Addicted To Fatigue: Balancing Intensity With Intelligence

Guest post written by coach Jim Kielbaso.  

The more programs like CrossFit and Insanity gain mainstream traction, the more people seem to use their level of fatigue as a barometer for the quality of a workout.  Once you get accustomed to grueling workouts, it’s as though you crave the feeling of fatigue.  If you’re not crushed at the end of a workout, you feel like it was a weak session.  But, if we’re puking in a bucket or can barely walk, it MUST have been fantastic.

puke bucket

Throw in all the positive reinforcement we get about this –non-stop social media posts about how hard someone’s workout was today, YouTube videos of people trashing themselves, etc. – and it’s hard to avoid this trend.

People also seem to judge their strength coach or personal trainer by the difficulty of his/her workouts. So, in an effort to establish credibility, many coaches crush their athletes/clients so they are viewed as the “best” or “most intense” coach on earth.

I certainly fell into this at one point in my career. I felt like I had to make athletes puke or crumble to assert my dominance. I’ve talked to several other coaches who have fallen into this trap. A recent conversation with University of Michigan Strength Coach Mark Naylor revealed that, when he was younger, he felt like he couldn’t go home at night until someone puked. This was obviously an exaggeration, but you get the point.


Interestingly, this works for a lot of coaches. It did for me. I had a reputation as being a bad-ass, hard-core strength coach, and I loved it. Athletes would talk about how hard the workouts were and share stories about what they went through. We all hear people comparing stories about who creates the hardest workouts. It’s like a badge of honor to be able to administer a severe beat down.

It actually took me a long time to figure out that crushing people day in and day out wasn’t what was best for them.

Let’s be clear, I love hard work. I still love intense workouts. I love burying myself and my athletes with an intense training session. Developing the physical and mental capacity to overcome enormous obstacles is a huge part of strength and conditioning, and I’ve used just about every tactic in the book at some point.

I believe that pushing athletes hard and using training programs to develop work ethic and intensity develops the psychological benefit of being able to push through discomfort. In my opinion, the benefits of raising work capacity through intense training cannot be under-estimated. I’m not one of those guys who freaks out when a kid pukes or thinks that everyone should be “comfortable” all the time.  On the contrary, there is no question in my mind that intense, general physical preparation has a solid place in training, whether you’re working with athletes or you’re just trying to look good on the beach.

But, intense GPP is not COMPLETE training, and it definitely should not be used at every training session. It’s only PART of a comprehensive performance training program. If you’re just trying to get yourself in great shape, it can be great, but too much of a good thing can also lead to problems.

When done correctly, intense GPP-type training can raise your work capacity and allow you to train harder and longer. When done poorly, it can cause injuries, lack of progress, over-training and can develop a poor sense of what training is all about.

Push Sled

The trick is to balance this kind of ball-busting training with quality work and recovery so you can maintain your health, stay injury free and continue training toward your goals.  Maybe I’m older and wiser than I used to be, but seeing past today is definitely important in training.

Unfortunately, many attempts at including intensity are overzealous and misguided, and our clients aren’t always getting what they need….or deserve.

I’ve seen far too many people fall into the intensity trap and get hurt. They either over-train and develop over-use injuries or they let their exercise technique crumble in an effort to set a new PR on some meaningless workout, and they end up getting hurt.

Hurt Ankle

Interestingly, once a person gets injured, I often hear them say things like “I need to get better so I can get back to those great workouts.” Instead of recognizing that the workout was the cause of the problem, and making adjustments, people get so indoctrinated into a “workout culture” that they are blinded to the reality of the situation.

I recently read an article on a popular training site that was basically a short story documenting the details of a really intense training session. People were puking, fighting through injuries, ripping skin off their hands and covering up blood with chalk so they could continue lifting. While I respect hard work and determination, none of these guys got paid to do this, none of them got closer to a goal, and I’m sure the toll (and injuries either caused or risked) of the workout was far greater than positive stimulus.

Bloody Hands

The issue here is that this style of training gets glorified and reinforced in the minds of many people, and they end up thinking that they should be training like this all the time.  My prediction is that the author of that article will look back in a few years and wish he never wrote it (like I’ve done several times).

What’s ironic about all this is that creating fatigue is very simple. It takes very little skill or knowledge to create a workout that would beat the brakes off of any client. Once you’ve done it enough, creating fatigue is mindless.

Creating a complete athlete or higher functioning human is much more difficult and requires far greater thought, patience and long-term planning.

U.S. Military Tactical Performance Coach Blair Wagner put it best when he told me “You need to have a plan in place that takes the accumulation of stress into consideration.  You don’t have to walk out of the gym feeling like you got the crap kicked out of you in order to have an effective training stimulus. If we beat people down day in and day out, there will be no performance enhancement, and we will probably cause problems for that person. Making people tired and sore is easy. Making them better is a much more difficult task.”

Always remember, just because you’re tired doesn’t mean it was a great workout, and a harder workout is not necessarily a better workout.

Crossfit tired

To be clear, I’m not talking about taking a few sets to failure or adding a finisher at the end of a workout. I’m talking about workouts that include so much volume you can’t walk for a week, spending an hour doing bench press so you get that “deep soreness,” or doing 100 reps on clean & jerk even though technique goes to complete crap. I’m also not talking about including brutally hard conditioning intermittently applied in order to increase work capacity. I’m talking about things like doing Prowler pushes, tire flips and Tabata sets every day for two weeks. I see this happening, and glorified, daily by people who mistake fatigue for progress.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that every workout needs to end in a puke-fest for it to be productive. Instead, concentrate your efforts on developing qualities like strength, speed and power – which take a lot more precise work to enhance – and learn how to insert intense GPP workouts at times that allow for recovery and continued training.

The next time you feel like administering a beat-down workout in the name of hard work and intensity, make sure that all of your bases are covered first.  Don’t be afraid of teaching good, old fashioned hard work or executing a ferocious training session.  Just make sure you start with some quality work before you induce complete fatigue, and take the accumulation of stress into consideration and plan your recovery so you can stay healthy and continue to train long-term.


Jim KJim Kielbaso, MS, CSCS is the Director of the Total Performance Training Centers in Michigan.  He is a former college strength & conditioning coach and the author of Ultimate Speed & Agility and Maximum Football Training.  With over 20 years in the industry, Jim has trained thousands of athletes at every level including the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and Olympic competitors.  You can read more from Jim and