9 min read

Seven Ways to Improve At the Gym

This is going to be another large post but it needs to be. This keeps up with my 80/20 post last week and my 20% things to cut out from your routine for effectiveness/efficiency sake, previously as well.

I generally hate negativity when I can avoid it — sometimes it can be a necessity — but I love to spin negativity into positive attributes, so this time, I’d like to touch on the 20% things that can yield 80% of your results:

#1 – Showing Up (Consistency)

This is perhaps the most important thing you can do to see results, so I’ll beat down your door with it. As a trainer, I can’t help you if you don’t show up.

No fitness or wellness program can work if you don’t commit to consistently doing it. Any fitness program, whether it’s Crossfit, P90x or a 30 minute circuit, has some merit if you show up and are consistent with it. Showing up is the hard part, but once you’re there the rest can be an easy addition to your routine.

“80% of Success is Showing Up” ~ Woody Allen

#2 – Effectiveness/Efficiency 

I touched on this already, at least 20% of the things you do regularly are waste time. Foam rolling for 30 minutes before your session. Doing an hour long warm up. Spending most of the time you have doing prehab, rather than training. Doing single sets instead of paired sets — or even Tri-Sets if you know how to integrate them well. Big Movements to small movements.

There are goldilocks periods to spend on qualities that matter. If a person comes to me super flexible, why spend more time making them more flexible? If you’re already super strong, why keep chasing the same kind of strength (unless it’s your sport)? To improve doesn’t just mean focusing on what you’re already good at, more of something doesn’t mean better.

You’ll improve more by reducing the time you spend on things that aren’t helping you anymore. Break free of old routines.

By the same token, there are 20% things you could/should be doing that generate 80% of the result. Showing up in a huge part of that but once you’re there, you still have to get a good training session in.

Progress the weights/speeds/reps, you need progressive overload to get an adaptation. If you’ve been stuck on a weight or same number of reps, or speed isn’t changing for longer than a 4-6 weeks, change something.

Pick exercises with the most bang for your buck (Pulling, Pressing, Squatting, Deadlifting, Stabilizing, Lunging/Stepping, Rotating, Carrying, etc…).

Take preventative maintenance approaches in your warm-up and cool-downs. Self-massage. Dynamic warm-ups. Flush rides. Don’t do more than you need though.

Utilize appropriate changes to routines — slight changes in choice of exercise, mechanical advantage, reps, sets, tempo, etc… — but don’t get too much variety.

Ultimately get in, get as much as you can get done with the time you have and get out. There are numerous ways to you can do this and numerous ways you can experiment, so play around with some of these ideas below.

On a final note consider hiring a quality coach or adopting a mentor, of the majority of people surveyed by IDEA, those who were getting the results they desired, at commercial gyms, more than 80% of them were using a coach.

“Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” ~ Thomas Edison

#3 – Neuromuscular System Development – NMSD (Weight/Strength/Resistance Training)

Whatever you want to call it, I’m amazed at just how many people are still afraid of this, or intimidated by it, Men and Women. Women often say, ‘I don’t want to bulk up’ and Men often say, ‘I just want to look cut.’ They have this misconception that weight training = bulk and high reps = definition.

The truth is, weight training can be done with high reps, medium reps, and low reps, each with a different outcome or benefit that should be cycled into any good program methodically. You’ll improve more using NMSD than you will using solely ESD.

You only bulk up if you have enough calories present to build mass and you only lose fat if you have few enough calories to burn off that fat.

It can also be done with more or less rest, faster or slower tempos, done with different implements (Dumbbells, Barbells, Kettlebells, Bands, etc…), and believe it or not, push-ups or other body weight exercises are still considered weight training. There are many ways to get your weight training in and I recommend shooting to learn as many of them as you can.

It has been my experience that utilizing various rep ranges and approaches is the most ideal way to elicit the biggest changes, the fastest. Weight training is the one thing that anyone can do and do well at the gym too. You don’t have to be athletic to lift weights, and you don’t have to want to be a body-builder to do it either.

It’s something that should be taught in high school instead of, or along side the tons of games/sports. I feel as though a ton of youths, who view themselves (AKA: A poor mindset) as non-athletic at an early age, suffer from a lack of exercise later in life, due to misconceptions they’ve developed on account of believing they are not athletic.

I read a stat this year that stated 35 million Americans will participate in weight training this year, which is the most ever and an incredible achievement for the industry if you ask me. Normally, I hate trends but it’s actually listed as the hot trend in 2011, so I hope it becomes more than just a trend for 2012. I’d also like to see more youth getting involved with good methods.

#4 – Energy System Development (ESD) 

More than just “cardio,”  around me, please at least refer to it as conditioning. “Cardio” implies that the activity is merely aerobic, so as much as I try to avoid to use that term, I feel as though I have to, so people understand what I’m getting at.

However, your body actually has 3 different, yet inter-related energy systems. Aerobic (the most known), and two types of Anaerobic (Anaerobic-Alactic and Anaerobic-Lactic or ATP-CP and Glycolytic depending on who you talk to). You should work to improve them all from time to time.

Power sports are typically more anaerobic in nature with something like football being more Alatic — short enough you don’t get a lactic acid accumulation — and something like soccer being more lactic. Perhaps one critical distinction to make is that anaerobic training has been proven to yield aerobic benefit, whereas the reverse is not true.

