This is a corollary to my previous piece, and is intended to complement some of its obvious flaws. The point of the last article was not to imply that working out harder will always be more beneficial. Indeed, there are plenty of cases when working out as hard as you can will only hurt you more in the long run.
Periodization, one of the most basic standards in strength programming, is based around the idea that the human body really isn't capable of lifting at maximal efforts all the time. You can do it, but it sucks. Sure, you can show up to the gym and beastmode out and lift as heavy as possible and approach your one rep max once a week, but what happens when you push for twice a week? Three times a week? Four? Sooner or later, you're going to be sore and tired from previous attempts. Lifting heavy puts stress not only on your muscles but also on your brain, your bones, your joints, etc. Sooner or later, something is going to give out, and all it takes is that weakest link for the whole chain to fall apart. An injury is always a major setback, and you want to avoid injuring yourself if at all possible; consistently lifting too heavy is the easiest way to get yourself hurt.
Knowing how hard to push yourself and how hard to rest is essentially the main thing that a periodized program can teach you. It tells you to take days easy, to take days hard, to build up to maximal effort, to make gains by pushing yourself without having to push yourself too far. When I train, I consistently train around 80% of my max, no more or less. If my results video from last month is any indication, I still see great gains, despite the fact that I only hit 100% once a month. The important thing is to listen to your body. If your workout says you have to go 85% today, but you're still tired from the workout three or four days previous, then it's probably a sign that you need to cut back. Don't push your body beyond its limits, or you're going to hurt yourself, and an injury is always worse than simply holding back a little bit in your training, even if your lifts suffer a little bit. For lifters looking to build strength, this is the number one way to work out smarter.
For other fitness goals there are plenty of traps as well. One of the ones I see most commonly is doing way too much cardio. I'm not one of those douchebag bodybuilders crying things like 'cardio killz gainz bro' left and right, but in many cases it's true. I see a guy who comes into the gym pretty regularly. He does cardio for two hours at a time and then proceeds to lift weights for another two hours. After that he leaves. He's been doing this for months without any visible change in his physique, and without much improving his strength either. Why is that?
A lot of it has to do with how your body stores energy in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is a fast-acting energy source that your body can use for a variety of tasks. It stores some in your muscles for use in anaerobic activity, and it stores some in your liver where it can be used for pretty much anything. When you start working out, glycogen is the first energy source used up and as such your body performs best when you just begin a workout (after an appropriate warmup, of course). This means that what you do with the beginning of your workout can actually have a massive impact on what you get out of your training. If you do cardio first, a lot of that energy is essentially lost because it's wasted on activity that your body is already very capable of aerobically synthesizing energy for. If you lift first, on the other hand, you'll be able to lift heavier than otherwise and your muscles will be able to get more out of the exercise than if you had done cardio first.
Likewise, unless you're training for a long-distance running event like a marathon, there should be no reason that you should ever do more than an hour of cardio a day. After that point your body has used up most of its energy (not just glycogen) and doesn't get nearly as much out of exercising as it does within that first hour. Sure, you'll keep burning stored fat calories, and if your only goal is extreme weight loss this can be useful, but otherwise you're often just doing more harm than good in terms of damage to your joints. If you find yourself doing cardio for an hour, then chances are that you can get a more effective workout in less time by using interval training. Research HIIT or use the interval function on your treadmill to set up an interval program.
When it comes to lifting, there's a lot less to mess up. Just do your lifting first and train with specificity for whatever it is that you want to get out of lifting. If you want to build strength, do fewer sets with fewer reps at 80%+ of max. If you want to develop muscle and aesthetics, do more sets with more reps at much lower percentages to keep your pump going. As long as you're lifting with the right form and balancing out opposing muscle groups, you're probably doing fine.
Another glaring mistake that I often see is with people who are already too fit, trying to do too much without eating enough. It's always that person who comes in way too often, lifts way too much, but never sees any noticeable changes in their physique. They stay skinny and cut without gaining any definition, mass, or strength. This is because they don't eat enough to gain any mass; since they burn too much energy without getting enough calories, there isn't any extra left over with which to build more muscle. If you aren't exercising to lose weight, chances are you need to eat more. If in doubt, you need to eat more.
People want to look like pro bodybuilders 24/7. Not even pro bodybuilders look like pro bodybuilders 24/7, because you know how they do it? By starving themselves. You can't look like that 24/7 because you will die. I see a guy in our gym who comes in every day looking like he's about to fall asleep, but he comes in and works out for three hours at a time anyway. He's clearly fatigued and his eyes are red from exhaustion, but he comes in and does it, anyway. He's about as cut as it's possible for him to get, and he never gains much muscle or strength because he does nothing but bodybuilding training. We've got a saying for that:
Above, I've given you a few basic guidelines for how to workout smarter, and not harder. I'd like to point out that this article is largely not against working out harder: it's about working out longer. In reality, most people confuse longer with harder. They think that working out for a longer duration means that they'll get more out of it. Chances are, they won't. When I say work out harder, I mean, lift heavier and don't lift longer. When I say work out smarter, I mean... lift heavier, and don't lift longer. You can see where this is going.