The holy grail for developing an effective workout routine is goal setting. Unless you are completely new to training, you are probably aware that to manifest change in your life you need a target, something to shoot for, an end that justifies your means.
Determining what you want to accomplish from your efforts is the first step to crafting a successful program. But no matter what it is you’re after—leaner abs, athletic legs, increased stamina, or less pain in your body—there are certain elements to every workout that you want to make sure you’re covering.
From years of training coaches, we’ve noticed, that even the more experienced trainers often leave out key elements that are necessary for success. The average novice gym goer doesn’t even come close to optimizing their gym time. Therefore, this article provides a checklist of things that may be missing from your workouts. By designing your routine around these components, you’ll set yourself up for success!
#1: A Training Plan
Most people hit the gym with a vague idea about doing some cardio and lifting a few weights—for guys it’s usually a bench press and curls, and for the ladies, it’s often triceps kickbacks and squats. This is simply not detailed enough to get you results.
A wise coach once said that “a goal without a plan is just a wish.” The reality is that without a detailed plan, it’s more likely that you’ll get intimidated, give up and go home.
This article is going to provide in-depth details about the different elements you need to include in your plan, but here’s an overview:
For weight training, you need to know the exercises you intend to train (most workouts include 5 to 10 lifts, depending on training goals), weights, rep and set schemes, tempo prescriptions (the cadence for the up and down motion of each lift, including pauses at the top or bottom), and the length of rest periods.
For conditioning (a.k.a. cardio), you should know the duration of training, the details of any intervals, and some method of measuring intensity such as heart rate or rating of perceived exertion.
#2: A Warm-Up
Due to lack of time, the backlash against stretching, or some other obstacle, warm-ups have gone out of style. It’s not the end of the world to meld your warm-up to your needs, but completely ditching the warm-up is not the best approach. It’s worth putting in 5 to 10 minutes to get your nervous system jazzed up and your muscles activated if you want to perform at your best. Your goal should be to raise body temperature and heart rate with low- to moderate-intensity activity. Cycling, running, body weight exercises, or light lifts for 5 to 10 minutes will do the trick. Follow that with 3 to 4 dynamic coordination exercises (also called dynamic stretching), such as high knees, butt kicks, or overhead squats.
One of the most misunderstood terms in training, intensity refers to the resistance or weight lifted during an exercise. It is expressed as a percentage of your 1 rep max (1RM) or the maximal amount you can lift for one repetition.
This term is often misused because the scientific term can be confused with the common parlance of the word, which uses the term “intense” to refer to the degree of difficulty or “pain” it induces. People often talk about high-intensity training, referring to workouts that have an interval-style scheme with a high volume and short rest to induce metabolic disturbance. Examples are many CrossFit workouts, sprint protocols, or other high-volume weight workouts.
For instance, a circuit workout of 5 rounds of 20 reps each of squats, pull-ups, and step-ups, with no rest between exercises and an intensity or load of 50 percent of maximal might be called “high-intensity training” because it is physically and mentally challenging, however, by definition an intensity of 50 percent of your 1RM is a low intensity. For our purposes, “intensity” is a measure of the workload, not a description of how a training session makes you feel.
With that in mind, it’s important that you occasionally include high intensities in which you lift heavy loads that are challenging for just a few reps, regardless of what your training goal is. High intensity lifting will ensure you keep your body adapting so that you stimulate increases in muscle and bone, yielding a better body composition while also building strength.
Volume refers to how many sets and reps you do per workout. A general rule is that for improving strength and athletic performance, you want to have a lower volume with heavier weights. For fat loss and body composition goals, you want a higher volume and lighter weights. But the key to the volume equation is progression.
Every workout you should focus on increasing one element of the volume-intensity continuum: If you’re sticking with the same weights as last time, try to do a few more reps. If you’ve upped your loads, your reps may drop, but that’s okay because you’re lifting heavier weights.
Don’t worry, by failure, we mean you need to train to failure, not that you are a failure. Failure occurs when you train to the point that your form breaks down and/or you can’t lift the weight anymore.
Studies show training to failure pays of big time in terms of greater strength and body composition gains because it stimulates fibers in the muscles that are normally dormant and not easily activated. Here’s how to put this in practice: If your program tells you to do 8 to 10 squats at 100 lbs but you can do 11, you are no longer effectively overloading your body and results will stagnate. You need to increase your weight so that you reach failure by the 10th rep.
#6: Multi-Joint Exercises
Also known as compound lifts, multi-joint exercises are those that use multiple joints and muscles at a time. Multi-joint exercises are the priority lifts in your workout and should be programmed at the beginning of a session when you are fresh and strong. Examples include squats, deadlifts, presses, lunges, step-ups, chin-ups, pull-downs, and rows. Why are these exercises so important?
Because they provide a big payoff for your efforts since you are hitting more muscles with each movement. You can also lift heavier loads, thereby eliciting greater changes in strength and body composition. For anyone who is under a time crunch or simply wants to maximize their results, multi-joint exercises should make up the majority of the exercises in your routine.
#7: Single-Joint Exercises
Although they shouldn’t be the primary focus of your workout, single-joint, “isolation” exercises are also important because they can target weak links and serve as a preventative tool to avoid injury. Per their name, single-joint exercises use one joint or muscle at a time. Examples are biceps curls, triceps extensions, shoulder raises, back extension, calf raises, and knee extensions. Internal and external rotation and trap 3 raises are also single-joint exercises that serve as great pre-hab lifts for the shoulders and rotator cuff.
You want to program single-joint exercises at the end of your training session since they are less metabolically taxing and generally require lower intensities with higher set-rep schemes in the hypertrophy (8-15 reps) or muscular endurance (15 to 30 reps) range.
#8: Timed Rest Periods
Not timing rest periods is a huge rookie mistake made by the vast majority of people in any gym. Rest periods are just as important as set-rep schemes and exercise selection because they dictate the exact stimulus applied to your muscles.
For example, very short rest periods of 10 seconds can be great for fat loss because they produce a lot of metabolic stress and a large growth hormone response, but it’s guaranteed that if you train this way all the time, your strength will be compromised and you’ll be disappointed in long-term results. Longer rest periods and heavier weights will allow you to increase your strength and physical performance so that when you go back to training for body composition, you can apply even greater stimulus to the muscles.
#9: Cool-down/Dedicated Recovery
Recovery is one of the most underrated elements of training. By optimizing recovery, you ensure your body has what it needs to repair damaged tissue, restore fuel sources in the muscle, and rehydrate cells.
Cool-downs are an easy way to start the recovery process, but unfortunately, they have become just as scarce as warm-ups in most people’s programs. Try spending a few minutes allowing your body to relax with easy stretching so that your nervous system to settle and return to homeostasis. Targeting tight muscles with passive stretching can help maintain range of motion around the joint for better mobility and a more effective training stimulus from full-range training.
#10: A Time Limit
You probably have a friend who likes to brag about all the hours they spend in the gym. Although long workouts may seem like a venerable goal, they leave a lot to be desired. The law of diminishing returns tells us that if you are training for much longer than an hour, you are wasting your time. Not only does the stress hormone cortisol skyrocket with long, drawn out workouts, but it’s rare to be able to maintain high-quality focus and drive for longer than an 60 minutes.
Knowing you have a time limit also helps you avoid turning your workout into social hour or camping out on your phone when you should be training or timing your rest periods. The successful people will show up with a plan, put in their work, and move on with their lives.
Final Words: Getting serious about your fitness isn’t easy, but it will pay off enormously once you see your body start to change and your weights go up. By covering the most important bases, you’ll optimize your results with the least effort and maybe have a little fun in the process. Start today!