As usual, when I speak of sports and nutrition, I feel I should point out that these things work for me but possibly not for you.
And obviously, do not start any sort of intense physical activity without the OK of your doctor. Don’t be silly.
- Get your gym bag ready well in advance.
If you are late for work and you must choose between brushing your teeth and packing your gym gear, I won’t blame you for wanting to have fresh breath. So pack your gym bag before going to bed and all you have to do is remember to pick it up.
- Make your own sports drink.
Mine is 200ml of orange juice (cheap supermarket own brand is fine, but try and avoid over-sweetened ones) diluted with water to make up 500ml, and a pinch of salt (optional) and/or creatine powder for those who believe in it. I drink it throughout my workout to ensure that I keep hydrated, and that my sugar levels do not drop. I also see carrying a half-litre bottle at the gym as a great way to save time by avoiding frequent trips to the water fountain.
- Only wear white, grey and/or black.
You might not care less about the way you look. However, if you go to the gym chances are that appearances are important to you. I once read somewhere that you can save time by ensuring every single item you use to work out is white, grey and/or black, from your towel to your shoes (and gloves if you wear them). Those colours will always match, no matter in what combination. You might think the same would apply to wearing all-blue. Think again: do you really want to look like a postman or a factory worker who happens to find themselves on a gym floor?
- Make the most of your best asset.
No matter how out of shape you are when you join a gym, find out what your best feature is and highlight it. I have chunky, pasty legs with completely hairless calves, and there’s no way you will see me wearing shorts while I exercise. Unless they’re the last clean item I have. Or I go for a run (it’s hard to spot defaults on fast-moving limbs).
On the other hand, I quite like my shoulder and upper arms, so I usually work out in a sleeveless top, which incidentally is also more comfortable. Overweight with a narrow waist and a flat tummy? Cropped top by all means. Scrawny chest but legs that would put a rugby player to shame? Baggy t-shirt and the shortest shorts decency and modesty will let you get away with. Also, keep in mind the golden rule of optical illusion: objects look larger in lighter colours. If you are bottom-heavy, a light-coloured top on black trousers will make you look more proportioned.
- Warm up and stretch, before and after you work out.
You don’t want to get hurt, so a few minutes on the treadmill (brisk walking is fine) and a few simple stretches of the body parts you intend to exercise are essential. Once you get used to it, you will find out that you can perform a standard routine of stretches and warm-up in as little as five minutes.
Once you are finished, repeat the stretches to cool down and elongate those hard-worked muscles.
- Keep your cardio sessions well away from your weight training.
If you go for a long run before you tackle the weights, you’ll have very little energy left. Inversely, if you hit the elliptical trainer after you’ve pumped iron, your muscles will not be in the best condition to recover. Your muscles develop when they recover. You do the maths.
If you want to add some cardio training to control weight and build stamina, do it on different days, or in the morning if you work out in the evenings (or vice-versa).
- Have a coffee before you work out.
Or a diet coke. This will give you a caffeine buzz that’s ideal for pushing yourself just a little bit further.
- Eat a little something before you work out.
A small piece of fruit and/or some fat free yogurt with a couple of spoonful of cereals will do, especially if you work out first thing in the morning. In any case, try to go to the gym on a relatively (but not completely) empty stomach.
- Eat protein and carbohydrates after you work out.
Eat plenty of protein and some carbohydrates during the forty-minutes window after your workout: that’s when your muscles need it most in order to grow. Protein shakes are handy for both (whey protein is the best), but if you have access to it, good old natural food is great too: cans of tuna, oily fish, cooked chicken, eggs, whole-wheat pasta and bread, low-fat dairy products, fruit.
- Make it a habit.
It takes 6 weeks. Insist. Plan your week ahead, for instance if you know you’re going out on Wednesday night and will need to sleep a bit later on Thursday morning, make sure you have time to work out on Wednesday morning and sometime on Friday.
- Plan your workout.
Decide in advance what you are going to do and go over it on your way there or while you warm up and stretch.
- …but be flexible.
If there is a three-person queue for the piece of equipment you need, either alter the exercise order and go back to it later, or switch to a similar one that will work the same body part in a different way. Ask a trainer for advice if you are unsure. And if you have got the time, by all means join the queue.
- Do not work out for too long.
Apparently, after about 45 minutes of intense exercise your body does not benefit any longer and all you do goes to waste. If you are having fun, you are free to continue. Most days though my idea of fun does not involve thrashing around heavy objects. Make it intense and short, that’s all you need.
- Write down everything you do.
If, like me, you have absolutely no memory for figures, you will waste some time remembering how much you lifted last week or what settings are best for your height. I write everything down: the date, day of the week, exercises done, number of repetitions, weights used, seat-height etc. The added bonus is that this way you can track your progress, and nothing feels greater than looking back and seeing how far you’ve come.
- Alternate and change exercises.
There is a sign on the wall in one of the branches of the gym I go to: ‘If you are doing the same exercises you were doing yesterday, with the same weights, how do you expect to see any results?’ – or something along those lines.
Do not exercise the same body part two days in a row. Lift heavier weight, or the same weight more times, than last time you did.
Every six weeks or so, change your whole routines. Pick slightly different exercises for each of the body parts, or do the same on a machine if you used to do it with free weights. That way the muscles get pushed to work in a different way and avoid to stop reacting. Added bonus: boredom does not get a chance to set.
- Eat properly.
Diet and exercise go well together. Extreme dieting and intense exercise are a recipe for disaster. Eat well, eat varied, treat yourself every now and then and your body will have the necessary fuel to go the extra mile. A fitter body burns more calories and will allow you to eat more.
- Get plenty of sleep.
I feel a bit of a fraud writing this as my average is about six hours per night, but it has been proven that muscles grow when you sleep. They need plenty of time and rest to recover and build themselves up for further challenges.
- Weave your session into your normal routine.
You planned to go home from work, have a light snack, get your gear together and cycle the three miles to your gym. Then you found out that [insert favourite celebrity] was a guest on [insert favourite talk show]. And it started raining.
You left in the morning ready to go to the gym at lunchtime. There is one at work and your employer not only subsidises it, they also encourage staff to join and be healtier and more productive. You probably went in a bit earlier and had a turkey sandwich you brought from home at your desk to allow for the longer lunch break. And you might still be home in time for [insert favourite celebrity] on [insert favourite talk show].
- Pick a gym with a convenient location.
It’s great if it’s near home, it’s good if it’s near work. It’s fantastic if it has several branches and you can pick the most convenient one for your need of that day. Funnily enough, the branch I go to most often now is halfway between home and work, where I would have to change underground lines anyway. I can assure you that the extra time it takes me to reach it is negligible.
- Do not follow these tips religiously.
Your workout must be fun for you, whether you enjoy lifting three times your body weight in iron or having a brisk march round a shopping centre. I hope these ideas inspire you, I know they worked for me. Please feel free to try them out and retain whatever works for you too.
Now, if only I could follow these tips myself and get back into the more regular gym attendance I observed until a few months ago…