1. Organize your training around a goal
I mentioned this in the first post on ways to improve your workouts, but let’s take it a step further!
When done right, organizing your training around a goal gives purpose to everything you do in the gym (hopefully outside too). This brings focus and eliminates a lot of guessing about what to do. It also saves time and leads to better quality workouts.
Here are two examples:
Client A – “I want to get a good upper body workout today”
Client B – “I want to be able to do an unassisted pull up”
There is nothing wrong with either goal, but the first is very general and could mean anything. What does “good” mean? Which upper body muscles are we talking about? This could be a long workout…
Client B’s goal is is very specific and tangible. Training for this goal means improving strength in the upper back and lat muscles. Not only is it more specific, but Client B gets to watch herself progress and get stronger along the way, keeping her motivated and working hard!
Whether its building muscle, fat loss, more strength, or increased flexibility, having a goal, especially a clearly defined one, will lead to better training, better results, less frustration, and save lots of time!
2. WARM UP!
Do you warm up before you train? No? Well it’s time to start!
Imagine you just got out of bed. You’re barely awake, your eyes haven’t adjusted to the light yet, and the only thing you can think of is getting back into bed!
Have you ever felt this way in the morning? I know I have more than a few times.
Now imagine someone comes rushing into your bedroom. They throw the door open, they’re shouting at you, ordering you to pay attention, get dressed, and brush your teeth while making coffee.
Sounds a bit overwhelming, right? You’d probably say something like “I’m not ready for this. I’m barely awake!”
This is kind of what you’re doing to your body when you train without warming up.
Warming up gives your muscles, joints, and nervous system a chance to “wake up” and get ready for what you’re about to put them through.
Not only does this help reduce your risk of injury, but you’ll have better training sessions!
Have you ever noticed that the first set of an exercise feels tough, the second set feels better, and the third feels better than both? Imagine how you’d feel and what you’d be able to do if all your sets felt as good as the third one.
There are many ways to warm up for training, but to keep this short and sweet let’s focus on the easiest one: adding more sets.
As I mentioned above, it sometimes takes two or three sets of an exercise before you feel good and ready to push yourself. Normally, you’d stop here and move on to the next exercise.
Don’t make this mistake and leave progress on the table. This is where training begins!
Instead of stopping at that third set that finally starts to feel good, consider that your first working set. You’re now doing 5 (or more) total sets: 2 to warm up and 3 work sets.
But wait, there’s more!
Be smart about how you use these warm up sets. Take your time, focus on good technique, and listen to your body.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in the gym is using too much weight too soon, then struggling through a handful of bad reps for one or two sets before moving on to something else.
You’ll have much better training sessions and see more progress by gradually increasing the weight and focusing on your technique and form over 2 or more warm up sets. For more examples on why and how you should warm up before training, check out these articles on my Learn to Lift blog:
3. Change it up!
We all have our favorite exercises and movements in the gym. Some of my favorites are pull ups, rows, and squats.
While it is a good thing to have stuff you look forward to in the gym, there is a downside:
The more you perform an exercise, the less effective it becomes as your body adapts to it.
Fortunately, you have several options to keep making progress. You can:
- Add more weight
- Perform more reps
- Perform more sets
- Shorten the rest period between sets
- Change the exercise
- Change the angle or range of motion of an exercise
These are just a few options for adding variety to your training sessions. Trust me, there are many more to keep your brain occupied and your muscles stimulated for a long time! I’ll dive more into this in a future post.
As most of my clients would quickly tell you, I’m always in favor of adding more sets, more weight, and squeezing out a few more reps with most exercises. Hey, if it works why change it?
To keep with the theme of short and effective training sessions, changing exercises and changing the angle or range of motion are the easiest ways to go about this.
When I update or write programs for clients I have a list of guidelines I follow from what I’ve learned over the last 15 years. Here are four that I consider the most important and helpful for everyone.
1. It needs to make sense.
Any changes to exercises in your training program should move your closer to your goals. This is the most important guideline and will keep you focused when deciding what to add or change.
