Anatomy of a Workout

Step 1 - Getting Prepared for your Workout

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When it comes to exercise, you probably already know the basics. But, have you ever broken your workout down and explored each part? If not, you may find that exploring each phase of your workout, from getting ready to cooling down, provides a a deeper understanding of what a typical workout looks like and the areas that cause the most problems when it comes to being consistent.

Below, you'll learn the anatomy of a workout and get tips and information for how to get the most out of your workout time.

Getting Prepared for your Workout

Not to depress you, but your workout actually starts well before your scheduled exercise time. This is one fact many people overlook and one reason some people find it hard to stick with an exercise program. The reason is that preparing for your workout is crucial to your success...if you have what you need and know what you're doing, you're that much closer to completing your workout. If you don't, you have one more reason to skip your workout.

For that reason, preparing for your workout is just as important as doing the workout. Start with these simple steps:

  1. Schedule your workout. Carving out time and having it written down in your calendar makes exercise a priority in your schedule and in your mind. Even if you split your routine throughout the day, it's important to have that time set aside just for that purpose, even if it's only 10 minutes. For tips on how to schedule your workouts, visit Setting Up a Complete Program.
  1. Plan what you'll do. Some people can wing it, but most of us do better when we know exactly what we're going to do during our workout time. For each workout you schedule, make a note of the following:
    • What type of workout you're doing (e.g., cardio, strength, yoga, pilates, etc.)
    • Your goal for that workout (e.g., to build endurance, work on flexibility, build strength, etc.)
    • How long you'll exercise
    • Exactly what you'll do during your workout (e.g., running intervals on the treadmill for 30 minutes and 30 minutes doing upper body strength exercises)
  1. Gather your workout gear. The night before, get ready for the next day's workout by gathering everything you need to complete your workout. This might mean packing a gym bag, setting out your workout clothes, cueing up your video and/or getting out any other gear you need (water bottle, snacks, heart rate monitor, sunscreen, etc.). Having everything ready ahead of time will make it much easier to do your workout.
  2. Prepare body for exercise. Another important part of preparation is making sure your body is ready for what's to come. That means you want to be well-fueled and well-hydrated. An hour or two before your workout, have a light snack and drink some water. If you're doing morning workouts, try to get up a little early to have some water, fruit or a sports drink before you exercise.

Once you have all these elements in place, it's time to face one of the toughest parts of your workout - getting started.

Getting started on your workout is probably the most critical time in your entire routine. It is here that you're faced with a choice - are you going to do your workout or not? Are you going to drive to the gym or drive home? Are you going to get up and exercise or hit the snooze button? It is at this moment that you're most vulnerable to that sly voice in your head, that part of you who'll do anything to get out of this workout.

If you followed the steps in Step 1 and did all your preparations, getting started will be a little easier for you. After all, your workout is scheduled, you know what you're doing, you have what you need to do it and your body is fueled and ready to go. You're running out of excuses to skip this workout.

But, don't worry, that voice in your head will find some.

The thing is, most of us end up mentally wrestling with ourselves, wondering will we or won't we? It's this mental wrestling that sucks energy and focus away from something you already committed to do. There are a number of reasons you may try to talk yourself out of exercise, but I think the main issue is fear. Maybe you're afraid the workout won't go well. Maybe you're afraid you won't finish or that it will hurt. Whatever fears you have of the coming workout, that voice inside your head will take advantage of that and try to wheedle you into giving up by saying things like:

  • You're tired…why don't you do this tomorrow when you're well-rested?
  • You've worked so hard today, wouldn't it be nice to just go home and watch TV?
  • You know the workout's going to suck…why even bother?
  • You haven't even lost any weight - obviously this exercise thing isn't working
  • Do you really need to spend time exercising when your sock drawer is in such chaos?

    Know any other ones? If you're like me, you could probably make a nice long list of excuses to skip your workout and, though you may not be able to get rid of this voice entirely, knowing it's there and how to deal with it is crucial for making the right choice. Use these tricks for making it easier to get started with your workout:

    Make up your mind. One way to silence the voice is to simply make up your mind that you're going to workout, no matter what. When you fully commit to what you're doing, it's easier to shut that voice down and just get moving.

    Negotiate. Rather than go through the argument (will I or won't I?) commit to simply warming up. This tactic works well to motivate yourself on days when you feel tired - simply promise yourself you'll do a nice long warm up and if you still don't want to exercise, you can stop. I guarantee you'll keep going most of the time.

    Bribe yourself. Another way to get yourself going is to promise yourself a little something for your hard work. Decide that if you complete your workout, you'll get to watch your favorite TV show, spend some time reading or start planning that weekend getaway you've been thinking about.

    Figure out the worst thing that could happen. Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen if you go through with your workout. Failure? Feeling tired? Not finishing your workout? Being miserable? Remind yourself that the real worst thing is not trying at all.

