I’m a huge fan of challenging myself in the fitness realm. I did a triathlon once, even though I knew halfway through training that I never wanted to do one again. I’ve begged my coach to give me weightlifting workouts that are notoriously difficult. Heck, I started the Lifehacker Fitness Challenge, our monthly exercise in trying new things. But you won’t catch me doing 75Hard or a 10-day ab challenge.
That’s because there is a difference between a good challenge and a bad one. A good fitness challenge aligns with your goals, has a manageable workload, and will finish by giving you some results you can work with, whether those are mental or physical. A bad one just wastes your time and makes you feel miserable.
So let’s walk through the flaws of the bad challenges (spoiler: most of the ones you’ll find on social media) and then talk about what to look for instead.
Does the fitness challenge treat suffering as a plus?
Let’s start with the biggest lie that viral challenges tell you: that suffering is a goal worth pursuing. Along the way there are other lies: that suffering is a necessary part of exercise, that the more miserable you are the more weight you will lose, that enduring things you hate is how you develop mental toughness.
None of these things are true. Successful athletes don’t suffer their way to greatness, for obvious reasons: If you were a coach, would you want your athlete to feel terrible every day? Or would you want to keep them feeling good so they can consistently put in solid workouts and succeed when they’re in competition?
Mental toughness can help you to persist when things aren’t going well, but you don’t build mental toughness by simply making your life suck. I worked with a mental training specialist once, and she never once told me to do things I hated to build mental toughness. Instead, she directed me to pay attention to thoughts that come up when I lose confidence, and explore ways of redirecting or reframing those thoughts so that I could stay focused and not get knocked out of my zone.
Does the challenge expect you to follow things blindly?
Mental toughness often involves knowing when to quit. You learn that, in part, by sticking it out through tough things and learning that they can be safe. This requires mentorship or other appropriate supervision. You also need to learn when not to do a thing. Blindly following a challenge because the rules are the rules doesn’t build those capacities.
There’s something to be said for trusting a program or trusting your coach, but that should only apply when you have reason to believe the program or coach is trustworthy. Scammers love to sell people a bad product or an unsustainable business model (see: every MLM) and then tell their followers that when they fail, it’s their own fault and not the scammer’s fault. The same idea is at work with draconian fitness challenges. If you’re afraid of failure because you believe it’s a judgment on you as a person, chances are you’ve been conned.
Is it one-size-fits-all challenge?
The job of a training program is to meet you where you are, and take you to the next level. If you currently run a 10-minute mile, a good running program will have you do runs that are easy and hard relative to your current fitness level, and maybe by the time you’re done with it, you’ll be running a 9:30 mile. Similarly, a lifting program will start with weights you can currently handle, and by the end you might be able to lift a bit more.
Online challenges often spell out specific sets or reps or times, they demand a certain number of workouts each week, and there’s no period of time to ramp up to the workload of the challenge and no way to progress if what’s in the challenge isn’t enough for you. There is probably someone out there who can do the challenge as written, but is that person you?
Instead, look for programs that are geared toward your experience level and that let you choose the appropriate amount of work to do. For example, a lifting program that has you bench pressing triples at 80% of your max will be appropriate whether you are benching 95 pounds (80% is 76) or 405 (80% is 324).
Does it make empty promises?
So many bullshit fitness challenges promise that you’ll get shredded or lose weight or slim something or tone something or get jacked or get abs. But there’s no reason to believe that following workouts off a calendar for a certain number of days will give you a body like the influencer who is selling the program. The only people who can get shredded in 21 days are people who were 21 days away from being shredded to begin with.
There should be a payoff for any training program, but it should make sense. If I do a speed-focused running program, I expect it to make me faster. If I do a Bulgarian weightlifting program, I expect it to build my confidence with heavy weights. If I do a volume-focused lifting program, I expect it to help me put on muscle mass. If I do 30 days of ab exercises, I expect…uh…sore abs?
What happens when it’s over?
Will you breathe a sigh of relief, and then go back to your normal life, which is nothing like the challenge? That’s a red flag. Being healthy or fit or succeeding in your sport are all long-term goals, not things that you accomplish in 30 days and then abandon.
Who’s going to be better off in the end: a person who starts exercising three days a week, and then bumps that up to four and then five and over the course of a year becomes one of those people who’s always up at dawn jogging around the neighborhood? Or somebody who barely exercises, does a challenge where they exhaust themselves every day for 30 days in a row, and then goes back to barely exercising again?
If you’re training for an athletic goal, a well-designed plan will take you through phases of base building (which set you up to peak), and intensifying or peaking (which set you up to perform well at a competition). You don’t struggle through a training block just because it’s hard, you do it because it gives you something meaningful: more muscle mass, more strength, better conditioning, or whatever is its goal. Each phase of training does its job and sets you up for the next.
Does it encourage black-and-white thinking?
Life is full of gray areas. Disordered eating often involves black-and-white thinking that puts some foods completely off-limits. Our thought patterns in other types of mental illness, like anxiety and depression, can also fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking. A fitness challenge that encourages this kind of thinking is unlikely to lead you to healthy habits in the long term.
Along these lines, fitness challenges turn aspects of fitness that should be normal into things that overwhelm you. Why do three sets of 10 pushups when you can do 100 a day? they ask. Or Instead of eating healthy most of the time, let’s put sugar off limits for a whole month.
Many fitness challenges include a dietary component, sometimes involving specific foods or meal plans. Let me just remind you that this is basically a crash diet, and if you’re feeling tempted to try one, there are better ways to harness that energy.
So what does a good challenge or program look like?
The good type of challenge is just a fitness program that isn’t intended to be run over and over. It’s usually something that makes recovery more difficult, like when I ran a Bulgarian-inspired weightlifting program and had to eat and sleep like it was my job just to keep up. It was worthwhile in the end and even enjoyable in the moment, but I had to put some of my other life priorities on pause to be able to do it. When it was over, I was happy to go back to my usual style of training.
Training programs don’t have to be like that, though. They can just be training programs. You do the program for a few weeks or months, and at the end, you’re ready for another one just like it.
Either way, here’s what the good kind looks like:
- The amount of work and the difficulty of the work start out at a level you can handle.
- If it will be more difficult by the end, there is a reason (other than the creator’s wishful thinking) to believe you’ll be able to handle it by the end.
- It has a specific purpose that aligns with your goals for your training.
- It allows for a healthy balance between your fitness and the rest of your life.
- If it’s difficult, the hard parts are there for a goal-oriented reason, not just to make you suffer.
- You feel confident about your ability to gauge when and whether it’s time to quit.
This checklist eliminates most silly social-media fitness challenges, but just about any legit training program will pass the test.