When a person starts working with a personal trainer or signs up for group fitness classes, they typically expect to lose a few pounds of unwanted body fat or improve muscular fitness; perhaps they’ll sleep better or feel more energetic. In fact, for some clients, sticking to a regular exercise program—and the numerous health benefits that result from it—can be life-changing in and of itself. Others, however, may discover a desire to push themselves even further. Once a client has established a target level of fitness, they may be inspired to challenge themselves outside of the gym by participating in extreme conditioning programs (ECPs).

Simply put, ECPs are workouts that push physical fitness to the limits of human performance, often in pursuit of a focused goal or event, such as climbing Everest or competing in an Ironman competition. These workouts typically involve high-intensity exercises with short rest periods between sets. There are many types of ECPs, but they all share some common characteristics and typically involve:

  • Activities such as sprinting, weightlifting and plyometrics
  • Short rest periods between sets
  • A focus on functional fitness, which means that the exercises are designed to improve the body’s ability to perform everyday tasks
  • A high level of intensity, which means that the workouts are challenging and require a great deal of effort

An exercise program of moderate-intensity exercise can yield numerous health benefits, but incorporating extremely challenging workouts into the programs of clients desiring a greater challenge may yield unique outcomes not easily replicated by other modes of exercise. As a health and exercise professional, you know that regular physical activity also has the potential to completely change one’s mindset and approach toward life, resulting in a more positive mindset and greater confidence, empowerment and the ability to overcome tough challenges.

Of course, not everyone can or should participate in ECPs, but just about everyone can benefit from doing things that are just outside their comfort zone. What is a challenge for one client could be a breeze for another. It’s all about degrees, but the concept of challenging oneself remains the same and offers big benefits, regardless of the size or difficulty of the challenge.

Read on to learn more about the benefits of ECPs and how you can incorporate them into your clients’ training programs. Specifically, this article explores the following questions:

  • Are extreme ECPs safe for most clients?
  • What are the benefits of preparing for and taking on an ECP?
  • Could ECPs benefit the clients that you serve every day?

Go Climb a Mountain

Jacqueline Kasen is the senior director of group programming and a personal trainer for Anatomy in Miami, Fla. One of her clients was going through a few difficulties in her life and wanted to find a stretch goal that would help her maintain the motivation to stay consistent with her workouts. She zeroed in on a trip to Machu Picchu, a site of ancient Incan ruins that sits at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet (2,430 m) in the mountains of Peru.

“My client was experiencing a few of life’s challenges and wanted a goal that would keep her focused on her physical fitness,” Kasen explains. She designed an exercise program to help the client prepare for the rigors of the hike. After training together for some time, the client invited Kasen to join her on this adventure, and the two reaped the rewards of their dedicated trainings with an amazing experience at one of the most ancient and breathtaking sites in the world. Kasen and her client had such an amazing experience on their adventure to Machu Picchu that they decided to train to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano that rises more than 19,000 feet (5,895 m) above sea level in Tanzania on the continent of Africa.

Kasen believes that one of the primary jobs of a health and exercise professional is to help clients become comfortable while being uncomfortable. This includes challenging clients to get out of their comfort zones and go beyond their preconceived limits, which can give them the confidence to take on and accomplish other difficult tasks that may occur in life.

“I want my clients to know what their bodies are capable of,” explains Kasen. “Once you accomplish a tough physical challenge, like climbing a mountain, other things in life become easier by comparison. Learning how to go from living at sea level to surviving at 20,000 feet of elevation gives you the tools to overcome a number of difficult situations.”

After successfully summiting Kilimanjaro, Kasen set her sights on climbing the tallest peak on each continent, a quest known as the Seven Summits Challenge. In the spring of 2023, Kasen traveled to Argentina to climb Aconcagua, but was unable to reach the summit due to weather and an injury to a fellow climber. While many might have seen that trip as a failure, Kasen certainly does not.

“In life we often have the tendency to avoid hard challenges and it can be easy to watch what others achieve on the social channels,” says Kasen, “But I have found that stepping away from social media and other modern conveniences to spend time living in the wilderness is a great way to tap into our primal nature to truly learn about ourselves and what we are capable of. Even if we did not reach the summit, it was an extremely challenging experience that left me with the confidence to be able to handle anything that life throws at me.” (You can read more about Kasen’s adventures in Argentina on her Instagram account.)

“In my experience, I have found that challenging clients with extremely hard workouts helps them to develop the mental strength and the confidence to handle any obstacle life puts in their way,” says Kasen. “I tell my clients that their goals should make them a little nervous; being nervous is a sign that you are pushing yourself to get out of your comfort zone and that is one of the primary responsibilities of a personal trainer.”

Working Out With the World’s Fittest Man

To say that Joe Decker knows extreme fitness is an understatement. An ultra-endurance athlete who broke the Guinness Book of World Record’s 24-hour Physical Challenge in 2000, Decker also completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and has participated in a number of powerlifting events and extreme obstacle course races, including the Spartan Death Race (which he won, twice). Fueled by a passion for extreme fitness and, more importantly, for building community through tough physical challenges, Decker and his wife Nicole launched Gut Check Fitness in San Diego, Calif., in the early 2000s to bring the extreme fitness experience to those who wanted the challenge of truly grueling workouts. Gut Check Fitness puts on events all over the world, from 5K runs to 4-, 12- and 36-hour challenges known simply as “Sucks” (no explanation needed).

