The 9 Keys to Productive Training

by Jimmy Smith

Are Your Workouts Productive?

In the context of weight training, the word “productive” means getting results through improved speed, power, strength, and size with little to no waste of time and energy. Sadly, that isnot what happens in most gyms. There are plenty of reasons you may not be getting the results you want. At the top of the list is nonproductive gym time.

Think about the worst gym you’ve ever been in. Now remember all those roadblocks that created an unproductive training environment. Maybe it was the 100-pound newbies wearing extra small T-shirts to make themselves look bigger. Or maybe you had to walk by the swimming pool where hordes of women “with thyroid problems” splashed around.

Whatever the case may be, the minute something distracts you from your end goal of a balls-to-the-walls training session, you need to seriously reconsider how productive you are in the gym.

Want to see real training productivity? Look at bodybuilders. Their entire day is planned on being productive in the gym. They ensure that they get enough sleep, their training is uninterrupted, and the rest of their day is primed for muscle growth. I’m pretty sure their only unproductive times are when they adjust their fanny packs and put on the MC Hammer pants.

You can’t touch this. And really, why would you want to?

Think about this for a second. A recent Fortune 500 survey of CEOs making $100 million a year showed that the average productive time they get in a day is thirty minutes. Thirty freakin’ minutes a day and they’re making $100 million. How much money would they have made if they got forty productive minutes a day?

Now think about your own physique goals. What would happen if you were able to maximize forty-five minutes a day of training? Do you think you’d have the body you want?

Here are nine tips to help you cut the crap and get productive.

The 9 Keys to Productive Training

1) Realize that your time and results are related

This mindset begins from the minute you walk into the gym until the minute you finish your post-workout drink. People are time vampires; they’re looking to suck the effort out of your session. Even if this isn’t 100% true, you should avoid everyone in the gym like you avoid a Richard Simmons bend’-n-push aerobics class.

Putting a high priority on your time also prevents you from making the mistake of “paralysis by analysis.” You know, that’s where you sit there and start to question how you’ve been training or wondering how the guy next to you got those arms by doing concentration curls.

This way each set matters; each rep is the difference between a beach body and looking like a weenie. Knowing that you have “X” amount of minutes to get things done gives you a laser-like focus to make the most out of the time you have.

2) Have a game plan

I bet the most time efficient training sessions you’ve had were the ones where you just walked in and knew ahead of time what you had to get done. You went right in and accomplished what you had planned and got out, no questions asked.

This also prevents those awkward times where you’re just standing around trying to figure out if you should do another set or if you should try that funky exercise you just saw in a magazine. When most people are left alone in the gym, bad things happen. How else can you explain people doing BOSU push-ups? Must be how he got those huge arms, right?

Don’t become a gym wanderer, a hopeless lost soul with no game plan. When in doubt, following this list will put you on the right track.


Lower Body Size Upper Body Size

#1 Option: Deadlift Weighted Chin-ups

#2 Option: Front Squat Dumbbell Flat Chest Press

#3 Option: Box Squat Flat Barbell Chest Press

#4 Option: Hack Squat Weighted Neutral Grip Pull-ups

3) Have alternative exercises already planned out

There’s nothing worse than heading to the power rack for some serious squats and finding someone in there curling 65 pounds. Lucky for you, this nonsense was anticipated and plan B takes little to no thought to put into motion.

Here are a few acceptable substitutions when those unexpected nuisances show up. If your main choice isn’t doable, go to number two on the list, then number three if you have to, etc.

First Choice: Barbell Deadlift

Option #1: Dumbbell Deadlift

Option #2: Single Leg Dumbbell Deadlift

Option #3: Single Arm Dumbbell Suitcase Deadlift

First Choice: Weighted Chin-up

Option #1: Underhand Bent Over Barbell Row

Option #2: Underhand Dumbbell Row

Option #3: T-bar row

First Choice: Barbell Back Squat

Option #1: Dumbbell Squat

Option #2: Single Leg Dumbbell Squat

Option #3: Dumbbell Step-ups

First Choice: Dumbbell Flat Bench Press

Option #1: Barbell Flat Bench Press

Option #2: Dumbbell Floor Press

Option #3: Push-ups

4) Don’t overdo the warm-ups

I’m all for foam rolling and the mobility stuff, but we’ve overreacted to it for a while now. Scary, but I almost agree with the steadfast “five minute treadmill” warm-up rule since it almost guarantees that we’ll focus on what we have to do, then get right to training.

I haven’t seen it often, but when people foam roll and do dynamic warm-ups, they almost enjoy doing it to the point that their warm-ups last a good ten to fifteen minutes, seriously reducing their available training time. I don’t know about you, but I for one don’t enjoy being poked and stabbed with a thick, hard object for too long.

We’re not professional athletes and we don’t have an hour and fifteen minutes to train every single day, so our warm-up has to be short and effective. Plus, it really isn’t the smartest thing to beat up tissue like that then decide to go and train heavy.

Restricting your warm-up leaves time available for you to do something that you currently can’t fit in. You can have five minutes at the end of the session to do extra direct arm or abs work. If you’re feeling particularly crazy you can do extra static stretching or rotator cuff work.

5) Use short intra-set pauses and minimize your rest between sets

This is another new frontier in the strength industry that has yet to be explored, but from a productivity standpoint it makes perfect sense. Using short intra-set pauses of ten seconds accomplishes many things and we’d be smart to begin to take advantage of them.

