Featured story January 25, 2012
Got a lot on your mind? Your overloaded brain could compromise your workout, found a new study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. Researchers asked volunteers to do an isometric shoulder exercise until they had to quit because of fatigue. The kicker? They had to perform the move while doing mental arithmetic. When calculating the math, the subjects reached fatigue and lost strength faster than when they only concentrated on the exercise.
Now, we know most people don’t do Sudoku puzzles while cranking out bicep curls. But here’s the bottom line: Mental workload does affect physical workload. Why? Previous research suggests mental stress can activate a part of the brain that’s also triggered during muscle contractions, the researchers explain. So if your brain is busy thinking about work deadlines, bills, or last night’s fight with your girlfriend, it won’t have all the resources it needs to send messages to your muscles. That means you may be churning out reps, but you’re not working as hard as you could be.
BJ Gaddour, CSCS, and CEO of StreamFIT.com, sees this happen all the time with his clients. “In the morning, people walk into the gym preoccupied with the challenges of the coming day. In the evening, people are stressed out from their hectic day,” he says. “My goal is to make sure they stay focused.” Worry about results at the gym, not about your to-do list. Follow Gaddour’s three tips for investing all your mental energy into your workout for faster gains.
Change up your exercises
Sure, an Olympic lifter needs to train his nervous system to be highly efficient in specific exercises, so he performs snatch after snatch after snatch. But, let’s be honest, you’re not him. Switch things up so you don’t get bored. “From a general fitness standpoint, efficiency is your biggest enemy,” says Gaddour. “Once movements become easy for your brain to figure out, your mind begins to wander.” Plus, new movements challenge your body, stimulating new muscle growth and strength.
The easiest way to change your workout: Go another direction. “Most weight-lifting movements—like the squat and bench press—are done on the sagittal plane. They’re front-to-back and up-and-down movements.” Work the frontal and transverse planes, too. Trade in a front lunge for a side lunge, or replace situps with dumbbell chops.
Work for time, not reps
“You shouldn’t add another thing to worry about to your list,” says Gaddour. “So why are you still counting reps?” Instead, go all-out for a super-short period of time, such as 30 seconds. Think about it this way: Most guys complete about 6 to 12 reps of an exercise in 30 seconds when performed at a controlled tempo, so you already have a good idea of how many reps you can perform during a timed interval. Once you can bang out an exercise for 30 seconds straight without breaking a sweat, just up the weights or switch to a more advanced variation of the move to make sure you don’t sacrifice results. If maximum strength and power is your goal, count your reps once for 30 seconds. Increase the load if you get more than 6 reps.
Find a partner
Get out of your own head and have someone else push you. “A good workout partner won’t let you slack off. They push you past your comfort zone so you always get a killer workout,” says Gaddour.
Can’t find a workout buddy? Join a fitness class. Gaddour specializes in boot-camp training and has seen the results firsthand. “The more people we have training together, the more energy, sweat, and encouragement are in the room,” he says. “It becomes a social experience. No one is thinking about himself. Instead, everyone is working together as a team to accomplish their fitness goals.”