3 Ways to Make Your Fitness Program Feel Better

As opposed to using the gym to beat you down, why not use it to make you feel better? If improved performance, health and aesthetics are your goals, structuring your workouts to help you feel better will take you a long way towards reaching them. Here are 3 ways to make your fitness program work for you, not the other way around.

Mike Stuart

1: Save a Rep

I had the opportunity to race in an IRONMAN triathlon back in the Summer of 2017. I had trained for 3 months, not a long time by triathlon standards, had no prior racing experience and was equipped with a road bike, a pair of swim trunks and a semi-new pair of running shoes. I finished and I’m proud to say it. That race took everything from me. The following day I watched Spongebob episodes while lying on the couch debating what kind of long-term damage I’d done. Days 2 and 3 were similar, although walking and stairs became an option again. The longest recovery was for my energy and mood. I found myself irritable (more than usual) for a week. My energy levels took at least that long to start feeling normal again.

DISCLAIMER: I WAS 23 YEARS OLD.

It was a fine example of what training to outright fatigue can do to a young and trained body. So why I ask, do we do the same thing in the gym? Training to fatigue will leave us feeling a pump and winking at other gym-goers, but let’s think about what this will do to our long-term recovery and lifestyle? We all train for different reasons, but the most common that I hear are

a. Improve performance/health

b. Look good naked.

Both of these goals will be harder to obtain using training methods that incorporate failure repetitions. Ellen can do 8 pull ups. So, Ellen does 8 pull ups on Monday, with the last one being an absolute battle, then finds herself doing sets of 3, 4 and maybe 5 from there. This leads to a fair amount of muscle soreness that causes Ellen to hold off training pull-ups until Thursday (48-hour soreness strikes again). This same thing occurs on Thursday, leading to her doing about 30 pull ups on the week. Let’s travel back to Monday. Ellen does 4 pull ups at a time, 4 times, leading to 16 pull ups on the day. Without the straining repetitions of failure training, she feels good to go on Wednesday, where she does the same thing. She’s grown accustomed to sets of 4 now and decides to train them again on Friday. This totals 48 pull ups on the week. See where we’re going here? One big set can be supplemented by a few smaller sets, leading to less soreness, better performance and MORE VOLUME in the long run. This means that we are…

a. Increasing our capacity for exercise

b. Spending more time training and less time recovering

These seem to be more in line with our improved performance and aesthetic goals. All in all, avoiding failure sets should be something we should all be doing. There is a time and a place for them, but not for the novice athlete, nor for the person looking to get as strong as they can.

Thanks for the demo Ellen.

2: Be Smart With Exercise Pairing

Let’s use Tony this time, shall we? Tony has 45 minutes to workout, and he wants to do AS MUCH WORK AS POSSIBLE since he’s trying to beef up his arms and shoulders for an upcoming Tinder date. This leaves Tony in a predicament. Bench press takes a long time, as does deadlift, pull ups, overhead pressing, squatting and lunging. Tony has heard that these are the best exercises for building muscle, so he wants to find a way to do them all. His 1 st day goes like this. 

A1 – Bench Press
A2 – Walking Lunge
B1 – Deadlift
B2 – Pull Up
C1 – Squat
C2 – Overhead Press

As you may have guessed, this workout leaves Tony dazed and confused. His numbers were all way down and his heart rate was sky high. How is Tony supposed to push big weight if he can’t catch his breath? While doing all 6 of these exercises in one day may be good for some, in most cases it leads to diminished performance and extended recovery times (not a good recipe for boulder shoulders on Tinder dates). A perfect fix to this would be breaking the workouts into upper and lower body sessions or finding ways to disperse these taxing exercises throughout the week. This would help Tony train each one to the best of his ability. In the interest of idiocy, let’s say Tony insists on doing all these exercises every day that he goes to the gym. We all like a good challenge.

Here’s a sample workout that Tony could do for the day that may lead to an even better pump.

A1 – Bench Press
A2 – Walking Lunge (I actually didn’t mind this)

B1 – Pull Up
B2 – Squat
C1 – Overhead Press
C2 – Deadlift

This doesn’t seem like a big difference (it isn’t, it’s one exercise switch), but Tony finds himself doing the exercises with a little more vigor. Why is this? Pull up and Deadlift are both challenging exercises for the back musculature. Technically speaking, they demand a lot of the same muscles in the upper body, even if the movements look totally different. Pairing squat with pull up makes sense in a couple ways.

a. You aren’t training grip on both exercises

b. You aren’t crushing your lats on back-to-back exercises

The deadlift and overhead press pairing makes sense for a couple of reasons as well.

a. Deadlifts force scapular depression, while OVHP challenges Tony to upwardly rotate the scapula 

b. You don’t do pull ups and deadlifts together (you’re welcome Tony)

Tony realizes that by paying attention to his exercise pairings and avoiding putting exercises together that challenge the same musculature, he can train longer on each muscle group with more intensity. As for the Tinder date, we can’t help him there.

 

3: Warm Up

Linda is next. She’s looking to build up her lower body through a series of squats, deadlifts and
lunges so that she feels stronger and has a booty to match. 

Linda shows up to the gym and heads to the squat rack, rocking a set of 12 squats, before turning around and grabbing some dumbbells. It’s lunging time. On rep 6, she feels a tiny pop in her knee and a rush of pain flows to the area. Not an injury! How is she going to build the booty now? In all seriousness, chronically missing out on a warm up can increase Linda’s chances of injury, which have no place in her training. Other negative impacts are shown in research like decreased time to fatigue, diminished movement quality and increased RPE, which is a measure of how hard something feels to a trainee. All of this won’t help Linda in her quest to blow up her legs. 

If Linda wants to train heavy and hard, skipping the warm up so that she has an extra 5 minutes to get hurt doesn’t make much sense. Here’s a sample warm up for her that takes less than 5 minutes and can make that first set of squats feel WAYYYYY better.

1. Incline Treadmill Walk – 3 minutes
2. Lateral Band Walk – 1 set of 12 each way
3. Bear Crawl – 1 set of 20 yards

Warm up and go folks! Treat your body well.

 

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