Take the pull up example I used above. If this were your goal you’d want to spend the majority of your time strengthening your back muscles, forearms, and grip with exercises like rows, modified pull ups, and other challenging variations that move you closer to your first full pull up. This approach makes the most sense. More on this a little later…
What doesn’t make sense for this goal? Spending your time doing biceps curls or arm only workouts. You might get a good arm pump and some soreness this way, but you’ll never see over the top of a pull up bar.
Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t include “fun” exercises that you enjoy but aren’t part of the plan. Save that stuff for the end of the workout or another day. Just remember that when training for a goal the majority of your time is best spent on what is likely to make that goal a reality.
2. Give the change time to work.
In or out of the gym, progress takes time and change doesn’t happen overnight. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Or something like that…
This means that you want to do two things:
- Stick with whatever changes you make long enough to give them a chance to be effective. How long is long enough? 3 to 4 weeks is a good starting point if you’re training at least 2-3 times a week.
- Keep a record of your training to measure how you’re progressing. Note the exercise, weight used, number of reps, and sets. At the 3 or 4 week mark you should have enough notes to notice a trend. Are you still making progress? If yes, good! You might want to continue for another week or so. If you’re progress has stopped or you’re starting to feel beat up then it is definitely time to change that exercise.
3. Small changes = BIG results!
Changes to exercises don’t need to be massive to be effective. Something as simple as a different hand or body position on an upper body exercise or going from a parallel stance to a split stance on a lower body exercise are more than enough to make an exercise feel completely different!
Here are two videos to show you small ways to change exercises to keep your training effective and the progress coming:
I find it is best to start with changes like this because they target the same muscles in different ways but don’t require extra space or equipment. This allows you to focus on improving technique while still training the same muscle or movement pattern. You don’t have to learn a completely new exercise, but you’re still using a more targeted or more challenging version of the exercise you started with.
4. If it hurts, STOP!
Always remember that training is NOT a toughness competition. You’re not going to get any better forcing your way through exercises that cause pain and keep you out of the gym.
Yes, there’s a certain amount of discomfort that comes with exercise. This comes from exerting yourself and is temporary. This is the “good pain” or “burn” people talk about. While uncomfortable, it is part of the process and can be managed over time.
Pain or discomfort in the joints, sharp pains, or anything that doesn’t go away or improve while warming up is a sign that something isn’t right. This is your body telling you to stop and do something else. The best thing you can do is LISTEN!!
It isn’t about how much time you spend, but how you spend your time! Make it count!!
Check out part one of this series for more ways to improve your workouts without spending all day in the gym.
It’s not how much time you spend, but how you spend your time!
More training… Longer workouts… Every exercise you can think of…
None of these are a guarantee of better results in the gym. More important, you don’t need a billion reps and every exercise you can think of for great results or to get a good workout!
Here are 4 ways to improve your workouts and get better results WITHOUT spending more time in the gym.
1.Organize Your Workouts
Want something you can do today to improve your results in the gym? Here it is:
Taking an organized approach to your workouts means you’ll spend less time in the gym, see better workout performance, and better results.
Instead of doing all the machines, only your favorite exercises, or trying things out of boredom, train in a way that makes sense for you to get the most from each exercise.
How you do this depends on your goals, but here are two general guidelines:
1.For general fitness…
Start your sessions with compound or multi-joint movements like rows, squats, or pull ups. These exercises require more energy, so it makes the most sense to do them early in the workout when you’re still fresh. Do your isolation exercises later in the workout.
You’re working from big exercises to smaller ones. You’ll be able to use more weight or do more reps in the big exercises, and you’ll “feel the burn” more with the smaller ones later in the workout.
2.For performance-based goals (strength, muscle, etc) or learning new movements…
Start with the exercise you find most challenging, or that requires the most concentration. You want to perform these exercises while you’re physically and mentally fresh so you can give them 100%. Learning how to squat or improve technique in any exercise while tired is not a great idea.
