As a naturally analytical person, I’m a master of overcomplicating just about anything. Since I considered myself more of an intellectual than a meathead, I spent years learning the complex details of how the body and muscular system work so that I could create smarter, more elaborate training programs.
Yet, time and time again, I kept wondering how so many of the most impressive looking people in the gym tended to be ignorant to these facts. Granted, these are also the people who often ended up hurt – but the fact that they could achieve impressive results in the first place still warranted an explanation (even though it might have been obvious to someone who didn’t make things as complicated as me).
Long story short, the solution comes down to this: A deep understanding of what, how, and why things work is great to have, but the most effective application is always simple in practice.
So, without further ado, here are 3 ways to simplify your workouts to improve your results AND help you enjoy your workouts more…
1. Program Fewer Exercises Per Workout
I typically program short, intense workouts with a high volume of a small number of exercises. The exact number varies, but usually ends up somewhere between 2-6. More novice trainees will usually end up closer to the 5-6 end of the spectrum, while more advanced trainees may need closer to 2-3. The reason here is that a novice will usually need to do less of each to see improvement and can’t handle too much volume in any one area, while an advanced athlete often needs a high workload on any given exercise to create a strong enough adaptation response to keep progressing.
Aside from these differences, here are 3 basic reasons to utilize fewer exercises per workout, regardless of what the final number may be:
(1) The more practice you get with each exercise, the greater your skill at that exercise will become. As I’ve covered in another post, success is often more about doing each exercise better, not looking for better exercises.
(2) If you try to do 10+ exercises per workout, which is quite common in fast-paced, circuit-like training (which is a fantastic style of training if done right), you aren’t likely doing enough of each exercise to create big changes. It’s very possible to keep the exercise total low while still keeping a fast pace and maintaining the aerobic / conditioning aspect of the workout.
(3) Doing fewer exercises per workout allows you to vary up your workouts more. This doesn’t necessarily mean bodybuilding style training where you hit different body parts on different days. Every workout could easily be a full-body workout, but with different movements each time. When you allow for more variance from workout to workout, you’ll be less likely to create imbalances that come from doing the same thing over and over. You’ll also tend to get better recovery by not repeating the same exercise 2 days after you just did it, which means your risk of overtraining is much lower. Other important benefits of varying your workouts are that you’ll be less likely to ever hit a plateau and you won’t get bored of your workouts (these often go hand in hand).
2. Find The Balance Between Technique and Tension
Another common symptom of over-analyzing and over-complicating your training is that you’ll usually end up rigid when you apply this to trying to “perfect” your exercise technique. Above, when I mentioned the importance of practicing and performing each exercise with more skill rather than just looking for better exercises, this implies more than just mastering technique.
There is a fine line between properly executing the technical aspects of an exercise and being so much of a perfectionist that you’re moving like a robot. I would know, this used to be me. Either extreme is going to cause problems. If you’re rigid and robotic in your movements, even if the technique appears perfect, you’re going to end up creating so much tension within your body that you’re fighting against your own strength. You’ll never be able to perform at a high enough level to maximize your results like this.
That being said, if you go to the opposite extreme and just throw caution to the wind and lift the most weight you can possibly move with no regard for technique then you’re going to destroy your body. The sweet spot is right in the middle. Here’s my own basic rule of thumb: choose your weight and emphasize your technique only to the extent that you can still keep your face relaxed.
For instance, if you’re performing a deadlift, you do need to be aware of your general alignment so that you don’t hurt yourself – but don’t lose that primal side of you that simply enjoys picking up heavy shit for the fun of it. Since so many of us view exercise purely as work, we’ve lost the playful spirit of enjoying physical activity that we used to have as kids. If you want to get fit, and STAY fit for a long time to come, then you need to stop treating exercise like a chore.
3. Emphasize The Basics
First off, I want to point out that I said emphasize the basics, not stick to the basics as most say. The difference is that I believe in creating your foundation with the basic exercises that we all know work, but I also think it’s necessary to leave some room for exploration and experimentation.
If your entire program revolves around 1 arm, 1 leg exercises standing on a balance board, you’re simply not going to get the results your hoping for. However, if 80-90% of your exercise selection revolves around known commodities like push-ups, rows, squats, etc., then using the other 10-20% to explore slightly unorthodox exercises can be a great way to keep yourself balanced. Notice I said slightly unorthodox, though. It doesn’t need to be whacky and ridiculous looking. Simply throwing in some exercises that modestly challenge your balance or force your body to control uneven tension (such as doing push-ups with one hand elevated or further forward than the other) is a great way to combat compensations and imbalances.
*Note: This doesn’t only apply to traditional gym training. For instance, if you practice yoga, the “known commodities” could refer to doing more sun salutations, warrior 1 / 2 / 3, downward dog, etc., rather than spending half of your time trying to perfect obscure poses simply for the purpose of using them as party tricks.