Most people have absolutely no clue whatsoever about how they should go about designing their training sessions.
They walk into the gym and immediately head over to the free-weights or machines— without warming up—and dive in, head first, into an incredibly inefficient training session; and, in most cases I observe, a workout that usually does more harm to their bodies than good.
This is because not only are they performing exercises incorrectly, with bad form and/or in the wrong sequences, but they are also just focusing on one aspect of a training session: lifting.
The problem with this approach is that by failing to warm-up properly before your workout, you are, at worst, setting yourself up for an intra-workout injury, and, at best, your performance will be sub-optimal—because your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments will not be prepped sufficiently for the task at hand.
By failing to cool-down thoroughly after a workout you are, at worst, setting yourself up for an injury in the future due to overly tight muscles, and, at best, you just won’t recover adequately between sessions.
To paraphrase: best case scenario is your workouts suck and you don’t get results, worst case scenario is that you get injured and can’t workout at all.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a “Lose-Lose” to me.
That’s why it’s important to know what you’re doing.
And that’s precisely the reason why I’m going to walk you through my 5 phase approach to completing a training session.
(You can thank me later.)
By following the steps outlined in this post, you will not only perform better during your workouts, but you will also feel superior in between them—and prevent injuries down the road.
Phase 1: Mobilize
Most of us sit for very long periods throughout the day.
This means that our muscles are usually pretty tight, specifically our hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings in the lower body; and the upper back, chest, and lats in the upper body.
So the very first thing you should focus on when entering the weight room is hopping on a foam roller and getting some of those knots out.
If you are performing a full body workout, as most beginner to intermediate lifters should be, you should also spend at least 1-2 minutes rolling each muscle group I mentioned above.
This will “loosen” you up and ensure that you are able to move well and get your body into the right positions in each exercise you attempt.
The majority of gyms nowadays have foam rollers available for their members.
For the glutes, chest, and upper back, I recommend using a tennis ball, or if you’re more advanced, a lacrosse ball or Beastie.
If you don’t how to use a foam roller, you’ve got 3 options:
- Ignore this advice.
- Go on YouTube and search for videos that show you how to roll those muscles.
- Hire a trainer, like myself, to show you how to roll them.
I hope you’ll go with one of the latter two.
Phase 2: Activate
Now that your muscles are “mobilized” and ready to go, you’ll move into a Dynamic Warm-up.
This means you will take your body through a series of light exercises that combine movement with stretching.
This will help to activate your muscles, as well as lubricate the surrounding joints, for the coming bout of lifting and/ or running.
Static stretching, or just holding a particular stretch motionless for an extended period of time, has been shown to be ineffective in prepping the body for strenuous exercise and, in some cases, has been shown to make the athlete weaker and more susceptible to injuries.
By focusing on mobility, you’ll kill three birds with one stone: you’ll improve your range of motion; enhance body awareness; and boost your performance during your workout.
Now that’s what I call a “Win-Win,” if you ask me.
While there are countless ways to construct a dynamic warm-up, and an infinite amount of exercise combinations and strategies, I recommend starting out with one that focuses on the full body, from head to toe, and activates the same muscles that were rolled out prior in Phase 1.
Here’s a basic sample full body warmup:
Band Dislocations x 20
Wrist Circles x 10 ea. direction ea.
Cat To Camel x 10 ea.
Dynamic Hip Flexor Stretch 10 ea.
Glute Bridge x 20
High Knee Pull x 10 ea.
Ankle Circles x 10 ea. direction ea.
A dynamic warm-up like this one hits all the major muscle groups and ensures that your body is prepared for the upcoming effort.
Start with something along these lines; and once you are comfortable with these exercises you can progress to more advanced variations and techniques.
No matter what exercises you choose, however, just make sure that you always take 10-20 minutes at the beginning of every workout to work on your mobility.
Failing to do so consistently will set you up for an injury down the road, especially once you start to get older and more advanced in your training methods.
For more mobility drills to keep your arsenal stocked, check out Becoming A Supple Leopard, by Dr. Kelly Starrett
Phase 3: Contract
Unfortunately, as stated way back at the beginning of this post, this is where most people start their session.
They walk into the gym, all tight and stiff from the day’s (in)activity, and proceed with their workouts, moving inefficiently and putting their bodies through more stress, yielding them inferior results in the short-term and possibly leading to an injury in the future.
It’s a shame.
