Want great results from your training? Then, have great workouts!
It should go without saying that not only do you need to train, but you also need to train hard if you seek real results. Like just about everything in life, you get out of training what you put in. Unfortunately, most people today just go through the motions during their workouts and then wonder why they don't make any true gains. Granted, there are times when you need to pull back a bit, but there are also times when you need to go hard. This article is geared toward the latter.
In order to experience any form of success with weight training — whether it be to improve body composition (a decrease in body fat and an increase in lean body mass) or to increase strength, speed, power and ultimately performance — you must have effective workouts. And just like any race, the start is crucial!
Pre-exercise preparation, including the often-neglected warm-up, can make or break your workout. It is the most misunderstood aspect of training. Traditional warm-ups are seriously flawed. Quite frankly, most people shoot themselves in the foot before they even begin!
I have spent years researching this subject, and in my journey, I've discovered some of the most effective, cutting edge techniques from many of the world's leading experts. Ready to get the results you deserve for your hard effort in the gym? Great, then let's begin.
1. Best Time To Train
In order to experience the ultimate workout, you need to schedule your training at the most appropriate time. Let's review the evidence.
Supercharging Hormones & Lubricating Joints
Research on circadian rhythms (your body's internal clock) indicate that the summation of several important anabolic hormones peak at 3 and 11 hours upon awakening. What does that mean in plain English? Well, according to science, if you wake up at 6:00 am, you're at your strongest at 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. And, according to Olympic strength coach Charles Poliquin, your joints — specifically, the synovial fluid that lubricates your joints — require about 3 hours to reach an optimal level of warmth, which will help improve performance while decreasing the likelihood of injury.
Morning or Night Person
According to Dr. Ann de Wees Allen, a Board Certified Doctor of Naturopathy, the best time to train depends on whether you're a morning or night person. It's really that simple. She believes that we respond better during certain periods of the day and those are the times that we should train. This reflects our circadian rhythm — something that we're born with and cannot change.
Subsequently, there will be times during the day that we're the strongest. This doesn't happen by chance. You must recognize those times and use them to your advantage — it'll have a big impact on your performance. Does it mean that you can't work out at other times? No! But, it's a good idea to train at the same time each workout if possible — your body will naturally adjust to that time and prepare itself for activity.
If you're forced to change your workout time, though, to accommodate your schedule, then allow 3 weeks for your body to get used to the new time (especially if you are unaccustomed to training first thing in the morning). It usually takes about 3 weeks to form a habit.
Never First Hour
Dr. Stuart McGill, a spinal biomechanist and professor at the University of Waterloo, warns people not to perform demanding exercises first thing in the morning. Since discs are hydrophilic, they tend to soak up water and swell overnight, and it's much easier to herniate a swollen, water-filled spine! Therefore, McGill recommends to wait at least one hour after awakening to exercise. That is the critical period since your tissue is superhydrated at that point, resulting in an 18% loss of strength in the spine and risk of injury is heightened!
Ultimate Workout Tip #1
Most of the evidence seems to point toward training in the morning ideally three hours after awakening. This will allow you to consume a meal to help "break" the catabolic "fast" and provide energy. Three hours should be plenty of time to digest your meal and lubricate the joints while saving your spine from potential injury.
2. High Protein and Fat Breakfast
I'm about to hit you with a bold statement: carbohydrates induce sleep ... and what do most people start their day with? You guessed it, a high carb breakfast (and diet for that matter!) If you want to crash mid-morning — or half way through your workout — then go ahead and consume the typical North American breakfast. If, on the other hand, you plan to experience the ultimate workout, then do the exact opposite!
A high protein and fat meal will help stabilize blood sugar levels and keep you awake, alert and coherent throughout the morning. The best way to accomplish this, according to Poliquin, is to eat a meat and nuts breakfast.
