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The quip that failing to plan is planning to fail most certainly holds true with training, and if you continually go to the gym without a clue as to what you’re working and why, your results will likely never come. Yet at some point, lifters reach a level where they can ditch the rigidity of a structured plan and implement a little more poetic license into their workouts. They are ready to train intuitively.
How to Develop an Intuitive Training Schedule
Programming your workout schedule in advance allows you to map out your plan of attack and track your progress over time. But regardless of what your pre-written schedule says, you decide instead to work whatever you feel readiest for that day. For instance, if you have a heavy leg workout scheduled for Wednesday but you really feel like doing legs on Monday, do them Monday. This is what it means to train intuitively.
Intuitive training means learning to recognize the mental and physical cues that your body is sending you, then adjusting your training to reflect how rested, energized and ready you are to work out. This doesn’t mean you should ditch your programming altogether, though, and there are certainly days when your planned workout and physiological readiness align perfectly. But if you planned on lifting super heavy but are too sore or if you’re dragging all day and are dreading that heart-busting metcon, you might want to change tack and reorganize your workouts for that week.
People who are planners might freak out a little with this loosey-goosey approach, but even they could benefit from a little flexibility: Studies have shown no difference in strength outcomes when athletes were allowed to choose which workout they did on which day, as long as they completed all the required sessions within that week and continued to increase their weights over time.
The key here is completing all your required workouts, however — otherwise, you might end up choosing your favorite lifts, rep schemes, bodyparts or weights over and over while sidelining your least favorites. Choosing which days you do which workouts is more empowering, and you’ll be more likely to hit everything that needs to be hit when you’re readiest to hit it.
The Road to Intuition
Being this tuned in to your body takes practice — and therefore intuitive training is not for novice lifters — but as you log the weeks and months, it almost becomes second nature.
Here are some ways you will know when you’re ready to give intuitive training a go.
1. You Can Read Your RPE
Intuitive training is best used when you are able to match your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) — how hard the exercise feels on a scale of 0 to 10 — with the actual effort you’re expending. Learning to read your RPE can help you determine how much to push yourself and how much you have left in your tank. This is a learned skill and may take up to a year before it becomes inherent, but once you’re plugged in, RPE is a pretty reliable tool.
Granted, anything new will be challenging and uncomfortable at first. For instance, when learning a different exercise, it might initially feel like an 8 in terms of effort. But over time, that will drop, and a week later, the same move done for the same reps might feel like a 6, and in a few more weeks, it might feel like a 4. This drop in RPE means it’s time to change things, so take a moment to think about your body’s cues: I feel like I can do more reps. I am not sore the next day from that move/workout. I am bored. All these things are your intuition telling you to bump up those weights until the move or workout again feels like an 8.
|9||Very, Very Hard|
|10||Extremely Hard — Max Effort|
2. You Can Properly Perceive Pain
In order to train intuitively, you need to be able to differentiate between the normal, uncomfortable sensations caused by the stress of exercising and the more serious pain that could indicate injury. Of course, one person’s pain tolerance won’t match another’s (again, back to RPE), and what feels like delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) to one might be severe and crippling to another; listening to your body can help you determine which is which.
The tenderness or tension that is often accompanied by stiffness is DOMS, and it usually hits hardest one to two days after performing a new or unfamiliar exercise or increasing your weight or volume. You feel it most when you move or stretch a particular muscle, but it should definitely subside within two to four days. If you’re sore, listen to your body and consider taking a day off, doing an easier workout, stretching a little more preworkout or postworkout, or laying off that bodypart altogether for a while to determine whether the soreness is something more insidious.
Which brings us to the pain of injury. This kind of pain tends to be more severe and can be described as sharp, dull/achy, pinching or burning. It remains constant even when you’re not moving and might also be accompanied by swelling. If this pain does not resolve within two weeks or if it gets worse, head to the doctor. Chances are you’ve sprained/strained/torn something or have developed a chronic condition such as tendinitis, bursitis or another kind of “-itis” that may need medical attention.
3. You Can Connect With Your Moving Muscles
Too often, we try to distract ourselves from our inner physical and mental sensations with loud music, motivational quotes and maybe even too much coffee. And while all this noise might help you push through the burn and stick to your plan, it also can drown out the natural cues your body is sending that could better inform you of what you really need.
Learn to focus on your working muscle — feel it contracting, producing power, creating tension, then relaxing. You’ll develop a better mind-to-muscle link and will be able to notice when you’re absolutely nailing your reps versus just going through the motions. Once you’re tuned in to those feelings, you’ll get way more out of your workouts than any high-octane playlist can deliver.
When learning to train intuitively, the thing most people fail at is recovery, and all too often they believe that more work is better — whether it has to do with specific areas of the body or overall performance goals. However, extra workouts done for a specific body part or training for too many days without a break can halt or even reverse progress. In these instances, your body sends you some pretty loud signals to tell you to back off on volume, load, weight or all the above.
Here are a few physiological and mental signs that you need to take a break. If you are experiencing more than a couple of these signs, you are likely overtraining.
- You have plateaued and are stuck at a certain weight/rep scheme.
- Your workouts feel like they are getting harder, even with the same or lighter weights.
