The case against the puke bucket

I remember watching a video several years ago in which a woman began a metcon by placing a bucket next to her exercise stations. She proceed to barf intermittently throughout her workout. I guess it was supposed to be an impressive showing of how hardcore she was, how she wasn't going to let discomfort — even to the point of repeated vomiting — keep her from finishing her workout.

The puke bucket is still revered as some kind of standard of seriously tough work. Just the other day I watched a video by a former professional bodybuilder, now a trainer, that was a montage of his clients throwing up after some ultra-intense workouts. But wait a second. Your body doesn't just vomit because you're working hard. It can be caused by overexertion, eating too close to a workout, or even a rapid drop in blood sugar. There's nothing intrinsic to vomiting that makes it evidence of hard work. Rather, it's evidence that you failed to regulate some aspect of your training, be it nutrient timing or intensity itself. 

If we want to get results, it's obviously important to test our limits from time to time. But a well-rounded training program doesn't have you pushing yourself to the limit day in and day out. Some days will be focused more on metabolic conditioning; some, more on strength; and others, on technique and mobility. As a public of fitness enthusiasts, we revere max-effort lifts and lung-crushing workouts, but a failure to carefully regulate the frequency of such high-intensity training will only lead to chronic fatigue and stagnation. 

I've been a trainer for twelve years, and I can count on one hand the number of times a client has thrown up. Usually, it's a rookie client who is unfamiliar with the signs of over-exertion, and by the time I spot them it's too late. Light-headedness, nausea, jelly limbs — there are a few telltale signs that it's time to pull back. And if the signs are spotted in time, vomiting can usually be averted with a cold moist towel applied to the forehead and/or a glucose- and electrolyte-rich energy drink. Vomiting certainly isn't productive to our progress, so it's generally better if it can be avoided. Worse, pushing your body to that extreme level of exhaustion can quickly lead to sloppy (and thus dangerous) technique and prolonged recovery. In the event that vomiting can't be avoided, pushing through the workout is unwise. 

Training is a long game. Even the best training program, executed with the most unwavering dedication, will not deliver immediate, dramatic results. Our bodies are highly resistant to change, and awe-inspiring progress in the gym is measured in months and years — not days and weeks. Achieving those kinds of long-term results requires a commitment to consistent, carefully regulated training and nutrition — not incessant overexertion that leads to persistent exhaustion and infrequent or unproductive workouts. 

You may still vomit from time to time, on those occasions when you're really testing your limits and a workout is much more demanding than you anticipated. But let's recognize the puke bucket for what it is — a sign that you failed to regulate your intensity or nutrition, not a badge of honor.