"When people ask me for the best single dietary tip for optimal leanness, energy and sustained mental focus, I invariably tell them to try the rotating meat and nuts breakfast. Clients ranging from NHL & NFL stars to corporate executives, rave about the increased mental acuity and focused energy they derive from this food combination. The meat allows for a slow and steady rise in blood sugar. The nuts provide a great source of healthy smart fats that allow the blood sugar to remain stable for an extended period of time. Multiple studies on employee productivity or on children's attention patterns have demonstrated that a high protein breakfast does not only impact energy and productivity levels of morning till noon, but extends into the late afternoon." — Charles Poliquin
Ultimate Workout Tip #2
Start the day with a meat and nuts breakfast and avoid all those high-glycemic, processed, refined, and packaged foods that will cause your energy levels to crash during your workout.
3. Pre-Workout Supplements
Want a great workout? Consider some assistance. There are a million pre-workout products available today, ranging from caffeine-based stimulants like Spike® Shooter to neurotransmitter boosting products Power Drive.
Many of these supplements may be combined for a potent synergistic effect; for instance, you can mix Spike or ECA with Power Drive, etc. However, I recommend you rotate the above products regularly, and most importantly, only use a pre-workout supplement when you need to.
If energy is low one day and/or you are in a high-intensity phase and require some assistance then by all means, but don't get into the habit of relying on these before each and every workout.
Ultimate Workout Tip #3
Pre-workout supplements can have a potent ergogenic (work-enhancing) effect, but make sure to rotate these products regularly.
4. Soft Tissue Work
Muscle density can be a limiting factor in both the flexibility and strength of a muscle. A buildup of scar tissue and adhesions can reduce the range of motion of a joint and cause rigid muscles. Many strength coaches today recognize the need for soft tissue work pre-exercise to improve performance. You don't need a licensed practitioner to perform such work — rolling on a ball, wheel, or foam roller will do the trick.
A foam roller can help to improve soft tissue quality, range of motion and overall performance. It's an inexpensive and convenient method to break down knots, adhesions, and scar tissue that accumulate over time. Does it hurt? Yes, it does, at least initially, but over time the pain tends to subside; and that's an indication that you made some progress with the tissue. At that point less rolling is needed — only when necessary.
Foam Rolling has been covered extensively in previous T NATION articles and suffice it to say, if you're not doing it you're truly missing out. For a complete breakdown, check out the article Feel Better for 10 Bucks by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson.
Pay particular attention to rolling the upper back and performing thoracic extensions. Read it, do it, and learn to love it.
Believe it or not, the plantar fascia located at the bottom of the foot can impede flexibility throughout the entire body. Limitations in this area can cause restrictions in the hamstrings, low back, and neck. A simple test I discovered from the book Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers led to a warm-up technique I use often prior to training legs.
For a sometimes dramatic and easily administered test of the entire superficial back line, have your client do a forward bend (as if to touch the toes with the knees straight). Note the bilateral contour of the back and the resting position of the hands. Draw your client's attention to how it feels along the back of the body on each side.
Have your client roll a golf ball or tennis ball deeply into the plantar fascia on one foot only, being slow and thorough rather than fast and vigorous. Keep it up for at least a couple of minutes, making sure the whole territory is covered from the ball of all five toes back to the front edge of the heel.
Now have the client do the forward bend again and note the bilateral differences in back contour and hand position (and draw the client's attention to the difference in feeling).
In most people this will produce a dramatic demonstration of how working in one small part can affect the functioning of the whole. This will work for many people, but not all: for the most easily assessable results, avoid starting on someone with a strong scoliosis or other bilateral asymmetries.
Since this also functions as a treatment, do not forget to carry out the same procedure on the other side after you assess the difference.
You can use a golf ball or tennis ball, or a neat little instrument known as the FootWheel to stretch and relax the plantar fascia and extinguish myofascial trigger points. Basically, it was designed to make your feet happy as many report that the FootWheel will soothe tired, achy feet in mere seconds!
While standing, place the wheel on the ground with your weight on the opposite foot. Then roll on the wheel (you determine the amount of pressure) to search and find these myofascial trigger points (areas that are tight, knotty, ropey, or tender.) Make sure to move slow and gentle with specific strokes for about 30 seconds. The goal is healthy muscle free of pain, tightness or tenderness.
