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13 Days Of Darkness Part 10: Should You Be Afraid Of Your Workouts?

Authors update: I no longer believe that working hard is a good thing. You can get results without it. Please read The Secret Service Snatch Test Is Not Hard.

October’s almost done, but there’s another aspect of fear we haven’t talked about yet.

fear-faceFear of exercise.

I’ve started teaching a kettlebell class on Tuesday nights at a local Crossfit gym.  The gym is run by a couple of great friends of mine who are both tough as nails and really strong.  If you don’t know what Crossfit it, it consists of doing really, really, really hard workouts, doing them often, and always trying to do more work in less time.

I don’t do the Crossfit workouts.  I have my reasons.  It’s nothing personal, I just have different goals.  But one thing about Crossfit has really gotten me thinking lately.

Fear of a good thing?

When I arrive at the gym for my own training, I’m often there just as a group of CFers are getting ready for their own workout.  They usually talk as if they are terrified of what they are about to do.  Many of them are terrified.  They know that 15 minutes later they will be lying on the ground moaning.  They may vomit.  When you do puke during a CF workout, you do get to write your name on the Puke Board.

Yes, such a thing exists.  Yes, my name is on it, but I was sick that day and went back to the gym too early.  And it was heavy day on the sublime Return of The Kettlebell Program.  It’s a freaking glorious thing.

Is the fear healthy?  Is it logical? Is it dangerous?

No guts no glory.

No pain no gain.

Pain is candy.

Pain is weakness leaving the body.

These slogans make great slogans and t-shirts and half-time speeches for coaches in the movies who are trying to fire up their underdogs.  But they also imply–at least indirectly–that the pain might be the purpose, rather than the physical benefits.  The pain is not the means to an end, but an end of its own.

If that’s true–I’m not saying I think it is–but if that could be true, it would be a bad thing.  This probably sounds hypocritical from the man who wrote the See You In Hell post a couple of months ago right before I went to the gym, but bear with me.

If you push to the point of fatigue so that your form breaks down, you need to quit or go lighter.  Slop is slop.  A sloppy rep is not worth counting.  Most things that are worth doing are worth doing every day, but also worth doing correctly.

So I pace myself, I do everything as well as I can, and I focus on the quality of the work, not the quantity.  I never get so tired that I can’t move.  I never get so tired that my form breaks down.

So…I never get myself into a state that I would need to fear.  I look forward to my workouts.  There are days when I can’t wait to get in there and tear it up.  That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.  That doesn’t meant that it’s necessarily fun while it’s happening.  But I never approach any of my strength pursuits with the slightest bit of dread.  I love it too much for that.

What do you think?  Any of you scared of your workouts, or exercise in general?  Does it help you or hurt you?

Sound off:


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  • Jag October 30, 2009, 6:01 am

    As someone who does crossfit, I can speak somewhat to the fear we have. It is not a fear of injuring ourself. It’s a fear of facing ourselves. When I first started crossfit my main thoughts during the workout were, “Am I going to be able to finish the workout” and “This is hard. I want to quit.” I always had a great feeling of accomplishment when I finished the workout. Now I no longer question my ability to finish a workout or have to fight thoughts of quitting but my thoughts doing the workout are now “This is hard. How long is it going to take me?” The harder I push myself the harder it becomes but the shorter I have to endure the workout.

    I think the fear is more an anxiety similar to what many people feel before a test or a race. How am I going to do? It’s easy to run a mile at a leisurely pace but it’s hard to run it as fast as you can. I have no anxiety on strength days. These are usually days in which we perform a one or three rep max of some Olympic lift. These days also don’t include a clock.

    I like the kettlebell snatch. I even enjoy the first two minutes of a 10 minute snatch test. But by the eighth minute I am no longer enjoying myself. But I bet the last two minutes are just as beneficial as the first two. My muscles are tired, my heart is beating at 200 bpm, and I can’t breathe fast enough to get the oxygen I need. How many times am I going to put the kettlebell down? This is where I must face myself.

    I used to feel myself getting anxious going to the gym, but rarely now because I realize that in the end it is just a workout. And I have seen tremendous results from the workouts.

