Your time in the gym is never wasted. Any activity is better than none.
Still, there are certain things that would make your workout more productive, and they aren’t as common as they should be.
I can think of at least 10 specific examples…
#1 - Free Weights
For the average gym goer who just wants to get in shape or lose some weight, free weights should be priority #1.
Yet most of the popular gyms out there have way more machines than free weights.
I can’t change the gyms. But if we all started using the free weights more than the machines, eventually the gyms will adapt, and you’ll lean out more efficiently and effectively by losing fat instead of healthy muscle.
#2 - Women on Free Weights
I hate going to the gym and seeing only men at the free weights and women on the cardio equipment or weight machines.
It’s not that the guys are doing everything right, but the women are missing out on so many benefits.
I’ve said it best before in this Instagram post (click here to read a little more on this subject).
For those of you women who already make free weights part of your regular routine, I see you. Guys can get pretty creepy around girls in the gym, so I’m proud of you for venturing over to what could mistakenly be seen as “our area.”
#3 - Pull-ups
That’s right, I want everyone wearing pull-ups diapers at the gym so no one wastes time taking bathroom break!
Oh, sorry. Not those pull-ups.
I’m talking about grabbing onto a bar and lifting your body off the ground until your head rises above it.
They’re one of the best exercises you can do for your whole body. They’re difficult, but you should still do them regularly.
If you can’t do any yet, start with inverted rows.
#4 - Full Range of Motion
When you DO perform pull-ups, don’t cheat by not going all the way down (or up) on each rep.
The same goes for squats, bench presses, rows, and pretty much any other kind of exercise that can be done half-assed.
Unless you are intentionally using half reps as a tool to build up your strength or work on mobility, you’re just cheating yourself and won’t get as good of results as if you used a full range of motion.
#5 - Control
Flinging weights around might make you look cool (except for that it doesn’t), but is it helping accomplish your goals?
You’re essentially making the weight lighter by letting momentum do the work for you, and possibly increasing your risk of injury.
There’s a time and place for doing reps quickly, like when working on power (e.g. jumps), or if you need to get a bunch of reps done in a short amount of time (like competing in crossfit).
But in general, the value of each individual rep (as far as total work put into it) goes up when you control your weights instead of using momentum (as they found in this study of the deadlift).
#6 - Full Body Workouts
Put simply, you don’t need a leg day.
Most people do better with full body workouts. It allows you to work your entire body multiple times a week, but without completely destroying your muscles every time, which is better for recovery.
It’s also more efficient.
For example, doing squats, glute bridges, push-ups, and pull-ups hits all your major muscle groups. So you can do four exercises, not burn out any single muscle, then be done.
There are a million other ways to do it. If you want more info, go read “The Best Way to Lift for ’Normal’ People.”
#7 - Chalk
A good workout program will have you lifting heavy sometimes.
Heavy is a relative term. It could mean hundreds of pounds, or fifty.
Regardless, the last thing you want on a heavy lift is for the bar to slip out of your fingers. Even on a pull-up, I’ve seen a friend of mine drop from a pull-up bar like a 170 pound baby bird.
You don’t HAVE to use it, but if you aren’t doing any lifting that would cause you to see the benefit of it, you might need to rethink your program.
#8 - Backing Off
I recently got asked during one of my workouts to “spot” someone (i.e. help lift the weight if they start to fail) on their bench press.
I have no problem doing that — I’ve had people do it for me, but typically only as a “just in case” situation, for safety.
Unfortunately, that’s not how most people do it.
What I commonly see is someone barely completing a rep, then going for one more and needing help to finish it.
You’re not doing your body any favors by performing that one extra rep. You’ll end up not being able to perform as many reps later and your body will require more recovery time.
Plus you’ll feel more beat up. (Ironically this is probably why most people do it. You “feel” like you worked harder, but you aren’t actually making any extra progress. Don’t believe me? Go read this, this, this, and this study, then get back to me.)
You’re better off stopping a rep or two (or more) short of failure MOST of the time. You’ll get the same (or better) results, but it won’t hurt as much, and won’t require as much recovery.
#9 - Supersets
You can cut your workouts in half, or get twice as much done in the same amount of time, all by using supersets.
Instead of doing one exercise at a time with a bunch of rest between sets, you’ll alternate between two exercises with little to no rest in between (depending on the goal).
There’s no “wrong” way to do this, but here’s my favorite:
Pick an upper body exercise and a lower body exercise, and do them back to back. This way your upper body gets rest during the lower body exercise, and vice versa.
The added benefit is that it will keep your heart rate up for longer periods of time, giving you a little cardio boost.
#10 - Getting Help
Everything I’ve mentioned would make people more successful with getting in shape, but most people don’t know how to do it.
That’s why this one is so important, and why you should ask yourself if you need a trainer.
I understand the hesitancy — there are plenty of bad trainers. That’s why you need more than someone who will just put you through a tough workout.
You need to learn how to get in a shape in a way that fits your lifestyle, and how to stay in shape as life goes on and you get busy, or sick, or lose motivation.
That’s the approach I take with my clients. If you’re ready, you can apply for our program here.
I talked pretty much exclusively about lifting and free weights here because, God knows, there are plenty of people doing cardio in the gym already. But if I were to add one more item to this list (and I am because it’s my list and I’ll do what I want to), it would be this:
More creativity with cardio.
Running the exact same speed and distance at every workout is worthless.
Mix it up. Run a little farther. Or a little faster. Or use a rower. Or flip some freakin’ tires — I don’t care. Just challenge yourself in a slightly different way every once in awhile.
OK, I’m sure I could think of a million more, but it’ll have to be for another list on another day.