Most of the time, I know what I'm going to do when I go to the gym. Sure, the weights and reps might change over the course of a long session of DTP or German volume training, but the movements are more or less set in stone. Otherwise, why follow a program at all?
But then there are those days when the program asks you to do something you're pretty sure your body isn't up for. Heavy deadlifts or squats after barely sleeping and going from plane to plane for two days? Fuck that. Honestly, I love my training too much to let it get set back by an injury.
So is the only choice to admit defeat, go to bed, and let your circumstances rule the day? That's not my style, either.
When this happens—and it does happen—I'll head into the gym for an "instinctive" workout. These have only two rules: Stick to machines, and let my body tell my brain where to go. Here's how my most recent one, a back workout that I cooked up in the early morning after some long and tiring days, went down.
Make It About the Pump
An instinctive workout only works if you go in with the right mindset. You can't switch courses halfway through and start trying to set PRs right and left.
During this workout, I knew I would be focusing on the squeeze and the contraction, range of motion, and establishing a strong mind-muscle connection. I talk about the mind-muscle connection all the time, but on an instinctive training day, it's even more important than normal. The more you can use your mind, the more you can get away with using light weight while still getting a great pump and doing quality work. Over the last few years, I've realized just how crucial that pump is to everything we do in the gym.
I made the workout even more intense by contracting my back muscles—especially my lats—as hard as I could after most of the sets I performed. If you went through the FST-7 weeks of my Muscle-Building Trainer, you know what I'm talking about. Once you hit failure, just step back and contract the target muscle until you can't hold it anymore.
It goes without saying that when a good pump is the goal, everything you do should be geared toward that goal. That means you need to be well hydrated before you set foot in the weight room, and a pre-workout supplement with plenty of citrulline is a no-brainer.
One Rep at a Time
I knew when I stepped onto the floor what the first exercise was going to be: the reverse-grip pull-down. After that, I decided I'd just see how my back felt, and decide each step as I went along.
As soon as I grabbed the pull-down bar, I knew I had made a good choice. A weight that I would normally dominate felt seriously heavy. Still, I wore straps for most of the workout, and I recommend you do the same if you can. All that time under tension will put a lot of stress on your forearms and grip, and if you're not feeling recovered, you'll burn out in just a few sets. You don't want that. You want all the force and load placed on the target muscle. Think of your hands as just hooks hanging there.
I took my time through three warm-up sets, stretching out the rest periods a little more than I normally would, just to feel like I could adequately recover. Then, after a working set, I decided I could go a little heavier. Staying on machines makes this choice a little easier, because the risk of injury is far less.
Three warm-up sets, three working sets, and I was done. But what next? My body was telling me to do another rowing or pulling movement on a machine. I saw a free Hammer row machine out of the corner of my eye, and I knew it was the right choice.
Build Your Own Instinctive Workout
- Hydrate, and take blood-flow-boosting supplements before you start.
- Primarily use machines.
- Focus on the contraction, mind-muscle connection, and range of motion. No setting PRs!
- Rest a little longer between sets than normal if you need to.
- Don't be afraid to use straps. Your grip will limit you even more on a day when you're weak.
- Once you've got a good pump, don't be afraid to switch equipment. Let your body guide you.
- When your body says it's done, be done. Don't try to be a hero.
The Body Speaks if You Listen
To get a complete workout, I utilized unique tactics on different sets. My first set of hammer rows was all about pause, contraction, and squeeze, making sure I didn't use any other assisting muscles. But on the next set, I allowed myself to use some momentum, so I could go heavier and focus a little bit more on explosiveness. But I only recommend that you do this after 1-2 strict sets, so you can make sure you've gotten a better neuromuscular contraction. That way, when you go heavier, everything is already a little prefatigued, and you know exactly what you should be feeling.
After I did the heavy set of 10-12 reps to failure, my body told me, "Let's keep going. You've got more." Sometimes, when you don't have a plan to stick to, you're able to hear these messages as you go along. So I did a dropset, and I think I got six extra reps—six that I normally wouldn't have gotten otherwise. I didn't strap up on the dropset, either. My back was fatigued enough that I knew I wouldn't be holding on to the handles for long.
After one lighter set and two heavy sets, I felt like I didn't need another, as weird as that sounds coming from the man who developed DTP. My lats were feeling pumped and engorged, and I felt like I wanted to go on to something else. So I went over to the cable-row station, used a wide grip, and targeted my middle and upper back.
The wide grip kept me from being able to go very heavy, which was a good thing. I was able to hit my upper back precisely without getting a "spot" from my biceps, so to speak. It also made it easier to add in a few back extensions to warm up my lower back, because I had a vision developing of what I wanted to do to end my workout.
I called the lower-back move I did next "cable deadlifts," but visually, they're very different than the heavy deadlifts I've been doing recently. They're more like a machine back extension. But they were the right choice, because I wasn't up to doing anything crazy like stacking up a shitload of plates and possibly injuring myself. I paired this in a superset with the Hammer shrug machine, so the muscles from the first movement weren't at all involved with this movement.
On the shrug machine, I only knocked out 14-15 repetitions with a weight that normally I would have handled for way more. But my body doesn't know what weight is written on a plate. It only knows failure, and I reached failure. That's the main thing. As I often say, this is the only place in the world where you have to fail to succeed.
After that, I could have tried for more. But my body was saying, after just two supersets to failure, "That's it. Back is done. That's enough." And on this day, it was.