I lift. A lot. I’m at the gym usually six days a week, and I find an excuse to compete every couple of months. While it’s fine (and maybe even healthier) for exercise to be a casual thing, committing hard to an athletic pursuit often requires some rejiggering of your life to be able to train effectively every day, every week, all year long. Here are some of my secrets.
Have a schedule
My workout schedule is fully on autopilot. At different points in my life I’ve been a lunch break exerciser, a morning exerciser, and an evening exerciser, but I have to pick one and commit. Right now, I’m in the morning crew, waking up at 5 to lift at 6 every weekday.
Something magic happens when you commit to a schedule. You no longer dread certain workouts more than others; you just get up and go do them. I don’t think “ugh I better finish this in 30 minutes so I can get back to that deadline,” because I have blocked out the time in full. If I finish early, I don’t get any prizes, and in fact I’d be a bit lost for what to do. Lifting time is lifting time. There’s no question whether or when it’s going to happen.
Once my schedule became automatic, it became easier to take care of myself. If I found myself dreading a workout, I knew there must be some issue with the workout or with my fatigue levels; I didn’t guilt myself about lack of willpower.
Have a uniform
Like my schedule, my preparation for each day’s workout is fully automated. I don’t have a closet full of interesting and varied athleisure wear. I have a uniform that I can pick out of a drawer in the dark at 5am.
This changes seasonally, and things sometimes move into and out of the rotation, but right now it looks like:
3 identical sports bras
3 identical pairs of spandex shorts (Senita Rio 7″ with pockets)
a pile of black ribbed men’s undershirts that I buy in 4-packs
a pile of socks I can mix and match
in winter, a hoodie and a pair of sweatpants to pull over everything
There’s a laundry cycle that goes with this, too. After the gym, I toss the bra and shorts into the shower, because they’re made of synthetic fabrics and need to be rinsed immediately or else they’ll stink. The warmups get hung on their hook. Everything else goes in the laundry.
I rinse the synthetics and hang them to dry on the second rod in my shower. They’re usually dry 24 hours later, so honestly alternating two outfits would work, and the third is a bonus. Once a week or so, I gather everything up for a full wash with sports detergent.
Connect every action to a larger goal
I’ve never been a person who can work out “for health” or “for fun.” After all, fun can be had in many forms, and health…well, it’s not like I’m going to die if I skip a workout.
But I become motivated when I realise how each day’s workout fits into the larger plan I have for my life. When I was training for a marathon, the only thing that got me out of bed to do a 12-miler with my training group was knowing that if I didn’t, I’d never make it through the following week’s 15-miler. Now that lifting is my main thing, I like to put a competition on my schedule and make sure I’m on a program that will prepare me for it. I need to do today’s workout to be able to properly build on that next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.
Build in opportunities for rest
When you get serious about spending a lot of time in the gym (or on the road, at the studio, or whatever your sport requires) you also need to allow your body to recover. Sleep and nutrition are important, and so is making sure you don’t ask yourself to do more than you’re ready for.
Sometimes, if you’re too dogmatic about keeping your schedule, you can end up feeling guilty when you skip a workout. The goal isn’t to work as hard as possible, it’s to be consistent with a schedule that is sustainable.
A few ways I handle this:
I always have one full rest day each week (usually Sunday).
I do my most important workouts earlier in the week.
I designate one workout as optional. If I start to feel worn down midweek, I drop that workout from the schedule and rearrange the others as needed so I have an extra rest day.
I also make sure not to change my workload drastically from week to week. If I want to ramp things up, I add one workout. The following week, I consider adding another. There was a period of a few months last year when I did two workouts a day, but I worked my way up to that slowly.
Periodise and prioritise
Almost nobody does the same workouts, at the same intensity, all year long. It’s healthy to have a competitive season and an off-season, or to set different goals for different parts of the year. I know I’ll get burnt out if I only focus on one thing.
Sometimes I run a race. If it’s the Pittsburgh marathon in early May, I know I’ll be running from January through April, with strength training as a side rather than a main dish. After that’s over, I’ll pick a new goal—maybe running related, maybe not.
When it comes to lifting, it’s typical to divide your training into periods where you prepare for competitions, and other periods where you aim to just build as much muscle as possible (hypertrophy blocks, they’re called).
Importantly, there’s a difference between doing a million things willy-nilly and carefully dividing your training into periods with different goals. I pursue a lot of goals, but never all of them equally at the same time.
Right now I’m focusing on olympic weightlifting, for example. I’m doing a strongman competition soon, but it’s just for fun; I’m still sticking to my weightlifting program before and after. At some point in the future, those roles might be reversed, but I know I can only have one top priority at a time.
You don’t need meets on your calendar to be able to periodise your training, but I find they give me clear goals and force me to choose priorities. You can also set goals that matter to you for different reasons: getting in shape to hike a mountain on your holiday, for example, or meeting a benchmark recommended by your doctor for health reasons.