“Maybe it’s my background and training from the Army, and I know this can sound a little extreme, but [I believe] you don’t really live until you have almost died,” asserts Decker. “Yes, our workouts are extremely tough, and there is always a risk of injury, but, in my opinion, not exercising at all carries a much higher risk of an early death. [Worldwide], almost 18 million people die from heart disease every year, and sitting around not doing anything is far unhealthier than any of the workouts used to challenge our clients.”

The clients attracted to the grueling Gut Check workouts and challenges tend to be “type A” personalities who are always seeking tough workouts that can provide a sense of accomplishment when completed. “A number of clients are people who have achieved tremendous success in other areas of their lives, and completing a grueling, multi-hour Suck provides that sense of accomplishment they need to feel successful.” Tough workouts, says Decker, can also help people identify weaknesses that can be developed into strengths.

Misery Loves Company

Yet another benefit of ECPs is that when people from a variety of backgrounds and ages come together for a hard workout, a strong sense of community and lasting friendships are formed.

“One of the things I learned in the military that I bring to Gut Check workouts is that working together and suffering through physical challenges requires people to come together to work as teams, which ultimately develops into strong bonds and friendships,” says Decker. “Everyone wants to see one another do well and be successful, so they help motivate one another to finish the workouts.” (Author’s note: Having seen Joe and his Gut Check crew at a few obstacle course races in the San Diego area, the community and the support they bring to an event like a mud run is truly inspiring. We should all be so lucky to have friends and supporters like that.)

Jane Wells first heard about Joe Decker and Gut Check Fitness when her cousin participated in one of their four-hour workout challenges. As a recreational runner, Wells completed several half- and full marathons, but experienced overuse injuries from the high volume of repetitive training. She first started Gut Check workouts because she wanted some cross-training to improve her fitness while reducing the risk of making the overuse injuries worse.

“Since training with Joe and Gut Check, I have not been injured and I’m preparing to run a 50K event,” says Wells, who is in her early 30s and from Hell, Mich., (no, that’s not a typo). “The workouts are tough, but they are definitely not boring, and I feel a rewarding sense of accomplishment at the end of each one that makes them worthwhile.” When asked about what she likes most about ECPs, she is unequivocal: “The confidence I’ve gained. I love feeling strong. Training with Joe has helped me develop a positive mindset that carries over into other areas of my life.”

So, how does Decker coach his clients through a tough workout or prepare them to complete a Suck? “One of the things I have learned in my years of extreme competition is to focus on the next task at hand. Any time you are in a difficult situation, recognize that you cannot do everything at once. Whether the event is 36 hours or 100 miles, the approach is the same: simply pick one task, complete it and then move on to the next one. As you move from one task or obstacle (in this case, literal) to the next, you are moving closer towards your goal of completing the event, and that is a lesson that can applied to almost any situation that life can throw at you.”

The Flow State

Athletes strive to achieve what they call “the zone,” which occurs when playing a sport is effortless, actions happen automatically and time passes quickly. Researchers have identified specific characteristics that can result in being in the zone, formally called the flow state, and have established specific conditions to achieve it. The flow state was first identified by the late Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, who described it as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost for the sheer sake of doing it.”

The flow state is where peak performance intersects with peak experience to create a situation of intense focus. This makes it uniquely suited for the fitness industry, where trainers and instructors strive to create an environment for clients and class participants to function at the highest level of their individual abilities. Achieving flow removes distracting thoughts, the world outside the gym stays outside the gym, so the focus is specifically on performing the workout , thereby creating a complete immersion in the experience. Interestingly, ECPs include all of the necessary triggers to initiate the flow state in clients. Check out this previous article in CERTIFIED, which features more in-depth information on the flow state and how you can use it to benefit your clients. 

Assessing the Risks, Reaping the Rewards

As is the case with any high-intensity workout program, there may be questions about the safety of ECPs and who should or should not participate. While extreme workouts undoubtedly carry higher risks, for those who are physically prepared, the rewards are often worth the extra effort.  While ice-climbing in Antarctica may be riskier than a Zumba class at the local community center, with the right training and preparation, the human body can accomplish much more than we typically ask of it.

Setting a goal like hiking to Machu Picchu or climbing Kilimanjaro may seem extreme or out of reach, but the human experience occurs only once in a lifetime, so why not help clients enjoy it to the limits? Mind-body connections aren’t limited to a yoga studio. When clients or participants are focused on completing a challenging workout, they lose the ability to think about outside issues whether at home or at work, and exercise becomes a much-needed escape from the norm. Creating challenging, yet achievable workouts and helping clients and class participants focus their attention on the exercises while creating a sense of being “in-the-moment” are steps you can take to remove outside distractions and create an optimal exercise experience.

Among the many strategies that could help clients learn how to not only make exercise a regular habit, but also use it to change their lives in meaningful ways, is proper goal setting. Goals are an important part of the fitness journey and are typically why clients seek out your services as a health and exercise professional. Goals help reinforce motivation and are an important component of behavior-change theory; working toward a goal fuels changes in behaviors that are needed to achieve that goal. A goal needs to be a little tough so that it provides the proper motivation for achieving it.

In Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras extol the virtues of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG; pronounced be-hag). The point of a BHAG is to challenge an organization to come together as a single team to achieve an important objective. BHAGs can be applied to clients as well by helping them establish goals to overcome challenging modes of exercise. While ECPs may not be appropriate for every client, they can be used to establish a BHAG that is so compelling that they will put in the time and effort necessary to achieve it.

Clients hire you because they want results, and you retain and grow your client base by helping clients achieve those results. ECPs may not be appropriate for every client, but for those who are up to the challenge, ECPs could deliver numerous benefits that may exceed their expectations and result in clients in achieving things they never thought possible, and then setting a new set of even more audacious goals.