Manipulating a Workout for Best Results

Now, this is a FANTASTIC topic! Today we are going to discuss how to manipulate a workout so that you get the best possible results from your training effort.

I went with manipulating because it sounded like the most appropriate term. I also thought about micro-managing and modifying. Adjusting or tweaking would also fit pretty well.

Let’s say that in all of your (or your coach’s) wizardry, you’ve designed what you are absolutely certain is the ULTIMATE TRAINING PROGRAM. It’s set up around your goals and is based on an annual training plan. It’s got seasons, cycles, and blocks that will surely hone your fitness to a razor’s edge. There is a nonlinear progression, and some intentional tapering, peaking, and deloading phases. It’s a total masterpiece!

Within that training program, you’ve probably got a few solid workouts. They are the bread and butter of the system, and are probably built around some key performance indicators (KPI’s). Simply looking at the workout and thinking about it improves your conditioning. It’s practically perfect. 

But maybe, on the day, you’re getting into the session, or going through it, and everything isn’t working out quite as planned. You may be feeling utterly fantastic and could possibly need to upregulate the workout a bit to match your elite status. But, more often than not, there may be something going on that you deem as suboptimal. 

No problem. This happens all the time. But the best athletes and coaches know how to manipulate that workout to save the day. Keep some goal-specific training stimulus in there. Protect, preserve, and safeguard health and recovery so that things can springboard toward the better and not the worse over the next few days. Stuff like that.

I’m going to provide a couple examples of workouts, challenging situations, and adjustments that you may find useful. This should be fun.

The first thing to consider is not making any change to the plan at all. Allow me to explain. With a lot of my athletes, I’ll use a “lookback” method in which they assess their recovery status and readiness to train first thing in the morning. This usually has a strong reflection on the previous day’s training. We use a simple stoplight analogy. If you’re green, you are fresh and good to do. Hit the gas and attack. If you are yellow, just like at the intersection when driving, proceed with caution. And if you are red, exhausted with swollen glands, sore joints, achey muscles, and a crappy attitude…stop and reassess. Pretty basic. 

It would be awesome if we always awoke to a green day (“The Time of Your Life”) but that just doesn’t happen. However, if we do most things (train, sleep, recover, life balance), we can keep the red days quite rare or even nonexistent. But the problem is the yellow day. There are a hell of a lot of those in this life and they ain’t always mello yello. 

Many, many times though, you can just ease into a session on a yellow day and “let the workout come to you,” just being a little patient like Guns n’ Roses. Don’t get too excited, just get it done. This works most of the time but if things don’t “pick up” you may need to make a salvaging adjustment. 

Having spoken enough in generalities, let’s look at two common types of workouts that most Lifetime Athletes perform. One will be an interval training session which could be in running, cycling, rowing, swimming, cross-country skiing, etc. The other will be a resistance training workout in the gym. Very familiar experiences for almost everyone. 

I’m going to use a running interval workout and a free weight training session for my examples because they are the most common. As a basic element of workout design, we’ll have a preparatory (warmup, activation), primary (main, major), and accessory (finale, cooldown) segment to our session. I’ll reference these components in the discussion.

Next, I’ll use just a few simple bullet points to describe the workout. These will be decent examples that can be extrapolated to many other sessions. Then, I’ll present one type of challenge and dive into what a potential adjustment might look like. 

Here’s the running workout:

  • A somewhat generic but relatively personalizable prep phase. Some walking, jogging, calisthenics, drills, and strides. Regarding warmup, I often tell my athletes to do as little as possible but as much as necessary. Put your signature on it. Make it your own. Listen to your body and coax it along to about 80% complete readiness.
  • The main set is specific, and classic. 8 x 400m @mile goal pace with 200m jog rest intervals. We’ll come back and dissect those parameters.
  • The accessory section will be some barefoot jogging on grass, isometric lunges, and a mix of dynamic and static stretches. Fairly traditional. 

And now for the resistance workout:

  • Initially we’ll recognize that we will be blending the development of strength, hypertrophy, and movement pattern competency in our session.
  • Activation can start with a series of stick (pvc pipe), elastic tubing, and floor mobility exercises.
  • The primary component will feature a full-body exposure with several major compound lifts. We’ll use a pushing focus, selecting back squats and bench presses, and employ a 5 x 5 with escalating RPE. There will be several progressive warmup/practice sets before getting to the 5 working sets. Last set in each will go to failure. Rests are unlimited.
  • Accessories will include some pulling, a few isolation moves, and a little conditioning work. We’ll go 4 x 8 on lat pulldowns with progressive weight. Then hit 3 x 8-12 with static weight for dumbbell hammer curls and rope/cable triceps pressdowns. Finisher will be a descending ladder of 20-15-10-5 kettlebell swings with 1 minute of rope jumping between each.

Each challenging situation will be presented as a problem with a solution.

Your time is limited. This is a frequently occurring scenario. In this case you should trim the main and minimize the accessory. Our runner might only hit 4 reps and then do a sample of the cooldown activities. The lifter could do only 3-4 sets of the main lifts and then just a quick taste of the accessories. Either of these choices preserves most of the training stimulus and minimizes injury risk.

