Have you ever wanted to step up your workouts? No, we’re not talking about logging more miles or doing more squats—we’re talking about incorporating smart, effective workout tips to make the most of the moves or routines you’re already doing. In fact, these do not have to be significant changes: Small changes to your workout routine can make a big difference in helping you get the most out of every sweat session. Whether your goal is to gain muscle, improve your cardio fitness, increase your endurance, or simply move more easily and comfortably in daily life, incorporating these workout tips can help you hit the gym ready to crush your goals and make the most of your time there.
SELF asked five top trainers for tips on getting a consistently effective workout. These workout tips can help you seriously up your fitness game, from simple mindset hacks like hyping yourself with positive self-talk to physical actions like tapping your muscles for better activation.
1. Take a few deep breaths.
The first step to a great workout is to get in the right frame of mind. Really! If you’re thinking about your to-do list or the drama on last night’s Bachelor, you might not be giving it your all. “Before I hit the gym, I focus on my breathing to relieve any stress from work or my commute that may be sitting with me, giving me negative feelings,” Equinox trainer and martial artist Phoenix Carnevale tells SELF. You can even use your phone to do a quick breathing video exercise to bring you into the present moment.
2. Build yourself up.
Once you’ve settled in, remind yourself that you’ve got this. “I begin with positive self-talk to keep myself from giving up or being overly critical,” Carnevale explains. “I tell myself, ‘It’s now my time.'” You can also spend a few minutes before your workout thinking or journaling about something you love about your body and what it is capable of, according to Angela Mader, trainer and founder of Fitlosophy. Perhaps it’s because your strong legs are capable of excellent squatting form, or because your core has advanced to the point where you can do a push-up with your knees off the ground. Whether you write it down by hand, type it into your phone’s Notes app, or simply repeat it to yourself a few times as a mantra, this type of thinking will set the tone for your workout. Positive thinking may also help you perform better during your workout: According to some studies, positive self-talk improves athletic performance.
3. Play upbeat music.
Positive self-talk is not the only way to get into the right frame of mind. Amelia DiDomenico, CPT, owner of Amrose Fitness, tells SELF, “It always comes down to music.” One of her best workout tips is to listen to her favorite songs several times during her workout. Making a playlist of your favorite songs will not only put you in a good mood, but it may also improve your workout performance. A 2020 Perceptual and Motor Skills study concluded that people who listened to “preferred music” (music they liked) during their warm-up had improved exercise performance compared to listening to no music—but listening to nonpreferred music (music they didn’t like) did not boost performance.
4. Remove all distractions.
Carnevale advises putting your phone on airplane mode to avoid taking time away from your workout: “It can be very tempting to respond to messages and emails or check social media, but it wastes a lot of time and causes people to lose focus.” Be self-centered! Your workout is a good time to be self-absorbed, so concentrate on yourself.” Taking phone breaks will undermine your goal, which is not what you want, especially if you are working toward something like building endurance. (Of course, doing this successfully may necessitate some advance planning, such as downloading any “best workout music of all time” playlists directly to your phone.)
5. Make a detailed plan.
“A clear plan is your secret weapon—knowing what you’re doing and why is half the battle,” says Studio 26 founder Jared Kaplan to SELF. Having a plan of action for what to do when you arrive at the gym will help you feel prepared and on track, because aimless wandering around wastes time. For starters, here’s an example of a balanced and effective weekly workout plan.
Carnevale also recommends getting a good sense of the gym layout so you don’t waste time looking for, say, kettlebells when it’s time to do some swings. (Searching for a piece of equipment in the middle of a workout is a surefire way to lose your workout momentum!) If you’re new to a gym or trying a new workout, it’s a good idea to give yourself extra time before your workout to get acquainted and have all of your equipment ready.
6. Be adaptable.
Your program says it’s time for bench rows, but there’s someone on the bench who doesn’t appear to be finished anytime soon. Rather than waiting for it to clear, move on to the next part of your workout and return later. The same is true for any cardio equipment you intend to use. “Are the stair-climbing machines all occupied?” “Find a flight of stairs or use an incline treadmill,” suggests Mader. Yes, having a plan is important, but be flexible—you don’t want to ruin any good momentum you’ve built up midworkout!
