Hard Work and Proper Programming

Nothing is Worth Having in Life that Doesn’t Require Hard Work, but it Has to be Performed Correctly

“By nature, men are nearly the same.  By practice, they become vastly different.”

     I have two teenage boys.  When they were younger—around 5 and 6, I think—I wanted them to become involved in martial arts.  The town where we lived didn’t seem to have much, nothing like the traditional karate-do that I practiced religiously, diligently for thirteen years, and have practiced less formally ever since.  They decided they wanted to take Tae Kwon Do—which, to be honest, I thought was a rather horrid idea; I never thought very highly of the Korean-inspired dojangs that I had encountered up to that point[1].
     But I relented.
     And was quite horrified by what I encountered.  Here was a martial arts “school” where you could get a “black belt” in a year or less, where kids only a few years older than mine were walking around with 4th or even 5th degree black belts.  And here was a place—and this was the scary part—where hard work, truly hard work seemed to be optional.  Minimal contact was required when “sparring”—after all, you didn’t want to end up hurting yourself or other people.  And a couple of days of attendance each week seemed to be perfectly acceptable.
     It took me five years of hard training to receive my black belt.  (Unfortunately, schools like the one I described above—which, now, are all too prevalent—make my black belt seem worthless.  Black belts no longer mean what they once did.)  At the end of my three-hour long test to receive it, I was covered in sweat.  And blood.  Bloodied knuckles and a bloodied lip—blood trickling from my nose and needing to be wiped occasionally.  My black belt was handed to my while seated seiza (正座, literally translated as "proper sitting").  My hands and arms were trembling so much that I could hardly manage to tie it around my waist.  And my sensei—my master—explained to me that if it touched the floor, I would no longer be a black belt; I would have to take the entire test all over again.
     All of my training—the hard work, the sweat, the blood, the hours of training 5 days each week—was worth it.  At that moment, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.  In a good deal of pain, I tied my black belt to my waist.  It didn’t touch the floor.

     If you want to get really good at something—if you want to excel at the martial arts or lifting; if you want to be really big or really strong, or a combination of both—then only a couple of things are required.  First, you have to put in the hard work, as in damn hard work.  Second, you have to work really hard at the right things.  In other words, the programming has to be good.
     I have no doubt that those who engage in Crossfit work hard, for instance, but, for the most part, I think the programming sucks.  They are simply working hard on the wrong things.  (In the example of the Tae Kwon Do “school” that my boys attended, they neither worked hard nor had the right programming.)
     Working hard on the right things often means working hard on the simple things.
     In the five years of training that led up to my black belt—and in what I performed afterward—it was essentially minimalistic.  I was trained to work hard on a dozen or so punches and kicks, and we did them each and every training session, from the first day you walked into the dojo until the day you either left, stopped training, or died.  You did a lot of basic conditioning work: running, push-ups, and bodyweight squats, and you did this every time you trained.  After that, you fought others at the dojo.  A lot.
     Lifting’s not much different.  You do the basics.  You work them fairly frequently and you work them hard.  If you do this week after week, month after month, year after year, you will attain your goals.
     I will probably get emails asking what minimalist, hard training actually looks like, even though I’ve written about it many times before, but, once again, here are some of the basic things you can do:
  1. Stick with the “two-barbell rule”: At the start of every workout session, perform at least two basic barbell exercises.
  2. Squat heavy stuff.
  3. Press heavy stuff over your head.
  4. Pick heavy stuff off the floor.
  5. Drag or carry heavy stuff for either time or distance.
     It’s incredibly simple and highly effective, but also hard, and it’s been my experience that most people don’t excel—at lifting, at martial arts, at life—because they don’t enjoy doing hard work, and doing it for the rest of their lives.

