There are those workouts that just absolutely crush you. Workouts that push you to the brink of your physical limits. Workouts that make you question why you’re training in the first place. Workouts that leave you hurting for days to come.
As undesirable as these may sound on paper, “beatdown” workouts are becoming hotter and hotter. Just look at many CrossFit and boot camp-style classes.
The beatdown session has become the norm in certain fitness circles. It’s even become a joke, spawning mascots like Pukie the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo. People wear soreness as a badge of honor and brag about fighting through shin splints—because #nodaysoff.
Of course, you have to push out of your comfort zone sometimes to get better. It’s the entire idea behind progressive overload. But a lot of people really like pushing really hard for just about every workout, which is why these workouts become so popular.
But are these high-volume, high-intensity workouts a valid fitness tool, a dangerous mentality or something in-between?
Why People Like ‘Beatdown’ Workouts
Inside the gym, pain is often glorified.
“No pain, no gain.”
“Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”
Yada, yada, yada.
This mentality has taken us to a point where many people believe that the more painful their workout is, the better the results will be.
While it’s true that you need to work hard to make progress, beatdown workouts have taken this to another level. Every workout pushes you to your physical limit. Overcoming this challenge can be addicting, which is why people like these type of workouts.
But most people’s fitness goal is to simply drop some weight and improve their body composition. And they really don’t need to be crushed into a pulp every day to achieve that goal. In fact, doing so is often poisonous to long-term progress.
The fitness industry has helped create this misconception. People think they have to “feel it” every session to get anywhere. They think if a workout didn’t leave you sore and aching, then it was a waste of time. That kind of instant feedback is attractive to people.
The psychology of why certain people are attracted to grueling workouts is complex, but they often draw those with a history of unhealthy behaviors such as extreme dieting, addiction and self-harm. These people could benefit from a good program, a good coach, and an overall healthy fitness lifestyle. But time and time again, they’re drawn into the trap of the beatdown session.
Beatdown sessions sell. And ultimately, personal training is a sales industry. Regardless of how much coaches like myself just want to help people, someone has to pay the bills.
Clients complete a beatdown session, get that hit of accomplishment from completing something tough, complain to their friends about how hard they worked, and then post to Instagram about it.
That’s free marketing.
People get curious and decide they want to challenge themselves, and you get more clients (how long those clients actually stay is a different story, but we’ll save that for the bad section).
Most people don’t react the same way to a workout that was only sorta challenging.
Why I Dislike Beatdown Workouts
Beatdown workouts aren’t necessarily all bad. If they’re getting people who would otherwise just be sitting on the couch up and active, that’s an undeniable plus.
However, there are a few key reasons I discourage people from making these type of workouts their main form of fitness.
One, it almost inevitably leads to burnout.
Sure, after their first one or two sessions, people rave about it. But what about 20, 30, 60 workouts later? What about when their nervous system is so shot that the excitement to go workout has totally disappeared? Beatdown sessions get old fast. If you’re a coach who only offers soul-crushing sessions, don’t be surprised when souls do in fact get crushed!
Two, they drastically increase the risk of injury.
According to systematic review in the journal Sports Medicine, athletes are at a higher risk of injury during periods of intense load, especially when accumulated over time. This should really go without saying. When you don’t let the body recover, it’ll eventually force you to—and by breaking somewhere. A trademark of many CrossFit or boot camp-style classes is extreme amounts of volume and doing the same handful of movements over and over and over. That repetitiveness can take a toll, particularly on injury prone regions such as the shoulder.
Even within a single session, the more tired people get, the more likely they are to suffer injury. As we get tired, we care less about our form and more about simply getting the workout done. Our attention falters and mistakes are made. Repetitive stress over time on weak, tired bodies leads to injury.
On a related note, beatdown workouts do little to correct old bad habits yet plenty to cultivate new ones.
Since the focus is simply on training till you drop, time and energy are rarely spent on correcting poor form or zoning in on the little details that make exercises more effective.
Beatdown sessions are rarely part of a comprehensive, long-term program. The primary goal is often to make people really tired, and it takes little skill or foresight to do so. People go hard until they can’t anymore, and eventually, either via injury or burnout, they can’t anymore.
This cycle of extremes isn’t healthy in any circumstance, be it inside the gym, in your diet, or in your life. It’s a scarcity mentality acting on impulse rather than a goal-oriented plan.
Unfortunately, a lot of people are stuck in that cycle.
As a coach, it’s my job to provide people with both what they want and what they need. How do I go about helping clients realize that fitness is more than just beatdown workouts?
Breaking the Addiction to Beatdown Workouts
I start by getting to know the story behind the person.
Where have they come from?
What’s their past experience?
Why might they crave a beating each workout?
Behavioral change makes a much more lasting impact than tossing some exercises at someone. Understand their story and truly invest in them. That way, you can not only earn their trust, but you can also make informed decisions about their workout program.
All too often, people feel tremendous guilt for being out of shape or not fitting our society’s “ideal” body type. They’ve likely tried working out before, but for one reason or another, it didn’t pan out like they’d hoped.
Now, they’re ready to beat themselves into submission.
In reality, the plans they were attempting to follow previously likely did them in. They were probably asked to do the impossible by big box gyms. They’d been conned into thinking they need a membership, a certain class, and the latest diet. Meanwhile, their biggest needs are left unaddressed.
The best thing you can do for them is to understand where they’ve come from, acknowledge where they’re at, and work alongside them to create a new path forward.
I’ve found tremendous success with a recipe that balances structured strength programming with things that will make a client’s muscles and/or lungs really burn.
You don’t need an ounce of training knowledge to program a workout that’ll make them sore the next day.
But being able to give them a dose of that without breaking them plus providing the meat-and-potato programming that results in consistent, sustainable progress?
That’s an art.
It’s absolutely OK to make them work hard, and as evidenced by the popularity of these grueling workout classes, most people want to work hard.
But there should always be a method to the madness.
Find their intensity sweet spot.
What do they need to do to feel like they’ve worked out, yet also have enough in the tank for tomorrow?
For example, if you’ve got a client who is dying for an arm pump, let them do a Bicep Curl exercise at the end of the session that’ll leave their arms screaming.
If you have someone who needs intense cardio to feel like they’ve accomplished something, block out 5-10 minutes at the end of a session for a finisher.
You can manipulate the rest of the workout based on their needs, but by ending with a quick burst of intensity, you leave that burning sensation in their minds and help them get that quick shot of confidence and achievement for overcoming something hard. Meanwhile, they forget all of the sets, reps and pre-hab you did beforehand, but that’s the stuff that’s really creating significant change.
It’s the best of both worlds.
And over time, you can help them learn that the instant “high” you get after a beatdown workout isn’t the only sense of accomplishment fitness can offer.
It’s your job to help them measure success in ways that don’t break them. It can be as simple as a consistent session streak, like measuring perfect attendance in kindergarten. Maybe you set strength goals like performing an Unassisted Pull-Up, or movement goals like being able to squat pain-free.
If you can help them feel a sense of accomplishment that isn’t tied to doing a million Burpee Box Jumps, you’ve got them on the path to lifelong fitness.