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I am a big fan of challenging myself in the gym. I did a triathlon once, even though I knew in the middle of training that I never wanted to do one again. I’ve begged my trainer to give me weightlifting workouts that are notoriously difficult. Damn, I started this Lifehacker Fitness Challenge, our monthly exercise in trying new things. But you won’t catch me doing 75 hard or a 10 day abs challenge.

Because there is a difference between a good and a bad challenge. A good fitness challenge is in line with your goals, has a manageable workload, and ends with some results to work with, be they mental or physical. A bad one just wastes your time and makes you unhappy.

So let’s go through the shortcomings of the bad challenges (spoilers: 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 viral challenges tell: that suffering is a goal worth pursuing. There are other lies along the way: that suffering is a necessary part of training, that the more miserable you are, the more weight you lose, that you develop mental strength from enduring things you hate.

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None of these things are true. Successful athletes don’t suffer from size for obvious reasons: If you were a coach, would you want your athlete to feel terrible every day? Or do you want them to feel good so they can consistently do solid workouts and be successful in competition?

Mental strength can help you persevere when things are not going well, but you don’t build mental strength simply by making your life fail. I worked with a mental trainer once and she never told me to do things I hated to build mental strength. Instead, she instructed me to pay attention to thoughts that arise when I lose confidence and to explore ways to redirect or recreate those thoughts so that I stay focused and don’t get thrown out of my zone.

Does the challenge expect you to follow things blindly?

Mental strength often means knowing when to stop. You learn this in part by getting through difficult things and learning that they can be safe. This requires mentoring or other appropriate supervision. You also need to learn when not to do something. Blindly following a challenge because the rules are the rules doesn’t build those skills.

There is a lot to be said for trusting a program or your coach, but that should only be true if you have reason to believe that the program or coach can be trusted. Scammers love to sell people a bad product or unsustainable business model (see: Any MLM) and then tell their followers that it is their own fault if they fail and not the fault of the scammers. The same idea is at work with draconian fitness challenges. If you are afraid of failure because you believe this is a judgment on you as a person, you have likely been betrayed.

Is it a one-size-fits-all challenge?

The job of a training program is to pick you up where you are and take you to the next level. If you are currently running a 10-minute mile, a good running program requires you to do runs that are easy and difficult for your current fitness level, and when you are done you may run a 9:30 mile. Similarly, a lifting program starts with weights that you currently can handle and you may end up lifting a little more.

Online challenges often dictate specific sets or reps or times, they require a certain number of workouts per week, and there is no time to ramp up to the challenge workload, and there is no way to progress if the challenge isn’t Fall is enough for you. There is probably someone out there who can take the challenge as written, but is that person you?

Instead, look for programs that are tailored to your level of experience and allow you to select the appropriate amount of work. For example, a workout program that triples you bench press at 80% of your max weight is appropriate whether you’re benching 95 pounds (80% = 76) or 405 (80% = 324).

Does it make empty promises?

So many shit fitness challenges promise to get you shredded, or lose weight, or lose some weight, or tone up something, or be jacked up, 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 selling the program. The only people who can be shredded in 21 days are people who were 21 days away from being shredded to begin with.

Any exercise program should be worthwhile, but it should make sense. When I do a speed-focused running program, I expect it to make me faster. When I do a Bulgarian weight lifting program I expect it to build my confidence with heavy weights. When I do a volume-based lifting program, I expect it to help me gain muscle mass. If I do abs for 30 days, I expect … uh … abs?

What happens when it’s over

Will you breathe a sigh of relief and then return to your normal life, which is not up to the challenge? It’s a red flag. Being healthy, fit, or successful in your sport are all long-term goals, not things that you accomplish in 30 days and then give up.

Who is better off in the end: someone who starts training three days a week, increases to four and then to five, and over the course of a year becomes the kind of person who always jogs at dawn and through the neighborhood? Or someone who hardly trains, does a challenge in which he exhausts himself for 30 days in a row every day and then hardly trains again?

When you are training for a sporting goal, a well-thought-out plan will guide you through the phases of base build-up (which prepares you for peak performance) and intensification or performance enhancement (which prepares you for good performance in a competition). You don’t fight your way through a training block just because it’s hard, but because it gives you something useful: more muscle mass, more strength, better condition or whatever the goal is. Each training phase does its job and prepares you for the next.

Does it encourage black and white thinking?

Life is full of gray areas. Cluttered eating often involves black and white thinking, which makes some foods completely taboo. Our thinking patterns in other types of mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, can also fall into the trap of black and white thinking. A fitness challenge that encourages this mindset is unlikely to lead you to healthy habits in the long run.

With that in mind, fitness challenges turn aspects of fitness that should be normal into things that overwhelm you. Why 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 make sugar off-limits for an entire month.

Many fitness challenges involve a dietary component that sometimes includes certain foods or meal plans. Let me just remind you that this is basically a crash diet and if you are tempted to try one, there is better ways to harness that energy.

So what does a good challenge or program look like?

The good kind of challenge is simply a fitness program that is not meant to be repeated over and over again. It’s usually something that makes recovery more difficult, like when I was doing a Bulgarian-inspired weight lifting program and had to eat and sleep like it was my job to just keep up. It was worth it in the end and even fun at the moment, but I had to pause some of my other life priorities to be able to do it. When it was over, I was happy to get back to my usual style of training.

Exercise programs don’t have to be like this, however. They can only be training programs. You do the program for a couple of weeks or months and in the end you are ready for another one just like it.

Either way, the good variety looks like:

  • The workload and difficulty of the job start at a level you can handle.
  • When it gets tougher in the end, there is a reason (other than the Creator’s wishful thinking) to believe that you will get there in the end.
  • It has a specific purpose that aligns with your training goals.
  • It allows for a healthy balance between your fitness and the rest of your life.
  • When it’s difficult, the hard parts are there for a goal-oriented reason, not just to make you suffer.
  • You are confident that you know when and if it is time to quit.

This checklist eliminates most of the goofy fitness challenges on social media, but almost any legitimate exercise program will pass the test.