7 Ways to Make Your Training Efficient
We all want great results from our training efforts. But far too often, we fail to consider the costs of these results – all the time, effort, orthopedic wear and tear, time away from family and professional pursuits, and so forth.
I understand that most of us are willing to "pay the price." That's a good thing, because there's always a price to pay for anything worthwhile. What I propose is that you give more thought to your "net" results, as opposed to your "gross" results.
Ultimately, managing your body is a lot like managing a business: you invest a certain quantity of resources in the hopes that what you produce will have more value than the resources you initially invested.
As an example, let's say that you want to open a coffee shop. For every given month of operation, you'll have costs – rent, supplies, payroll, etc., many of which you can't even anticipate until you actually get underway.
But the costs aren't only financial. You'll need to invest time and energy, and other areas of your life – such as family and health, for starters – will be negatively affected along the way by all the resources you invest into your new business.
Whether or not these costs are worth the trouble depends entirely on the profits you make, and it's helpful to look at training the same way. Specifically, are the results you're getting truly worth the resources you're expending to get them?
This question hints at what the concept of "training economy" is all about: maximizing your efficiency and optimizing your physical "profit and loss" statement.
In other words, as the old saying goes, "It's not what you make, it's what you keep." We need to start concerning ourselves with efficiency, which, when applied to the training process, is known as "training economy."
The Case For Training Economy: Two Case Studies
First, let me present a picture of poor resource management. One of my Facebook acquaintances is a Master's bodybuilder who's gotten, by any standard, great results from his training – he's very lean and muscular, and does well in organized bodybuilding competition.
His status updates, however, reveal what goes on "under the hood," so to speak – he does several workouts per day, counts every gram of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, takes dozens of different supplements, wakes up at 5:30 AM to take cold showers – basically his entire day is consumed with training and nutritional tasks, many of which are unnecessary, redundant, or even flat-out counterproductive.
Looking at his updates over the months, I'm certain that this guy could get 95-98% of the same results with about 60% of the resources he's been investing. In fact, at least temporarily, I bet he'd make even better progress with less work.
From my experience, a lot of us are like this, and there's a subtle phenomenon at play here: great athletes, are by definition, people who love to train. You simply can't be a great bodybuilder, weightlifter, or even a great marathoner, unless you love it.
And guess what? By default, people who love to train tend to train more than they need to – indeed, more than they should.
Now let's contrast this with a master of training economy:
During a recent video interview with Mark Rippetoe, coach Marty Gallagher outlined the ultra-minimalist training routine of 1980's powerlifting icon Mark Challiet.
Mark, who squatted 952 and deadlifted 852, was also the first Master's lifter to pull 800 and according to Gallagher, once pulled 880 in the gym and narrowly missed 900.
Needless to say, Challiet also carried the conspicuous amount of muscle mass you'd expect of someone capable of performing lifts like this.
According to Gallagher, who served as Challiet's coach for quite some time (and who was unable to persuade him to consider more "updated" training methods), the 1984 APF World Champion trained only twice a week. On day one he deadlifted up to a max single for the day, and on day two, he squatted and benched to a maximum single for the day.
That's it. No general warm-up, no foam rolling, no dynamic activation drills, no core stabilization, no assistance lifts, no cool down.
I'll now anticipate and respond to your objections proactively:
- Would Mark have done better with more work? Possibly. The point is, look what he did accomplish with so little work.
- Was Mark using copious amounts of anabolic drugs? I really don't know, but I assume he was doing pretty much what everyone else was doing.
- Am I saying you should train like Mark did? Absolutely not. I'm simply showing how at least one World Champion powerlifter made insanely great progress doing much less training than you do.
I'm hoping that this might open your mind to new possibilities, one of which is that perhaps you can get the same results you're getting now with significantly less work.
Incidentally, Challiet is simply an extreme example of the way many of history's greatest lifters trained, particularly before the rise of anabolic steroids. They lifted only 3 days a week and their sessions were marked by extreme specificity, consisting of 3-4 lifts per workout, but with an emphasis on great intensity of effort on only a few lifts that really matter.
So with my previous two examples in mind, even if you really love to train, if you could do just as well, or nearly as well, with much less investment, wouldn't that be worth considering? How would things be different if you devoted those resources (time, energy, money, etc.) toward other areas of your life?
