How To Balance Workouts With "Hard" and Soft" Training

There's an important ying and yang in the pursuit of fitness. How you balance workouts depends on finding the right doses of "hard training" and "soft training".

These different types of training can otherwise be understood as "structural balance training" and "performance training." So why are these two approaches to fitness so important for each of us to incorporate into our fitness routines? And how can we get the workout balance right? 

First, this is an important topic because because so many fitness programs get this balance wrong. Most programs are only designed to deliver one or the other, leaving a gaping hole in what they offer. Fitness consumers should know the benefits and limitations of each style. Later on, I'll categorize several training programs to make this as crystal clear as possible. In the meantime...

 Structural Balance Training basically this means fixing what's broken in our bodies' movement patterns. This type of workout helps fix problems you might have. For example: 

  • Do you have a major asymmetry from left to right?
  • Is one muscle relatively too weak compared to the other muscles around it.
  • Do you have any major mobility restrictions based on your sport/goals?
  • Do you have good control over your joints?  

Structural imbalances limit your potential. Think of it like the chassis of a car or the foundation of a house. If the underlying structure of your body isn't robust enough for what you want to use it for, you can expect the wheels to come off as you race down the road. You have it coming. 

Performance Training is about directly going after the fitness characteristic you want to develop:

  • Want to build bigger muscles? You might try a body building routine.
  • Want to improve endurance? Maybe you'll download a half-marathon training program.
  • Want to get stronger? There are plenty of strength programs online.


How To Balance Workouts If You Want To Get Fit Fast

If you need to get as fit as possible in a short timeframe, it would make sense to focus mainly (or only) on performance training. But in my experience, there are very few people who legitimately need to make maximum progress in 4-8 weeks. The only examples I can think of are people who have a must-pass performance test for a job (police fitness test, soccer referee fitness test, etc.) that they've left too late. Otherwise, we all have the time to adhere to a training plan that will set us up for long-term success.


How To Balance Workouts If You Want To Get Even Fitter

If you want to set your body up for long-term fitness, balancing performance training with fixing the things are out of whack should be the object of your workout plan. That means balancing the fun stuff with the exercises that can sometimes feel tedious. 

Choosing to increase physical attributes like strength or endurance without first fixing your limitations only ends up reinforcing and overloading bad movement patterns. Best case scenario this leads to short-term improvements, followed by a difficult plateau since your structure and/or technique aren't good enough to progress further. Worst case, it leads to an injury and therefore a bigger set back. 

When some muscles and joints are forced to overwork and pick up the slack for the ones that aren’t doing their job, you're more likely to develop overuse injuries. But by ensuring good structural balance and practicing to develop great technique, we give ourselves potential. Potential to be our fittest self and potential to be resilient to injury. 

This video shows a concrete example of how that could work. If your glutes and abs aren't engaged, your back muscles will have to work overtime! That usually doesn't feel good in the long haul.


What's the Right Balance FOR YOU?

When should you slow down to address weak links vs. speed up and push your training hard to maximise performance boosts? The answer really depends on your goals and starting point.

Clearly if your goal is to reach your fitness potential, you're going to need to spend as much time as possible in the performance training zone. You'll want to do just enough structural balance work to keep your body healthy and performing well, but not more. 

If you're main goal is just to stay pain free and maintain fitness as you age, you should probably spend a good deal of time of structural balance. Use more intensive training methods less frequently in the week/month/training cycle, relative to the individual's ability and tolerance. And remember, intensity is relative. What's "intense" for one person might be easy for another.

I'm not a firm advocate of 'hard style' performance-only training or of 'soft-style' structural balance/pre-habilitation training. They're both essential parts of fitness training and a good coach will know when to apply each element. As general rules, here are three things to keep in mind.


How To Balance Workouts With "Hard" and Soft" Training: 3 Key Takeaways

1. Incorporate structural balance work:

  • In off seasons or in the training block that follows a relatively intensive/heavy workout regime
  • Following an injury
  • During a normal training block as much as needed for maintenance purposes (this could be minimal or zero for some, and a significant workload for others, all based on need)

2. Rely on performance training when:

  • Your body is relatively healthy and functioning optimally
  • When you seek performance improvement

3. And, avoid programs that only offer one end of the spectrum, or at least understand their limitations:

  • Common 'structural balance' programs include: Pilates, Yoga, and Foundation Training. These programs can take you to a certain point, but don't offer a concrete plan to progress you to the next level. In other words, they won't lead the ability to perform a heavy deadlift or run a race faster.
  • Common 'performance programs' include: P90x, Insanity, most bootcamps, running groups, most online strength programs/templates, and CrossFit.
  • More complete and intelligent programs will either incorporate elements of both, or clearly define what they do (and what they don't do), and who will and won't benefit. 
  • Many of these programs can be modified to achieve a better balance between performance training and structural balance training. At my gym in Toronto, Quantum CrossFit, we're known for optimally blending these two elements for each individual.