    • Heather November 1, 2009, 5:33 pm

      Thanks, Jag, for clearing this up! I can’t afford a gym just now, so I just play it by ear, doing what I know to do and renting tapes from the local library. Yes, a 10-minute kettlebell snatch session can be totally nuts! And yes, the first two minutes and last two minutes are beneficial, as are the eight in-between! Thanks again for explaining.

  • Heather October 30, 2009, 6:25 am

    No fear here. I love my workouts. I push myself and like to change it up, and I like soreness on new-routine/heavy-new-weight days, but I never do so much I make myself sick. That’s just stupid. It’s one thing to be tired, to be sore, to maybe get a little queasy, but to push yourself to actual physical illness or incapacitation is totally nuts. How can you get stronger if you don’t push past plateaus? How do you keep boredom at bay if you don’t switch it up sometimes? What’s the point of working out until you vomit? I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad, I’m just trying to understand the concept.

  • James Sjostrom October 30, 2009, 6:57 am

    I have never thrown up during or after a workout. As a trainer, I don’t recommend this either! Keeping the form is the workout! Letting everything go out of the window for a couple reps is not recommended, however to deny that a little slop happens when trying to test oneself would be totally ridiculous. What is form really? Doesn’t that depend upon ones goal? We could take the Kettlebell Snatch for instance, if it is a VO2 max workout (relatively low intensity) your form could be perfect every rep, if it were a GS competition snatching for reps before changing hands, the same snatch may look very different, Trying to learn the KB Snatch hardstyle working with ladders, or a set rep scheme could look different than a Secret Service Snatch tests first or last rep. What if I am snatching the most weight I ever have ever? Lots of Kettlebell Snatches, lots of different goals, many different forms. Again none of which I would train till I puked, however if I was aiming for a world record, or personal best, and Puking happened. That would be okay. Yes I fear my workouts, but am glad when they are done.

    “its not SWEAT, its how I make my body CRY”

  • James Sjostrom October 30, 2009, 7:02 am

    Okay, last scenario, what if it is the same person with the same goal, but you compare his first week of training to his 20th week. Wouldn’t that form be different also. Does that make his first week bad? Wouldn’t puking on the first week be worth the 19 weeks of not puking? But just the start to good training?

    “Frown, it takes more muscles”

  • Cheryl from thatgirlisfunny October 30, 2009, 7:18 am

    During the first 15 minutes of my first class at my boxing gym (PeterWelchsGym), I experienced that feeling of wanting to puke. I tried very hard to keep up with exercises I hadn’t done before. I was in great shape, but this class was on a different level. I’m glad I didn’t puke. I might not have gone back a second time. I scaled back. I was asked to slow down and learn and come back strong for the next class. To each his own. Some people like honoring the porcelain gods. I’m not one of them.

  • Daphne October 30, 2009, 7:33 am

    I like the underlying message in your post. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. It’s about quality. Thank you for sharing your tips with your readers.

  • Eric October 30, 2009, 8:14 am

    I’ve never been much of an exerciser. It’s just not one of the things I make time for, nor have I found a yearning to begin. However, I did recently get a shiney new pedometer, and I am fascinated by this simple device. This little device may just get me started in some physical activity.

  • Oleg Mokhov October 30, 2009, 8:21 am

    Hey Josh,

    People should focus on the “gain” in “no pain no gain.”

    It’s all about the results, and just like you can’t grow your site without work, you won’t get stronger/fitter without work.

    But the work can be made pleasant, too. If you love the behind-the-scenes aspects of building your website, then you’ll passionately do it.

    For example, when I walk/run, I listen to audiobooks. I don’t think of it as exercise, but an opportunity to learn while breathing heavily and getting some fresh air (and hopefully beautiful sights).

    You should not be afraid of your workouts. You should embrace it by focusing on the end result and not thinking about the process… but you can also make the process as enjoyable as possible too.


    • Josh Hanagarne October 30, 2009, 8:49 am

      @Oleg: Have you listened to any good audiobooks recently?

      @Eric: You’ll be amazed at how many steps you take in a day, if you aren’t already.

      @Daphne: That’s a quote from Dan John, one of my favorite strength coaches and human beings. Every Day.

      @Cheryl: You can’t worship anyone when everyone already worships you:) You don’t need to honor them.

