Sunday, April 22, 2012

Step By Step Guide to Your Own Workout Routine - Part VII: "How Was Your Workout?" Evaluate & Tweak Your Routine

Image 1: It's pointless to "hit your chest from every angle", when none of the 10+ exercises you do hits it at all.
"How was your workout today?" If you consider this question odd, this part of the "Step By Step Guide to your Own Workout Routine", could be the most important one for you to read. After all, squeezing your workouts into your daily routine, finding the right workout type, understanding the basics of reps, sets, density, intensity, volume etc. deciding on a health, hypertrophy, fat loss or strength focus and even having an idea of how to best periodize your training is of little value, if your workouts suck! I mean, you know that feeling when you already think about your next workout, before you even leave the gym,right? A feeling that nothing really seems to work and results that not far from abysmal.

Don't have your ego stop yourself from making progress

Over the years, I have found that the #1 reason my workouts sucked were my ego and my ambition. While I was constantly preaching others to "leave their ego at the door", the first thing I did on "chest day", when I hit the floor after a brief warm-up was the flat bench press. And I can tell you - that sucked! That and the rest of the workout which resembled Jay Cutler's chest + biceps workout - with the difference that I did some more sets, trained over a greater rep range and used as many intensity techniques in one workout as Jay during his whole prep.
ChestBicepsBackCoreLegsTricepsShoulders
Navigate the SuppVersity EMG Series - Click on the desired body part to see the optimal exercises.
"You got to hit a muscle from all angles!", that was my mantra. And since "you got to do power and stretch movements", "you got to lift heavy" and "you got to totally exhaust a muscle" were right next to the former on my list of to-do's, I ended up doing the flat bench, the incline, incline and flat bench flies, cable flies and - as a finisher - dips to failure. I could outline similar idiocies for other muscle groups, but that would thwart the idea of this series...

Your brain is the thing that resides (hopefully) next to your ego in your skull

It was not like I was not aware that the workouts were shabby and the results meager, but for whatever reason, the single most important question "How was your workout?" never passed my mind. I was simply too occupied with thinking about "How is my next workout going to be?" and "How do I bring up this sagging chest of mine?" to ask myself any of the following questions:
Image 2: Believe it or not, but your nervous system has to be trained, as well. And more often than you may think it has had enough long before your muscles quit their service.
  • Did you feel the muscle working? Many trainees (me included at that time) focus way too much on lifting the weight, than on the lift itself. Your muscles could hardly care less how much weight you have packed onto the bar, and so should you: Focus on your muscle, not the weight!
  • Which exercise worked best for you? Unless you have a twin brother / sister, it is very unlikely that you will find another person in the gym that has the exact same build as you. And even if you did, your twin could well outperform you on the flat bench simply because he / she has a better technique. Try all exercises and don't simply rely on what works for most people - I mean, look at them: In most cases it produces at best mediocre results!
  • At which time point of your workout did you lose the mind-muscle connection? It is actually not difficult to decide when you have had enough, once you start listening to your body. When you can as hard as you want and still the one thing you can think about is "How much reps in this set and how much sets still left?", it's time to go - not to the next exercise, but home. Don't ignore the limits of your central nervous system, when your brain says "no", you better go!
Had I asked myself those questions after each and every workout, instead of just asserting that it sucked and my results were suboptimal, to say the least, I wouldn't have wasted hour by hour in the gym and had still seen way superior results.