For example, if your career and personal relationships improved, wouldn't that improve your life as a whole, and by extension, your training results? If your lifting sessions weren't distracted by stressful thoughts about money and relationship problems, how much better would you lift?
Bottom line is, training economy is something we all need to pay more attention to. Here are 10 strategies that will, if applied consistently, completely transform the efficiency of your workouts.
My 7 Best Efficiency Hacks
Let's look at areas where typical lifters can "trim the fat" from their training programs. Over my 25 years of coaching, I've "discovered" (which could mean anything from "stumbled upon" to "outright stolen" to occasionally innovated) a number of strategies and methods.
1. Optimize Your Warm-Up
A good warm-up sets the tone for your whole workout, but a bad one wastes time, and even worse, impairs the upcoming performance.
I have 5 "golden rules" for a winning warm-up:
1. Ditch the general warm-up phase. Traditionally, the warm-up consists of the general warm-up (such as walking the treadmill for 10 minutes before squats) and the specific warm-up (i.e., lighter sets that precede your working weights for the day).
Unless you're an 85-year old arthritic about to clean and jerk up to a daily max at 6 AM on a cold winter day, I suggest you skip the general stuff and get right down to business.
While general warm-up activities do indeed "warm you up," they don't allow you to rehearse the skills involved in the lift that you're warming up for. So it's better to kill two birds with one stone. If you're warming up for squats for example, you might start with some bodyweight or light goblet squats to wake up your knees, but then put the bar on your back and start rehearsing for the main event.
2. When your warm-up weights are still light, don't rest 3-5 minutes between sets like you would with heavy weights – it's just a waste of time and leads to distraction and procrastination. At the very least, use the time between these early warm-up sets to stretch or foam roll.
3. Your last warm-up set is what I call a "prep set." Its sole purpose is to help bridge the gap between your last warm-up set and your first work set. Here's what my warm-up sets looked like during a recent squat workout:
45 x 5
95 x 5
135 x 5
185 x 3
225 x 1
275 x 1
315 x 1
345 x 1 (Prep Set)
385 x 1 (Work Set)
275 x 8 (Back-Off Set)
4. Merge your warm-up sets for the next exercise with your work sets for the current exercise. As an example, if you're currently deadlifting and your next exercise is weighted chins, there's absolutely no reason why you can't do a few easy sets of chins between your last few work sets on deads – you're using entirely different muscle groups after all. Then, when you're done pulling, you move straight to your work sets on chins.
5. Exercise stacking. This isn't a warm-up tactic in the purest sense, but using it does reduce your warm-up time, so that's why I'm including it. Essentially, exercise stacking means ordering your exercises in such a way that each exercise becomes a warm-up for the exercise that follows it.
A classic example from the sport of weightlifting would be a workout consisting of cleans, followed by clean pulls, followed by deadlifts. A lifter who has a max clean of 250 pounds can start his pulls with 275, and start his deadlifts at 315. Similarly, previously performed chins can reduce or eliminate warm-up sets for curls, and bench presses can all but eliminate the need for warm-ups on triceps movements.
2. Impose Time Limits
The smart use of a stopwatch is one of the best tools I know to improve training economy. There are a number of ways you can employ this tool, but the idea is that instead of taking as much time "as you need" to complete an exercise of a workout, you pre-determine your time limits and then do whatever you can within that time constraint.
My experience is that, using this one technique alone, most trainees can easily trim 30% from their workout duration with no loss in performance.
Here's one simple way to make the stopwatch a valuable tool in your training sessions:
Set a time limit for all sets to be performed with a specific exercise. As an example, when performing Olympic lifts, I'll often allot 5 minutes for 5 heavy singles on (say) the power snatch. Assuming a 1RM of 176 pounds, on my first workout I'll pick 154 pounds as my working weight, and after my warm-up sets are completed, I'll set the stopwatch for 5 minutes.
This allows a 1-minute rest between each heavy single. However, on my "baseline" workout, I'll try to complete my 5 singles in less than 5 minutes to allow a "margin of confidence" for future sessions with more weight.
