When it comes to fitness, there’s nothing better than an amazing workout. You crush every rep and every set without fatigue or face-contorting struggle. And you leave the gym feeling like you did great work and are about to reap all the benefits.
Unfortunately, we've all experienced workouts that are mediocre. We feel beat, weak, or unenthusiastic. We struggle to lift a weight that was easy only a week ago. Even worse, we feel like we're one false move away from injury.
In this article, I’m going to explain EXACTLY how to get the full potential of each and every workout. The result is more enjoyable workouts and results!
As the old cliché goes, “ You are what you eat.”
If you eat a lot of processed foods, sugary carbs, and artificial fats, you can stilllose weight, but you will NOT feel great or perform well in the gym.
To make the most of each training session, eat lots of veggies, lean protein, and healthy fats (like avocados, real butter, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, Greek yogurt, etc.) in every meal. These will provide the nutrients your body craves for optimal metabolic function — don’t be surprised if you feel more energized and focused just by improving your diet.
Also, eat carbs. If you’re training 4 times a week, lifting weights, running, biking, and playing sports, you NEED carbs. (And more than most humans too.) Carbs fuel your body and help you recover from a hard training session; skimp on your carbs, however, and you’ll get to gym with your fuel tank on “empty.”
Just make sure eat good sources of carbs like potatoes, rice, quinoa, whole grains, etc.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to ditch your scheduled workout and do something easy and relaxing like taking a walk, taking a yoga class, or going on a easy bike ride around your neighborhood.
This, however, might seem counterintuitive: “Why should I take it easy if I want to take my workouts to the extreme?” The problem is that we don’t live in a vacuum: there are so many non-gym factors that affect our readiness — work stress, family stress, a bad night of sleep, a poor meal choice, or (on the other end of the spectrum) a relaxing dinner with friends, an invigorating massage, or good news at work.
Listen to your body and make day-to-day adjustments. How? Often, your body will give you clues as to how ready you are to push your body (your “training readiness”). And the crazy thing is you can assess this WAY before you step into a gym.
Do you feel a little less coordinated than usual? Does a walk up the stairs feel a little harder than normal? (Those are hints.) For a more-scientific approach, you can measure your heart rate variability (HRV) first thing in the morning. Your HRV tells you your daily readiness by measuring how your heart beats to analyze the stress levels within your body.
Believe it or not, your warm up can make or break your workout. For example, let’s compare two different warmups.
Warmup A: 10 minute jog on a treadmill followed by some phys-ed stretches, pushups, and jumping jacks.
Warmup B: A foam roll, followed by a series of mobility drills and activation exercises.
Warmup B will win every time — it’ll help you push more weight and even prevent injuries. First, it works to increase your body temperature, crank up your neural activation, warm up and open the joints, and fire up your nerves to handle intense physical activity. Second, it addresses common trouble areas even for people who lift a lot of weight: poor glute activation, poor thoracic spine mobility, weak hips, and a weak core.
Often, people have fitness goals of lifting a particular amount of weight or doing a certain amount of reps, etc. But along the way, they hit a barrier that’s a magic number. For example, maybe they’ve struggled to bench more than the big “250” or they just can’t deadlift “300.”
And weirdly enough, it’s often mental. Sometimes setting a new record has less to do with your strength and power and more to do with your mental strength and commitment. All it takes is one brief moment of “fear of failure,” however, and you’ll end up dumping the bar on the squat rack or needing your spotters to help you with the bench.
I remember the times I forgot my headphones and had to workout to the tunes of whatever Top 40 station the gym decided to play. Oh god. I think I spent more time trying to ignore Justin Bieber than I did focusing on my lifts.
If you want to lift more weight, invest in good headphones (i.e. they don’t fall off, move around, or tangles you with its cord) and listen to music that pumps you up.
The better your conditioning, the harder you can push yourself in the gym and during your workout.
But when I say “conditioning,” I don’t mean balls-to-the-wall, max effort work. I mean your foundational powerhouse — aka the “aerobic” system. By improving your capacity here, you’ll improve your recovery in between sets, increase your endurance, and speed up your recovery between workouts.
On your light days or active recovery days, do 20 – 40 minutes of aerobic work (120 – 150bpm). Do a jog, bike ride, treadmill hike, rowing machine, etc.
Anthony J. Yeung, CSCS, is a fitness expert and columnist at Esquire.
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