This may seem simple, and that’s because it is!
Ditch the “random fitness” and get organized!
2.Better Exercise Selection
To repeat the phrase I used at the beginning, more isn’t better.
Are you using the most effective exercises for your goals? Be sure to include exercises that challenge your “trouble spots”. Yes, training this way is harder. But that’s how you get stronger and more fit!
For example, take someone trying to increase upper body strength by doing biceps curls and push ups. These exercises work some upper body muscles, but they aren’t the best for building strength.
A better approach would include rows, dumbbell and barbell presses, and pull ups or pull downs, with curls added later in the workout if necessary.
Why are these exercises better?
Multi-joint or “compound” exercises like the ones mentioned above involve more muscle mass, allow for use of more resistance, and cause more metabolic stress. In other words, they’re harder and you can go heavier! Because of these reasons, you won’t need as many exercises in each workout.
Whether you’re a casual gym-goer or a competitive athlete, every training plan needs to include compound exercises.
Get more work done with less by adding compound exercises to your training plan!
3.Get Better Quality Reps
Now that you’ve picked the right exercises, its time to perform them as best you can. Remember, finishing as fast as possible isn’t your goal. You’re trying to get stronger!
Slow down your sets, give your muscles a chance to work, and get the most from each rep.
Concentrate and actively “flex” your muscles on each rep of every set.
“It isn’t enough to “go through the motions” and finish your workouts as fast as possible just to say you did it.”
If you’ve ever heard anyone mention the “mind-muscle connection”, they’re referring to the ability to actively contract and relax your muscles.
Sounds simple, right? Well, this is easier said than done. Some muscles and movements will be more challenging than others (the upper back muscles come to mind). That’s ok, decrease the weight and keep trying until you can do it confidently.
You’ll notice that you’ll be able to do lots of reps and not feel much when you first try. As you learn to contract a muscle and get better at it, the number of reps you can do will come down and you’ll “feel the burn” much sooner.
Once you have this down, you want to do this for every rep of every set on ALL exercises.
4.Don’t Train to Muscle Failure Every Session
Progress doesn’t happen in the gym, it happens when you rest!
If you’re going for broke and “chasing soreness” every time you step in the gym, you’re going to have a hard time recovering from training.
Your goal is not to be sore and tired. Your goal is to improve and get better!
You do not need to exhaust yourself in every workout to make progress. Remember that training and all forms of exercise are stress. You have to be able to recover from that stress in order to improve. Going all out every day, using soreness to measure your workouts, or going “#BEASTMODE” makes it harder to recover. This approach may also bring you closer to injury.
The best thing to do is learn how and when to push yourself. Pay attention to how your body responds and feels after workouts. This is a great way to find out if you’re doing too much or can push yourself a little more.
Stop your sets 2-3 reps of “all out” so you leave a little “gas in the tank”. This rule helps you push yourself but not overdo it.
Instead of using soreness as a guide, track your workouts to measure your actual progress.
Seeing your numbers improve (weight used, reps, sets, etc) is one of the best ways to measure how you’re doing and the effectiveness of your training plan. This also keeps you organized and moving faster, as you won’t have to spend time trying to remember what you did last week and where you left off.
The deadlift is getting more and more popular everyday…
Between “booty workouts”, CrossFit, increased interest in powerlifting, and resistance training becoming more accepted, exercises like squats and deadlifts are no longer just for hardcore gym rats. And that’s a good thing!
While a world where everyone deadlifts sounds awesome, resistance training has so many benefits that everyone should participate in some way. Yes, you can benefit even if your goal isn’t getting bigger, stronger, or faster.
Regardless of age or gender, everyone should be able to and needs to know how to lift something from the floor. This is what the deadlift is all about. Personally, I believe our standards for fitness are long overdue for an update and the deadlift should be included. That’s a long conversation for another day though. If you’re going to include this exercise in your fitness program (and you should, in some way!), make sure you’re doing it right.
