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5 Simple Ways to Make Your Workout More Efficient

What you do before your exercise matters: These workout tips before you hit the gym will help you make the most out of your routine.

 5 Simple Ways to Make Your Workout More Efficient

By Elizabeth Millard, SELF

Getting in a great workout isn’t only about what you do when you’re at the gym—what you do in the hours or minutes before a workout can be vital in helping you achieve your fitness goals.

Playing the prep game is huge, and some simple workout tips before you hit the gym can make the difference between finishing with a “Wow, I can take on anything” attitude, or slinking back to your car after a meh-level workout thinking, “Why do I even bother?”

© COREY TOWERS

“We all get busy, and there’s a temptation to fit in a workout when you can and check that off the list,” Colorado Springs-based trainer Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S., tells SELF. “But taking some time to set yourself up for that workout can make a big difference. Even just a few key habits beforehand can change your progress in the long run.”

Taking the time to hone those habits can be fitness game-changers, allowing you to get the most out of the workout. That means all your enthusiasm, motivation, and sweat you put into your workout will go towards reaching your fitness goals—whether you want to get stronger, run longer, complete a circuit without taking extra rest, or just feel like a beast after you crush some lifts. Here’s what you can do before your exercise session to make your workout work for you.
 
 
 
1

Set a goal, any goal.

If you want to make the most of your workout, it helps to think this through before you reach the floor: What do you want to get out of your workout? And even more broadly, what do you hope to gain from your overall fitness regimen?

Maybe you have specific goals of getting stronger, increasing your endurance, or changing your body composition. Or maybe you just want to increase your movement each day, break out of a workout rut and expand your repertoire to try more new things, or find a type of exercise you really enjoy.

© Getty  Black woman kissing her muscles at the gym

You can think big with your fitness goals—maybe you want to run a half marathon next year, deadlift your bodyweight, master all the cardio machines in the gym, or work out on a consistent basis for the next month—but break them up into incremental goals as well to keep driving you forward, Ramsey Bergeron, C.P.T., a trainer based in Scottsdale, Ariz., tells SELF.

These small goals are vital to stoking your motivation and boosting your confidence and persistence for the long haul, according to a 2017 study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. That’s because they seem inherently more do-able, and once you start crossing them off the list, the big picture starts to feel way more attainable. So one of the solid pre-workout workout tips is to break up your goal into manageable, I-can-handle-this chunks: Challenge yourself to try a new fitness class once a week if your main goal is to shake up your workout, or to add a few more minutes of running without walking each time if your goal is to run a long race.

Crushing a goal you set—whatever it may be—just feels fantastic. Plus, chances are, you’ll find yourself wanting to make your next workout to cross off another one, too. That’s a cycle we can get behind.
 
 
 
2

And then dial in a plan.

Whether your goal is performance-based—running longer or lifting heavier—or more holistic (finding a type of exercise you really enjoy, working out consistently, etc.), you need a plan that’ll get you there, says Thomas. And that means making decisions well before you get to the gym, not once you arrive.

For example, if you feel stuck in a workout rut and want to expand, maybe your workout plan has a new class scheduled in every week, as well as a few new exercises or machines for when you’re not in a group class. (Need some plan guidance? Consider the SELF New Year’s Challenge. You can start any time, and it gives you four weeks of strength training and cardio workouts for some serious #newyearnewme progress, with consistency built right in.) The idea is that having a concrete plans gives you a roadmap to those goals you set.

 5 Simple Ways to Make Your Workout More Efficient
© Getty

Whatever plan you’re following, be sure to keep it handy, Thomas advises. "Keep a paper copy of this plan or have it on your phone, and bring it to your training sessions every time," she says. "That way, you don't have to wing it when you get to your workout."

The plan will guide you, but don't be afraid to modify it—you may have to dial it back if you’re still sore from last workout (or even low on sleep coming into it), or crank it up a bit if you breezed through last workout, Bergeron advises.
 
 
 
3

Be really intentional about how you use your phone.

If you bring your phone with you while you work out, take some time to do a quick check-in about how that’s working for you. Do you use it mindfully, like to measure your rest times, fire up a playlist, or refer to your exercises or instructions? Or do you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your social feeds or distracted by incoming texts or emails?

If it’s the latter—and you feel like it’s messing with your concentration—consider putting your phone on do not disturb or airplane mode, or making a rule with yourself as to how often you can check or respond to notifications.

That doesn’t mean leaving your phone in the car (unless that helps you), but instead, potentially seeing it as a tool that can help you shift your mindset. For example, you can download a killer playlist, listen to a fitness-motivation podcast, or use a mindfulness app for five minutes of visualization and breathing right before you exercise.

