fine line between “100%, all in” and “unhealthy (or unrealistic) obsession”.  And to further complicate matters, that line skews and blurs depending on who we’re talking about and the context in which that person finds himself. For instance, a “tremendously driven athlete” (desirable attribute) would be considered a weekend warrior with an unhealthy exercise/performance obsession. This is a particularly tumultuous Rubicon to navigate for ex-athletes like myself; actions and mindsets former athletes were once lauded for now get them couch time with a shrink, or worse — producing manifestations of physical health problems and an erosion of social networks and personal relationships. Context matters, folks — in grammar, and in training.

So back to the story of my client. As you might expect from a type A, “driven for success and perfection” personality, he wants more. More muscle mass. More work capacity. More strength and speed. And of course, more definition (i.e., less body fat). He asked me if this was possible; tweaking the machine for some additional performance. And I told him that, in my estimation, it certainly was — if he were willing to invest the exponentially greater amount of time and effort to produce those results. Is the positive bump in performance worth the 5 (and possibly more) extra hours of hard work per week, along with the significant additional discomfort (“pounding” more calories, for example), for a slight increase in the “look and perform” departments?

For some of my clients, that is an acceptable compromise. And for competitive athletes, that — and a whole hell of alot more — better be an acceptable compromise.  Or, quite simply, you won’t be “competitive” for very long.

We know (or you ought to) that there is a profound difference in training for a specific event (example: track & field), training for team sport (example: American football), and training for general good health and fitness. You absolutely have to know your end goal, and train accordingly. Quite simply, you can’t answer to two masters; in other words, you can’t be uber competitive and be healthy. Now, I’m not saying a competitive athlete can’t fully recover from the grind of those competitive days (I’m proof that they certainly can), but rather, that health has to take a backseat during the competitive run. There is a spectrum to work with here of course, but that yellow band between the all-is-well green zone and red-lining your health is pretty damn narrow. Again, I speak from experience here. I rather enjoy the thrill and n=1 body-hack of tight-roping that green/yellow line (the “C” zone, below).

Side note: even the very definition of “health” changes in the competitive sphere. An athlete’s being “healthy” only means that he/she is fully able to perform at a high level, and in no way considers the internal markers of health (C-reactive protein, for example). An extreme example of this is football players and concussions; something the sport is only now beginning to grapple with.

But it’s also important to really, really understand — and come to grips with — that all-important dimension of time. Namely, you need to understand that you don’t need nearly the amount of time you think you do in order to be an extremely healthy and reasonably fit individual. The flip-side though, is that you need a hell of alot more time than you can imagine to be an extreme performer. And it takes a special type of mindset to accept the exponential amount of time and suffering required to produce a slight positive nudge in performance.  Again, what is considered desirable in the athlete, is a notable pathology when exhibited in the “real world”.

So here’s the deal: I can’t choose the end goal for my client — I can only advise him/her of the cost-to-benefit realities of the situation; what might be gained vs what most definitely will be lost. Then, once the decision is made, I craft the training accordingly.  I have personally trained in, and successfully trained clients in, every portion of the health vs performance curve.  

And know this: the only “wrong” decision here is an uninformed decision.  Choose intelligently, saddle-up, and be at peace.

A couple of related posts you’d be interested in:

Chasing Performance at the Expense of Health

“Manthropology”, and Preaching the Health – Performance Continuum

Here’s a nice “sprints, bars and flips” workout for you to consider. Work capacity 101 (and a hell of a lot of fun):

12 tire flips + 100 yard sprint + 16 parallel bar “dip-hops” + 30 yard sprint + 5 muscle-ups + 24-rung monkey bar run + 5 muscle-ups + 30 yard sprint + 10-foot vertical wall clear + 30 yard sprint; 2 rounds – 17:22

And contrast this to the “pulls progression” workout I performed the following day:

Hang cleans: 95/5, 135/5, 165/3, 185/3; Hang clean + front squat: 185/3; squat clean: 185/3, 215/3, 225/1, 235/1, 1; snatch DL: 235/5, 275/5, 315/5

In health, fitness and ancestral wellness –


  1. A really high quality post and a layer of the onion that more people should peel. I don’t know what you charge but you are probably worth it. Learning to juggle obsessation, biology, and performance.

  2. Well written & thoughtful. But your workouts always look so hard core. All those muscle ups, dips, and cleans – makes my low back and shoulders ache just to think about it. I guess you can tell what part of the health – performance spectrum I’m surfing.

