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.