It can be surprisingly easy to lose your way in the gym. It is especially easy if you tend to train by yourself and you don’t have a coach or a trainer. I think a very valuable question that you need to ask yourself, aside from is: “Am I getting better or am I getting sweaty?”
First, some terminology: testing, training, and exercise—these are not the same thing, though sometimes they can look very similar.
- Testing is important in that it informs training. Coaches write programming based on test results in strength (i.e. 1RM back squat), fitness (2,000m row), or both.
- Training is work that is specific, purposeful, and outcome-based (i.e. to achieve a 400# back squat, a 6:00 mile, a 4:50 Gym Jones Triathlon, a 100kg snatch, etc).
- Non-specific training is when there is no testing, no progression, and/or no deloading, but training is planned according to intensity level and energy system with a schedule in place (basic fitness, general aesthetics, or even sheer enjoyment).
- Exercising applies to you if you’re walking in the gym scrolling Instagram for inspiration, writing random workouts on the board, or just doing whatever you feel like doing on that particular day to get sweaty or satisfy some psychological need or desire.
The purpose of this article is not to pass judgment on exercise—it has a time and a place and there’s nothing wrong with it—just like there’s nothing wrong with non-specific training. In fact, quite a few of our general foundation programs are non-specific and the only desired outcomes are general fitness, increased work capacity, increased technical proficiency, and injury proofing.
I would recommend foundation programming to anyone because these outcomes are incredibly beneficial for any athlete. However, if for example, your primary goal is to row 2,000m in 6:49, then general foundation training is not the optimal way for you to achieve that goal. This is not to say that you cannot row a 6:49 2k by working hard every day that you find yourself in a gym.
What I am arguing is that that approach is suboptimal and could potentially be a big waste of your time and energy if your stated goal is actually very specific. Work smarter, not harder! Use a rowing specific program for a rowing specific goal.
Managing Training Fatigue
I think it’s important and valuable to remember to cycle your focus in the gym and keep things fresh. One simple way of avoiding training fatigue (which I think is how many of us end up walking into a gym and throwing work at ourselves for the sake of sweating) is to focus on specific energy systems cyclically.
We cannot (optimally) stay in a power endurance phase all year. Eventually, you’ll burn out or simply bury yourself under a mountain of fatigue. The same can be said of a hypertrophy phase, a strength phase, a power phase, or an endurance phase. Sooner or later you’ll reach the point of diminishing returns.
It is incredibly important to program deload weeks into your own training to avoid injury or training fatigue in general, but if you feel like you’re not putting in the kind of effort necessary to really improve in the first place, or you’re just not psyched to get into the gym and work hard, then it’s probably time to either take a week off or switch your focus.
In the case of a general physical preparation (GPP) athlete, this can be as simple as changing energy systems (strength to power, power to power endurance).
An athlete who competes in a specific sport should maintain a similarly cyclical focus (hypertrophy, strength, power, power endurance, endurance, or whichever energy system is relevant to that particular sport) to stay sharp and avoid burnout.
For example, a powerlifter who competes in the back squat, deadlift, and bench press can likely benefit greatly from an off-season hypertrophy phase with some smart exercise variation to avoid overuse injury and burnout. If competition means barbells, then throwing in some higher volume, lower intensity dumbbell work and some front squatting could be very beneficial.
Honest Self Assessment
As with most things in the gym, this comes down to being honest with yourself and/or your coach about what you want out of the gym and what you’re actually doing in the gym. Your goals, whether general or specific in nature, depend absolutely on the intent behind the work.
Make sure you understand your “why” and then be sure the work you’re doing will get you there.