It's good to have a large toolbox, but in the end, you never need all at once

Regardless of whether you want to build muscle, stay healthy, shed fat or gain strength. Having a broad range of "tools", i.e. workout styles, exercises, intensity techniques etc. is important. It is yet even more important to apply them correctly. The flat bench press, for example, has been figuratively gathering dust in my toolbox. I cannot even tell you why, but it simply does not work for me - the only thing I train doing it, are the front delts. And I would never have realized that without asking me the aforementioned stupidly simple question over and over again: "How was your workout?" I want you to answer this question - honestly! And that before you apply any of the following randomly arranged workout-tweaks:
  • Image 3: Vince Gironda was a proponent of a training style that, just like German Volume Training, focused on doing many sets of exercises that work, instead of doing dozens of exercise that don't. And I would say that his results spoke for themselves.
    Stick to one... if you are training to gain muscle, forget your current workout for the time being and try to identify the exercises that work for you by switching to a stupidly simple 3-day split routine where you do exactly one exercise for 10x10 sets x reps for one of the larger muscle groups (legs, back, chest) and exactly one exercise for 5x10 sets x reps for a smaller (shoulders, arms, auxilliary stuff) muscle group on each of the day. Go through all exercises that would qualify as a main lift on a given day and ask yourself the first of the three aforementioned important questions: "Did I feel the muscle working?" - When you have established the exercises that work, go through this series again and make them the staples in your routine.
  • Do two more and one less... if you are training to gain muscle or strength, either pause in at the end of the eccentric or concentric phase (depending on the movement) or rack the weight at what would usually be the end of your second last set; pick up the weight again and perform another two reps; skip the last set! - Trust me, done periodically those two reps will produce increases in strength and size gains beyond what performing a regular last set would produce.
  • Do the dumbbell push-over... if you are not feeling your chest working, try to turn the classic dumbbell pullover lying across (!) a bench into a pressing movement by briefly pulling the dumbbell up into a position that allows you to push it through the rest of the movement - This exercise really helped me to realize how it feels when your chest is working, not your shoulders; but the exercise is tricky and does not work for everyone
  • Walk... if you want to lose body fat ignore the allegedly greater caloric expenditure from jogging vs. walking; if you decide to do light intensity steady state (LISS) cardio training for 30-45 minute, walk on an incline! - Even if you are well conditioned, the minimal difference in caloric expenditure is not worth taking the risk that you burn yourself out; and to increase your VO2Max you would have to train at a much higher intensity, anyway.
  • Row... if you want to lose fat and do something for your muscles at the same time, do your LISS cardio on a rowing machine - I am not aware of another "cardio" equipment that would offer a similar full-body training effect
  • Be flexible... if you don't want to waste your time waiting, you better plan for an alternative option for every exercise: All ergometers taken? No problem, you walk. Your 30lbs dumbbells in the hand of another trainee? No problem you do your side-laterals at the cable tower or 15 reps with 25lbs instead of your usual 10-12 reps with 30lbs dumbbells - By staying flexible you do not only avoid wasting time waiting, you also rotate through exercises and "keep your body guessing", something that can never hurt, no matter what your training goal may be.
  • Image 4: I guess you will be past that stage already, but do you actually know how to walk? I mean in way that your abs are working to keep you torso up right, your calves are trained with each step you take and your glutes literally burn after 30 min on an incline treadmill? No? Well, then you got to practice!
    Practice... even if you are just walking on the treadmill, everything - yes, even correct walking - must be learned; feel the movement, feel the muscle, change the tempo, control the weight - Improvements in your form, or the way you feel your muscles working will exponentiate your strength and size gains and they will help you shed body fat, because you activate more muscle fibers
  • Do acclimatization sets... if you are training for size or strength, you do 1-2 sets with 50% or less of your target weight, picture perfect form and the exact number of reps you want to perform in your working sets. Contrary to regular warm-ups, these sets are meant to "warm up" or rather prime your brain not your muscles. You memorize the exact movement pattern, pick your regular weight and then simply recall the exact same movement pattern - you will be surprised about the positive impact this is going to have on your mind-muscle connection
  • Do 100... if you want to build muscle or get into shape, pick one of the basic exercises, like squats, pull-ups, push-ups, farmers walk, etc. and do 100 reps in as much sets as it takes; try to reduce the number of sets from workout to workout - With the high intensity and build-in progression it is quasi impossible that you don't see results.
  • Do it the other way around... to see what works better or just to surprise your body, do biceps before back, or cable flies before the bench press - Aside from the benefits any new stimulus will provide pre-exhaustion can allow you to work the target muscle even harder; give it a try! 
I guess, I could continue this list for ever, but that would only increase the chances that you are getting bogged down in details again, when either a lack of consistency or a plain overload of useless exercises and things that work for others, yet not for you, are hampering your progress. Therefore I suggest, you put the Flex and Women's Health magazines with all their tips, tricks and workout programs aside for an hour or so and ask yourself a simple question: "How was my workout?"