For many, pulling into the parking lot of your gym is a moral victory in itself. When you are out of shape, the thought of going into a gym and trying to look like you know what you are doing is pretty daunting. What should I do first? Should I stretch? Go for a run around the track? Or maybe head to the bench press and get the ball rolling. As the saying goes, “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail”. Walking around aimlessly in a gym sampling all the equipment is not going to get you the results you want. So what should you do?
1. Before you pick up a weight, go for a run or do any type of high intensity training, you need a thorough warm up. I’m not talking about stretching. We can get to that later. You need to prime the major muscle groups that you plan on using before you start putting any type of strain on them. This is a dynamic warm up. Use movements such as wall slides, band pull aparts, inchworms, duck unders, and marching with high knees. This gets the blood flowing, clears waste from your muscles, brings fluids to your joints, and opens up your body. Research shows that warming up with dynamic stretches, which actively move your joints through a full range of motion will enhance muscular performance. A dynamic warm up should last a minimum of 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Make sure you know which exercises you plan on performing before you walk into the gym. Performing different exercises in a random order will not get you the results you are looking for. I recommend performing the exercises that require the most amount of muscle activation first. Begin with compound multi-joint movements. Squatting and deadlifting variations will require the most amount of energy and a near maximum effort, so attacking these first is the best course of action. Rowing and pressing movements (pushing and pulling) would come next, followed by isolation or assistance exercises. These are movements that work smaller muscles at only one joint. They are typically used for bulletproofing your body from injuries and straightening out imbalances. They are best left for the end because they require the least amount of effort.
3. Track your progress. Who can possibly remember the exact number of sets, reps and exercises that they performed from one session to the next? I have a good memory, but for me to remember every variable from my last training session is not going to happen. Buy a small notebook and start charting your progress. Write down all your sets, reps and the corresponding weights for each exercise and I promise you will get stronger a lot faster.
4. Forget about how much weight Joe Schmoe or Jane Doe is moving in the rack next to you. The #1 thing you must remember is that you are only competing with yourself. There is no track, no ice rink and no baseball diamond. Just you and a piece of equipment that you are applying force to. Your goals should be to improve upon what you did in your last session and that is it. Whenever I stray from this philosophy, my progress hits a rapid decline. Don’t fall into this trap.
5. Make a point of stretching out your entire body for a minimum of 15 minutes post workout. This goes against the conventional wisdom that my generation grew up with. Stretching was always performed before an activity and not after because we thought if we stretched first we would avoid injury. When you perform any type of resistance training you are shortening the muscle, so lengthening it prior to training is not going to have the desired effect. If anything, it will hinder the potential force output that you are trying to achieve. What you should do is warm your muscles up by increasing blood flow to the muscle groups you plan on using (refer to point 1 above).
By lengthening your muscles at the end of a training session, you are improving overall circulation. When you enhance the rate of blood flow to your working muscles you also increase the rate of recovery, because your blood carries essential nutrients to help your muscles repair and grow while at the same time removing waste by-products that are no longer needed. It is also a great natural way of cooling down your body temperature and lowering your heart rate. It is not recommended that your heart rate drop suddenly from an 8 or 9 out of 10 to a 2 or 3. It should be brought down at a gradual pace.