We've all had bad workouts – days when our energy is down from lack of sleep or a hectic schedule, our motivation isn't there, and we just don't feel like pushing ourselves with maximum intensity. Ilove training, I mean I really love it, and this still happens to me at least once a month. While there is no secret pill or powder that will help you get a good hard workout in, and there's no way to click your heels three times and be done with it, some recent experiences in the gym have given me a couple of tricks that have helped me turn lackluster workouts around into some of my best workouts.
One day, I was training chest and back, and it was a really mediocre workout. A stubborn shoulder injury was holding me back on pull-ups, and I hadn't gotten enough sleep all week, so I was on the verge of calling it a day and heading home when a seemingly unrelated and trivial thing happened. I received a message that I needed to wrap things up and head home within the next 10 minutes or so. I thought to myself, "OK, two or three more sets to get the job done!" and then hit my next set of dumbbell incline presses, and suddenly it was like I was doing a whole new workout! I was able to complete twice as many reps as I had with the previous set! I wound up increasing the weight I was using and getting in two more solid sets, with minimal rest, before heading home. As I was leaving the gym, I had a great pump and I could tell I was going to be sore. So what happened here?
- I was having a lackluster workout, feeling tired, annoyed about my injury, and generally unmotivated, to the point that I wanted to cut my workout short.
- Unexpectedly, my remaining workout was limited to 10 minutes, so I was forced to decide what I could get in to complete my workout in that amount of time.
- Having made a decision about what I would get done, I trained with focus and intensity, and the final 10 minutes of my workout were much more productive than the first 40
Here's another example from my recent training:
A few weeks ago, I was headed to the gym at 5:00 a.m. for my heavy leg training day feeling half-asleep, unmotivated, and apprehensive about the amount of weight I'd be able to handle on squats and lunges that day. When I got to the gym, I saw that my lifting partner wasn't there and, after waiting another 10 minutes, decided I'd be going it alone that day. By now I was feeling less motivated than ever, and less confident about handling heavy weight since I'd be lifting sans-spotter. I also now only had 50 minutes until I had to get changed and be ready for my first client of the day. Not a good scenario for an awesome workout.
Knowing how little time I had, I made a mental plan. I decided on what exercises I would get in and which I'd skip that day and exactly how many sets of each exercise I would do. And given the strict time limit, I was then able to know exactly how much time I had for each exercise and at what time I should be moving to the next one. For example, I knew that at 5:35 I needed to be starting my first set of lunges. I normally have only a general plan for my workouts and leave myself free to change up the number of sets and the rest intervals as I go, but now I had an exact plan down to the minute. With this plan in place I trained without any music, watching the clock between every set to make sure I wasn't getting too much rest and falling behind, and starting my next set on time no matter what. I wasn't able to train my heaviest that day with the short rests and no spotter, but the workout was brutally hard and I was very sore the next day! So what happened this time?
- I was feeling tired and nervous about training heavy and my spotter no-showed, so things were looking bad for my training that day.
- Because of an upcoming appointment, my workout was limited to less than an hour, at least 20 minutes shorter than usual.
- I made a very strict plan using only the most important exercises and stuck to my time limits militantly.
- My workout was brutally hard and, judging by my soreness the next day, extremely effective.
Spot the pattern yet? It took me a few instances of this scenario happening before it clicked, but the recurring theme for turning bad workouts around was having 1) a strict time limit, and 2) a precise plan. And both have to be ambitious to really turn the workout around, so the time limit needs to be short and the plan needs to fill it completely with only the most essential moves.
Making a precise plan with a strict time limit will increase your training density (the amount of work done within a period of time), which makes the workout more intense overall without changing anything else. Don't believe me? Ask anyone who trains Crossfit about how time limits change the intensity of their workouts. Another benefit is what I call the "Finish-Line Effect": by having strict time limits and knowing when each exercise and the entire workout will be finished, you are always within sight of the finish line. And when the end is in sight and you know you're almost done, you're much more likely to dive in and give it your all. I've witnessed this effect thousands of times with clients and training partners, and I know it to be true for myself. On normal days, when you're feeling great and looking forward to a long, heavy workout, by all means go ahead and get your regularly scheduled program in. For those days when you'd rather be anywhere but in the gym, however, try setting yourself a time limit so strict you won't be able to glance away from the clock (much less at your phone), and make a workout plan pared down to the essentials that will get the job done. Try these two tricks and I guarantee you will have a much more productive training session than you would have otherwise!