Train Smart and Hard

Filed under: Training

Everyone knows the saying “work smarter not harder”, and it is often translated in lifting circles to “train smarter not harder”. OK, great saying, but people have taken training smarter as training so carefully they aren’t even breaking a sweat. Even worse, people have taken to believe in the crap put out by so many tv “experts” and pseudo-celebrities to be training smart. Watching some of the exercise videos put out by pseudo-celebrities and even worse, those trainers of celebrities, makes me embarrassed to even be associated with that aspect of the industry.

In one recent video the demonstrator was wearing high heels! Tell me how is that working smart or hard? It is dumb, dangerous and also completely useless as a training methodology. The training smart part of the equation means having sound technique, training for your goals, and knowing your limits and when to back off. It does NOT mean training with 2lb pink dumbbells.

There are also the people who think training hard trumps everything. While it is true that I will take someone busting their ass on a crappy training program over someone training at a moderate intensity to the greatest designed program of all time, intensity isn’t everything. I’ve seen people train superhard that are just all over the place. Their technique is piss-poor, their exercise selection is atrocious and they generally just look like they are going to hurt themselves at any moment.

It doesn’t matter what training program you are doing, Cross-Fit, Warp Speed Fat Loss, Maximum Strength, etc, you need to find that balance between training hard and training smart. Long term health isn’t just about working hard and making yourself sweat. It is about doing the exercises properly, utilizing them for their intended benefit and making yourself sweat in the process. A perfect example is any type of rowing variation. Rows are awesome not only for back development, but for postural correction as well. With our always-seated, forward-head position and kyphotic upper back posture population, proper rowing can go a very long way to improve that posture, but only if properly executed. Go to any commercial gym and you will see all types of people working really hard on rowing way more weight than they can possibly handle with good form, or people just going through the motions. Neither will elicit the intended effect. Eric has some awesome videos demonstrating how NOT to row:

Doing a row with technique like these will not actually improve proper scapular function or upper body posture, it could actually exacerbate it. For muscle heads out there, it won’t develop the back properly either. Learning how to properly depress your shoulder blades is essential for long-term shoulder health. Doing it incorrectly with far too much weight is only going to cause problems (I am looking at the men reading this). Doing it correctly with an appreciable amount of weight, relative to the lifter, is also the only way for it to work, as it actually has to be difficult (yes I am looking at you ladies). I am not trying to be sexist or stereotypical, but I have been in enough gyms and trained enough people to know that those stereotypes do apply to the majority.

The correct technique for a cable row (and all rowing really):

Chest out, chin straight, squeezing the shoulder blades together down and back. The point is that people need to learn to harness that intensity (or find it) and apply it with control to a well thought out long-term plan to maximal results for health, weight loss, muscle gain or athletic performance. I say rather than training smarter not harder, do both.

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Posted on July 23rd, 2009 by Brian St. Pierre


  1. Arden Says:

    Hey Brian – good entry. I know it’s an old adage but definantley worth repeating and your take on it is useful. A few months ago I realised that my intensity with lifting (I would consider myself a low intermediate) was weak and I needed to up the weights so that’s what I did. I did that knowing that my technique needed help (sometimes things would hurt the day after that shouldn’t have been hurting) but I figured that something was better than nothing. I know that sounds stupid but I was just tired of using the “technique issue” as an excuse to use weights that were comfortable. Still trying to find the balance and this is a good reminder to pull out some books I bought but barely opened and figure out what I’m doing wrong.

    On a side note I’m a new reader of your blog and I enjoy reading it! Cheers

  2. Arthur Says:


    I had a few questions relating to Eric’s rowing videos. For Bad technique #3, I can see how leaning back would promote humeral extension + shrugging up versus retracting the scapulae while keeping them depressed. But it doesn’t appear very obvious that the shoulders are shrugging up in that video. What am I missing? I am obviously missing something on this one, but I cannot pick up on it.

    And for bad technique #4, I can see how a tight pec minor would prevent full scapular retraction (or at least greatly hamper it), but once again, it appears that the mistake apparently being made in the video is so subtle as to be difficult to detect for most folks. Perhaps I just have a bad eye for these thing.

  3. Brian St. Pierre Says:


    Thanks for the kind words. Glad you like the blog! Definitely read up, though your best bet would be to find someone qualified in your area to watch you train and maybe fix your technique. I understand not everyone can afford a coach, but even doing it for a short while can make a big difference in your progress in the gym.

  4. Brian St. Pierre Says:


    Your thought process on #3 was pretty close. When people lean back that far they are decreasing the work on the scapular retractors and using a lot more back extension. Also people are more likely to shrug and lack full retraction and depression due to the mechanical pull (dis)advantage.

    #4 to me is just screaming bad technique. When doing a row the goal is to try and make your shoulder blades touch each other and not let them elevate. In this example if you watch closely you can see Eric not getting full retraction and his scaps are actually going into anterior tilt. This is a rhomboid dominant row along with upper traps. A tight pec minor can absolutely be a contributing factor, but most people do a row like this because they don’t know how to row, not because of their pec minor.

    Trust me the more people you coach the better you get at spotting stuff like this. Once you’ve watched and coached hundreds of athletes row, poor execution stands out like sore thumb.

  5. Mike Groth Says:

    Saint -
    finally some training blog entries. i like the idea of seated rows… but how functional is a row while seated? isnt there a break in the kinetic chain when we sit? What is your position on the functional density of a seated row vs. a base stance or split stance row? or how about a verticality tweak? for instance, what do you think about rows on a keiser machine with the arm positioned at ankle height or above the individual’s head?

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  7. Brian St. Pierre Says:


    In my opinion you are over-thinking it. Is a seated row the most “functional” exercise ever? Of course not, but so what? The point is to teach people proper scapular retraction and depression. It is also one of the best exercises ever for helping people improve upper body posture and scapular stability. As you know, proper thoracic mobility and scapular stability are essential for shoulder health.
    We do plenty of standing rows, but the seated is just another variation and it is the easiest for beginners to learn.
    Why does it have to be Keiser? Sure the air resistance might be the best, but do people need a Keiser machine to see results? Those rows can be fantastic for the appropriate population, but that population is much more rare than you think. Most people are not that advanced, athletic, or require that type of complexity.
    Once you step outside the realm of purely training high-level college athletes and train everyday office workers and high school athletes you will find that simplifying programming will make their training and your programming much more effective.
    You are mistaking what is “optimal” from a purely physical or physiological standpoint to what is most “optimal” for this particular client’s needs/goals/training age/injury history/athletic capacity/etc.

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