It's been said that 80 percent of success is just showing up. If that sounds like your approach to training, you've probably attained a certain amount of success through all your check-ins and check-outs at the gym. However, you can exponentially increase the quality of your workout by employing a few techniques to goose your drive and enthusiasm for a kick-ass training session.
1. Don't Kill Your Workout Before It Starts
Ever stay up really late on a Saturday night and tried to complete a hard Sunday workout on a half-night's sleep? Yeah, that was a wasted gym effort! In fact, just about everything you do in the 24 hours before your training session can in some way either positively or adversely affect your training outcome.
A good night's sleep is an obvious factor, because that's when hormones linked to muscle anabolism are released and countless other crucial restorative activities occur in your body. If your personal circumstances make a good night's sleep difficult, it's time to address them, whether it's buying a new mattress, putting up light-blocking window shades, turning off the TV and smartphone well before hitting the hay, or addressing snoring or sleep-apnea issues that can plague lifters without them even knowing.
2. Find a Pre-workout Nutritional Approach That Works for You
The meal leading up to a workout is critical to your success in the gym, because it's the one that will most directly stock your fuel and growth needs. Just keep it simple: An hour or two before you hit the weights, eat a pre-workout meal consisting of 20-25 percent of your daily carbohydrate intake and about 20-30 grams of protein. Carbs like potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, and oats, as well as lean protein sources like chicken breast, ground turkey, or white fish all make for great options for your pre-workout meal.
If you take a pre-workout, the timing is just as crucial. Take it at least a half-hour minutes before your workout starts so that your body actually has a chance to absorb all of the caffeine, beta-alanine, citrulline, and other proven performance-boosters.
Don't make the mistake of taking your pre-workout as you enter the gym—or even worse, in the locker room right before you hit the floor.
3. Use External Motivation, Not Just Internal
If you've been stuck in "punch the clock" training mode for a while, perhaps the place you're checking into has something to do with it.
One of the most motivating—or demotivating—aspects of exercise can be your gym. If you're dying to gain muscle, nothing beats a gym like one where you can see real bodybuilders train. This is why I joined The Mecca at Gold's Gym in Venice, California, for a few years, an experience I'll never forget.
Of course, not everyone has the time or budget to train in their town's mecca, but you can still take little steps to make your space match your goals. If you've got a home gym, make sure it's got enough space for you to move freely and enough equipment for you to feel excited about training. When you have a few extra bucks, consider devoting the money to workout accessories that will serve you for months or years—a new belt, maybe, or some bands—rather than splurging on booze or food that will only last a few minutes.
Getting motivated isn't limited to what you see or wear. It's easy to download music today, so there's no reason not to have an extensive playlist on hand to spike your mood. Otherwise, you're at the mercy of your gym—and that's almost never a good thing. Keep an extensive playlist of tunes to get you through those cardio slogs, and energizing, chest-thumping music for those days you want to tear down a wall.
4. Recruit a Training Partner Who'll Lift You up
You've heard of folks who "marry up," meaning they get hitched to someone above their social-status level. I suggest applying the same thinking to finding a workout partner. Now, I don't imagine Mr. Olympia is going to want to train with you, but hooking up with somebody just a little bigger and more knowledgeable than you can pay off immensely.
This doesn't mean you have to tap the biggest guy in the gym on the shoulder and meekly ask him for help. If you've got a friend who's just a little ahead of you in the game, training with them can make you work harder, which can help push you to the next level. If the results include a few extra reps at the end of your set, a novel exercise you've never tried, or a technique pointer from more experienced eyes, it's worth asking!
I've been on both sides of this with workout partners in the past. As the inexperienced one in this relationship, you'll definitely want to become Mr. or Ms. Reliable. In other words:
- Show up on time, and definitely don't miss workouts.
- Do a lot of working and not too much talking during and between sets,
- Don't get distracted by your phone or by other people.
- Pay 100 percent attention when spotting.
You get the idea. Don't be a drag on someone who is doing you a favor, or you'll find yourself training solo again.
5. Warm Up Right
Warm-ups don't seem like anything to get excited about when you first start doing them. Then one day, you make the transition to some heavy weights, and during that long, slow concentric grind, you find yourself wishing you were better prepared.
There are countless ways to organize your warm-up; just don't skip it, and don't give it short shrift. Here's a tried-and-true approach:
- Step 1: 5-7 minutes of general cardio of your choice
- Step 2: Dynamic stretching, prehab, or a specific routine that goes along with your workout
- Step 3: As many warm-up sets as you need, ascending in weight but never anywhere close to muscle failure
If you're looking for something to fill that second step, BPI Sports co-founder James Grage's Rewired 9-Week Fitness Trainer has a couple of warm-up movements to help you turn on the right muscles for the workout to come. Here's what not to do: static stretching, which requires you to hold a stretch for 10-60 seconds. It's been shown in multiple studies to reduce power output and performance, so save that type of stretching for after your workout.
Your reward will be the ability to push more weight or do additional reps, plus a reduced risk of injury. Not to mention, there's evidence that including a warm-up can help minimize post-exercise muscle soreness.[2-3] If you're hoping to have an equally great workout in a day or two, that can make all the difference.
While you're warming up your body, how about warming up your mind? Mental imagery can be a powerful tool for strength training, reports a 2012 study from Strength and Conditioning Journal. Plot what you want to achieve in the gym ahead of time, and visualize success with each movement. Prior to touching the bar, imaging yourself completing the lift, and repeat this visualization as you do the actual lift. You can even watch some YouTube videos of your favorite lifters doing those same movements for added inspiration. Your fuse should be lit by now!
6. Have Goals Beyond Simple PRs
I've got sad news for you: You can't set a PR in the gym every time you train. However, there's a silver lining: Among bodybuilders, the weight is less important than the feeling you generate in the target musculature. Many of the greatest bodybuilders don't care much at all about how heavy they go in any particular workout; they care about how well they're able to maintain the mind-muscle link, which is so important to muscle growth and continued success.
Let that be your goal: to connect the movement to feeling the muscle, sensing the stretch and contraction, generating the pump, and working through temporary pain instead of focusing on an arbitrary rep count.
The best thing about this approach is that it gets better the further you get in a workout. While you may only set an occasional PR once or twice in a workout, you can coach yourself to make each set feel a little better than the last one.
If you can successfully achieve that goal on your initial movement of the day, well, that's as successful a start as anyone could hope for. And nothing breeds success like success.
- Behm, D. G., & Chaouachi, A. (2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(11), 2633-2651.
- Nosaka, K., & Clarkson, P. M. (1995). Muscle damage following repeated bouts of high force eccentric exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 27(9), 1263-1269.
- Safran, M. R., Garrett, W. E., Seaber, A. V., Glisson, R. R., & Ribbeck, B. M. (1988). The role of warmup in muscular injury prevention. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 16(2), 123-129.2.
- Richter, J., Gilbert, J. N., & Baldis, M. (2012). Maximizing Strength Training Performance Using Mental Imagery. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(5), 65-69.