The 4 quadrants of training

effort v outcome in training

Gyms are great places to people watch. And when you are around gyms as often as I am, you notice a few things. Some folk are as regular as clockwork, so much so, that you could probably tell the day and time just by who is in training. People love familiarity and schedules. You also start to notice the type of training people do. More often than not, it’s the same now as it was 6 months ago, and it’ll still be the same 6 months from now.

And they wonder why they don’t see any progress…

It got me to thinking about the types of training I see regularly, how it breaks down and what separates good results from bad. Purely from a training perspective obviously, as there are other factors such as nutrition and recovery to consider. These too can be put into an effort vs outcome chart and you’ll probably see that the people who fall into the categories I’m going to show you have the same approach to food and sleep as they do with training.

quadrants of effort v outcome in training

Quadrant 1

Up in the top left, quadrant 1 describes the programming and outcomes typical of the new trainee, or of the recently injured making their way back into training. The “cost” of entry is pretty low, basic movements, relatively low, but appropriately challenging, loading to stimulate change and encourage progress. This should be a pretty short term place to find yourself.

Characterised by:

  • Low volume. Typically 2 sets building to 4 over the 2-4 week duration
  • All the movements covered, push, pull, hinge, squat and carry
  • Basic competencies reached in each movement before progressions occur
Quadrant 2

The Wilderness… this is where progress goes to die.

Lots of effort gets spent here, with little, if any, results to show. It feels good, it feels familiar, and you can tell yourself that you’re getting a lot of “stuff” done. But rarely do you get anything beyond minor results to show for all that effort.

Program hopping happens a lot here. If you are starting a program, you have to finish it. It’s that simple. Don’t get a week and a half in, switch to something different and then say it didn’t work.

This is also where newbie trainees jump straight to, bypassing quadrant 1 altogether, and diving straight into Insanity or Brutal System (BS™) Training vol 3.1. on a Monday, and finding themselves unable to get out of bed on Tuesday. Invariably their gym experiment ends and “it’s not really their thing.”

Sadly, it’s where a lot of people find themselves.

Characterised by:

  • High effort
  • Low or no results
  • Program hopping or “a little bit of everything.” Usually, cherry picking the things they know and like.
  • Typically unsustainable
Quadrant 3

Here is where good things happen. The effort here is low, but still high enough to stimulate change. There is a focus on high quality of movement without killing yourself. Easy strength by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline is a fantastic example, simple, effective and you won’t kill yourself doing it. The problem is, is it’s almost too simple. It can’t possibly work, right?

For a lot of regular folks, making sure we cover the basic movements with a little variety, focussing on quality and adding a few exercises to hit the muscles that suffer from all the excessive sitting that we do, is going to work wonders over the course of a year. It oftentimes isn’t exciting, but it is effective.

Full body or body part splits are fine (though I tend to prefer full body for most of my clients), cover all your bases in terms of the 5 movements. Make a little progress each day, and leave something in the tank at the end of each session.

Characterised by:

  • Enough challenge to stimulate growth without excessive fatigue
  • High quality of movement
  • Simple programming
  • Sustainable
  • You sneak up on improvement
Quadrant 4

The push for an event is here. Holidays, parties, any time you want to “dial things in” a bit takes a more focused, short-term plan of attack. This is high effort, high reward territory. It pushes you out of the comfort zone you normally live in and you suffer a little more, but the rewards can be great if you stay the distance.

These focussed attacks typically come around 2-3 times a year. People generally want to tighten up a little before a holiday and before the Christmas party season, and then again maybe 1 other time through the year. The rest of the time should be back in Q3, making slow, sustainable progress and not breaking yourself.

You could spend a lot of time in this quadrant, but it’s tough and not fun, you will break down eventually. Better to use this time strategically and back off now and again, you’ll continue training a lot longer if you do.

Characterised by:

  • 6-12 week blocks
  • Focused training
  • High effort, out of your comfort zone
  • Big potential for results

To recap:

If you are new to training or starting back after injury (assuming clearance to train has been gotten) start in Q1, low volume, quality of movement and short term.

If you want to spin your wheel and see crappy results, do not pass GO and head straight to Q2.

For long term progress and sustainable training go the Q3. This is not the easy option, you’ll still have to work, you just won’t kill yourself doing it, but you will see results.

Go to Q4 2-3 times a year when you have a big goal to chase. Be prepared to put in the effort and finish the prog strong!

Stay strong,


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