Megan Grant is a competitive Olympic weightlifter and writer in Las Vegas, NV. You can follow her on Twitter for more of her words and her work.
To help stay healthy, it’s important to get up and get moving; so a trip to the gym—no matter what you do—is better than none, right? Well, it’s certainly a great start. And you’re already ahead of the people sitting on the couch elbow deep in a bag of Fritos.
If you want to get the most out of your fitness journey, however, you have to start to understand your training capacity—including caring for your body pre and post work-out, varying your training and how to approach your work-outs when you’re not feeling top notch.
The Warm Up
We all know how much you love warming up — as in, not at all. While warm-ups may not be the most exhilarating part of your training sessions, they are absolutely vital for a variety of reasons , including kicking your cardiovascular system into gear, getting your blood pumping and warming your body temperature; but it doesn’t end there (1).
Perhaps most importantly, you put yourself through a thorough warm-up to help prevent injury. This idea is independent of any athlete’s skill level. First, get your heart rate up with a quick jog, or even jump on the rower for 500 meters. Break a sweat and start breathing a little heavier. Follow this with stretching. Why? To increase your flexibility prior to training, as well as lubricate your joints. Regardless of your sport, your muscles need to maintain some elasticity throughout training (2). You may not be a yogi twisting your leg behind your neck, but you still need to increase your flexibility, even just slightly. Stretching your hamstring, calf muscles, biceps, triceps, back and even your wrists could save you a lot of agony later on.
Another portion of your warm-up should be going through the range of motion of whatever you’re about to do. Let’s say you’re a female Olympic weightlifter. You walk into your gym, load 180 pounds on the bar and try to snatch it. Chances are that your body is going to go, “Ha! No.” Instead, you probably should’ve started first with empty bar drills—long pulls, high pulls, power snatches, overhead squats, snatch balances—and then gradually added weight until you were knee deep in heavy sets.
One more final note on warm-ups: Yes, everyone needs them; but you should absolutely be tweaking them to your sport. For example, the aforementioned yogi will need a substantial amount of stretching for optimal flexibility. The weightlifter? Not so much. Muscles that are a little tighter work to their advantage.
While on the subject of warm-ups, don’t forget your cool-downs. A few minutes of light cardio and stretching have been shown to greatly reduce post-training muscle tightness and soreness. This is also a great time to really practice your range of motion, since your programming is done and you’re warm and limber.
Fitness Should Be Varied
Let me tell you a short story: The CrossFit athlete wanted to get better at CrossFit; so all he did was CrossFit. The end.
Cute, right? It’s a fairytale. No athlete gets better at their sport by simply practicing their sport.
If the CrossFit athlete wants to progress, they’ll combine functional fitness with gymnastics, weightlifting, bodybuilding, swimming, you name it. You’re probably thinking that this is a no-brainer, since being good at CrossFit means being good at a wide variety of movements.
Let’s take a sport that perhaps isn’t as varied. Olympic lifting, at the end of the day, consists of two lifts: the clean and jerk and the snatch; but the proficient lifter doesn’t limit training to these two moves alone. Their work incorporates speed drills (sprints), practicing explosiveness (think box jumps, rebounding broad jumps, and kettle bell swings) and strength building (squats, strict presses). Being a successful and constantly improving lifter is about numerous things: strength, speed, power and preciseness.
Know When To Stop
So, let’s say you’ve got a solid warm-up and cool-down; you practice the mainframe of your sport, in addition to a hefty amount of accessory work; and you absolutely love what you’re doing. One question that many athletes struggle with is how to know when to stop training.
Length of training is not a “one size fits all” answer. It varies based on sport, the programming within that sport, the athlete within that programming and that person’s goals. For instance, it is believed by many that if you are looking to build muscle and gain strength, you will need to spend an extra day or two in the gym—with different programming—than the person looking to lose weight.
Still, you can’t forget that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Your central nervous system is made up of your brain and spinal cord. It sends nerve impulses to your muscles, telling them what to do. When you over train and don’t rest your body enough, these signals can weaken and start slacking (3). You can experience a host of symptoms, which are also affected by genetics and how long you’ve been training. Do you notice that you’re constantly sluggish? Do you feel irritable or depressed (4)? Have you stopped seeing results and even taken a few steps backward? Are you in a constant state of substantial soreness or maybe you’re feeling sick more often? Are you experiencing a lack of motivation and decreased self-esteem? You could be hitting the gym a little too hard.
It is for these reasons that rest days are your friend!
Remember what is happening when you build muscle. As you lift, you create teeny, tiny tears in your tissue, which then heal over. This is why your muscles get bigger. When do you think this healing happens? That’s right – when you rest. You are actually building muscle when you are doing nothing. Want to speed up this process? Here are some great ways.
It’s a hard concept for many of us to accept. You feel lazy, like you’re wasting a whole day and you’re going to lose everything you’ve worked so hard for and gain 20 pounds. Not the case. How do you approach your rest days? Again, it varies. A lot of people train two consecutive days, rest the third. Others train Monday through Friday, then rest the weekend. Some athletes prefer a rest day in the middle of the week and one at the end of the week. Listen to your body, and be sure to give yourself the physical—and mental—breather that you need.
Or When To Take a Break
While people who exercise regularly get sick less frequently and also get over illness faster, you still cannot avoid catching a bad germ here and there. So, is it ok to train when you’re sick (5)? If you have a run-of-the-mill cold, you should be able to get through your training safely. In fact, it may help relieve some of your congestion. If you start to feel worse afterward, that’s a good time to cut back. A good rule of thumb is that you’re safe to continue training if your symptoms are all “above the neck”—a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing (6). If they are below the neck—chest congestion, upset stomach—rest!
It’s also tough knowing the difference between pain and injury and if you can continue training. Smaller aches and pains are normal and a lot of the time, you can safely continue your programming. You might even feel better as your body warms and loosens up.
It’s important to remember, however, that the instant you feel pain, you should stop what you’re doing and assess the situation. Do you feel like you might have tweaked something in your knee? Maybe walk it out, stretch it out and then reassess. Do you feel like someone took a baseball bat to it? That might be a good time to stop. There is nothing strong or heroic about working through severe pain or injury. You’re only hurting yourself more, prolonging your recovery and possibly causing long-term damage. No thank you!
If you see your doctor and determine that you have sustained an injury, you might start thinking about work-arounds, if you don’t want to stop training entirely.
While it might feel overwhelming in the beginning to break into a new routine, with time, it’ll become just that: a routine. You are simply replacing old habits with better ones, an obvious step in all of our fitness journeys. While there might seem to be a lot of details, it comes down to this: Eat well, sweat hard, drink water and sleep. Leave the rest up to your body.