“Just take a moment to think about how you’re using technology,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D., author of The Distraction Addiction. “Is it a distraction, or a resource? Instead of seeing your phone as a hindrance, create a way to make it work for you and your goals.”

By evaluating a potential distraction—and working to alleviate it—you’ll be able to focus more on the mind-muscle connection in your workout, Thomas says, which will help keep your form on track. Plus, you may be better able to pick up on the little warning signs (like that slight ache in your lower back when you deadlift) that let you know your form needs adjustment back into alignment.
 
 
 
4

Pay attention to the timing of your snacks and meals.

What you eat—or don’t eat—and when you do so can make or break a workout. We’ve all had those workouts where we’re too hangry to bang out another rep, or just a little too full from that last-minute, in-the-car snack to comfortably get into downward dog.

But like many things in the nutrition world, there’s not a one-size-fits-all recommendation for how exactly you should eat to make the most out of your workouts. While there are some generalized recommendations out there about food choices—for example, common advice is to avoid eating too much fiber and fat (which can trigger runner’s trots)—you likely need to play around with what works best for you, registered dietician Ryan Andrews, R.D., C.S.C.S., author of A Guide to Plant-Based Eating, tells SELF.

The key is paying attention to how your eating strategies affect your own workouts, and, if necessary, tweaking them to see if that makes you feel any better.

"The main problem I see with pre-workout nutrition is people trying to follow generic recommendations without paying attention to how their body responds," he says. "A piece of fruit might be the right choice for you, but can leave someone else feeling weak and sluggish. You might find that a protein smoothie leaves you feeling crampy and bloated during a workout, but it's the perfect choice for your workout partner."

Still, there are some guidelines you can look to: Most people benefit from eating a full meal about two hours before training, says Andrews, and may supplement with a small snack about an hour before exercise.

If three or more hours pass since your last meal or snack, your blood sugar will drop, which can make you feel sluggish, low-energy, and unmotivated, says Andrews. Feeling hungry can also derail your desire to train, and the intensity at which you can do so, says Alex Harrison, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., a sports performance coach for Renaissance Periodization.

But if you eat too close to your workout—like a meal within a half hour of start time—you may end up experiencing GI distress because your gut is still working hard to digest the meal, says Andrews. (This can be a bigger problem with workouts like HIIT or running, which tend to jostle the stomach more than lighter-intensity workouts do.)

Most likely, you'll need to do some experimentation based on these tenets (and maybe even loop in a registered dietitian, if your budget allows), Andrews suggests. The main strategy here is to track what you eat, at what time, and how you feel during each workout to pinpoint what works and what doesn't.

 
 
5

Tweak your warm-up to finish strong.

When you think of a warm-up, stretching probably comes to mind. But static stretches—think the gym-class staple of bending over to touch your toes—and ballistic stretches (which involve bouncing up and down) actually aren’t the best choice, says Harrison. That’s because you’re trying to stretch a "cold" muscle, which doesn’t prime your muscles for the necessary movement of your workout, and may even increase your injury risk because your muscles aren't really ready for more intense activity.

Instead, think about warming up by performing the specific movements you’ll be doing in the workout, he says, since those will be the muscles working and the range of motion you’ll be using.

If you're doing strength training, Harrison suggests starting with about five minutes of light cardio to get your blood flowing, whether it’s brisk walking or a few sets of dynamic moves like jumping jacks. Then you can continue with light, movement-specific warm-up sets using much less weight than you will for your actual workout. So if you’re starting with a 20-pound goblet squats, you might want to work your way through a set first of bodyweight squats, and then maybe holding a 10-pound weight.

"In general, the heavier the weight is, the more warm-up sets you need," he says. "If you're sore or stiff from previous training, add a rep or two to each warm-up set, or an additional set, and take a little longer rest between sets."

If you're doing cardio instead of strength that day, you still want to focus on doing a warm-up specific to your range of motion—check out this 5-minute warm-up before a run, for example. For a workout that’s more of a circuit-training focus, you can still get dynamic by blending these together, Harrison suggests, like doing jumping jacks and then lunges and arm circles.

“In general, just keep in mind that your prep is part of your workout,” says Thomas. “Getting in the right mindset, having a plan, knowing the pre-workout food that seems to be right for you, it’s all essential. Your workout doesn’t start as soon as you begin moving—it starts when you begin getting ready.

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Health Magazine: 5 Simple Ways to Make Your Workout More Efficient
5 Simple Ways to Make Your Workout More Efficient
What you do before your exercise matters: These workout tips before you hit the gym will help you make the most out of your routine.
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