So for example, my first workout with 154 pounds might take 2.5 minutes. A week later, using 156.5 pounds, my 5 singles might take 3 minutes to complete. A week after that, 159 pounds might take 3.75 minutes, and so on.
Timing your sets does more than just improve efficiency – they also keep you "on task" and free from distraction. And as master coach Mark Rippetoe once suggested to me, it "un-mind-fucks you" about a given weight. Going back to my snatch example, 154 pounds is 88% of my current 1RM, which seems heavy, but after doing 5 of them in only 2.5 minutes, it really doesn't seem like a big deal any longer.
A little experimentation will be required to get the most from this method, but I assure you, you don't need as much time between sets as you think you do. Sure, the big boys might rest 10 minutes between sets of 850-pound deadlift singles, but are you really a big boy?
3. Proper Use of Back-Off Sets
Despite it's popularity in some circles, one of my issues with undulating periodization is that (unless I'm missing something) it doesn't allow for the use of back-off sets.
Assuming you're (primarily) or (momentarily) training for maximum strength, and that your heaviest set of the day is a big single, double, or triple, it'd be a shame to waste the neural priming ("post-activation potentiation" in geek speak) created by that heavy weight, which will allow you to handle a submaximal weight for more reps than you ordinarily could. In this way, you get a great strength stimulus, immediately followed by a great hypertrophy stimulus.
Another great benefit is that the psychological stress on that back-off set is minimal, since the weight used is significantly less than your earlier top set(s).
One note of caution, however: according to recent research, you'll get a better back-off set after a slightly sub-maximal single than you would with a true all-out effort.
Nonetheless, in my own training, I almost always follow any heavy top set of 1-3 reps with one back-off set. I don't carry this set to failure per se, but instead I aim to beat my existing rep record for that weight.
In other words, if I bench up to a 260 single, I'll then take between 75-85% of that weight (let's just use about 80%, or 205 pounds, for this example), look up my rep record for that weight, and then try to beat it. This way, even if I couldn't beat my 1RM that day, I still have a chance to break a rep record.
4. The 25-Rep "Sweet Spot"
Chad Waterbury recently pointed out to me that most commonly used set/rep protocols tend to lead to a total of about 25 reps: 5x5, 4x6, 3x8, and so on.
Proving that great minds think alike, Waterbury next posited that it's the total reps that matter, not necessarily how you get them. I couldn't agree more, and for those who've used my Escalating Density Training protocols, I'm sure you've picked up on the similarities of the Waterbury and Staley methods. In a recent communication, Chad explained:
"If the goal is hypertrophy, I'll use a larger number of total reps per exercise, say, 25. The goal is to increase the number of reps you can perform in Set 1 from 6 to 8. Then you increase the load 2-3%.
"Here's an example of 3 workouts:
Set 1: 6 reps
Set 2: 5 reps
Set 3: 4 reps
Set 4: 4 reps
Set 5: 3 reps
Set 6: 3 reps
Set 1: 7 reps
Set 2: 5 reps
Set 3: 5 reps
Set 4: 4 reps
Set 5: 3 reps
Set 6: 1 rep
Set 1: 8 reps
Set 2: 6 reps
Set 3: 5 reps
Set 4: 4 reps
Set 5: 3 reps
"So for Workout 4, you'll increase the load 2-3% and try to repeat what you did in Workout 1.
"There's much more to say, but this should give you an idea. Keep in mind, each workout has a constant (unchanging) load so it's very easy to monitor progress."
Another way to run this program is to increase loads once the number of sets required to complete 25 reps drops below a certain threshold.
So in Chad's workout #1 above, it takes 6 sets to hit 25 reps with a constant weight. As soon as you can get those 25 reps in 5 or less sets, increase the load by 2-3%. The benefit of this method is that you're managing fatigue instead of seeking it. You're also eliminating "junk sets." It's a very smart way to train, yet surprisingly, few people seem to use it.
5. Low Set-Up Exercises
Although I have about the same affection for resistance machines as I do stretching, jogging, and sit-ups, I admit that machines do have a very important advantage when it comes to efficiency – they're "low fuss." You simply set the pin, jump on, and push (or pull).
You need very little (if any) warm-up, or psyche up (you're not going to get stapled to the floor or launch your lumbar spine into the next room doing a leg extension).
