Why do your workouts suck?
It is a truism that for most people, working out is not a pleasant experience. Beyond boredom, there is often the nagging sense that effort is being expended for no purpose. Most people have mediocore, bordering on bad, workouts. I'm not just talking about their routines, I mean the actual workouts are bad. People struggle through them, tired and sluggish, joints and muscles acting up randomly, no discernible progress being made.
You might be one of those people and once in a blue moon you have an amazing workout. You see a glimpse of what could be, and you want more. And that's exactly what you'll learn today.
Some of this stuff you know. Or at least you think you know. The things I'll be talking about aren't new but they are critical. Add them to your training and I gurantee you'll lift more, gain more muscle, lose more fat and feel better doing it. Lets get started!
Eat before you train
People are different, but generally you want to eat something before you train. You have probably heard the analogy before, it's like a car, you need gas in the tank if you want to go places. This is not exact though, since eating immediately before a heavy workout can also cause problems for a lot of people.
Optimally, you want to aim to eat within 1-2 hours before training. The most important thing is to get calories in, but if you are trying to lose fat, a solid meal - not liquid calories - will serve you better. As always, try to get a good balance of protein, carbs, fat and veggies.
I don't have time to eat!
Then have a snack: Fruit, nuts, nut butters, sandwiches, wraps, greek yogurt, a protein shake, all these fit the bill. They might not be ideal, but it's better than training on an empty stomach. Eat just enough to optimize your energy. For example, if carbs make you sleepy, this is not the time to load up. Save them for after the workout and take a small and balanced meal to give you the sustained energy you need.
I don't have a lot of time in the morning
You can go with the snacks mentioned above. Or you can drink some BCAAs while you train. One of the big things that will affect your morning energy levels is how well you've slept and how much you ate the day before. Too big of a caloric deficit might leave you dragging. So eat a good dinner, and go to bed early! Make sure to follow the SwolePT sleep protocol.
No, the main purpose isn't to reduce injury or make you feel better. It's to get your body going and enter Go Mode. You see, your body is pretty stingy with its resources and won't move unless it really has to. A warm-up is like setting your roommate's dirty laundry on fire while they sloth on the couch - it gets everyone at attention.
A proper warm-up increases your heart rate, blood pressure, internal temperature and gets you sweating. It releases adrenaline and other hormones that give you a jolt of energy and make your muscles contract harder. It also turns on the circuitry in the brain that deals with movement, so your central nervous system will fire stronger and faster.
We talked about warming up in our How to Gain Energy article, just scroll down to the last section!
This should be on the top of the list, but here it is. Sleep is the #1 factor that will affect how well your training goes. Poor sleep always yields poor workouts. Why? Because a lot of the hormones that help you recover from training and are released via training are restored during sleep.
For example, growth hormone is primarily released during sleep. The worse your sleep, the less your levels will be.
Vgontzas and colleagues measured urinary [growth hormone] in 15 young adults (age <40 years) who had chronic insomnia. Urinary [growth hormone] was undetectable in 12 people and detectable in only three who showed a relatively low degree of sleep disturbance. [source]
Luckily we've written all about optimizing sleep quality and quantity.
Most people stick to one type of set scheme: Straight Sets. Just do one exercise after the other, all fairly linear. While that is okay, it's not ideal for someone who is trying to maximize muscle gain, fitness and leanness. This is where Super Sets come in.
A Super set is 2 sets done back to back. Usually you pick 2 opposing movements, lets say shoulder press and pull ups. You do a set of presses, followed by a set of pull ups, then you rest. Super sets condense a lot of movements into a short workout and challenge your work capacity and endurance while making you stronger.
Super sets have their drawbacks though. Since they require more effort that means you won't be able to do as much on each individual set. That's fine but it means you have to use them in an intelligent way.
Another way to challenge your body and maximize your gym time is via circuits. Circuits are basically a bunch of exercises done back to back, only resting between circuit rounds. They work great as finishers and are also highly efficient for compressing a lot of training into a small period of time. The sheer volume of work keeps you from pushing yourself too much on each exercise and compromising your recovery.
What my regular training day looks like
1 Big Lift (Straightsets)
- 3 Warm-up sets
- 3 Heavy sets
- All straight sets
Pick a big, compound lift such as Squat, Bench, Deadlift, Bent Over Rows.
2 Supplementary Lifts (Superset)
- 1-2 Warm-up Sets
- 3 Heavy Sets
2 Supplementary Lifts (Superset)
- 1 Warm-up Sets
- 3 Heavy Sets
Both super sets will be supplementary/accessory movements like pull ups, dips, dumbbell rows, leg press, romanian deadlift etc.
3-5 Small lifts (Circuit)
- 1 Warm-up
- 2-3 Rounds
Generally isolation/bodyweight/machine/cable movements. Stuff like push ups, arm/leg curls or extensions, chest flys, calf raises, planks, leg raises etc…
This is something mainly the intermediate to advanced lifter should be thinking about. The basic idea is that the muscles are going to be hungry after training and will try and suck in as many nutrients as possible. If you are training regularly, the post-workout window isn't that critical, but the more advanced you are, the more you want to take advantage of it.
The bigger issue is really that training is a stressful event for your body. Remember earlier how we talked about hyping yourself up into Go Mode? Well now it's time to do the opposite: Rest Mode. That means we want to bring down stress hormones, and to do that we need to release insulin, or in simple terms, eat.
We wrote about making the perfect protein shake but in brief: You want fast digesting carbs and protein after training. That's where protein powder + milk comes in. Milk has quite a bit of sugar and some protein, while the protein powder has, yes, lots of protein. For most trainees, ~30g-40g protein post-workout is more than enough.
The post-workout window is also a great time to include anything else you want shuttled into your muscles, namely supplements like creatine and beta-alanine. Try throwing in 3-5g creatine and 2-3g beta-alanine in your post-workout shake. Get them from TrueNutrition.com with discount code theSwole.
People always try to blame their workout routine when they aren't getting results. Sure I've seen crappy routines, but it's more often the stuff before, after and between your workouts that's holding you back. Optimize these, and you will get the most out of any training plan and better results in less time!