This list of 11 workout strategies can help you build your own super-functional, head-turning body, one that makes people wonder how your victory evolved.
You may marvel at the guy in the squat rack using his rock-solid lower body to grunt out perfect sets at 275 and then 315 pounds. You may be awestruck by the perfectly proportioned upper torso — every muscle group exudes power, functionality and aesthetic integrity — of the guy slicing through the water as he swims laps in the gym pool. But before you pull out the genetics card about how they’re lucky, consider this: The real accomplishment you witness lies in the unseen — the accumulated knowledge and consistent discipline it took to build such physical prowess. It’s the culmination of one good workout after another, where wasted effort and half-hearted strategies aren’t likely to be found. This list of 11 strategies can help you build your own super-functional, head-turning body, one that makes people wonder how your victory evolved. And your goal needn’t be to squat 315 or bench 305 — these are simply metaphors for the power of smart tactics applied consistently behind the scenes.
- Make Cardio Different
Hate cardio? You’re not alone. While taking a class may be the easiest option for you, consider an entirely different form of cardio. You can swim laps, run bleachers, jog on an outdoor track or hiking path, go for a 25-kilometer bike ride, and so on. Ask a friend to do the activity with you to generate a competitive spirit and additional calorie burn. “Instead of spending time doing an exercise you hate, pick a cardio that you like doing,” says Joy Jure, CSCS, sports performance director at The Office, a sports performance center in Anaheim, California. “There are a lot of choices when it comes to increasing your heart rate. If fat burning is a goal for you, don’t make cardio the part of your fitness you dread most.”
- Change Your Style
So many gym-goers tend to fall in love with a particular method of training: 5×5, pyramid training or circuits, for example. But switching things up may provide a welcome jolt to tonight’s workout. “Enjoy high-volume workouts? Try one-set to failure HIT for a day,” says Rob MacIntyre, WWE strength and conditioning coach. “Do you lift explosively? How about super slow reps.” These drastic departures from the norm will challenge your muscles to respond in kind. Tomorrow’s soreness will be proof enough of that.
- Alternate Opposing Muscle Groups
It’s arm day and you want to hit your biceps and triceps hard. But instead of doing all of your exercises for one muscle group before moving to the other, you might want to try alternating them. Research shows that a muscle group will be stronger if it’s trained immediately after its antagonist (opposing) muscle group. It also floods more nutrient-rich blood into the tissues for a substantially greater pump than you could achieve training each muscle group on its own. You can get good use out of this type of training with chest and back, hamstrings and quads, biceps and triceps.
- Post-Activate for Big Gains
Post-activation potentiation is a training concept — currently real hot and at the core of the new P90X2 system — that can immediately spike your training. Basically, a few reps of an explosive exercise can have an impact on the movement to follow. For example, doing a handful of explosive jump squats a few minutes before doing heavy dumbbell lunges or getting under the bar for a heavy squat, you “wake up” more power-producing motor units, giving you the ability to push through those heavy sets for more reps than you normally could. Likewise, a few near max-load lifts — 90–95% of your 1RM — can make you stronger on the lighter-weight sets that follow, as you might in a reverse pyramid scheme where you do 1–3 heavy sets, and then progressively lower the weight and increase reps on each successive set.
- Train Heavy, Rest Short
When you lift heavy, the instinct may be to take more rest. But if you’re concerned with building strength and burning fat, you want to do the opposite of that. Numerous studies show that lifting heavy — think 6–8 reps to failure — elevates metabolism higher and for longer than 12-rep sets. Another study out of New Jersey showed that men who rested just 30 seconds between sets of bench presses burned 50% more calories during the workout.
- Drop to a Century
Sometimes, muscles just need a good, old-fashioned throwdown. Guillermo Escalante, ATC, CSCS, co-owner of SportsPros Physical Therapy & Personal Training Center (4sportspros.com) in Claremont, California, likes to have clients take on 100 “burnout” reps, drop-set style, following their heavier work. Using the leg press as an example, you’d crank out 20 reps to failure, then immediately reduce the weight and do 20 more reps. Repeat in this manner until you reach 100 reps. Rest briefly if you must, but keep in mind that you can only reduce the weight each time you’ve churned out at least 20 reps.
- 7. Observe the Negative
If you like to go heavy in the gym, chances are that getting the weight up on each rep is the focus of your set. But more attention can and should be paid to the pace of each rep, particularly the negative, also know as the eccentric or lowering portion, of each move. “More muscle breakdown occurs from the eccentric or negative portion of the lift, so try to take a full four seconds on that part of the rep, then explode through the positive,” says Phil Gephart, MS, CSCS. This simple change can lead to greater growth over time.
- Do Cardio After Weights
If you’re going to do weights and cardio in the same session, do the weights first. Your body responds better when you’re lifting the heaviest weights possible within a given rep range, and performing cardio first can compromise your strength levels. Besides, doing cardio second will provide more fat-burning benefits; your body, in a carb-depleted state from weight training, will have to tap into fat stores for fuel earlier.
- Stretch Before, Only if…
Research shows that stretching preworkout can acutely diminish strength on the work that follows, so it’s best left to do after your training. But there are exceptions to every rule. “If you can’t do a full range of motion from a muscle in a specific exercise, you won’t get maximum results,” says Phil Gephart, MS, CSCS, a Newport Beach-based (California) trainer (newportfit4life.com) and exercise science professor. In cases like these, he says, it’s okay to perform some light stretching ahead of your specific warm-up for a lift because it’ll ensure a productive range of motion during exercise.
- Use a Single Arm (or Leg)
Try subbing all your two-handed moves — like seated rows, lateral raises and pressdowns — with the one-arm version. Truth be told, in some exercises you’ll actually be substantially stronger, perhaps as much as 20% more. Studies show that unilateral training makes the working limb recruit more total muscle out of necessity to complete a lift, which means more force generated and more muscle broken down. Get in the habit of getting out of your habit and trying single-leg extensions and one-arm machine presses, which can better help those target muscles.
- Max Out (bonus tip)
Everyone wants to be stronger. So, for today, “Find out how strong you really are,” says Rob MacIntyre, WWE strength and conditioning coach. “Max out on every exercise you do, whether it’s the bench press or dumbbell curls. Or have an impromptu powerlifting (squat, bench, deadlift) meet with some regulars in the gym.” This will not only help you adjust your benchmarks for weight loads on key lifts but it’s likely to motivate you to implement more pure strength training.