When it comes to working out, do you ever feel like your results don’t match your effort? You put in your time at the gym, but your squat PR has plateaued or you’re still struggling to sustain that 8-minute mile?
Everyone’s heard the mantra—stop working harder and start working smarter. But what does smarter mean? Here are six ways to smarten up your training and move closer toward your body composition or performance goals.
Determine your goal and train for it. While this sounds straight forward, many people’s workout routines don’t support their fitness goals. Just because you “feel the burn” doesn’t mean a particular exercise is right for you. If your workouts aren’t tailored to support your goal, they’re unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst.
Want to build strength? Heavy resistance training should be the focus for most of your exercise sessions. Running a marathon? A combination of long, steady-state running mixed with short high-intensity interval work is your best bet. You can’t be a world-class power lifter and a champion distance runner at the same time. Training too hard for different goals robs you of your ability to excel at one. Instead, narrow your focus and prioritize the exercises and training regimens that will help you achieve your main objective.
The overload principle dictates that you must expose your body to greater demands (e.g., weight, volume, duration) than it’s accustomed to in order to increase fitness. While this is true, challenge yourself too much and you’ll quickly plateau or even regress. Proper periodization of exercise volume and intensity is necessary to maximize fitness gains.
Periodization can be programmed over months, where you intentionally include a week of low-intensity or low-volume training every four to six weeks. You can also periodize within a single week, cycling through days of high-intensity exercise, low-intensity exercise and recovery.
Nothing kills an hour faster than aimlessly wandering around the gym. Once you’ve chosen a training goal, you can build a plan that prioritizes the training modalities that are most supportive. To build a long-term strategy, ask yourself:
- How many days a week should I (or can I, realistically) train?
- What crucial exercises should I include in my workouts? How often should these exercises be done (e.g., once a week, twice a week)?
- What set and repetition schema will best help me achieve my goals?
- Of the exercises or movement patterns I’m training on a given day, which are most crucial? Perform these exercises first.
- How many days of recovery do I need between exercise sessions?
If you’re unsure about the answers to any of these questions, consider working with a health professional who can help you develop a plan tailored to your goals and lifestyle.
The easiest way to undermine fitness gains is through inadequate refueling. Consuming sufficient post-workout protein and carbohydrates is crucial for glycogen replenishment and muscle tissue repair. Research suggests that consuming 20 grams of post-workout protein can enhance muscle protein synthesis (Morton, McGlory and Phillips, 2015), which will support your muscle-building efforts.
Carbohydrates also play an important post-exercise role. Glycogen, which is the stored form of carbohydrates that provides the body with fuel for activity, is depleted after a strenuous workout. Consuming carbohydrates after your workout replenishes glycogen stores and is shown to enhance muscle protein synthesis (Levenhagen et al., 2001).
Many weight loss–focused exercisers cut post-workout carbohydrates in an attempt to lean down and, in doing so, hurt their ability to progress over time. Adequate protein and carbohydrate will help your muscles repair and grow stronger, and supply you with the energy to crush your next workout.
Muscular adaptations occur after repeated bouts of training in which muscle tissue is damaged and, in the process of repairing, grows in size or strength. During the 24-48 hours after you finish an exercise bout, your body works hard to return to its normal resting state. If your body isn’t able to fully recover in that time period, your progress will suffer.
While nutrition is a key component of recovery, sleep is another crucial element. Sleeping supports multiple physiological systems that are stressed during exercise. Immune function is restored and growth hormone and other androgens are secreted to help repair and build muscle and enhance bone growth. The nervous system, which is challenged during strenuous exercise, also recovers during sleep (Marshall and Turner, 2016). To maximize your workout results, aim for seven or more hours of quality sleep each night.
Your body views exercise as a stressor. In response to stress, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for your “fight or flight” response, is activated. While useful during a bout of exercise, chronic SNS activation can lead to worsened performance and overtraining. To combat this, activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for the “rest and digest” state. The PNS opposes the SNS to help calm you down. Being in a parasympathetic state can help reduce the effects of chronic stress and overtraining that undermine fitness results. Be sure to take a few minutes after exercise to activate the PNS with deep, steady breathing. This will help your body get out of the “fight-or-flight” mode and maximize your ability to heal and progress.
Optimize Your Training
A little pre-exercise prep and post-workout replenishment go a long way in improving your health and fitness results. These six strategies can help you avoid injury, maximize training and reap the greatest benefits from your workout routine.
Levenhagen, D.K. et al. (2001). Post-exercise nutrient intake timing in humans is critical to recovery of leg glucose and protein homeostasis. American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism, 280, 6, E982–993.
Marshall, G.J. and Turner, A.N. (2016). The importance of sleep for athletic performance. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 38, 1.
Morton, R.W., McGlory, C. and Phillips, S.M. (2015). Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Frontiers in Physiology, 6.