This suggests that doing more interval work is appropriate for time crunched individuals, provided they have a base of strength and are capable of handling the intensity.

That being said, I think it’s important to think about training all of these systems at various points in a training program depending on the goal of the program.

There should obviously be more aerobic work, if the person’s objectives align with endurance sports, but if the goal is weight loss, anaerobic training appears to be superior both in it’s contribution to aerobic health and greater assistance to weight loss. At least if you can tolerate it and recover from it. You need that balance.

I also believe it to be most effective to utilize all the tools available to you, and doing what you love doing — if that’s running long distances, awesome! Manipulating ESD is another easy way to see big results, faster.

#5 – Mobility Work 

Neglected, Neglected, Neglected. Please read this, right now. To improve doesn’t always mean reps/weight/speed, sometimes distance traveled with a certain weight is a signal of improvement. How easy does it feel?

Most people have no idea what I’m talking about when I say this so I’ll lay down some basics here.

Mobility is the ability of the body to move effectively, flexibility is the range of motion at a joint.

Thus flexibility is a part of mobility work, but so is agility work, strength and muscular endurance. In the same way, stretching is a part of flexibility but not completely inclusive.

Mobility is important because moving through correct/fuller ranges of motion during your exercise, means better effectiveness of those exercises. The fuller the range of motion, the more total movement, the bigger the energy impact and the lower the chance of injury to stall you.

Strength work can also be mobility work and has been shown to improve flexibility, counter to the myth that is reduces it. You just have to use full ranges of motion.

You need not spend a lot of time on mobility, for it to be very effective for exercise. There are numerous ways to develop your mobility, like these. It’s easier to maintain than it is to build too.

Needless to say that it does not just mean stretching. I believe it involves combinations of passive stretching, active stretching, mobilizations, maybe some yoga, some ballistic work, PNF work in some cases and simply working through full ranges of motion during training. It should apply to you and your body.

Static stretching is a huge waste of time for a lot of people, and it’s a great use of good time for others; You need to find your happy medium.

#6 – Variety but Not Too Much Variety

Your body needs time to adjust to a program or sequence of exercises. How much of a dose for results is up for debate, but for novices/beginners you might be able to get away with about 12 weeks of doing very similar stuff and for the more advanced trainee, as little as 3 of the same workouts may be enough to warrant variety.

Research suggests that up to 4 exercises can bring up a singular exercise better than only doing that one exercise, so long as the same amount of total volume/work is done. I put the number of exercises per body part at no more than that in any given workout, but it could be more in a training phase.

We don’t know for certain but that’s what my experience tells me for a given phase of training.

Truthfully volume/intensity varies based on the person and their training age, it can be trial and error to find the right dosage for each individual. To improve you need some trial and error. Even doctors use that method.

Ritalin, for example, is often adjusted by the practitioner over the course of months or years, so that someone suffering from ADHD can find the optimal operating zone. That dosage may need to be adjusted as the patient gets used to the medication too.

For exercise there are some basic rules that seem to work best. There appears to be a minimum of 3-4 of the same or pretty similar workouts before it needs to be changed. The max seems to be 6-8 weeks once settled into a routine, but this also depends on the kind of training program and the objectives of the program, if it’s weight loss I would switch things up every 3-6 weeks or the easy way to do it is to change things up every month or every other month.

So for anyone who is doing the same thing now that they did 3 months ago, you really need to think about mixing it up. For others who do something different every time you go into the gym, you may want to think about doing at least 3-4 of those workouts before you move onto something different.

Within a session, there is considerable research showcasing the need for multiple sets of nearly every exercise you do — depending on the rep ranges — and as a general rule of thumb, if you work in a 12+ rep zone, you should do at least 2 sets, if its’ a 6-12 rep range, I would say do at least 3, and if you’re working in a 1-6 zone, you are probably looking at about 3-4. There is an inverse relationship to the number of sets to reps, based on the factor of intensity.

#7 – Mastery/Progressive Overload 

This kind of coincides with point #2. I’ve watched countless people spend weeks and months at the gym using the same weights, and doing approximately the same reps, with the same speed, in the same range of motion, while expecting to get the same result they got when they first started that routine.

Einstein’s definition of insanity is, “doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result.”

What got you your first look at results, won’t get you to your next set of results. To improve you’ve got to shake things up to force your body into adaptation. Challenge yourself periodically to lift more weight, for more reps, faster or slower. Ideally almost every workout is such a challenge but I’m a moderate thinking person.

There are a variety of ways to shake things up but the most basic principle you need to think about is progressive overload. You need to find ways to get a little bit more out of yourself most every time you get into the gym. This can vary from changing your grip, changing the exercises, to lifting faster or slower, to getting just one more rep each time you get into the gym, until you have to add a little amount of weight (even if it’s only 2.5 lbs). It could even be a more qualitative assessment, my squat or my jumping form looks and feels better.

Everyone can get better at the gym, strive to get a little more each time from yourself, to see the biggest changes.

In business this is referred to as ‘the Kaizen Principle,’ a Japanese philosophy of ‘continuous improvement.’ It also applies to anything in life, go after these small performance goals above to unlock big results.

Don’t just pay lip service to continuous improvement, little things go a long way. Especially the more you train.