I often hear people say they want to “maximize” their strength-training workouts. The translation of this statement is usually “my workouts aren’t giving me what I want.” If this is you, you’re smart to think you should be doing something differently to build muscle or lose fat. But what is that “something?”
You can improve your workouts – and your body composition– by changing an almost endless array of variables. Here are just three ways to start seeing better progress immediately.
Avoid Ineffective Machines
In the gym where I train the row of ab-crunching machines is on fire during peak hours. Everyone lies face up in pseudo reclining chairs while they chat and crunch like crazy. Up-down, up-down, up-down…
Interestingly, the hip adductor/abductor machines are located nearby and also enjoy heavy traffic. Just push your inner or outer thighs against the pads to “tone” your thighs and even burn away fat!
The truth is if you’re interested in maximizing your workouts, you should avoid using isolation machines such as these. Sitting or lying passively on a machine while you exercise a single muscle doesn’t train your body to move in a coordinated, functional way and also does not “spot reduce” your torso, inner thighs, or any other part of your body.
Instead of using an ab machine that allows you to cheat by recruiting your hips, back, and upper body, do exercises that require you to stabilize your entire body, such as plank variations, cable lifts, and pushups. Your inner/outer thighs will get stronger and more defined by doing squats, lunges, and deadlifts as your muscles work hard to stabilize your entire body.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use isolation exercises at all; I use certain isolation movements for aesthetic and muscle-balancing purposes. Take the bent-over lateral raise, for example, which hits the rear deltoid. This exercise provides not only a pleasing, balanced look in the back but also helps prevent a muscle imbalance with the oft-overused anterior delts and pectoral muscles. But I use dumbbells for this exercise, not the rear delt machine, so that I can engage my core and activate smaller stabilizer muscles. Using dumbbells also allows me to move in a more natural range of motion.
As a rule, use isolation machines sparingly and rely more on free weights, barbells, cables, bands, and generally more compound movements.
Tighten Up Your Training Frequency
When new clients tell me they typically hit each muscle group once a week or train for 90 minutes five days a week, it’s almost always one reason why they haven’t been seeing progress.
Training frequency has a big impact on your results. If your goal is to build muscle mass, hitting each muscle group once a week isn’t exactly maximizing your workouts; it’s tough to see optimal growth with such a low frequency. Oftentimes clients see immediate progress when they switch from a body-part split to a twice-a-week upper/lower split. Likewise, training too frequently or for too long each session can result in running out of fuel and hampering recovery, both of which affect performance.
How often you should train is highly individual and can depend on your age, sleep patterns, diet, stress level, and goals. But most people get the best results by training each muscle group somewhere between twice a week to once every 5th day.
Take the time to experiment with different training frequencies and splits. If you’re not seeing gains, it might be time to re-evaluate and try training more frequently or cutting back.
Vary Your Rep Ranges
Probably the biggest mistake I see is using the same repetition range every session. No matter if it’s 3-5, 10-12, or 15-20 reps, no one should always use the same range if they want to build muscle and/or strength.
Rep ranges are one of the best ways to manipulate – or stymy – your results. When you use the same rep range for every workout your body is no longer being placed under enough stress to cause muscle growth – it’s adapted to the stimulus and most likely plateaued.
A common fear is that cycling in lower or higher reps will stop you from progressing (even though you’ve probably already stopped growing). Not only will different rep ranges help prevent gnawing boredom from setting in, but you’ll get to your goals faster. When you train in lower rep ranges you get stronger. When you get stronger, you can lift more weight and thus build more muscle. And when you lift in the higher rep range regularly you get an entirely different stimulus and help your body recover.
How you cycle in different rep ranges will depend on your goals. If you’re training for mass you should include both moderate and low reps each week. You can also cycle in high reps every few weeks to aid in recovery.
Train with a purpose – know the reason you’re doing a movement and ask yourself whether it’s the best way to achieve your goals. Questions about maximizing your workout? Just leave a comment below or drop me a line.