Like most things in life, fitness is all about progress. It’s about learning things about your body and health as you go, and applying those learnings to your routine so that no matter where your fitness journey takes you, you never stop growing along the way. (And, yes, that applies to your muscles as much as it applies to your mind.) Here, long-time personal trainer and certified strength and conditioning specialist, Joe Dowdell, shares a few of the biggest secrets that he’s learned over his decades-long career as a personal trainer.
After over 22 years of personal training in New York City, you end up with a ton of information to give out – some of it is absolute, training gold; some of it, a series of mistakes to avoid. Having garnered numerous tricks and tips in my time training hundreds of clients, here are seven of the key takeaways that I’ve found to be most important to achieving your health goals. Hopefully, these tips will help you to avoid common mistakes and make the most of your time spent in the gym.
Have a plan.
You would be absolutely amazed at how many people – even experienced lifters – have no idea what they’re going to do to train, or how they’re going to do it until the second they walk onto the gym floor. They don’t plan out their training session in advance, they don’t record their session progress, and, as a result, they tend to get poorer results. Is it possible to not have a plan and yet still get good results? Yes, of course, but it is certainly a more difficult thing to achieve. It’s good to try to create a proper training program or buy one from a reputable strength coach (if you need some ideas, feel free to check out the Program Builder on my website), and to then keep track of your results in a notebook or on your phone after every training session. This way, you can use this information to monitor your progress over time and help you make better decisions during future workouts.
Different people require different levels of hydration to get the most out of their workouts. I’ve seen clients who drink an entire large bottle of water (about 50 ounces) or more during a training session, and I’ve seen clients who don’t drink any water throughout the training hour. But personally, I believe everyone should carry a water bottle around with them during a workout because there are too many benefits to staying hydrated. From a science perspective, a good rule of thumb for staying hydrated is to consume between .5-1.0 ounces of fluid per pound of body weight per day. So, a 180-lb. guy should consume between 90 and 180 ounces of fluids – or, 2.5-5 liters – per day. The higher end of this range would take into account higher activity levels from training or water loss if you’re someone who tends to sweat a lot or are in a hotter environment, for example.
We discussed earlier the importance of following a training program, but gyms can be pretty crowded places, especially during peak times like 6-8am and 5-7pm. As a result, you need to be able to think on the fly and even compromise when necessary. If the squat racks are completely packed, then maybe opt for the leg press or do a DB Split Squat. If you want to perform E-Z Bar bicep curls but all the bars are taken, then try dumbbells or cable curls instead. You just don’t have the luxury of always being able to do exactly what you want especially in a crowded commercial gym. The successful gym goer will quickly adapt, whereas the unsuccessful gym goer will either become frazzled or end up spending extra time waiting for the equipment. My suggestion is to take a look at your training program and make a note of a substitute exercise for each one in your program so that if and when you encounter a roadblock, you can quickly call an audible.
Use timed rest periods.
Generally speaking, if you’re training for fat loss, then you should be resting somewhere between 30-60 seconds between sets. On the other hand, if you are training for hypertrophy or maximum strength, then you will need somewhere between 90-180 seconds of rest (with the longer intervals for maximum strength work). You are going to need a stopwatch or you can use the timer on your smartphone, and following it religiously will get you much better results and maximize your time in the gym. (Trust me.)
Train with a partner or coach.
If you’ve ever had a personal training session, attended a group training class, or trained with your insanely intense friend, then you are well aware that we tend to train much harder when we have someone watching and pushing us than we do when we do it solo. We also have more confidence as we have someone to spot us or offer some words of encouragement when pushing through a tough set. Very few people have the ability to hit the same level of intensity on their own that they can in the above situations. So if you are one of these people then try to find someone that you can train with.
Create a routine.
The most successful clients I have ever had are the ones who always booked the same time and same day to train, week in and week out. They were so used to turning up to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm that it didn’t seem like an effort – it was just something that they did. And for the most part, the training session was just blocked off right in their calendars as a recurring event that they knew to expect every week. If you establish a routine and turn it into a habit, you will rarely miss another session and you will get better results in the end. And to be honest, this tip can be applied to almost everything you do.
Do full body workouts.
About 95 percent of gym goers are regular people who just want to look and feel great (i.e. be leaner, have more endurance, feel stronger, etc.). These are people who are just training to be healthy, and not necessarily to become an elite athlete, bodybuilder, fitness model, or powerlifter. Understand this fact, embrace it, and learn to see the upside; namely, that all of the complicated training techniques and problems that can affect elite athletes need not concern you. Being part of the 95 percent means that you can train hard, get some great results, and still go home and live your life. In other words, you have the luxury of creating a balance. You realistically only need 3-4 gym sessions per week to get in good shape, and these sessions should be full-body workouts. Total body workouts burn the most calories, can help prevent unbalanced upper and lower bodies, and, if you miss a session, it’s no big deal because you can make up for it during the next session.
Hopefully, you’ve found these tips to be valuable and it will lead to some more efficient and effective workouts.