     In 1995-’96 I was the largest I have ever been in my training life.  I got that way from devoting every bit of my thought and effort—every waking hour of my life—toward building muscle.  And from hard work, a whole heaping lot of hard work!  (Of course, I realize that not everyone has this luxury.  Part of my success at the time was not just my thought and effort, but the fact that I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, and worked as a personal trainer and taught weight training classes at a local university—every waking hour of my day had something to do with training.)
     My workout partner at the time—and best friend, who later died from a drug overdose, but that’s for another blog post about steroids, and how they can possibly lead to other drugs for those who have an OCD personality—Dusty and I would train each bodypart once-per-week.  We generally favored a 5-way split, training Monday through Friday, then taking the weekends off, so we could devote that part of our life to parties and women.  The split would look something like this: Monday – chest, Tuesday – legs, Wednesday – shoulders, Thursday – back, Friday – arms.  We would train with as many sets as possible, and each “work” set was taken to the limit and beyond.  The training was so tough that no matter what bodypart we were training—even if it was arms—we would carry around a small bucket to vomit into.
     On leg day, vomiting was inevitable.  Here was a typical “quad” workout:
  1. Squats: 6 sets of 20, 16, 12, 10, 8, and 6 reps, working up progressively.
  2. Leg presses supersetted with smith machine squats: 4 to 5 supersets of 25 to 50 reps.
  3. Walking lunges: We would take 135 to 175 pounds out into the parking lot of the gym, put it across our shoulder and lunge as far as possible—which typically meant until we puked.  Then repeat for 3 or 4 sets.
  4. Leg extensions: 3 to 4 sets of 30 to 50 reps.
     I’m not sure if the programming is great in the above scenario—I would do things different these days—but it was definitely good.
     Which brings us around to another point about programming: you have to properly manipulate frequency, intensity, and volume.  Two of these factors should always be high, and the other should always be low.  In my ‘90s training, the intensity and volume were through the roof, while the frequency was rather low.
     Here is what I wrote about manipulating these variables in a post about Bulgarian training:
     Any well-designed program must take into account three important variables: frequency, intensity, and volume.  Programs that fail are ones that don’t properly manipulate and control these variables.  For instance, if you were to perform a program for lots of sets, lots of reps, and lots of intensity multiple times per week, you would be setting yourself up to fail – and would surely do so.  If any two of the variables are high, then the other variable must be low.  (But I’m getting ahead of myself; we’ll get around to that shortly.)  First, a brief discussion of each variable.
     Frequency is the number of times that you train a muscle.  A lot of programs will take into account how often you train each muscle on a monthly (or even yearly) basis.  But I don’t think all of that’s necessary.  What is necessary is that you monitor what you are doing on a weekly basis.  (Obviously, the more frequently that you train a muscle group each week, less volume and intensity should be used.)
     Intensity is a bit more confusing for a lot of readers.  In bodybuilding circles, intensity tends to refer to how hard you train each muscle group.  Such is the case with Mike Mentzer’s “heavy duty” training or Eric Broser’s articles for Planet Muscle.  However, in this article, I’m going to be using intensity as its referred to by most powerlifters and Olympic lifters.  In this case, intensity refers to % of your one-rep maximum—basically, the heavier that you train, the higher your intensity.
     Volume refers to the amount of total work you do in each workout session, and then in the course of a week of training.  Volume is the one variable that a lot of bodybuilders have the hardest time controlling.  It’s easy to add sets and reps during a workout, and let your total volume exceed what your body is capable of recovering from.
     It would appear, then, that my quad workout was a bit excessive when it comes to volume, but I think that’s only partly true.  One thing I didn’t mention in the Bulgarian article was the fact that the legs can tolerate significantly more work than any other bodyparts.  When Dusty and I trained chest, shoulders, or arms, for instance, we were never quite as extreme as on leg day.

     These days, I prefer more Bulgarian or “Russian” styles of training.  Perhaps it’s because the programming is much closer to the martial arts of my younger days.  You show up, you do the hard work, you go home, and then you repeat, day after day after day.  Ad nauseam.  As I age, I appreciate the simplicity of it.
     But no matter what kind of program you choose, make sure it’s well thought-out, make sure it accomplishes the goals you are after, and make sure plenty of hard work is involved.

[1] Let me be perfectly clear: I have met Tae Kwon Do practitioners who were very good.  I attended many martial arts tournaments in the late 1980s through the early ‘90s, and several times I got my ass handed to me by a good, advanced TKD student.  But every time that I’ve entered a dojang in towns that I either lived in or was passing through, I have been sorely disappointed.


  1. How did you teach weight lifting at a University? Don't you need a PhD to do that? That sounds like the best job ever.

  2. Steve,

    Actually, no, I didn't need a PhD. In the state of Alabama, I could teach certain classes - such as weight training - with an Associates Degree in wellness, and a certification from the state. This was in the mid '90s, so I don't know how it is today.

    Best job ever? I don't know about that. A lot of the kids just figured it would be an "easy A", and so they didn't expect to have to do any real work in the class. And they especially didn't like my written exams.

    1. Haha fair enough, I guess it sounds better than it actually is. I've just been debating whether or not to go back to school and being a professor has crossed my mind a couple times. I was accepted into a physical therapy program but am not sure I would enjoy being around patients 40 hours a week. I have a bachelors in Nutrition and Fitness and love weight training.

  3. Steve,

    My advice (for what it's worth):

    Follow the joint union of what your mind and your heart tell you to do. (Don't listen to others unless they have your best interest in mind.)

    With that being said, I LOVED weight training, and still do, but there came a point in the late '90s when I had to change careers. Slowly, I came to not like it as much when it was the ONLY occupation of my life.

    I changed jobs, and fell back in love with lifting, and writing about lifting at that point.

    I currently work as an Industrial Engineer, and just lift, write, and train others as more of a hobby. It has caused me to (probably) enjoy it more than ever. When I'm at my "day job" it's nice to think about other things.

    Having said all of that, if I had to do it over again, I would probably go back to school too and get a PhD in either theology or philosophy. I would LOVE to teach either of those to people who would actually want to learn. If you feel the same way, then by all means go after what you would love most in life.

  4. C.S.

    If you don't mind my asking, what did the rest of your workouts look like during the 90s when you only trained a body part 1x/wk?

  5. John,

    My workouts at the time were similar to the leg workout I cited, but with less high-rep sets, but sometimes more total sets. I would primarily just train a muscle group until it was engorged with the largest pump I could manage - not a very scientific way to train, mind you, but effective none-the-less.


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