As competitive physique athletes, it’s a pretty safe assumption to say we enjoy working out.
Training is probably one of your favorite things to do in life and has been for at least a few years.
However, when in a prolonged dieting phase, it becomes increasingly more difficult to maintain our excitement, enthusiasm, energy, and intensity in the gym.
The rest of this post will cover 10 various check-points, tools, and tactics that can make your lifts far more effective if you get them “right” for you.
You may not need to worry about all of them. Your job or schedule may not allow you to even think about some them.
But if you are having lethargic lifts, read through the following items as a sort of checklist to make sure you are maximizing all areas of your weight lifting routine that you possibly can.
FIX YOUR ENVIRONMENT
It might prove worth it to extend your daily commute in order to find a training facility that really gets you going. It might also be worth it to spring the extra money for multiple gym memberships or the occasional day pass.
For a few years there between 2012 and 2016, I’d preferred to lift at a community gym where everybody knew me, supported me, spotted me, and kept me on my toes. But if I had a lot of steady state cardio to do, I preferred to disappear into a larger commercial gym with tons of machines so I could be alone with my thoughts but still have plenty of activity around me for people watching. More recently, I like training at private gyms by myself with plenty of space and minimal distractions.
These preferences change for me every so often, and once I finally convince myself to make the switch, I get a whole new breath of fresh air that keeps things interesting for at least the next few months.
GET ALL KINDS OF REST
Physical and mental rest contribute to productive gym time.
Personally, I don’t have good sessions if my body is tired from some previous activity that day (i.e., running errands on my feet for hours then trying to squat right after). I also don’t feel like I’m giving my best in the gym if my brain is too busy worrying about other things (i.e., trying to focus on my training while studying for an exam or preparing for a presentation).
When either one of those is hindered, it’s better for me to simply skip that lift for the day or take a nap before trying again.
However, while being flexible with training sessions can be useful, moving things around and crowding three days’ worth of workouts in 48 hours can definitely hinder your ability to move weight as well.
Sure, as contest prepping individuals, you might not ever feel fully rested between training sessions. But, it really is your job to make sleep a priority and to make certain your training frequency reflects an appropriate spread throughout your week.
FOOD & LIQUIDS
Some like to train fasted, others on a full belly. I tend to work best somewhere in between. I also have to be careful not to drink too much liquid, which is a challenge when I am thirsty in the mornings. It wasn’t until I started wearing a lifting belt that this was something to be monitored and I actually stopped drinking pre-workout coffee because of it.
Aside from volume fullness, it’s also important to ensure your body is equipped with whatever amount of specific macronutrients keep you going. Deep in the off-season, my carbohydrate intake is what makes or breaks the amount of energy I have. But when deep in contest prep, I tend to be much more responsive to my protein intake.
There is no right or wrong here, but test out a few variables and monitor how you feel. Hell, you might even be one of those people who has to eat DURING their lifting session. But you don’t know if you never try.
In the year leading up to my last contest prep, I had completely weaned myself off of any caffeine whatsoever. By the end of that 2013 prep, I was on a pre-workout energy drink and two afternoon cups of coffee a day.
In the years since then I’ve backed off quite a bit, consistently having an early serving of 100 to 200mg most mornings via tablets or pre-workout drinks. But the few times per month that I have a scheduling reason to force a workout, turning that into 300mg can make the world of a difference.
This is a powerful, inexpensive, and convenient tool to have in your contest prep toolbox. Learn to use and manipulate it wisely to ensure its continued effectiveness as a strategic boost when needed.
TIME OF DAY
Although we don’t always have this luxury, it is definitely worth trying to find a personal best chunk of time you feel most alive and inspired.
For me, this is in the AM before anything else occurs during the day. But that isn’t always an option as life can tend to get in the way sometimes.
As mentioned in #2 above, when I can’t do mornings, I typically schedule naps in the afternoon before gym time to try to mimic my typical “rise and grind” routine.
Track your moods a few times throughout the day for a few weeks. Try to find patterns in your energy levels and align your priorities with your findings. It seems many proud meatheads undervalue the whole “listen to your body” thing…. don’t be that guy. (Or that girl, of course.)
THE SOUNDS THAT MAKE YOU WORK
I am a complete audiobook junkie…. once I discovered this world of incredible value and knowledge, it was all I wanted to do during my workouts.
However, I’ve noticed that it can be distracting for intense lifts, which are better-fueled by fast-paced, more aggressive music.
Invest in a new album or two by your favorite artists if you’re heavily influenced by the perfect tunes. You can also purchase a Spotify or Apple Music subscription for a few dollars a month that gives you endless access to your favorite songs from your smart phone whenever you want. (In my life, it’s totally been worth it!)