      @James: I thought this would get you stirred up! You just typed more words than I’ve ever heard you say, and I know you don’t really like to type. I’m going to be at the gym in about an hour and we’ll see just how painless it is:) I agree on all points, and not just because you’ve been correcting my form. There’s no point in practicing and strengthening imperfect movements.

      @Heather: are you training for anything specific, or just all-around awesomeness?

      @Jag: Not only have your seen your results, I’ve seen your results. You’re a gamer, my friend. I know that you’re not scared of anything you do in that box.

      • Oleg Mokhov October 31, 2009, 7:55 am


        Nothing obscure. Latest has been the long-overdue trio of Seth Godin audiobooks: Permission Marketing, Unleash the Ideavirus, and Purple Cow. Improved the way I approach marketing, as well as pushing myself to be remarkable.

        How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael Gelb was also great. A grab-bag of life-improving ideas learned from the genius (2 examples: ALWAYS carry something to record ideas, and constantly positively stimulate all 5 senses).


        • Josh Hanagarne October 31, 2009, 10:09 am

          I like all of Seth’s stuff, of course. Smart, smart, man. I did read the Da Vinci book as well, and I agree–there are some great things in there.

      • Heather November 1, 2009, 5:37 pm

        Josh, just doing it to be awesome and keep myself strong. I was born a preemie, and was often told by peers and some doctors that I may never get strong and that I would have to watch my health. I do it to mess with naysayers and to keep me strong. I also lift computer monitors when I need to fix stuff at school, so the strength training definitely helps. I’ll probably always be small, but now I’ll be strong, and unexpected!

        • Josh Hanagarne November 1, 2009, 6:32 pm

          As a small person, you will always get that much more reward out of demonstrating strength. Bruce Lee, to look at him, should not have been able to do the things he was doing. We expect big people to be strong–that’s why it can be such a deflating experience to see how weak many bodybuilders actually are. But there is something extra jaw-dropping about seeing someone physically unimposing doing something physically formidable.

  • Kenji Crosland October 30, 2009, 10:20 am

    I’ll admit that I dread certain parts of my workout routine. The funny thing is that the dread itself is often worse than the actual workout. I suppose a direct relation can be drawn to monsters in horror movies. The ones you don’t see or only partially see, are much scarier than the ones that reveal all.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 30, 2009, 12:17 pm

      Kenji, so many things are like that, aren’t they? You can always work yourself into a frenzy anticipating bad things, but rarely find them so horrible in reality.

      • Kenji Crosland October 30, 2009, 1:29 pm

        Indeed. Turning off the computer and going to the gym right now!

  • Shauna Palmer October 30, 2009, 11:38 am

    Sometimes, I fear the pain of my workouts and sometimes I don’t. I do however, enjoy the pain driven results of my workouts. Typically, fear is a product of the unknown in a given situation. If I know exactly what, when, where and why I shouldn’t have any fear. I’m gonna survive what happens at the gym and recover, right? Sometimes this fear of the unknown may be manageable. For instance, sometimes I might worry about my PR, or have trepidation regarding an unknown result/outcome, maybe I just want to beat the competition. Hell, I try to do things all of the time that I don’t even know how to do just because I refuse to quit or give up and I’m no longer afraid to lose or get a crappy score. Focusing on the form and sometimes going slowly and practicing the forms carefully is a great way to control the fear of the unknown in a given workout and focus on exactly what I’m experiencing. However, throwing it all out there for a hero WOD (fearing completely that this is GONNA HURT, and maybe I CAN’T DO IT) and taking advantage of those fears to get the adrenalin rushing has been a most useful and powerful tool to break through mylimitations and set new PR’s. However, not focusing on the fear of what’s gonna happen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We’ve just been trained to ignore it. Ignorance of these fears helps me and many other newbies to set PR’s that are often difficult to beat after we know what to expect/do, and without the respect (fear) of how bad it’s gonna hurt afterwards!!! And this is why the pain tastes like candy…we know we’re afraid and the pain is delicious.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 30, 2009, 12:16 pm

      Shauna, I was reading your testimonial on the NRG site. I had no idea you have come so far. Your progress is absolutely jaw dropping. I’m still determined to get you squatting right, so thankfully, there is still progress to be made:)

  • Beth L. Gainer October 30, 2009, 12:27 pm

    Hi Josh,

    It’s interesting that you bring up this topic at this time in my life. I used to be an avid runner, but found that the pain from a major surgery has taken the steam out of my running. It’s too unpleasant to enjoy at this point in my life because I do believe one has to enjoy the exercise one does.

