Want to perform better in the gym? If you’re looking to get stronger, leaner, healthier, or better at your sport, your training performance is one of the biggest factors. Not every workout is going to be something to write home about, but the more consistently you’re able to have great workouts, the more you’ll improve over time. The unique thing about fitness is that the way you perform inside the gym (or wherever you train) will be impacted greatly by what you do consistently outside of the gym and away from training.
To paint the picture more clearly, if you spend 5 hours training per week, less than 3% of your total time that week is spent training. There are 163 additional hours each week that can make or break your performance. The people who perform the absolute best during their workouts (and therefore make the most progress) are the ones that are the most dialed in outside the gym. Sure, your training program and exercise execution certainly matters (as you’ll learn about below), but to really get the most out of your performance, you need to check more than just one box. This blog post will ensure you have all the tools necessary to get the absolute most out of every workout.
Let’s get into it.
Follow the right program
Good performance does in fact start in the gym. There are thousands of great programs out there, and not all of them are right for everyone. What works well for your friend may be inappropriate for you. Doing too much or too little will not get you to where you want to be nearly as effectively. The right dose of training stimulus, along with consistent adherence to the plan is what will maximize your performance, and therefore your results. This can take time to figure out. You may have to follow a few different programs when you’re starting out to see what you can recover and make progress from, and most importantly what you enjoy. One very common issue that highly motivated people run into is that they think if they’re not sore all the time, completely smoked from their training, or dripping sweat after every workout, it must not be enough. They usually respond by adding more training sessions to their weekly plan. Before you decide to add more, ensure that you’re putting all the effort you can into each rep of each set of each exercise. More training doesn’t always equal more results.
If you’re struggling to maintain the required intensity in your training, especially in higher rep ranges and hard conditioning efforts, there’s a chance that you need to increase either your overall carbohydrate intake, or at least your peri-workout (pre, intra, post) carbohydrate intake. Carbs are the body’s preferred fuel source for intense exercise. Low carb diets can work well for some people looking to lose body fat, but if training performance is your goal, low carb is not usually the preferred method. Also, you can still lose body fat if you include carbs in your diet, especially if it’s helping you train harder!
Post Workout Recovery
There’s more to post workout recovery than downing a protein shake as soon as possible. In fact, assuming you’re eating enough overall and you’re not doing another session later in the day, post workout nutrition is less important than a proper cooldown. Training is a sympathetically driven activity. This means that when you’re training hard, your sympathetic nervous system is firing, and your body is in a state of fight or flight. This is a good thing for training, but not a good thing for recovering from training. You want to get your body into a parasympathetic state (rest, digest, recover) as soon as possible once you’re done training. Fortunately, it’s not very complicated, nor is it time consuming. Simply taking 5-10 minutes post workout to “cool down” is all you need. Best practices include deep nasal diaphragmatic breathing, light walking, stretching, or any other activity that helps you chill out. Not only will it improve your recovery, but it’ll make you feel better throughout the rest of the day.
Life is full of stressors. People are presented with varying levels of stress, and some are better than others at managing stress. First of all, it’s important to know that some stress is actually good for you! But training is an additional stressor, so adding it into an already overly stressed lifestyle can certainly make it more difficult to perform and recover unless stress management strategies are implemented. Chronic stress means you’re in a fight or flight (sympathetic) state more than what is considered healthy. Muscle growth and recovery occurs when you’re in a relaxed, parasympathetic state. Having tools you can utilize to calm yourself down when you need to is crucial to get the most out of your effort in the gym. There are many ways to destress, including breath work, meditation, hot/cold therapy, journaling, or even just taking some time away from distractions to be present and gather your thoughts. A light walk in nature while focusing on deep nasal breathing is one of my favorites. Regardless of whether you think this applies to you or not, practicing stress mitigation is a great strategy to not only perform and recover better, but improve your daily mental health and cognition as well!
