3 Ways to Maximize Your Strength Workouts

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.

To maximize your workouts, avoid ab-crunching machines

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.

12 thoughts on “3 Ways to Maximize Your Strength Workouts

  1. I recently used a leg extension machine for the first time in years. What an unnatural movement! Yet I often have to convince clients that a workout full of machines isn’t going to give them what they are looking for. Most of them aren’t trying to define their quads, they want to burn fat and move better. As you pointed out, there are much better ways to do that!


    • True statement! The bodybuilding culture is still what many people see, and bodybuilders do love their leg extensions! The myth of spot reduction lives on too.


  2. YES YES YES!!! SO right on! Those ab crunch machines drive me crazy AND the way people use them! 😉

    Training frequency & rep range 0 great advice & people do have to experiment & try new things to see what works best for them and then from there – mix it up on a regular basis! 😉

    My crazy workouts – I get all the rep ranges in one set! 🙂


  3. Total agreement about the fact that isolation movements can make a nice add-on—but not the basis of the whole workout. I’m always preaching the benefits of classic multi-joint movements. If people want to “maximize” their workout, that’s the first place to start!

    I do want to add that there’s tremendous individual variation when it comes to optimum workout frequency (as you suggest). Plenty of powerlifters train each lift just once per week and continue to progress. I’ve done that myself and seen great results. The key is whether the trainee is progressing or not.


    • Lucky you to get results on such infrequent training. For the vast majority of people though, studies show a higher frequency is more effective. The best gauge as you say is results.


  4. Great scoop, Suzanne! I have a question for you. i really do prefer the body weight exercises my trainer has taught me and get much more out of using the bosu and elastic bands than I ever did with weight machines that target one area. However, sometimes I work in Cybex squat machine and he gravitron dips/pull ups bar when my time is limited because it gets so many muscles at once. What is your opinion of those two items?


    • Hey Shira! Not sure what Cybex machine you’re referring to but it’s probably fine. Same with the dips/pull up machines. They won’t hurt you and are ok in a pinch. There are better options, of course, such as pull ups with bands, but overall I’m sure you’re doing fine.


  5. Hi Suzanne. On the subject of rep variation, does it really matter that you do the same number of reps or is it more about the change in weight? For example, if I can get through 12-15 reps of let’s say a 100 lbs leg press; isn’t it okay that after two weeks of doing this I complete 12-15 reps at let’s say 115 lbs? I hopw my question makes sense. I always go for 12-15 reps of all exercises I do each week but I increase my weight as I get stronger. Once in awhile I do drop sets and as you know, you start off with a fairly heavy weight but I usually do a weight that I max out around 6-8 reps. Which is better for optimization? THANKS


  6. Hi Suzanne, This is a great article. I totally agree with
    you when you said that hitting each muscle group once a week isn’t
    exactly maximizing your workouts. I wish my trainer is also as good
    as you. I don’t see any big progress after months of workout.
    Anyway, thanks for the tips. You are really amazing. 😀


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