    Instead, I plan to become an avid brisk walker. If I can fit in a 2-minute jog, I will, but I have to learn to be less hard on myself. I guess it’s the perfectionist in me that causes such inner turmoil.

    Good for you teaching a kettleball class!! How is it going?

    • Josh Hanagarne October 30, 2009, 12:52 pm

      Beth, the class is wonderful. It’s forcing me to be a lot more creative and really think about what I’m doing. I find that my body knows exactly what and why I’m doing, but trying to explain it and troubleshoot other people’s technique is really helping me.

      Don’t knock walking. It’s more than most people are doing.

  • fitchicnyc October 30, 2009, 4:00 pm

    Hi Josh! I completely understand what you’re saying. That being said, as a CrossFitter I’ve learned to love that “fear” I feel before a workout. It’s a reminder that I’m not being complacent with my workouts and am pushing my body to its extreme!

    • Josh Hanagarne October 30, 2009, 4:12 pm

      Whatever takes care of complacency is worth sticking with. Right on!

  • Gubernatrix - all-round strength training October 31, 2009, 8:07 am

    Hey Josh,

    I get nerves before a workout. For various reasons – anticipation of pain (but ‘good’ pain not destructive pain, if you see what I mean), fear that I’ll quit or not achieve what I set out to achieve.

    I’m fascinated by this process and I’ve written about it on my blog a couple of times myself. Here’s one post where I ask the question of my readers:

    You can certainly go balls to the wall without compromising on form. It’s about exercise selection. Don’t choose a technical exercise for a fast, conditioning workout if you are going to allow form to break down. Use sprints and bodyweight exercises – they are just as good for conditioning with little risk of injury. Geez, find a steep hill, sprint up it 10 times, you’re done.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 31, 2009, 10:11 am

      Hey Gubie, good stuff. I’ve heard a few RKCs refer to the pre-workout jitters as “battle crap.” I’ve been trying something with kbs and sprinting that might interest you. Do a bunch of hard swings, then sprint up a hill. Repeat for a while. The end. It’s awful and awesome. Also, just doing swings while standing and facing up a hill is pretty nasty.

  • Gubernatrix - all-round strength training November 2, 2009, 10:58 am

    Josh that sounds horrible! I do swings and sprints on the flat and those are bad enough! Swings and hills it is then 🙂

  • Larissa November 4, 2009, 11:41 am

    So I really need to thank you for writing this post. You know that I have been wanting to start running again. Every morning it has been on my mind, but I always seem to find an excuse not to go. Then I read this post. I really had not realized how fearful I was of running. I never even considered that it was fear. My husband and I spent almost all of our dating life in the weight room in college, so fear, really. . .??? This challenged me to look at what I was afraid of and face it. I was afraid of the pain, the time involved, and of failure.
    Then, for some reason, last night I decided that today would be the day to conquer these fears. I dropped the boys off at school and headed to the gym. My stomach was flipping all over the place as I walked into that familiar place and headed up to the treadmills. Then all the fear went away as I turned on my ipod and got going! 31 minutes later, I had walked/ran 3 miles!!! I don’t know what I thought was going to happen. . . fall of the treadmill maybe?! So silly! 🙂 There was some pain, but what made me the most proud was that it felt so natural to be running again. yay!!!!
    Anyway, just thought I’d share and say thanks for the challenging and insightful posts that you write. Have a great day, Josh!

  • Carl January 26, 2011, 5:47 pm

    Thank you so much for this.
    You have no idea how reassuring this is. I am a middle aged guy who’s hated his skinny body all his adult life and has only lately discovered the joys of weight training. In two years I’ve gone from 150 to 195 of solid muscle gain, most of it in the last year, and now am healthier and fitter than I’ve been in my whole life. But I’ve always agonized I was not working hard enough, focusing on slow and deliberate (and painful) form, and wondered if the killer circuits I see online(which are not an option for me) would be better.
    This is very good to hear.