Ultimate Workout Tip #4
Soft tissue work before exercise can improve performance. Prior to lower body training, roll the bottom of the foot with a tennis ball or a FootWheel and the outside part of the leg with a foam roller. Before upper body training, roll the upper back and perform thoracic extensions using a foam roller.
5. Stretching Dynamics
There are two general types of stretching: static (no motion) and dynamic (with motion). Static stretching basically consists of stretching a muscle as far as possible and then holding that position.
Passive stretching involves the use of some external force (body part, partner assistance or apparatus) to bring the joint through its range of motion (ROM). Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching is often a combination of passive stretching and isometric or static contractions.
Ballistic stretching uses momentum rather than muscular control to increase ROM, whereas dynamic stretching involves controlled movements — no bouncing or jerking.
Dynamic stretching as part of a warm-up can be useful to decrease muscle damage and improve performance. Research has shown that an active warm-up or 100 concentric contractions performed just before an eccentric exercise bout can decrease muscle damage.
Also, warm-ups involving calisthenics increase performance. A warm-up consisting of a ten-exercise bodyweight circuit (where each exercise is performed for only 20 seconds) produced a higher vertical jump compared to a warm-up with static or PNF stretching. And as you know, the vertical jump is practical and a good index of leg power.
When it comes to stretching during warm-ups, you want to respect the following rules:
• Dynamic stretching is useful to simulate the velocity of your training (unless, of course, you plan to only perform isometrics, then by all means perform static stretching) and will help rev up the nervous system in preparation for activity. Just remember to use the pendulum method by gradually increasing speed and range with each repetition.
• PNF stretching is particularly useful to correct a muscle imbalance. For instance, if you plan to start with good mornings and your torso tends to pull to the left as you descend and/or your right hamstring feels tight compared to your left, perform some PNF stretching on the right hamstring to even things out.
• Only use static stretching if you have some really tight muscles that, in essence, need to be turned off. The law of facilitation is often recited when referring to these tonic muscles as they tend to rob the neural message during movement.
For instance, if you experience rounded shoulders and you plan to work your back, it may be a good idea to stretch out your chest to liberate greater ROM when rowing or pulling. Since static stretching will disrupt the optimum contraction length and temporarily weaken the fibers, it would be wise to use this form of stretching on antagonistic muscles (such as the chest) prior to working the agonists (which is the back in this case).
In general, static stretching prior to weight training is not recommended. There are certain applications for its use, but static stretching will ultimately sedate your nervous system and make you weaker: two things you don't want before pushing some serious weight. Dynamic stretching will do the opposite: rev up the nervous system and increase strength!
When performing dynamic stretches, start slow and shallow and gradually increase speed and rage with each repetition.
Dynamic Stretching Routine
2. Split Squat
3. Toe Touches
4. Waiter's Bow
5. Side Bends
6. Trunk Twists
7. Arms Vertical
8. Arms Vertical Alternating
9. PNF Pattern
10. Arms Horizontal
11. Arm Circles
12. Shoulder Shrugs
13. Head Tilt
14. Head Rotation
15. Wrist Flexion/Extension
16. Wrist Circles
Ultimate Workout Tip #5
Perform a dynamic stretching routine before every workout. Remember to use the pendulum method and 10 reps or less per movement is all you need.
6. Set Your Body
Activating the long cervical extensors can help reposition C5 and C6, two vertebrae in your neck that innervate the biceps. This will increase curling and pulling strength. In fact, according to Poliquin, it may increase biceps strength by as much as 10%, so try this technique just before back and biceps exercises.
Sit on a Swiss ball. Walk forward until only the back of your head is supported on the ball. Keep the hips up and make sure to accentuate the rib cage. Now try to hold that position for up to a minute. You may not reach that duration the first time; just work up to it gradually over sessions.
To make the exercise easier, lean the back of the head against a wall. Use a rolled up towel or pillow for comfort. To make the exercise more difficult, try it on the Swiss ball but hold a plate or dumbbell on the chest to increase resistance.