Of course, machines have very decided down sides as well – which is why I don't use them – but there are exercises that have a lot of value and are also low fuss.
One case in point is the Bret Contreras barbell hip thrust. Bret and I have been training partners for a handful of months now, so as you might imagine, I'm now drinking the hip thrust Kool Aid, as it were.
The great thing about this exercise (aside from it's ability to positively transfer to big "money" lifts like squats, Olympic lifts, and deadlifts) is that it's quite safe (yes you could potentially hurt yourself but the risk is minimal) and requires no warm-up and no psyche-up. You just load the bar, scoot under it, and you're off and running; 1-3 total sets and you're good to go.
Bottom line, while I love what this exercise provides in terms of "profits," I love it even more for its low "cost."
I recommend that you maximize your use of low fuss exercises, movements that require very little set-up, prep, or stress. Chin-ups and push-ups are also examples, as are many kettlebell drills – the best choices really depend on your unique physiology and goals.
6. Compulsory & Optional Exercise Designations
Managing your psychology is extremely important when it comes to program design. You don't want to overwhelm yourself with pre-written workouts that become daunting over time, but just as important (and more relevant to this discussion), you don't want to "deprive" yourself excessively from hyper-minimal workouts.
A great work-around is to use compulsory and optional exercise categories. For example, your workout might look like this:
Barbell Hip Thrust
At first glance it seems like this strategy defeats the purpose of my whole training economy argument, but if you look closer, you'll see my rationale for this idea. In most cases, once you've completed the compulsory drills, you'll probably feel much less compelled to move to the optional exercise.
On the other hand, you might occasionally snack from the optional side of the menu, but as the old saying goes, "The forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest." Remove the forbidden label and you'll be less likely to indulge.
Incidentally, a tweak on the optional exercise idea is to use that category as "free time." Whenever I program workouts for remote clients, I'll often leave out one or more of their favorite exercises, which leaves them feeling a bit sullen – so I'll give them 15 minutes of free time, where they can do whatever they wish.
To me, if they've already done quality work on (for example) deadlifts, chins, and military presses, and they're still dying to do some curls, it doesn't bother me a bit.
7. Intensity Is King
Although the previous 6 strategies are immensely valuable, they all depend on a lynchpin strategy, which is intensity. The reason Mark Challiet succeeded with such a minimal approach is that he worked so hard on each workout that he literally needed those 5 days of rest each week.
Allow me to provide a few examples of supportive anecdotal evidence for this argument:
- Think about a novice female just getting started in weight training. Her training isn't intense because she doesn't know how to be intense. Most likely she can crank out 12-15 reps with 80% of 1RM. I don't know about you but I can typically only get 5-6 reps with 80%, and the most powerful athletes I've trained can only get 3-4.
People who either can't or won't train intensely – or don't know how to – can and should train more frequently because their efforts, while they may seem difficult subjectively, really aren't intense based on their true physiologic potential.
- In powerlifting, as well as in serious recreational strength training, it's common practice to reduce training frequency on any given lift as you get stronger. As an example, a lifter who can deadlift 300 pounds will usually do just fine pulling once a week, whereas a lifter who pulls 700 will typically train that lift every 3-4 weeks.
Why? Quite simply, a 700-pound pull requires much more physical and psychological recovery than a 300-pound pull. Similarly, a lifter who squats 405 pounds on a true physiological max of 425 pounds needs more recovery than a lifter who squats 405 on a true max of 480.
It's all about how much you get out of yourself during each workout. If training with low to moderate intensity allows a high training frequency, training very intensely requires a low training frequency. Go hard and go home. That's efficiency defined, in business, and in training.
Now Please Act On What You've Learned!
I strongly encourage you to take at least 1 of these 7 strategies – just pick the one that seems most appealing or logical – and apply it to your training for one full month.
There's really no risk at all because after 30 days, you'll be rewarded with the knowledge that 1) it works, or 2) it doesn't work. Either way, you've learned something right?
Then, if your initial experiment paid off (as I believe it will), take another strategy for a month two, and so on. In this way, you keep all variables constant except the one you're testing.
I look forward to your questions, comments, and suggestions in Live Spill – see you there!