7. Begin your workout by foam rolling.
“Foam rolling helps break up ‘knots’ in muscles, which can inhibit full mobility,” DiDomenico explains. Because you’re “releasing” tightness and knots in your fascia, or connective tissue, this is also known as self-myofascial release. As previously reported by SELF, a small 2018 Sports Medicine – Open study discovered that foam rolling before a workout reduced the amount of effort required for a muscle to produce a given amount of force during the exercise.
Foam rolling is recommended by experts for improving mobility, and the better your mobility, the better your workout will feel (and the better your results will be too). With increased mobility, you’ll be able to go deeper into exercises like squats and lunges. By going deeper, you can ensure that you’re using proper form and that the right muscle fibers are firing, resulting in the progress you seek.
One caveat: Because foam rolling relaxes your muscles, it’s critical to re-engage them before beginning your workout. After you’ve finished foam rolling, Alicia Jamison, CPT, trainer at Bodyspace Fitness in New York City, advises SELF to reactivate the muscles you intend to use in your workout. This can be accomplished through simple bodyweight movements or light resistance band exercises. Jamison explains that resistance bands are a good choice for this type of warm-up because the tension in the band helps gradually activate your muscles, as opposed to nonresistance band moves, which can be more of a shock to your system.
8. Tap the muscles you’re working on.
To get the best workout, make sure the muscles you’re targeting are fully activated. One simple way to accomplish this? Tap on them. According to Jamison, receiving this type of external feedback helps your nervous system activate in the area. So, whether you want your glutes to fire up for a deadlift or your biceps to engage for a curl, gently tapping the muscle group with your fingers can help. According to Jamison, you can do this before beginning an exercise and/or after a few reps.
9. Make sure you’re not starving.
Arriving at the gym hungry is a bad idea for several reasons. As previously reported by SELF, not eating enough before your workout can have a negative impact on your performance and make your workout more unpleasant overall. According to the Mayo Clinic, low blood sugar from skipping meals causes a variety of issues that can interfere with your workout, ranging from changing your natural heartbeat rhythm to causing changes in your vision and crankiness (hangry, anyone?).
So, if you want to have the best workout possible, you must properly fuel up beforehand. What you should eat and when is highly individual, but here are some general guidelines to help you determine the best preworkout foods and eating schedule for your specific situation.
10. Keep it simple.
To get a great workout, you don’t need to do a million different exercises. In fact, keeping things simple is often preferable, according to Jamison. You won’t waste time moving around the gym or setting up loads of new equipment between circuits if you limit the amount of equipment you use (think two types of equipment, or even fewer!) and the number of moves in your workout (try about three to five exercises as the main set repeated two to three times, plus a warm-up). As a result, you may reduce rest time, which is “generally a good thing,” especially if your goal is to build muscle or endurance, according to Jamison.
Another advantage of narrowing your focus is that you’ll be able to zero in on a few moves and perform enough reps of them to see real improvements in your strength. “Your progress is more visible when you do the same move [frequently],” Jamison explains. “You can’t improve at one move by switching to another!” As previously reported by SELF, repeating a move allows you to work on “progressive overload,” a strength training concept in which you improve at a move by either adding weight to your reps or doing more reps with the same amount of weight. “Progressive overload is most effective with consistency with the same exercise,” Jamison explains, which is why keeping your workouts simple and focused is worthwhile.
11. Recognize that not every workout must leave you exhausted.
Listen, you have the right to relax whenever you need or want to! If you discover that you’re not enjoying your workout for whatever reason, that’s perfectly fine. Not every session will leave you feeling energized and on top of the world, especially now. Perhaps you’ll decide to go through the motions and complete the workout without putting forth your best effort. Perhaps you’ll choose to finish it early and devote your time to something more pleasurable. Either option is fine because, hey, you’re human, and you’re allowed to take a break.