    Take action. When you're in a mental argument with yourself, do something active to get on the right track. If you're lying in bed trying to figure out if you'll get up and exercise or not, get up and put on your workout clothes or do some light stretching. Whatever you mind is doing, point your physical body in the direction of your workout and you may find you're on the right track to getting started.

    If you've made it to this part of your workout, you've already achieved success, having dealt with the mental obstacles that stand in the way of your workout. The warm up is your chance to focus on the physical...namely, getting your body ready for the workout to come. For this reason, the warm up is an essential part of your workout, not just for your body, but for your mind. Warming up is important for a number of reasons including:

    • It warms the muscles and increases body temperature, which improves the oxygen supply to the body
    • It helps increase blood flow to the muscles, allowing them to contract and relax more quickly
    • It helps prepare the body and the mind for more strenuous activity
    • It may help reduce the risk of injury
    • It may increase overall exercise performance
    • It increases the elasticity of the ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues

    There are different ways to warm up and they're often classified into three categories: passive, general and specific. With passive warm ups, you raise the body's temperature by doing things like sitting in a hot tub or taking a hot shower. General warm ups involve increasing the heart rate and body temperature by just moving the body around. Specific warm ups mean you do similar movements to the exercises you'll be doing. Any of these can work and what you choose will often depend on what type of exercise you're doing.

    Passive warm ups (like taking a hot bath) can be a good choice for gentle activities such as stretching or yoga workouts. For other types of workouts, you may want to choose more specific activities.

    Warm ups for Cardio Workouts. For cardio workouts, it's best to stick with lighter versions of the exercise you'll be doing.

    For example, if you're running, you might start with a few minutes of light walking, move into a slow jog and then into the workout. If you're doing an aerobics workout, you might start with low-impact moves (step-touches, grapevines, marching in place, etc.) before you move on to more vigorous activities.

    Warm ups for Strength Training. For strength workouts, you can either do a general warm up (e.g., do a few minutes of light cardio) or a specific warm up where you do warm up sets for each exercise. In that case, you might do one set of the coming exercise with lighter weights before you reach for the heavier weights.

    Whatever type of warm up you choose, use the following tips for getting the most of your warm up:

    • Warm up for about 5-10 minutes. How long you warm up will often depend on what you're doing and how much time you need to transition into exercise. For example, if you're working out on a cold day or doing a very hard workout, you may need 10 or more minutes to warm up. If you're doing a light workout or you're already warm from doing other activities, you may need just a few minutes.
    • Stretch if you need it. There's some controversery over whether to stretch before or after your workout. I often recommend that my clients do the bulk of their stretching after the cool down. But, if you have chronically tight muscles (like your lower back or hips) doing a few stretches beforehand may make your workout more comfortable.
    • Take your time. The idea is to warm up gradually. Allowing your heart rate and respiration to increase slowly will make the transition into your workout easier and give your body time to prepare for what's to come.

    Once you're through the warm up, it's time for the next phase, The Workout. It is here where you'll ramp up the intensity and begin to challenge your body and mind.

    References:

    American Council on Exercise. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 3rd Edition. San Diego: American Council on Exercise, 2003.

    Shellock FG, Prentice WE. "Warming-up and stretching for improved physical performance and prevention of sports-related injuries." Sports Med. 1985 Jul-Aug; 2(4):267-78.

    The 'workout' part of your exercise routine is, of course, where you set your focus and start working towards your goals. That makes this the most important part of your workout. Below, you'll find information about different types of workouts and the elements of each.

    Cardio

    When it comes to cardio, you might have a number of goals, but the most common are conditioning the heart and burning calories for weight management.

    The elements you want to have in place for cardio exercise include:

    • Type of exercise. The type of exercise you choose will be based on your fitness level, what you enjoy and the equipment you have available. For beginners, walking might be a good place to start. Any activity that uses the large muscles of the body (e.g., the legs) and allows you to get your heart rate up counts, so choose what you enjoy.
    • Exercise intensity. Another element to determine is how hard you want to work. You can measure intensity by using your Target Heart Rate, perceived exertion or other methods. Different types of workouts include:
      • Continuous training. This type of workout would be like walking or jogging at a medium pace for 20-60 minutes. This type of workout is good for building endurance and conditioning the body. Example: 45-Minute Cardio Endurance Workout
      • Interval training. This workout involves alternating high and low intensity bouts of exercise and helps to improve aerobic power and burn more calories. This is a great way to begin a running program (by alternating walking and running) or to boost endurance quickly. Example: Beginner Interval Training
      • Circuit training. With this type of workout, you cycle through a series of moves, one after the other, with little or no rest in between. This is great when you're short on time and want an intense workout. Example: Advanced Cardio Blast Workout
    • Exercise duration. How long you exercise will, again, depend on your goals, fitness level and how much time you have. For most goals, you want to shoot for at least 20 minutes, but having a variety of workouts is a great way to keep your body challenged.