- You are sore all the time.
- You can’t sleep.
- Your performance is suffering.
- You’re always exhausted.
- You’re moody.
- You’re not hungry.
There are several options for recovery, such as reducing your training load or volume, reducing the number of reps/sets you perform or reducing your training frequency. You also could aim to get more sleep, eat healthier foods and drink more water. Mobility training such as foam rolling, trigger-point therapy, dynamic and static stretching, and even yoga also can help facilitate recovery.
Whichever methods you choose, remain consistent with them for several weeks to see whether your symptoms abate. If they do not, revisit your schedule and see where you might cut back a little more. Again, it’s intuitive in nature to be able to determine what is best for you to recover, so be patient with yourself to remain healthy and uninjured.
It’s well-known that the amount and quality of your sleep directly a effects your emotional state, cognitive function and recovery capacity, but recent studies also suggest that poor sleep can negatively impact your performance — and make your workouts feel harder!
Most adults need a solid seven to eight hours per night, but those engaging in heavy physical training may require up to 10 hours of sleep to fully recover. Having trouble sleeping? Don’t avoid the gym: Studies show that moderately intense exercise can help you sleep longer and deeper, no matter what time of day you train, releasing those feel-good endorphins to tire you out without exhausting you.
Your physiological biometrics can help provide insight into the quality of your recovery. There is no shortage of activity trackers on the market that measure sleep duration and quality, heart-rate variability and the like to help determine whether your fitness is in a good place or not.
If you’re not the techy type, you can establish a baseline for biometrics by using objective tests that measure resting heart rate and vertical jump, as well as subjective tests that deal with emotions and feelings, such as the ones listed here.
Using subjective measures of stress, recovery and emotion may be a better way to assess readiness to train than objective tests like bloodwork or heart rate, according to a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Here are some objective questions to ask yourself to help determine your mental and physical readiness to train.
1. How many hours of sleep did you get last night?
- a. 8-10
- b. 6-7
- c. 5 or less
2. How is your energy today?
- a. I’m raring to go!
- b. I’m tired but getting through it.
- c. I’m exhausted and lethargic.
3. How would you describe your nutrition today?
- a. Well-balanced — I feel fully fueled.
- b. Decent — I’m not stuff ed and I’m not starving.
- c. I skipped some meals and I’m ravenous/I had way too much sugar and caffeine and am now crashing.
4. How sore or stiff are you feeling today?
- a. Not at all — I feel powerful!
- b. I’m a little sore when I move but still have full range of motion.
- c. I can barely squat onto the toilet — send help!
5. How would you rate your stress level — including work, life, traffic, etc.?
- a. It’s there, but I can handle it.
- b. I need to blow off some steam.
- c. (*&#*)!@(#*!)**#!
If you answered mostly a: Go for the gusto! You’re energized, well-rested and have minimal stress. Go out and set a new personal record!
If you answered mostly b: Opt for moderate-intensity training during which you can feel the burn but aren’t pushing your limits with highly technical moves or max weights. You may not set any records today, but you can leave the gym feeling like a sweaty success with a clear head.
If you answered mostly c: It’s probably time to sign up for that yoga class or call your BFF for a long walk and a deep chat. Focus on self-care and recovery today so you can kick ass tomorrow.
Objective Physical Readiness Tests
The results of these two objective tests — resting heart rate (RHR) and vertical jump height (VJ) — can help you determine where you are in terms of fitness and can clue you in if you’re in danger of overtraining.
- While still in bed and relaxed, take your pulse for a full minute. Record your number. At the end of five days, take the average of those totals to get your baseline RHR.
- Before your workout, sit down and chill for at least five minutes, then take your heart rate. For example, if you drive to the gym, take it while still sitting in the car.
RESULT: If your heart rate is more than eight beats per minute above your baseline RHR, your body could be telling you to back off: Increased sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) response can cause an increase in resting heart rate, which is indicative of the first stages of overtraining.
RX: Make today an easier workout, or take today off and put more effort into recovery. Also, assess your current schedule and see where you can add in more rest and recovery time.
This is a quick and easy test that only takes a few attempts and doesn’t cause fatigue. You can certainly use a ready-made gadget to measure your vertical jump or can simply attach a measuring tape vertically to a high wall.
- Warm up for five minutes with some light cardio and dynamic stretching. Stand next to the wall with your dominant arm closest and reach as high as you can with a piece of tape on your finger. Place that tape as high as you can reach with that arm while keeping your feet fl at on the floor.
- Next, take another piece of tape on the same finger, then squat down quickly and jump up as high as you can, sticking the tape to the wall at the apex. Repeat two to three times to get an average.
- Your VJ is the difference between your reach height and highest jump height. For example, if your reach height is 73 inches and your jump height is 90, your VJ is 17 inches.
RESULT: After your warm-up on your next leg day, test your current VJ. If you’re more than an inch lower than baseline, you may be fatigued from prior training sessions: A recent study found that a vertical jump measuring about an inch lower than prior attempts is correlated with about five reps fewer back squats on a set to failure.
RX: Choose lighter weights today or cut back a little on volume, and spend more time on mobility and stretching both preworkout and postworkout.