Basically, we train with a heavier weight than normal, but every one to three reps we pause for 10 seconds then begin again. For example, person A and person B both bench press 300 pounds for their 1RM. Person A loads the bar up with 70% since that will allow him to successfully hit his 10RM for 3 sets. Person B loads the bar with 80% with a 3-5 RM weight for 2 sets of 10. Person A hits all ten reps while person B hits 3-5 reps, pauses for 10 seconds, then continues until he hits 10 reps.
Person A PersonB
210 270
210 270
210 270
Total: 630 pounds Total: 810 pounds

Big difference, right? When using these mini-rests, we can train with an overall heavier load. The ten-second pause allows us to refill our creatine stores and increase fast twitch muscle fiber recruitment. It also decreases our need for prolonged post-set rest. Overall result? A more productive workout.

6) Do “rehab stuff” during rest periods toward the end of the workout

We’ve already established that you need to have a high value on your time spent training, so we need to use every resource possible. I’m all for respecting the rest intervals, but toward the end of the session, after you’re fatigued, you should strongly consider adding in the rehab work you so desperately need.

People tell me they don’t do rehab or stretching work because they either don’t have time or are in a rush to leave the gym and get home. Okay, I’ll bite, but you’re screwed with this next thought. It makes no sense to sit on your arse and do nothing at the end of your session when the majority of your work is done.

Time is better spent at the end focusing on specific areas that need it, like ankle mobility, glute bridging, glute clams, low back stability, and scapular stabilization. It’s not going to fatigue you and it’ll make you healthier in the long run. Doing it at this time also saves you from having to do it at home when you’d rather be sleeping.

Plan your activation work accordingly so that it improves your performance instead of hindering it. This is an example of how to properly plan a lower body day using active rest intervals:


Glute Bridging, 2 x 12
Toy Soldiers, 2 x 12
Pullbacks, 2 x 12

Adductor Foam Rolling

TFL Foam Rolling

A1) Barbell Front Squats, 5 x 3-5 reps
Rest: 1 minute

B1) Rack Pulls, 3 x 6-8 reps

B2) Dumbbell Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats, 3 x 6-8
Active Rest: Clams, 12 reps each side

C1) Swiss Ball Hamstring Curls, 3 x 8

C2) Reverse Crunches, 3 x 8
Active Rest: Ankle Self-Mobilization, 12 reps each side

7) Supplement smarter during training

It’s amazing how much intra-workout supplementation is ignored by most people whose homes look like the local supplement shop. If you’re not using during-workout supplementation then you’re severely hampering your physique dreams. Sipping on a cocktail between sets has numerous benefits:

Delayed fatigue
Reduced cortisol
Increased energy
Increased fat burning
Decreased muscle breakdown

The drink I typically recommend to my clients is a simple mix of Biotest’s German creatine, Beta-7, and BCAAs. If you haven’t been living under a rock, then you know the numerous benefits of creatine, such as increased muscle size and strength. If you look deeper into the research, you’ll see that it has some great intra-workout advantages as well.

Creatine recycles ATP (our force producing energy) to allow us to sustain high intensity contractions. Secondly, it reduces lactic acid’s negative effects on muscular contraction. Lastly, creatine will increase inter-cellular hydration, which is important because increased cell water “turns on” our anabolic signals.

Beta-alanine may quite possibly be the biggest supplement to hit the market since creatine. If we’re to grow we have to continually train our fast-twitch muscle fibers. Beta-alanine is primarily found in fast-twitch muscle fibers and has been shown in research studies to significantly delay fatigue. Check out the T-Nation interview with Dr. Jeff Stout for more info.

The last during-workout supplement I use is BCAA tablets. The advantage of using BCAA tablets over a powder is that the pills force you to continually ingest them as you train, rather than trying to finish them all at the end.

I recommend 1.5 grams of BCAA per 25 pounds of lean body mass. That means I have my typical clients take eight Biotest BCAA tabs during the course of their workouts.

8) Limit access to you

Our time is limited, and if we don’t use it right we’ll be puny forever. People will interrupt us every second of the day to complain about something or to say, “Yo dude, my pecs are swollen. I did 225, like, eight times.” It’s a pain in the ass and you shouldn’t have to hear it.

You almost have to be ruthless with your personality. Put the i-Pod on, skip the Donny Osmond, and listen to break-stuff music while focusing on training. Put up the figurative “Beware Of Dog” sign. Others will notice it and stay far, far away.

9) When in doubt, do less

When is a workout productive? When you get a certain number of sets in or when you’ve accomplished a predetermined goal? I lean more toward the second option, but for a great majority of people, the line is blurred.

Most trainers have a hard time differentiating between actually doing enough and feeling like they’ve done the right amount of work. This is the meaning of the term “cybernetic programming” ??” instinctive training that’s programmed into a long-term plan. More or less, trust your instincts. If you feel like you’ve done all you should do, then get out.

It’s also the difference between recovery and overtraining ??” the right amount of strain and too much stress. Basically, it’s the reason why “finisher” movements like the pec deck even exist. There’s an inherent need to do more to “feel” like you’ve done enough.

Yeah, like doing a few more sets will give you anything that the first few didn’t. It’s a crap idea and will just further fatigue you to the point of incomplete recovery. If you really have to question if another set will help, then chances are it won’t.

Put these nine keys to work and ramp up your gym productivity!

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