While we're all forever on the hunt for the "perfect" workout—one that delivers gains easily and never falters—that particular beast just doesn't exist. Instead, we have to continually tweak and tinker our weight training and cardio regimens in order to outpace the incredibly adaptable human body. As the experts will tell you, it's all about keeping your body guessing and growing.
So where should you start?
With the help of RSP Nutrition athletes Curtis Bartlett, Kieon Dorsey, and Hannah Eden, we've assembled seven easy ways you can dramatically improve your workouts today.
Those iron sessions may never be perfect, but that doesn't mean they can't continue to deliver compelling results season after season.
1. Break Down Big Lifts Into Smaller Parts
The major compound movements like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and rows are no-brainers for any successful program. However, performing the type of rock-solid reps that make you stronger—without hurting yourself—can't always be accomplished by sheer brute force.
When full, quality reps are a struggle, you can attack them in pieces, instead. Breaking things down and working on individual parts of the lift can help you improve overall. Let's take the deadlift, for instance.
"Instead of coming into the gym and smashing heavy plates while going for a new personal record, try starting your workout with rack pulls from the knee, or deficit deadlifts where you come up to just the knee," explains Bartlett, founder of online training service Police-Fitness.
"Finish with some Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham developer extensions, or lying leg curls, and call it a day. Over time, the rack pull will allow you to finish your regular deadlifts with an extra 100-200 pounds, and the deficits will give you the power to get the weight moving off the floor."
2. Time Yourself
More often than not, the length of every set you do is decided before you even begin. That tends to be a limiting factor. If you tell yourself you're going to get 12 reps, that 12th rep will feel like the last one you can do—even if you actually still have a few more reps in the tank.
Instead of aiming for a certain number of reps, Bartlett says to look to the clock for guidance, particularly on slightly higher-rep, muscle-focused work.
"Adding a timer not only gives you accountability, but also is an easily measured way to track your progress," Bartlett says. "A timer will give you the ability to push the pace and challenge yourself." Instead of 12 or so reps during your next workout, do reps for 30 seconds straight.
Once you can manage that with relative ease, move up to 45 or 60. Get in as many reps as you can in the allotted time period while keeping good form.
3. Have a Light Day
"Although lifting heavy weights regularly will indeed improve your overall strength and muscle mass, lifting heavy every day can actually hinder muscle growth," warns Eden, founder of PumpFit Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida "One of the key stages of muscle growth is the recuperation phase, which is when the muscle is being repaired and strengthened to handle the stress of future workouts."
If going heavy all the time is wearing you down, rotating between lighter and heavier loads might be just the thing. It can start today—even if you're in the middle of a relatively heavy strength phase.
No, a workout or two where you do 12-15 reps rather than 3-6 isn't going to "set back" your strength gains. On the contrary, if it pushes blood into the muscle and spares your joints from stress, it could leave you feeling stronger and better prepared for your next workout.
In the future, if you don't want to commit to a long, dedicated strength cycle, toss a light day like this into your program every 2-3 weeks.
4. Force the Issue
What's your workout partner up to? Just standing there waiting to rescue you during a heavy squat or bench? Believe it or not, they can do more.
According to Dorsey, one of the most effective intensity techniques in the gym is forced reps. For instance, let's say you're doing a set of seated pull-downs. Your overall goal is 12 reps. To start, choose a weight that causes you to fail at 8-9 reps. Do reps until that point. Once you can no longer pull with proper form, have your partner add just enough assistance to help you complete the rep.
For pull-downs, your partner stands behind you, placing his or her hands on the handle between your grip. With that added touch, you "force" your way through the remaining reps to hit a dozen.
Dorsey does add a caveat, however. "While I condone forced reps, I believe they should only be applied to weight that you are at least 90 percent capable of doing without assistance," he says.
"Extreme compromising of your form takes away from the lift and won't help your goals or true progress. If you do assisted reps correctly, however, you'll become stronger over time and reap the benefits of the exercise. And instead of looking silly attempting weights you can't handle, you'll look educated to those around you by doing it properly."
5. Make One Tiny Change
Not ready to cash in your heavy lifting for a full-fledged light day? No problem. You still have options—endless options, actually.
"Just like our brains, our muscles tend to 'lose focus' if they're bored," Eden warns. "Repeating totally familiar workouts day in and day out will cause your physique to become resistant to change, and your progress will plateau."
What's the answer? Change the little stuff, and change it often. "To stimulate your muscles, I suggest making small tweaks daily," Eden explains. "Every time you do a certain body-part workout, change up at least one exercise: the order, grip, angle, or number of sets and reps. Constant little changes will help generate a stronger mind-muscle connection and stimulate growth."
6. Nail Your Pre-workout Meal
For big results, your overall nutritional approach matters far more than any individual meal. But when having a great workout is your goal of the day, one particular meal—the one before your workout—can make the difference between a high-energy session and a slog.
"Try different foods, combinations, and timing to get the most out of your workouts, and when you find something that works, remember it!" Bartlett says. "Everyone hates getting hungry mid-workout or feeling empty or burned out before finishing. It's not that your pre-workout supplement isn't working; it's just that you're probably not eating enough beforehand. People forget that in addition to gains, diet also controls your energy levels."
Of course, if there's one thing that works even better than the perfect pre-workout meal, it's that meal plus a dose of a quality pre-workout taken 45 minutes prior to training.
7. Have One Do-or-Die Goal per Workout
Workouts are delicate balancing acts of priorities. If you hit squats with all you've got, for instance, everything afterward will necessarily suffer a little. This can seem like a bad thing, but it can also be a tool you use to your benefit. Here's how: Set one small goal that you simply will achieve in a workout, period. If you do it, then the workout is a success.
"When I say 'set a small goal,' I'm not talking about the goals associated with the end result, like 'get leaner' or 'get stronger,'" says Dorsey, owner of online training site "No Struggle No Progress." "I'm talking about goals you can set weekly or daily. For instance, you can say, 'I will train legs twice a week, period' and devote your energy to that goal. Or you can go even smaller: 'I will do 5 rounds of this circuit.'"
As long as your small goals reflect your big goals, you're moving forward. Be consistent, and focus on improving the quality of your workouts, and you can't go wrong!