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The Best Workouts I’ve Ever Had Shared these Common Factors

I went on a walk last night with friend and colleague of Discover Strength, United Kingdom researcher Dr. James Fisher (he’s in town for a few weeks working on a new project with us) and we got to talking about some of our most recent workouts (I had literally just trained him at our St. Louis Park location).

As we walked and talked and reflected on our workouts, I got to thinking about my personal workouts, both recently, and over the last 24 years. I had a great workout on Monday at our Woodbury location with Abe. This morning, I had my first workout with Britta at our Wayzata franchise. Wednesday of next week I’ll be in Philadelphia, and I’ll get to be trained by a colleague who is one of the finest personal trainers in the country (with one of the most impressive facilities).

What follows here is an updated version of a Fit Tip that I wrote eight years ago about the common factors among the best workouts I’ve had. By “best,” I mean those workouts that stand apart from the rest in terms of intensity, challenge, focus, and fatigue.

Collectively, this list serves as a guide for productive training not only for me but also for anyone interested in engaging in intense, safe, evidence-based resistance exercise. Of course, this is not an all-encompassing list of evidence-based exercise tenets, but guidelines to maximize one’s individual workouts.

  1. The workouts were always recorded. Recording my workout allows me to strive to meet and exceed what I did last time in terms of repetitions and resistance is one of the most effective motivators and almost automatically intensifies the workout. Don’t get me wrong, I love “variety” workouts, but for me, the “pressure” to match or improve on a previous performance trumps the novelty of a “variety” workout.
  2. The workout was always directed by a coach or trainer. Over the last 24 years, I can count on two hands how many times I have strength trained alone (without a trainer). I have had the pleasure of being trained by educated, experienced, and caring trainers. In almost all cases, the trainer pushed me harder than I had anticipated being pushed (by about 5%, not 50%… they had empathy and met me where I was at, and then subtlety raised the bar). In other words, they redefined what intensity meant to me in that moment.
  3. The workouts were preceded by a reasonable amount of sleep, as well as sufficient recovery from previous workouts. Try as I may, if I only have 4-5 hours of sleep going into a strength training workout, I can never perform at the same level despite my perception that I am, in fact, pushing as hard as I can in the moment.
  4. I performed the workout utilizing amazing equipment. Not to say that the entire workout utilized machines (because many of these workouts included manual resistance, resistance bands, body weight, and free weights), but for my taste, there is no substitute for a well-designed, biomechanically precise machine. Training on an engineering marvel inspires me to train harder and with more focus.
  5. Throughout the workout, from exercise to exercise, the source of my motivation was both intrinsic and extrinsic. I was intrinsically (internally) motivated to work hard. I, on my own accord, showed up ready to work as hard as possible, to focus, and strive to use perfect form. At the same time, I was motivated extrinsically (externally) by my trainer who demanded more of me, reinforced what I was doing correctly, and challenged me to give my best effort.
  6. The workouts emphasized “eccentric” work, the “lowering” portion of any strength training exercise. This eccentric work came by way of “negative only,” or a variety of “negative emphasis” protocols.
  7. The workouts were “total body workouts.” I performed exercises that stimulated all of the major muscle groups.
  8. I was happy and enjoyed the workout. All of the workouts were intense, but I enjoyed the process and maintained a “here and now” focus throughout the workout. And afterward, no matter what kind of day I was having, the rest of the day got better.

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