Five Tips for a Better Strength Training Workout
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26 Jan 2011 22:11

I don't usually make lists such as this. Not because I think there is something wrong with it it's just not my preference. However, this is a recap of some of the information that we have here as much as it is a list of tips for a better strength training session.

1. Use Appropriate Warmup and Acclimation

I put this one first because this is the most neglected fundamental thing in strength training. Here I am not talking about the general warmup, mobility, foam rolling or any of that. Everybody seems to be all over that part of the warmup. The specific exercise warmup is where the real confusion sets in.


The proper warmup and acclimation toward your main lifts (priority or "core" lifts) make all the difference. Most authorities tend to highlight the injury prevention potential but the warmup and acclimation also governs how much sheer weight you will be able to put on the bar. Simply put, it can be the difference between a good day and a bad day; a success or a failure. That is all covered here in the article How to Perform Your Specific Exercise Warm Ups. Most trainees are notoriously lazy about this! There is a reason why an article on what grip to use for deadlifts is a like a beehive of activity and an article on warmups is…not.

It's about the "easy fix" versus that which takes some time, effort, and thought. The same reason people are more concerned about how to grip a barbell than how to warmup is the same reason people are more concerned about what supplements to take than how and what to eat.

2. Place Exercises in the Proper Order

Here are some basic guidelines to help you decide how to arrange the exercises within a strength training workout.

1. Most TECHNICAL movement, i.e. the movement that is most complex and requires the most coordination.

1a. NEW movement. Exercise you are learning for the first time.

2. Heaviest compound "full-body" movement

3. Your personal priority.

The reason 1a comes after 1 is because 1a does not become a factor as often as 1. If you wanted to perform, for example, power cleans, but were also learning overhead squats then overhead squats would have to come first even though powercleans are more technical. So 1a supersedes 1. However, a better choice would be not to both have a brand new and complex exercise that you are still learning coupled with a highly skill oriented one.

The environment we choose for learning movements is important and this is the area the strength training world is the most lacking in, by far. At least in my opinion. Here is the thing that you MUST realize. The body has only so many resources, not only for recovery but for motor learning, etc. You cannot expect quality learning and therefore the most efficient progression when you divide those resources between unneeded complex movements. It's funny to me that people say keep it simple for beginners but they ONLY mean in terms of the NUMBER of total exercises. They give no thought to the NATURE of those exercises which is MORE important than the number. It's not as taxing on resources for a beginner to have 5 single joint isolations thrown in as it is to have two extra complex movements. TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON NUMBERS!

Guideline two may be confusing to some people so I'll lay that out a bit more. The most technical movement is that which requires the most coordination and skill. It is also that which uses the most muscle groups.

So it works like this. All quick lifts and their power versions or derivatives are more technical than all slow maximal force lifts. So a clean is more technical than a front squat or back squat, for instance. A a front squat is then more technical, by virtue of being more "complex" than an overhead press, for example. The squat uses more large muscle groups and involves the movement and coordination of more body segments. Remember these are just rules of thumb. It is not useful to try an follow this thread down the line of every exercise in existence. You only need to decide how to arrange the exercises within one workout and within a week not how to categorize every possible exercise that exists. This post is only concerned with exercise order within a workout but the same basic guidelines can be applied to choosing what exercises to perform on what day of the week.

3. Use Proper Rest Periods

Strength training rest periods are covered in several places throughout the site.

4. Use Positive Mental Cues and Imagery

Positive mental cues are discussed in the second post of the Getting in the Zone series.

Positive mental imagery is the same idea as positive mental cues. When you picture yourself performing a movement or getting a big lift, you picture yourself doing it perfectly. Never run through visual scenarios of all the things than can go wrong. The temptation to do this stems from the idea that if you run through all the mistakes you might make you can prepare yourself for how to deal with them. Don't do it. It won't work. What you picture is what is most likely to happen. It's simple. You picture yourself doing it wrong and you are more likely to do it wrong. Only ever create visual images of the right way to do things.

5. Always End on a High Note!

Just because this is number five don't think it's not important. It has become darned near a mantra for me. This is a very simple but very powerful guideline for success in strength training. NEVER end a workout in failure.

I know what you want to say. Eric, dude, sometimes I'm going to fail. I can't help that. Of course not. Failure is part of strength training. I didn't say never fail! I said never end on a failure. This may be a simple as taking a few pounds off the bar after a failed attempt so you can get a good lift in for your last attempt of the day. You may not realize it yet, but the psychological edge this gives can be quite the epiphany.

Something I realized a long time ago, and why I started shouting this mantra, was that what happens during a workout, our "experience" of it, and our memory of it, are quite different. The memory, as Daniel Kahneman put it in The Riddle of Experience versus Memory, is a storyteller. The problem is we get our "experience" of training and our memory of it confused as being the same thing.

I've seen some great great workouts "remembered" as terrible ones. What was actually experienced was a lot of little successes. What is remembered is one disappointment or failure. And what comes at the very end of a workout will trump everything else when it comes to constructing this "story". You end on a failure and your 'experience' of training, which is actually your memory of it, becomes failure. Here's the uncanny thing, this happens even when we've had a very enjoyable workout! The memory as storyteller is quite a Debbie-downer sometimes. What we get is not a measurement of how successful and happy we were with the workout, but a measurement of how we feel about that after the fact. And these two things are different. They are not informed by the same input.

Although this branch of psychology is highly complex and cannot be simplified in the way I am attempting to simplify it, I can tell you one simple thing. If you end on a bad note then you will tend to be dissatisfied with your training, because you will remember that training as being negative and a failure. If you end on a high note, as much as is possible, you will tend to be more positive and satisfied with your training, and more motivated to continue it. Your "story" will tend to be more one of success than of failure, even though failure is still an inevitable part of it. This does not mean you will walk away feeling on top of the world. The idea that you must feel energized and on top of the world after every workout is a bunch of pop-psychology clap-trap. Nobody likes to fail a lift and it can be discouraging. However, having that failure be the last thing you do before leaving the session will make you feel a lot worse!

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This page created 26 Jan 2011 22:11
Last updated 09 Oct 2013 12:53

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