Holding a plate on the chest will make the exercise more difficult. Do this only after you've accomplished a full 60-second hold with your bodyweight only.
It is very important that you perform the neck bridge before upper body training only — never before lower body training. Shortening the upper neck muscles can actually impair lower body flexibility; whereas, releasing tension in the suboccipital region of the head can lengthen hamstrings and increase hip range of motion.
Set The Scapula
Performing behind-the-neck pulldowns with a tube or band is a great way to counter the ever-so-popular scapular elevation that many people experience. It's excellent for scapular depression and is great prior to upper body training to help set the scapula and save your shoulders from unnecessary wear and tear while increasing strength.
It's pretty easy to perform. While holding on to a tube or band with your arms extended overhead, simply perform a pulldown motion behind the neck. Try to pull the elastic apart as you pull it down. Hold the bottom contraction for 5-10 seconds and perform 10-12 reps. Start at 5-second holds for 10 reps and work your way up to 10-second holds for 12 reps over successive workouts.
Set The Hips
Setting the hips prior to lower body work can definitely improve performance. Ever notice someone's knees dipping inward during a squat? You should have; it's quite common!
According to strength and conditioning coach, Mike Robertson, exercises that strengthen and develop the gluteals are required to correct this condition. For instance, light squats with a mini-band placed around the thighs, just above the knees, is a great option as it teaches you to recruit the gluteals while squatting. Start off with just your bodyweight and focus on hinging the knees outward throughout the movement. One set of 15-20 reps before training is all you need.
Mini-band walks are another option. Simply double wrap a mini band around your ankles and start walking. Make sure your toes are turned out slightly and the core is braced throughout. Here, 15-20 strides should do the trick, just make sure to stay tight and tall and concentrate on the glutes throughout the movement.
Finally, glute bridges work quite nicely as well. Like the behind the neck pulldowns, 10-12 reps of 5-10 second holds will do.
Ultimate Workout Tip #6
To improve posture and ultimately performance, set the body with neck bridges and behind the neck tube pulldowns prior to upper body training, and use either band squats, band walks, or glute bridges before lower body training.
7. Play With The Nervous System
Overshoot The Load
An effective warm-up method involves utilizing post-activation (post- tetanic facilitation/potentiation). By gradually ramping up your low rep warm-up sets beyond your working weight, it will increase strength for your work sets. There are different ways to really tap into those high-threshold fibers such as performing eccentrics or heavy supports with loads that are greater than your working weight. Another way to play with your nervous system is to add chains to the bar, which will naturally slow down the concentric speed (although the intent must always be fast). Then remove the chains for your work sets and you'll go through the roof!
Want to trick your body even further and lift even more weight? Do your warm-up sets with oversize grips then perform your work sets with regular handles and watch your strength soar! TylerGrip and FAT GRIPZ are two great tools for this purpose — check them out at www.tylergrip.com and www.fatgripz.com respectively.
Plyometrics can be very useful during a warm-up, but don't go overboard! They place a tremendous amount of stress on the nervous system — if you do too much prior to training, they'll kill performance.
Then again, if you do just the right amount, it can potentiate your strength! In general, though, plyometrics are best reserved for athletes. Various jumps, push-ups and medicine ball throws can be used, but make sure to perform no more than 5 repetitions per set. By the way, my Warm-Up to Strength Training DVD has a great application of the three-stance vertical jump test from my colleague, Chad Waterbury, that will increase your squat in no time.
Ultimate Workout Tip #7
Depending on your level, there are several neural tricks to improve strength and performance. Beginners can start with oversize grips for their warm-ups and then use regular handles for their work sets. Advanced trainees can take it a step further by employing plyometrics and overshooting the working load with eccentrics, heavy supports, and chains during their warm-ups.
What you do beforehand can make or break your workout. For the ultimate workout, you must start at the right time with the proper nutrients in place and some assistance from a proven, effective pre-workout supplement. Start the training session with the right amount of soft tissue work and an appropriate form of stretching. Then, set the body, activate the nervous system and go to it. Follow these steps exactly as outlined in this article, and you will experience a great workout and all the benefits that follow.
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