Below is a list of the most common mistakes I see when people are first learning to deadlift. There’s a video demonstrating “right” vs “wrong” technique, and some pointers to help you get it right.
Quick Tips to Fix Your Deadlift Technique
Starting by extending the knees first
For anyone that trains to be healthy, reduce injury and feel better during day to day activities, make sure you learn this if you get nothing else from your time in the gym!
Lifting something from the floor by extending the knees first puts you in a disadvantaged position. Because your legs are now straight, you have to lift with your lower back muscles. This usually leads to an injury or a whole lot of unnecessary soreness.
Instead of straightening your knees then lifting the bar, work on getting your hips and shoulders to rise at the same time. You could call this “standing with the bar”.
This is the main reason I teach everyone that comes to my gym how to deadlift. It isn’t always about lifting heavy weights (Bravo if you’re looking to do that!). Learning how to properly lift something from the floor to a standing position is the end goal. One way or another this is something you’ll need to do at some point. Better to be prepared than sorry I say.
Pulling with your arms
This tends to happen when using something other than a straight bar or if the resistance is light. Yes, your upper body is involved in the movement, but a common mistake is to finish the top half by pulling with the arms. Think of your hands as hooks, as they are there only to hold the bar. Instead, keep your lats engaged and finish the movement by bringing your hips to the bar, kettlebell, or whatever you’re using for resistance.
Hyperextending or “leaning back”
Save your lumbar spine! The exercise stops when you are tall, so there’s not really any benefit to this. Again, finish by bringing your hips to meet the bar. Imagine there is a wall behind you, and stop when your upper back touches it.
Rolling shoulders back to finish
Once you set yourself to lift the bar, the position of your body shouldn’t change other than raising and lowering the bar from the floor. You can avoid this shoulder roll and shrug by “turning on” your lats before you start. Imagine putting your shoulders into your back pocket. If you have trouble or don’t know how to do this, read this.
Starting too close or too far from the bar
Start too far from the bar and you’ll be in a less than ideal position to safely perform the lift and find yourself off balance. Start too close and you can say goodbye to the skin on your shins! Best position is with the bar roughly over the middle of your foot but not touching your shins.
Squatting or letting the bar ride your thighs
A deadlift is not a squat. The main difference between the exercises, other than the position of the bar, is the hip hinge involved with the deadlift. This hinge gives the bar a straight path to the floor and makes the movement hip dominant. To fix this, push your hips back as you descend instead of “sitting” first. Improving abdominal strength, hip and ankle mobility will help too.
Whether it’s a bar loaded with 400 pounds, a sleeping child, a box, or groceries, learning to do it right will keep you strong and healthy for a long time to come. Use these tips to perfect your technique and enjoy the benefits of improved strength.
Fitness. Exercise. Working out. Training. Whatever you call it, it is a tool that can significantly improve your life in many ways! Improved strength, appearance, health, confidence, and more.
Much like a hammer, a saw, or a wrench, you must learn to use your tools first. This learning process means a lot of bent nails, ruined wood, stripped bolt heads, and a fair amount of swearing and frustration. Maybe a few band aids as well. Nothing wrong with that, mistakes are part of the learning process. In fitness, this would probably mean missed workouts, falling off your food plan, or possibly an injury from overdoing it in the gym. Again, this is how we learn what works and what doesn’t.
Learning to use a hammer means bending some nails
As you gain experience with these tools, your ability to use them also improves. The hammer requires less effort to swing. Your cuts with the saw become more precise. Getting to the gym regularly doesn’t require as much thought and planning. Food prep is easier, and your squat technique is starting to feel more natural. This means you are improving!
Over time you may learn that your needs require an upgraded set of tools. A few screwdrivers were enough before, but now an electric drill is a necessity. The training plan you started with to lose 20 pounds worked great, but your new goal of finishing a marathon or entering a powerlifting competition requires a more advanced program.
Keep your “fitness tools” in good condition. Find the most effective ways to use them and regularly add new tools to the box so you can easily complete any “project” that comes your way.