  3. I recently shifted my attention to bodyweight training and it’s interesting to compare the two recent/upcoming book additions (HITxACSM). I won’t go into specifics but it’s clear that ACSM is much closer to what you preach. I love having precise instructions though. If someone tells me “it’s difficult to say how man reps you should do, train 2-5 times a week, vary it, autoregulate” etc. then he is right, but I much prefer if the coach creates relatively rigid programme where the margin for error and underperformance is drastically reduced even when it means that somebody with a lot of experience would be actually limited by that programme. If I know exactly how to progress and it doesn’t allow for much choice then I can go on autopilot and if the programme is balanced to begin with and the volume x intensity x frequency never allows for overtraining, it’s fine, the pattern overolad doesn’t really matter in that case. I see the danger of autoregulation and chaos in the fact that most people will actually benefit from it comparatively less than that rigid, but solid programme if they don’t have a mentor or a coach. They won’t be able to pick up on signals their body gives them, their intensity will be too low or too high over time, the variety bonus won’t matter because their form isn’t optimal because they learn too many exercises etc.

    • ACSM? Not sure what this is?

      And yes, picking up on a trainee’s subtle cues is why I much prefer (and think it’s magnitudes more effective) to train hands-on vs “distance” training. Many times I’ve shifted modalities on-the-fly, and in the middle of a set, because that’s what’s needed to produce the best result. This simply cannot be done in a distance coaching (or written programming) format. But, as always, there is the good-better-best situation spectrum to consider.

  4. American College of Sports Medicine, but I meant bodyweight training books by Contreras and Baye we already talked about. In Bret’s book the instructions on programming are very much “it’s up to you” or “it depends”. There are no rep counts recommended, not much about how intensely you should train…
    It reminds me of the book Squat Every Day by Matt Perryman, who also trains by feel. So while “not tracking” and “not ensuring progressive overload” are mentioned as the culprits of no progress in the gym, it seems they are also a preferred method when you know what to do:-)

    • Oh, right on. Thanks for the clarification. And to your point, I think that “follow by number” programs — like 531, or 5×5, etc. — are good in the beginning. Until, that is, the trainee is ready to reach the next level of proficiency. And to reach that “next level” requires the ability to “read what your body is telling you”.

    • Ondrej,

      As someone whose graduate program is “immersed” in the ACSM guidelines, I can tell you that Keith’s ideas really aren’t anything like them. They’re still deeply entrenched in the medical model and that doesn’t jive with what we’re trying to do.

      Also, since you’re looking for quality progressions/instructions, why not check out “Gold Medal Bodies” for great bodyweight tutorials? They’re doing great stuff with rings and parallettes.

  5. To play devils advocate regarding autoregulation, here’s Jim Wendler and a forum friend talking about it:

    “Paul Carter
    This is another reason I don’t like autoregulation. Because guys can’t go into the gym without having a dick measuring contest with their self. No one REALLY down regulates the intensity because well, that’s pussy. Right?

    Picking a proper training max to let your programming revolve around is one of the most important factors in training. What you should be asking yourself is how low HOW LOW, can you program the training max and still get fucking strong with it. That’s the proper question.

    Jim Wendler:
    Thank you Paul. This is something I have preached (obviously) for a long time; you have to account for the ebb and flow of training/life. If you have a good day – do a rep record, work up, hit your TM for reps…the possibilities are endless. Have a bad day? Do the required reps and move on with your life. This is a great answer. (and I ALWAYS win a dick measuring contest with myself.)

    • Yep, totally legit. And it may be that Auto Reg works for me because I’m older and, arguably a bit wiser now. Long gone are my (prolific!) cock-measuring days. And I think it worked in an S&C environment because these kids were so closely monitored. Did wang-measuring still sneak in? Oh yeah. But I think the difference was that these kids weren’t iron athletes per se, i.e., not power/Oly lifters. S&C was seen (and rightly so) as a necessary evil, and I think that put just enough of a governor on the situation. They saved the REAL measuring for on-the-field contests — precisely where we wanted it. That atmosphere and attitude has to be well crafted and sold by the S&C staff though, and that’s not something all S&C coaches are good at. As you might expect, there are some excellent S&C programmers out there with shitty coaching skills. Some of these guys can never get beyond the idea that S&C is in place to make a better on-the-field player, not to make a champion iron athlete. There is an NFL, but no NS&CL. Oh, wait….I forgot about that CrossFit thing 😉


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