Your warmup did not take you from yellow to green and you feel exceptionally tired. These are the days when you just know it. You can really feel no surge in ability or enthusiasm as you are working through the prep. It’s actually best to just shut it down and live to fight (train) another day. Skip the primary and accessory and quit trying to polish a turd. Grab a sauna, cold plunge, breathwork, or other restorative practice if you have time. Don’t worry about missing the session. It all works out.

You are developing a tight spot in a specific muscle. This usually doesn’t mean you have to totally end the session. Take a break and assess what’s going on. Sometimes, if it’s just a minor cramp you can rub/roll it out, stretch a bit, and then soft-pedal the rest of the session. It just depends. The key is to have this issue go away or not get worse. If discomfort remains or escalates even slightly, stop what you are doing and look for alternative ways to complete the session. Let’s say the runner starts to develop a wonky hamstring. If it loosens up and he/she backs off the pace a little – and everything seems OK – that’s one scenario. Otherwise, hit the stationary bike and do some equivalent cross-training to finish up. Lifting is very similar. Sometimes slightly changing (improving) position or technique can alleviate the problem. But if it doesn’t, select some alternative and non-aggravating movements to complete the workout. In neither of these cases are we talking about full-on injuries and muscle strains. Just a little tightness which we immediately respect and care for.

You are experiencing joint discomfort. This one is a red flag. A stiff joint can loosen up, but a sore one needs to be addressed urgently. If you can choose an “orthopedic workaround” that lets you keep working, doing so cautiously is probably OK. In lifting that might mean using an abbreviated range of motion or isometric to avoid the painful arc. If the runner can jump into the pool and run in deep water (no weight bearing) without symptoms, that’s a decent choice. It’s a sound idea to seek some professional intervention whenever you have joint issues.

You aren’t feeling that bad, but you instinctively want to make this more of a moderate workload day than a true “fitness maker.” Here the key is to keep the volume/duration, but back off the intensity by 10-30%. For the runner, it’s a slightly slower pace. Our lifter selects marginally lighter resistance. It’s often amazing how just putting in this basic kind of work allows you to keep getting in shape without getting hurt.

You want more speed. Rest is the key. It’s those recovery intervals that need to be lengthy and generous. Mile pace 400’s aren’t true speed, but if the athlete is trying to go faster at any distance of repetition, taking ample recovery breaks allows the CNS, CV system, and muscles to recharge enough to keep the intensity high. This is where I wouldn’t necessarily change the rep distance but I’d make two changes to the rest interval. First, I’d make it a walking 200m instead of jogging. Then, I’d give it an escalating time duration such as taking 2:30 after the first rep, 2:45 after the second…and so on. This is almost magic. Sometimes it takes a little convincing with a highly motivated athlete to get them to rest more, but if our goal is going faster, it works. This is known as “repetition training” because we keep the rep the same but we grow the “interval” between the reps. A secondary adjustment might be to only do 5-6 reps instead of all 8. We stop when the time can’t be hit or the form changes. Most people want even numbers here, so you gotta sell them on the odds as well.

You seek to develop more strength. This is similar to the running example on one level. You have to take more rest between your sets in order to either handle heavier loads (appropriate for some athletes) or go close to full failure (RIR of 1 or 0 at least on some sets with slightly lower loads for more “at-risk” individuals). And that’s where the major emphasis comes in. MAX INTENT. You have to try hard. A lot of people stop a set and say they are at RIR (repetitions in reserve) 1 when they could do 8 more reps if they were properly psyched up. Whether you slap your face, yell, and blast metal or not…you gotta give it at least a little hell.

You are looking to get more conditioning, mental toughness, or acidosis tolerance. This is the arena of workout density. While neither of the workouts we are using were totally set up for this quest, you can always condense your rest periods to make the workout more of a gasser and grind. Just be sure that your quality of execution (form and technique) don’t go to shit. That’s ugly movement. It increases injury risk exponentially while it simultaneously nauseates onlookers.

You are trying to taper, peak, and sharpen for competition or a goal event. Keep the intensity but decrease the volume. Do 50-80% of your planned “stuff,” but reach the efforts you were normally targeting. This is proven sports science that works incredibly well. Be confident, however. Don’t second guess yourself and think you have to do more. Trust your training. Trust your talent.

You are training with someone who is at a lower level than you. This is a great day for you to work on your mechanics and hold back a little. There’s a benefit in shoring up technique and changing the focus a bit. Plus, you can provide tips and encouragement (if welcomed) for your partner.

Your training partner(s) are at a higher level than you are. Now you are in the other role. Do what you can and don’t make excuses. Use their example to get just a little more out of yourself. Plan on needing a little more recovery after such a session. 

An attractive alternative has presented itself. Take it and don’t look back. Life is too short to be trapped in drudgery. If you are walking into the gym with a plan to hit a session, but there is a fun group fitness class that you always wanted to try starting up in 2 minutes…jump in! Or maybe the weather is just glorious and taking a walk seems like a better option than being in the box…go! Unless you are a pro athlete and someone is paying you to do said workout, making the choices that make you happiest and most fulfilled gets my vote.

Thank you for joining me today. I hope you really got something out of these suggestions. If you want to work with me in a more official capacity, you can sign up for personalized coaching or join the Training Tribe. I’m always honored to help you manipulate your workouts for best results.

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