For many, the feeling of soreness after a workout can provide a sense of accomplishment, making you feel like you really pushed yourself. While the feeling may be enjoyable, soreness is not an indicator of progress or the effectiveness of a workout.
What is soreness?
Soreness comes from damage to muscle tissue caused by stress and overload. To put it another way, do more than your body is currently used to and you’ll end up sore. A long walk after a few weeks without exercise can cause muscle soreness, but few would call that a good workout.
This may sound bad, but it can be a good thing! Overloading the body is important for making progress, and at some point you have to push beyond your current ability level. The other side to this overload picture is adaptation, which is what happens when the body “catches up” and gets used to what you are asking of it.
For a better understanding of this “overload and adaptation” thing, let’s take a look at something called General Adaptation Syndrome.
General Adaptation Syndrome, a 3 stage set of physiological processes, was discovered by scientist and physician Hans Selye in 1926. This set of processes prepare the body for danger and increase the chances of survival.
Selye identified 3 predictable stages that the body uses as a response to stress:
- Alarm Stage. A burst of energy is provided. Adrenaline and cortisol are released, preparing for the “fight or flight” response.
- Resistance Stage. The body attempts to resist or adapt.
- Exhaustion Stage. The body fails to adapt to the stressful stimulus and will gradually deteriorate over time
What does all of this mean?
If you are constantly chasing soreness in your workouts, you are not allowing your body time to adapt. As stated above, if the body does not adapt it will deteriorate over time. At best, this will limit your progress in the gym. At worst, you’ll end up sick, injured and unable to train.
Here are better ways to measure the effectiveness of your workouts:
- More weight for an exercise
- Less rest needed between sets or to complete a session
- More sets of an exercise
- More reps performed at a given weight for an exercise
- For athletes, a noticeable transfer of power, speed, or endurance to your sport.
- For the rest of us, an easier time with everyday tasks (stairs, carrying bags, yard work, etc)
Remember, soreness isn’t the goal. Progress is. Train hard AND train smart!
“I don’t want to get bulky. Lifting weights makes you big, and I don’t want to look like a man.”
This myth is repeated far more often than it should be. A quick look at any social media platform shows you this just isn’t true! If you are seriously concerned about building too much muscle or having an undesirable physique, worry no more. With a little information, we can hopefully put this thing to rest once and for all.
These are my answers to the two most common questions I get from people with concerns about resistance training.
1 – Can a resistance training program make me bigger? Yes, but this is not a guarantee. While many start lifting with the intent to get bigger, there are three very important things to keep in mind:
1) A caloric surplus causes weight gain. Building muscle, and gaining weight in general, requires you to eat more. The quality and quantity of your nutrition affects your appearance and physical performance. Don’t want to get bigger? Keep your nutrition in check. Honestly, it is that simple.
2) There are ways to train without putting on size. Nutrition aside, there are other factors that go into a resistance training program – frequency (number of training sessions per week), training volume (amount of work per session), and training intensity (percentage of your maximum capacity). All of these factors can be adjusted to improve fitness, speed, power, strength and conditioning WITHOUT putting on size. This approach is used by weight class athletes like boxers, martial artists, wrestlers, and others that need the benefits of strength training without gaining additional weight.
3) Women are at a disadvantage when it comes to building muscle. Testosterone, the primary muscle building hormone, is less present in women than men. This doesn’t mean women cannot build muscle, it just requires more work. Which takes us to question number two…
2 – Can you get “big and bulky” casually training a few times week? If only it were that easy! Unless you’re blessed with perfect weight room genes, nope. Even under the most ideal conditions, it takes A LOT of work. Gaining serious muscle takes hours upon hours of training, precise and often restricted nutrition, a schedule built around exercise, and anabolic steroids in many cases. A few hours a week in the gym isn’t enough to make this a possibility.
For women afraid of “looking like a man” or “getting bigger”, you can lift, get stronger, get leaner, and enjoy the many benefits of resistance training with no worry of this outdated myth based on false assumptions.