If you are at the beginner to intermediate stage of your weight-lifting journey, or if you’re a woman who doesn’t want to gain too much size and is more concerned with burning body fat, your workouts should consist primarily of full-body, complex movements: an upper body “push” and “pull;” a lower-body “squat” or ” hip hinge;” and some kind of core exercise like a loaded carry, an isometric hold variation, or a rotational movement of some kind.
So, in total, your workout would consist of about 4 exercises for 3 sets a piece, for a total of 12 working sets; and you should look to train 2-3 days per week, resting at least one day between each session.
A sample week might look like this:
- Trap Bar Deadlift 3×6-8
- 30 Degree Incline Dumbbell Press 3×8-10
- Face Pull 3×12-15
- Cable Chop 3×10-12 ea. side
- Split Squat 3×10-12 ea. leg
- Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise 3×10-12 ea.
- Lat Pulldown 3×9-12
- Plank 3×30-60s
- 45 Degree Back Extension 3×12-20
- Pushup Variation 3×10-15
- 1 Arm Dumbbell Row 3×10-12 ea. arm
- Farmers Walk 3x45s
*At the end of each session you may add 5-10 minutes of HIIT conditioning.
This could be:
Rope Slams 5-10x20s with 40s rest in between ea.
Stationary Bike Sprints 5-10x30s with 60s rest in between ea.
Kettlebell Swings 5-10x30s with 60s rest in between ea.
Basically, you just pick an exercise that’s easy to execute and you perform it anywhere between 5 to 10 times for a set amount of time followed by a brief rest.
In the case of the Rope Slams, for example, you’d perform 5-10 sets of 20 seconds followed by 40 seconds of rest after each set.
You can YouTube all of the exercises listed above if you are unfamiliar with them, or, better yet, hire yourself a trainer that can help you learn the right technique and how to execute them correctly so that you are able to maximize each effort and proceed onward with your goals.
Phase 4: Relax
Once you are done with your training, you’ll want to make sure you facilitate the recovery process sufficently.
I like to end each of my training sessions by lying down on the floor for 3-5 minutes and practicing “Deep Belly” breathing.
“Deep Belly” breathing, or Diaphragmatic breathing, is done by inhaling deeply in through the nose, contracting the diaphragm, filling the abdominal cavity up with air, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth.
“Deep Belly” breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body.
Breathing slowly and deeply activates the hypothalamus to send out neurohormones, producing a physiological effect in the nervous system that triggers the relaxation process throughout the body.
Basically, our central nervous system has two modes: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.
Sympathetic is our body’s “flight or fight” mode; Parasympathetic is our “rest and relax” mode.
During an intense training session, our body enters into sympathetic mode: our hear rate accelerates, our blood pressure rises, adrenaline is up, and we are hyper-focused on the task at hand.
Once a session is completed, your main goal should be to enter into Parasympathetic mode as fast as possible: taking 3-5 minutes after a workout to practice “Deep Belly” breathing will not only lower your overall stress levels and help with anxiety, but it will also expedite the recovery process and ensure you come back stronger next time.
Phase 5: Stretch
Once you’ve completed your 3-5 minutes of breathing, you can move on to a few static stretches, as this is the perfect time to do them: when the body is warm and relaxed.
You can hold each stretch for 60-120 seconds and, once again, focus on breathing deeply into the abdominal cavity throughout each position.
You can start with these:
That wraps up my 5 phase approach to a perfect training session.
All in all, if you are diligent with your time and monitor your rest periods, you should be able to complete your workouts in less than 90 minutes.
If you are pressed for time and cannot complete all 5 phases consecutively, I recommend breaking them up throughout your week.
While Phases 2, 3, and 4 should be done successively, you could probably get away with rolling and stretching on your off days.
Let’s say you train on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
You’d perform your dynamic warm-up (phase 2), lifting (phase 3), and breathing (phase 4) on those days; and then on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday you’d take 30-60 minutes to roll (phase 1) and stretch (phase 5).
However you decide to break it up, the point is that you should be completing all 5 phases consistently on a weekly basis.
The vast majority of people only focus on Phase 3, the actual workout, and they end up with sub-optimal results and/or injuring themselves.
They then proceed to blame their injuries on old age instead of the true culprit: failing to educate themselves on proper training methods and not taking the time to focus just as much on their recovery and mobility as on their lifting.
Make a concerted effort to follow the steps outlined in this post, and don’t sacrifice the integrity of your overall health for expediency and short-term gains.
It’s just not worth it.
(OK, you can thank me now.)