Getting blood work done, and more importantly, getting it analyzed and interpreted by an expert is something I recommend to everyone over the age of 25. You never truly know what’s going on inside your body unless you get labs done. You may feel great right now, which I’d argue is all the more reason to get blood work done so you have a baseline so that if (usually when) in the future you start feeling different, you can compare your new labs to your baseline labs. Sometimes lack of performance and inability to recover can be related to your hormone health or even micronutrient/trace mineral deficiencies that only show up on blood work or hair alayses. If nothing else, getting labs done 2-4 times per year is a great practice for health and longevity reasons.
Hydration (water + electrolytes)
Many people simply don’t drink enough water. If you’re in a constantly dehydrated state, start by making an effort to drink more water throughout each day. Everyone is different, and giving a blanket water consumption prescription through a blog post is pretty pointless. Some people need 100 OZ of water per day, others need closer to 200 OZ. A good rule of thumb is to look at your urine. It shouldn’t be very yellow, and it shouldn’t be completely clear. Somewhere in between is a good indicator that you’re appropriately hydrated. Often times, however, plain water may not be enough, especially if you train hard and/or live in a hot, humid environment, and are eating mostly whole foods (which you should be doing anyway). If this is the case, you may not be consuming adequate electrolytes, and in particular, sodium. All electrolytes are essential for peak performance, but low circulating sodium levels will have an acute effect on your training sessions. If you drink a lot of water, eat the right foods, and sleep well but you haven’t been mindful of your sodium/electrolyte intake, this may be the missing piece. Put sea salt or pink salt on all your foods (a lot of it), and even consider electrolyte supplementation. LMNT and Drip-Drop are my two favorites. Adequate water and electrolyte intake can instantly improve your performance and delay the onset of fatigue.
Supplements are not going to do much if you don’t have everything else in check, which is the main reason they’re the last point in this post. But assuming you’ve checked all the previously mentioned boxes, there are some supplements that can help with performance. They include:
Creatine: creatine is a great supplement for everyone, not just those interested in performance. It’s the most studied supplement in existence, and it’s safe to use assuming you don’t have certain underlying health/kidney issues. 5 grams/day of creatine monohydrate is a good dose for nearly everyone. More is not better. You can take it any time of day that allows you to be consistent and not forget it. Creatine is not going to make you look like the hulk, but it will give you another rep or two on your lifts and may even improve cognitive function.
Caffeine: Caffeine is a great ergogenic (fancy word for physiological performance-increasing) supplement if used wisely. The issue with caffeine is that very few people use it wisely. Most of us use it daily, and not in small amounts. Caffeine can be great if it’s used occasionally, or cycled on and off. This means that if you use it only 2-3 times per week prior to training, you’ll experience its wonderful performance-enhancing properties. Another strategy is to utilize (not abuse) it for a few weeks at a time and then take a few weeks off. Generally speaking, a great way to cycle it is 1 month on, 2-3 weeks off. If you abstain from it for periods of time (or only use it occasionally) your sensitivity to it will increase, making it far more effective than using it daily. The ideal dose of caffeine is highly individual (body weight, tolerance, gender etc), but generally 150-300 mg pre workout is highly effective. If you know you’re overly sensitive to caffeine, start with a small dose and tread carefully.
Beetroot and Pomegranates: Consuming a beetroot supplement or drinking pomegranate juice can enhance your body’s ability to produce nitric oxide. Nitric oxide causes vasodilation, or widening of the blood vessels, which can improve blood flow and circulation and also decrease blood pressure. This is not only good for your health, but it can also improve your training performance (usually in relation to stamina and fatigue onset). You don’t have to get crazy with it. There are several quality beetroot supplements out there you can try. If nothing else, a glass of pomegranate juice can be a great pre-workout drink as well.
Regardless of your goals, improving your training performance is something everyone can benefit from. Obviously, your sleep, overall nutrition and ability to recover will play the biggest role in your day to day performance. But there are other, less obvious factors that can play a tangible role as well. Sometimes adding just one of the above strategies into your routine may be the missing piece to maximizing your training sessions. Again, not every training session will be spectacular. But if you can add one or two more spectacular training sessions a month, or even shift one or two bad ones to mediocre ones, your long term results will be that much better!
Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear what your go-to performance enhancing strategies are. Let me know in the comments section below!