I’ve been reflecting on my personal workouts over the last 19 years and I’ve started to think about the common factors among the best workouts I’ve ever been through. By “best” I mean those workouts that stand apart from the rest in terms of intensity, challenge, focus, and fatigue. The list below sheds light on the commonalities in most of the best workouts I have ever experienced. Collectively, they serve as a guideline for productive training not only for me, but also for almost anyone interested in engaging in intense, 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.
- The workouts were always recorded. For me, being able 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 striving to improve 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.
- The workout was always directed by a coach or trainer. Over the last 19 years, I can count on one hand 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. In other words, they redefined what intensity meant to me in that moment.
- The workouts were preceded by a reasonable amount of sleep (as well as recovery from previous workouts). Try as I may, if I 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.
- 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 almost inspires me to train harder and with more focus.
- Throughout the workout, from exercise to exercise, the source of my motivation was both intrinsic and extrinsic. I was intrinsically motivated to work hard. I, on my own accord, showed up ready to work as hard as possible, to focus, and to strive to use perfect form. At the same time, I was motivated extrinsically or externally by my trainer who demanded more of me, reinforced the things I was doing correctly, and challenged me to give my best effort.
- 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.
- The workouts were “total body workouts.” I performed exercises that stimulated all of the major muscle groups.
- 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.
One important note: Growing research suggests that although exercise is tremendously beneficial for our long-term health, using long term health or weight loss (anything long term) is actually a really poor way to stay motivated. Instead, research points to enjoying the acute experience of the workout itself as the effective motivator. One of the things I’m cognizant and appreciative of is that I’m just as excited or even more excited for each strength training workout I perform today as I have been at any other time in my life. I hope you enjoy your next workout as much as I’m going to enjoy mine.