If you’re not making the gains you expected on your current program, it’s probably not the program’s fault. It’s more likely due to a handful of nuanced execution errors on your part. Here then are six practical ways you can get more out of any program, starting today.
1 – Define Your Target
This is so obvious, so essential, you might tend to overlook it: What’s the goal of the workout you’re about to do?
- Increase, or maybe just maintain, muscle?
- Improve strength or power?
- Burn calories?
- Reduce stress?
Your answer will dictate your decision-making process during the workout. For example, if your primary objective is muscle building, you’ll want to focus on performing fatiguing, close-to-failure sets with exercises that effectively tax the target muscles. If you’re training hamstrings, you might do several sets of stiff-leg deadlifts or back extensions for 8-12 reps, taking each set relatively close to momentary muscular failure.
Further, you’ll focus more on the mind-muscle connection (the “feel”) than how much weight you’re using. While progressive overload still applies to hypertrophy training, when push comes to shove, volume takes precedence over intensity. If bar weight needs to be reduced to eke out a final set, do so.
On the other hand, if getting stronger is your training target, you might instead do conventional deadlifts (which permit greater overall loading), focusing more on bar weight, which means fewer reps.
Also, when training for strength, going close to, or to, failure isn’t the goal, but rather an unavoidable consequence of striving to lift as much weight as possible.
Over the course of every workout, you’re faced with constant decision-making challenges: Should you do another set or move on to the next exercise? Should you add weight, or increase reps, or both? Should you use a slower lifting tempo? Is it okay if your form is a bit loose?
If your training objectives are clear from the start, these decisions are quickly and easily answered. If not, you’ll waste time and energy trying to figure out the best course of action and you’ll never be confident that you made the right decisions.
2 – Know Your Benchmarks, Then Smash Them
If today’s session is an upper-body workout featuring incline dumbbell presses, close-grip pulldowns, lying triceps extensions, and hammer curls, presumably you did that same workout about a week ago.
That means you’ve got some benchmark numbers to base today’s training targets on. If you incline-pressed 70-pound dumbbells for 5 sets of 10 last time, you could try to build upon that recent performance in a few different ways in today’s workout:
- Attempt to increase the weight 5 pounds and incline press the 75’s for the same sets and reps. Or try the 75’s for 5 sets of 8-9 (i.e. increase intensity). This would be especially appropriate when strength is your key objective.
- Attempt to lift the same weight for more sets and/or reps (i.e. increase volume). This is a good approach when muscle is your primary goal.
- Attempt the same weight, sets, and reps, but in less total time (i.e. increase density). This is a good strategy when muscle development and/or body composition is your main goal.
- Attempt to do the same weight, sets, and reps, but with cleaner technique (i.e better quality). This is appropriate for novices or lifters struggling with orthopedic issues.
In some cases, the direction you take might be based on whatever you think has the best likelihood of success for that given day. For example, your training goal might suggest trying to add weight, but you strongly suspect that you have a much better chance of getting more reps with the same weight. If that’s the case, take that option.
Applying progressive overload requires knowledge of your best, or at the very least, recent best performances on key movements. These personal records are the targets you attempt to smash each time you repeat these movements.
And of course, your training log is where you find these numbers.
3 – Impose Time Limits
There’s an interesting and paradoxical phenomenon known as “Parkinson’s Law,” which states that tasks tend to expand to the time you allot for them. More often than you’d think, if you “need” to complete a workout in less time than usual, you can pull it off.
Of course, there are limits to this strategy, but most lifters can complete their workouts in significantly less time than they think. Here are some suggestions for faster workouts, and most of them involve optimizing your warm-up:
- Establish time limits for each exercise. Maybe it normally takes you an hour to complete your deadlifts (warm-up and work sets). Next session, shoot for 50 minutes. This is accomplished by reducing rests intervals between sets, but it might also involve taking fewer “jumps” during your warm-ups.
As a personal example, until recently my warm-up ladder for deadlifts was 135, 185, 225, 275, 315, etc. Currently, my first three jumps are 135, 225, 315. Needless to say, this knocks off two warm-up sets, which speeds up the workout.
- Many lifters seem to think that their last warm-up set must be performed with the same number of reps as their work sets. For example, if your work sets call for 275 for 4×8, you do your last warm up set with 225 for 8.