You may also be one of those lifters who is inspired by other people cheering you on. In which case, you might make sure you are surrounding yourself with the right kind of gym buddies who keep you motivated without gossiping your ear off and turning your rest periods into complete cool downs.
This is obviously preference-based, but don’t under-value the effects of ALL sensory inputs, including audio choices.
THE WORDS THAT MAKE YOU WORK
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT, UNDER-VALUED TIP I CAN GIVE.
I truly believe internal dialogue and self-reflection is the root of all things in life. (You’ve probably noticed this as a common theme in all of my work.)
I have different sayings, mantras, and journaling patterns that get me through my entire day, but even more so during my training.
I have pre-workout self-talk, things I tell myself to get through hunger pangs during prep, sayings to push me through sets, and a whole bunch of other reminders of why I do what I do.
Find the words that get your mind right and keep you focused. Make them up or seek them out. But don’t forget you can talk yourself in and out of anything in life if you ever really want to.
KEEP BUSINESS SEPARATE FROM BODYBUILDING
During my last contest prep five years ago, I went into the settings of my iPhone and turned off all email alerts. Since then, I have never turned them back on and have a hard-set rule that I do not check email before or during my training for the day.
I now only check my messages when I have the time to sit and give them full attention, which is maybe once or twice per day, and no more than an hour at a time. Nobody has died from this (that I know of), and it helps keep my mind clear and focused on the present, as opposed to being focused on things I cannot control or reply to until I am in front of a computer.
Additionally, I used to try to study, tweet, instant message, text, etc. in between sets while I was lifting because I thought it would be more efficient. This only caused me to rest too long between sets and kind of suck at both the workout and the digital interactions.
There is no such thing as multitasking, only focus-dilution…keep your head where it’s supposed to be, so you can make it through your workouts before hunger and lethargy set in.
YOUR TRACKING “DEVICE”
I have found switching up my journaling techniques can give me additional insight in to my overall fitness experience.
When I am in contest prep or hyper-tracking weight loss trends, digital spreadsheets are the way to go for me. The template given to me by Alberto (who will always be my prep coach) is perfect for graphing, analyzing, and keeping track of the overall progress as I am constantly hitting my mark.
But when I’m at the gym, I still like to use good old-fashioned pen and paper for a few reasons.
First off, it keeps me away from my phone a bit more, thus enhancing my ability to stick to #8 of this list. It’s also inherently easier to look back at previous workouts for reference, motivation, or inspiration when needed. And lastly, but most importantly to me, I am free to write ALL KINDS of little notes throughout the pages.
I can see where I scratched stuff out (usually because I over- or under-estimated myself), if I had to rush a workout because of my schedule, if I felt excessively hungry or full, if I liked or hated an exercise, if I feel weaker or stronger than normal (usually because of sleep issues or stress), etc.
When there are blank pages without set fields of typing space, there is no sense of limits or censoring because you can fill the space as much as you’d like.
And then once a week as I’m taking my written numbers and putting them in the spreadsheet for my coach, I can reflect on the thoughts I wrote down. This allows me to make note of the common things that went right or wrong so I can improve on them or make the necessary changes to my routine, habits, diet, etc.
No, I don’t think everyone needs to use pen and paper, but I do think everyone should keep track of things besides the numbers. Subjective data can be extremely useful in a contest prep environment for so many reasons I could not manage to fit them all here. Check out this podcast we did on “How to Track Your Training” to hear more.
YOU vs. YOU
And lastly, in alignment with #8 and #9, you have to know where you’re coming from.
Whether you decide to use your phone, a written journal, or some other contraption, keep it with you at the gym so you can easily look back at it whenever you need.
Yes, seeing how far you’ve come can make you proud and motivated. But to me, the journal is extremely valuable to call myself out.
If a certain weight feels difficult or like I “can’t possibly finish the day’s assignment”, I look back and see what I lifted last week or last month and notice that it’s obviously something I can do…. I’ve done it before and I can do it again…. so I need to suck it up and make it happen. One rep at a time.
Now I realize after a long dieting period you may, in fact, lose some strength. But until it is absolutely gone, don’t let your lack of energy fool you into cutting back on training volume too soon.
That’s my list!
It’s definitely not exhaustive and I could probably think of at least 10 more things to add, but those are some of the basic pillars that I feel we could always manipulate as athletes that will give us some bang for our buck to get through the difficult times of prep.
If you have any more, feel free to leave them in the comments below!
And if you’d like to hear more, listen to our recent podcast on “Lifestyle Design for Athletes” to get almost two hours of discussion on this very topic.