    For more on these different elements, visit Cardio 101.

    Whatever workout you choose, make sure you:

    • Have a purpose. Don't just go through the motions but figure out what you're trying to accomplish. Do you want to go faster than you did before? Go longer? Make sure your workout meets that purpose.
    • Variety. Schedule workouts of varying intensities (try an interval workout one day and an endurance workout the next) and different activities to keep yourself challenged.
    • Check in with yourself. Don't just zone out but, instead, check in with yourself throughout the workout to see how you're doing and if you're working at the right intensity.

    Strength Training

    When it comes to strength training, the general rule is to work all your muscle groups at least twice a week for basic strength and health gains. But, beyond that, how you set up your program will depend on your goals and fitness level.

    The important elements of your strength workout include:

    • Type of workout. You can choose a total body workout, a split routine (e.g. upper body one day, lower body the next) or even a body part a day. If you're a beginner, starting with a basic total body workout is a good bet and if you're short on time, you might choose a split routine and do it along with your cardio.
    • Strength exercises. The next step is to choose the exercises you'll do and the type of resistance you'll use. When it comes to choosing exercises, be sure to target all your muscle groups and try to do more compound movements for an effective workout. As for resistance, you can choose free weights, machines, resistance bands, cables or a mix of all of these for a more varied workout.
    • Use enough weight. The single biggest mistake I see in the gym is not using enough weight. If you're a beginner, it's best to focus on form before intensity. But, if you're experienced, use enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired number of reps. Read more.
    • Choose reps and sets. How many reps and sets you do will, again, depend on your goals. For building muscle, it's usually 3 or more sets of 6-10 reps; For muscle and endurance, 2 or more sets of 8-12 reps; and for endurance, 2 or more sets of 12-16 reps.

    Like your cardio, set up your strength workout to meet your goals and focus on that during the workout. For example, if you're working on fitness and weight loss, you may want to start with a total body routine 2-3 days a week with a couple of exercises per muscle group. If you're trying to build muscle, you may choose a split routine to give each muscle the attention it needs.

    Keep in mind that you don't have to do cardio and strength training separately. Many people do both in the same workout or on the same day to save time and fit everything in. For more on how to set up your program, check out my FAQ on cardio and strength training.

    Now comes the best part of the whole workout process - the cool down. This is an important time for the body because a cool down:

    • Helps the heart rate and respiration slow down gradually
    • Helps avoid dizziness or fainting, which sometimes happens when exercise is stopped suddenly and blood pools in the legs
    • Allows your muscles time to recover and repair for the next workout
    • Helps your muscles get rid of waste products such as lactic acid
    • Helps you end your workout on a good note

    Though the cool down is often the best part, many people skip it because they run out of time or just run out of steam and find they're ready to move on. But allowing yourself this time will help your body recover and this recovery will help you be prepared for the next workout. Take just a few minutes at the end of your workout (particularly your cardio workout) to do the following:

    1. Slow down. Just like your warm up, when you get to the end of your workout, slow down and gradually allow your heart rate to lower.
    2. Continue moving. Give yourself at least five minutes to move around, especially if you've been doing high intensity exercise.
    3. Cool off. Keep moving until you're not sweating anymore and your skin is cool to the touch. Use this time to sip water and rehydrate.
    4. Stretch. Once you've cooled off, this is an excellent time to stretch the muscles you've used during the workout. Stretching can help relax the body and increase flexibility. Make sure you hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds. Some common stretches include:
      • Quad Stretch
      • Triceps Stretch
      • Hamstring Stretch
      • Lat Stretch
    1. Fuel up. Eat a light snack at least 30-60 minutes after your workout to help your body replace its energy stores and start repairing the body. Experts generally recommend something with both carbs and protein such as yogurt, a smoothie or a half of a turkey sandwich. You should also make sure you drink plenty of water after your workout as well.

      You can also use this time for yoga exercises, which promote flexibility, balance and stability. By taking your body through flowing poses such as cat-cow, downward facing dog and warrior I you can both stretch and relax. End with corpse pose to give your body and mind a few minutes to enjoy how you feel. More Yoga-Pilates Workouts.

      Flexibility Workouts

      • Relaxing Stretch on the Ball
      • Lower Body Stretches
      • Total Body Stretch
      • Seated Stretch for the Back, Neck & Shoulders

        Explore Your Workouts

        Taking the time to explore each phase of your workout can help you figure out where you need to focus more of your attention. Is it easy for you to get started and harder to keep going? If that's the case, you may want to try different activities or structure your workout in new ways to make it easier to finish. If you have a harder time getting started, focus all your energy on what you can do to make that phase easier to accomplish. Don't be afraid to experiment with your workouts to find what works best for you.

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