There’s roughly two types of people in every gym: the ones who use their membership about as often as that infomercial ab machine they bought – that is, totally never – and the ones who would wade through molten lava just to hit up the cross trainer every day.
It’s easy to assume that those who practically live in their activewear are smashing every workout – but it’s simply not true, because even the fittest of athletes can fall into the trap of wasting a little too much time in the gym.
So whichever camp you fall into, the key is to be as efficient as possible with your time in the gym, whether that’s a quick 20 minutes or a full hour.
According to Daine McDonald, founder of the Clean Health Fitness Institute, there’s a couple of points you should think about, whether you’re hitting up the gym for the first time or going in for your second visit of the day.
1. You’re training for too long
When it comes to working up a sweat, it’s extremely easy to fall into the trap of thinking that more is better. If you can get awesome results running for 20 minutes, then surely you’d get double the awesomeness by running for 40 minutes, right? Not so, says McDonald.
“Research shows that the optimal training time is between 42 and 48 minutes,” McDonald tells Coach.
“You can become more prone to putting on weight and losing muscle if you overdo it too much.”
This reason this happens, says McDonald, is because there’s a point of diminishing returns where our bodies start to say “hey… I’m not going to recover from this”.
This is called becoming catabolic, and essentially means your body will hold onto fat stores to use as energy, which has the potential to delay the hotness of your rig.
“After around an hour the ratio between anabolic (growth-promoting, fat-loss inducing) and catabolic (fat gain-promoting, muscle-wasting) hormones starts to become more catabolic,” says McDonald.
“This is one of the reasons why the personal training sessions our clients do in our gyms has always been 45 minutes, to ensure our clients get in, get the job done and then get out in a way that benefits both mind and body optimally!”
2. You’re not attacking the session with focus
It isn’t possible to be on the top of your game every time you hit the gym, but if you’re not focusing during at least one session a week, it’s highly likely that your progress has slowed down to a snail-like crawl.
This even applies during a training session, because as McDonald explains, your focus on things like form, intensity and muscle contractions can go out the window after just half an hour.
“The longer you train, the more your mental focus towards the training session diminishes,” says McDonald.
“You are better off training much harder for a shorter period, than at a moderate intensity for a longer period.”
3. Your intensity… isn’t all that intense
We all know that the latest and greatest in the world of fitness is ultra-tough HIIT training, thanks to its extreme list of benefits and the super-short time it takes to do a workout. But the trouble is that it’s so subjective – because one person’s “I work so hard in the gym!” can be radically different to someone else’s.
So how do you know if you’re actually training hard enough? That depends, says McDonald, on how you feel, and that involves being honest with yourself.
“I recommend you use a thing called the RPE scale, otherwise known as rate of perceived exertion,” says McDonald.
“It is simple, scoring yourself a ‘1’ means no effort at all, and scoring yourself a ’10’ means you can only last 5 to 10 seconds at this level of intensity before crashing!”
The great thing about the RPE scale is that it totally doesn’t matter whether you’re an elite-level athlete preparing for the Olympics or an asthmatic professional Netflix-watcher, the perceived exertion is the same. (Coach covered this in March, along with other intensity tests you can use, if you think you’re taking it too easy in the gym.)
“Obviously your perceived exertion can be quite different if you are training by yourself or training with a personal trainer, however I have used this tool with myself and clients for many years as a way of having some self-realisation into what you are capable of when it comes to taking yourself outside of your comfort zone,” says McDonald.
4. You don’t have a plan
Yes, it’s one of the all-time annoying fitness mantras, but going into the gym without a plan is planning to fail. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have every second of every minute mapped out, but you should have a rough idea of your goals (increasing muscle size, losing fat, ogling hotties, etc) and the exercises you want to do.
For McDonald, one mistake he regularly sees is people simply grabbing any old workout plan off the internet and then trying it out for themselves. While this can work (depending on the program of course), for many people it leads to them spinning their wheels as they’re not thinking of their body.
“To be more efficient in the gym, it pays off in the long run to invest in a professional or someone to design your plan for you,” advises McDonald.
“I am a firm believer if when possible outsourcing in areas of life that you are not an expert in.”
“For example, just because you understand numbers and financials documents doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire an accountant! The same applies when it comes to training.”
5. You spend too much time (or not enough) waiting for your fav piece of equipment
It’s the regular gymgoer’s worst nightmare: a packed gym during rush-hour where every single piece of equipment is taken (and even worse – being used incorrectly). So you’re left with a conundrum – do you adapt your workout to fit unused equipment, or do you wait until your spirit-animal barbell becomes free?
As McDonald explains, that decision depends entirely on your goals – if you’re training to strip away every last ounce of body fat, then you’ve got to think outside the box and find new ways to keep your body working. But if you’re training for pure strength, it’s time to strap on the blinkers and wait it out.
“The decision to wait or adapt in a busy gym is really goal dependent,” recommends McDonald.
“For example, if your goal was strength where you can have anywhere between two and seven-minute rest periods between sets then yes you should wait.”
“However if you are training to drop body fat or put on lean muscle, then you need to adapt otherwise the metabolic adaptations that take place from consistent stress placed on the body throughout the workout will not occur, thus limiting your results.”