What makes a "Great" Workout?
We go to the gym to do more than just take selfies and post on instabook about being there. We have a purpose. Whether our goal is to get bigger, stronger, leaner, smaller, tighter, toner, smarter, sexier, or simply talk to everyone we cross paths with; we all have goals.
You are damn right we do. We should be there to get better with every session, every set, and possibly every repetition. If we are going to put in the time, which is even more valuable than the money we put into the gym, our food, and our supplements, then we should be committed to having GREAT workouts.
"Time is more valuable than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time" - Jim Rohn
What then defines a great workout?
What does one have to do to leave the gym feeling accomplished?
Common answers include sweating a lot (which i call the sweat economy), achieving a particular heart rate, lifting certain weights, or performing a certain number of sets or repetitions for a given muscle. Yet, these are highly specific focuses that do not apply to all people, which rule them out.
If you'd like to argue the validity of any of these points I am always open to discussion, but I simply ask the following...
Does it actually matter what a 320lb. male with diabetes can 1RM on a squat? Chances are his movement patterns are shit, he isn't strong, and won't provide a quality squat anyway. Furthermore, his heart rate will skyrocket at nearly any increase in activity, which will result in excessive sweating. Even more, he won't have the metabolic, or physical endurance to do any serious "bodybuilding" traning, so you can throw all the drop sets, or %max to rep ratios right out the window.
He could check ALL of the previously mentioned boxes twenty minutes into a work out, but that doesn't mean it was "great".
When definining a great workout we need to select something that applies to every person who participates. I think of it as the trunk of a tree that blossoms and grows further as one becomes more physically fit, capable, and sets specific goals. A competitive athlete with a history in multiple sports is going to have a lot more branches in their tree than the individual who wouldn't know a hamstring from a guitar string.
The answer, like most things in fitness, is multi-factorial and heavily dependent upon the goals and ability level of the individual participating in said workout.
Yet, when you zoom out and take a "world-view" of sorts you can isolate two specific things that govern "greatness".
Progress Towards Training Goals and Psychological Satisfaction in the Process
I think these two factors are linked for everyone who ever sets foot in a gym. We all have training goals, although some may ring hollow, or at the very least remain abstract and unfocused. AKA- (I just want to be better shape).
Yet, enjoyment in the chase of those goals is a critical factor to program adherence. I have had clients who really wanted to build muscle, but begged me to skip squats or deadlifts. They hated how they made them feel, but grew a exerection when the bench press was on deck. Similiarly, I've had clients who knew that they had the posture of the hunchback of Notre Dame, but refused to do their mobility homework, instead eschewing it for a spin class.
To truly accomplish our training goals we must enjoy the pursuit. Sure, some of us can fake it better than others, but in the end our hatred for the process eventually shows it's ugly face. You see this all the time with people who commit, AND SUCCEED, with tremendously challenging diets, and hit a wall after they achieve the ends.
To which the answer is mastering reverse dieting, which Mike Samuels crushes in this post.
Nonetheless, placing someone with specific training goals, or someone who lacks any specificity in an environment which they can't perceive the benefit from, or completely hate...is good for no one.
Take for example:
A professional level powerlifting champion is not going to have as successful of a workout (in terms of progress towards goals and internal satisfaction) if they suddenly find themselves caught up in a sweat-drenched banana seat at a local spin studio.
To the contrary, a young professional female looking to lose herself in a workout and disengage from a work week will sprint to her local spin studio, barre class, or group bootcamp. The thought of doing cleans from the blocks for doubles, or max effort deadlifts is no where near the front of her mind.
But, that is to be expected. Of course the 265 pound behemoth doesn't wanna spin his wheels (literally) to a Justin Beiber remix with a bunch of college students sweating out dollar-shots. Just the same; we can't expect a young law student to want to dive into a concrete box filled with the screams of Slipknot and the crashing of iron.
Now, it should be stated that there is an obvious contrary point to these examples. There sits a high chance that the cardiovascular health of our hypothetical powerlifter is sub-optimal, for which an hour on a spin bike a week may be a perfect fix.
Moreover, our lovely professional may find herself with lower back pain, sore knees, and softening glutes and thighs, which can be handled appropriately with some heavy squats and deadlifts.
Sometimes the thing we hate the most is what is actually best for us. The struggle and uncomfortable nature of a particular movement or challenge indicates that it is a weakness, or at the very least, an area of opportunity for growth.
My workout today, for example, serves as a perfect representation of this. I lifted today with a trainer I greatly respect, and sometimes fear because of his love of higher repetition movements. During our workout it was suggested that we do muscle snatches immediately followed by overhead carries, and wrapped up with push presses.
Now, I don't love snatches. I'm certified to coach them, and have done so successfully many times. I don't personally love them, however; because my right shoulder tends to get a little "free" and take the weight behind my head. Years of chucking baseballs at velocity can make the mobility in your dominant arm much greater than in its mate.
The snatches were fine, the burn was absurd, and I'm already sore. I'm psychologically satisifed with the fact that I was rocked by something. My training goals aren't to get better at the snatch, or work in state of lactic acid death, but I wouldnt' mind some extra muscle in the upper back, trap, shoulder region.
It works for me. Granted, as a fitness professional I own a sort of love-hate-pain complex, which makes me love/hate anything that makes me bleed a little (metaphorically).
Thus, when looking at my workout you can say that I had a great one. I moved closer to a training goal and find myself quite satisfied.
The same could be said for a lifter looking for hypertrophy who nails 5 x 5 deadlifts and proceeds to trash their hamstrings with a bunch of accessory work. Or, the person who runs 6 miles on the treadmill while prepping for a half-marathon.Even the person who needs mobility and body-strength that loses themselves in a yoga pose and let's out a few tears....(which happens more frequently than you'd expect) crushed it.
The important part of training is making sure you understand your goals and have a genuine comprehension of what is neccessary to achieve them. You can't ask for bigger glutes and expect doing bodyweight-only thrusts to work forever...
Hell, I think I could have skipped the whole blog post altogether and just tweeted this -
A great workout comes from being overjoyed at the progress you made towards the goals you want and the goals you need!