A better approach is to pyramid your warm-ups like this: 135×10, 185×8, 225×4. The last warm up set is really just a “prep” set so that you’re not shocked by jumping from 185 to 275. Save your time and energy for when you need it most.
- Use fatigue-specific rest intervals between warm-up sets. If you pull over 500 pounds, you don’t need to rest for three minutes after your first set with 135. Generally, rest intervals should gradually lengthen with each successive warm-up set.
- Place “problem” exercises last in the workout, rather than first. If it takes you forever to warm up your squats due to creaky knees, do your assistance exercises (leg curls, etc.) first. This way, you’ll be more warmed up by the time you get to squats and save yourself some time.
- Make a game out of seeing how quickly you can complete an exercise, or the whole workout. Look at it as a personal challenge rather than a problem. Be safe of course, as this particular tactic is more appropriate for high-rep sets done on a machine than heavy, low-rep sets done with free-weight movements.
4 – Quality, Then Quantity
This is especially relevant to anyone with recurring injury issues, as well as people who are relatively new to lifting. We often become myopic when it comes to the idea of progressive overload, assuming that it always means putting more weight on the bar each week.
Adding load has an important place in legitimate training, but if your biomechanics are shaky, that heavier load will do more to wreck your joints than to make you bigger or stronger. Let’s be real for a moment: If you squat 185×10 with collapsing knees and a rounded low back, do you really think it’s wise to add more weight?
Sometimes, improved quality simply translates to slowing things down a bit and just exerting better command over the loads you’re lifting. If you typically use the “easiest” lifting speed in your constant attempts to add more weight to the bar, you really don’t have much margin for continued improvements.
Consider a different approach: Lighten things up a bit and use a 4-second eccentric tempo. Then pause for a full second at the bottom, and finally, return to the start position with an aggressive but controlled concentric.
Muscles only know stress, not how much weight you’re using. Most people report significant soreness after trying this technique, despite using lighter weights. One additional perk is that slowing things down serves to increase confidence. After all, if you can lift a given weight using a slower, more difficult tempo, it means you’ve got some margin available for heavier weights next time out.
5 – Do Important Things First, Not Last
Most people start their workouts with their favorite exercises and then work down from there. It’s understandable. If you love to bench and your ego is invested in how much weight you can lift, your rationale is that you should do that exercise first, while your energy is still high.
This approach certainly works… for a while. But after a certain point, repeatedly hitting that lift super hard when you’ve had only minimal warm-up can take a toll on your shoulders.
Another point to consider: Your weakest lifts and most poorly developed muscles usually correlate to exercises you do late (or even last) in the workout. Reversing your typical exercise order has several benefits:
- It can serve to resolve long-standing orthopedic symptoms.
- It can help to bring up weak points, which not only improves appearance, but also reduces injury potential.
An effective alternative solution is to perform your workouts circuit-style rather than station-style. This way, each exercise receives equal amounts of energy.
6 – Have a Plan, but Embrace Imperfection
Having structure is valuable, but your best-laid plans must be applied with flexibility. Perfect is the enemy of good, as the old saying goes. Sometimes the equipment you want isn’t available. Other times, your elbows (or knees, or shoulders) refuse to cooperate. In truth, these bad days can’t be entirely avoided, but they can be managed.
This requires the proactive expectation that things will go wrong no matter how perfect your plan is. You then need to have the willingness to deviate from your plan when circumstances require. These imperfect alternatives aren’t nearly as costly as you might imagine, and they’re certainly much better than becoming exasperated and bailing out of your workout altogether.
For example, if the bench press station is unavailable and you’re forced to do dumbbell benches, floor presses, or even machine presses, at a minimum you’ll derive nearly as much benefit, and, in many cases, more benefit.
In another example, if you had planned on doing 5 sets of chins, but after the second set your girlfriend texts to tell you she needs you back for a minor household emergency, guess what? Those 2 sets deliver about 80% of the benefit the 5 sets would have, and, if you tend towards overtraining, you’ll actually be better off than if you’d done your full session.
Kind of Like Driving
The training process is like driving down a straight road. The act of driving straight, when examined more closely, actually involves constant, small, course corrections.
Many people have the unspoken assumption that a perfect plan somehow compensates for a lack of applied effort. But the reverse is closer to the truth. Massive, consistent, hard effort applied to an “iffy” program will deliver better results than a sketchy work ethic coupled with a perfect program.