To turn your body into a fine-tuned, well-oiled, ass-kicking machine in the gym, you need to get all the gears grinding in synchrony.
Here, Ngo Okafor, P.T., creator of FitMatch (an app to help you connect with fellow fitness lovers), outlines the absolute essentials. Consider these your pre-lifting blueprint. Never hit the gym without first checking these off.
1. Get the right pre-workout hydration and nutrition
About 45-90 minutes before you step foot into your gym, make sure you’ve eaten a pre-workout meal consisting mostly of carbs, protein, and a little bit of fat (a high-fat meal can blunt the production of growth hormone, according to research published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism). “This amount of time will allow for optimal digestion and prevent any gastric discomfort, which may occur during training,” Okafor says.
Proper hydration is also huge. It promotes cardiovascular health, helps regulate body temperature, improves muscle and joint integrity, and cleanses toxins, he adds.
2. Get your mind right
The next time you’re prepping for the gym, imagine yourself being “savagely powerful” as you pump out the exercises you’ve got programmed for the day, Okafor suggests. A large part of weight training is mental (though we definitely don’t recommend you attempt a 400lb deadlift with just mental grit and little prior training). Some guys listen to music or give themselves little pep talks before your major lifts.
Become mentally, physically, and emotionally engaged. You’ll be amazed what your body can achieve with the right mindset and positive reinforcement.
3. Pack your gym bag and organize your schedule
“Before you leave the house for the day, make sure you have all the essentials packed in your gym bag,” Okafor says. “This includes any straps, chalk, belts, water, and whatever else you may need,” he adds. When you’re utterly prepared for a lifting session, you slash the risk of skipping the gym. Also, if you have appointments or engagements scheduled after your sweat session, don’t forget to pack extra clothes and grooming products to freshen up with. (Also check out how to speed up your post-gym routine.) Keeping your lifestyle balanced is key, and this is a great way to ensure you maintain your training regimen and important relationships.
4. Find your motivation
Some guys have curated playlists designed to amp them up and persevere through the truly grueling parts of their workouts. Others visualize their own success. “I look at pictures of great bodybuilders or watch YouTube videos for inspiration and motivation before I train… like videos of hard-hitting NFL linebackers like Ray Lewis,” Okafor says. “They get me so hyped up, providing that extra push I need to move some heavy weights,” he adds. Find your sweet spot and make it routine. We’ve got 15 ways to help improve your workout motivation.
5. Dress to win
It’s not a load of bull: Choosing workout attire that makes you feel self-confident can make you more inclined to work out. “The better you feel in your clothes, the more likely you’ll feel positive about exercise and the harder you’ll train,” Okafor says. “For example, if you’re going to do an upper-body workout then wearing apparel that shows off your delts, pecs, and arms can inspire you to train a bit harder,” he explains. Aesthetics aside, it’s also monumentally important you wear the proper shoes when lifting to ensure optimum performance and reduce your risk of injury. The soles in running shoes are usually gel- or air-filled, which is great for reducing impact and absorbing shock when you hit the pavement, but this is risky when squatting or deadlifting. The sole is “unstable” and can “reduce force production,” Okafor says. These are the top 5 training shoes for spring 2017.
6. Log your workouts
To get the most out of your workouts, it pays to be organized and know your baseline stats. What’s your max bench, deadlift, and squat? “You should be keeping a log to record workout dates, sets, reps, and weight for each exercise,” Okafor says.
After each new checkpoint, set new, realistic goals, whether that’s to increase weight or reps. This will overload your muscles in each new phase of your program, forcing them to grow.
7. Partner up
Finding the right workout partner can be hugely helpful for your growth in the gym. (Here are 6 reasons to work out with a partner). You gain the confidence to push weights you wouldn’t ordinarily attempt without a partner/spotter, Okafor says.
“You guys can challenge and push each other to conquer your limits, which will overload your muscles and demand a growth response,” he adds. Enlist a friend who will keep you motivated, accountable, and forever growing. Try these 10 post-workout partner challenges to keep plateaus at bay.
8. Warm up dynamically and foam roll
“It’s so important to resist the urge to jump straight into your workout without warming up your muscles,” Okafor says. Put yourself through a dynamic warmup (like this one, designed for heavy lifting). If you’ve got some weak spots, take the extra time to do mobility drills, stretches, and foam roll to wake up and release tension in bundled muscles. You’ll feel the difference between working out cold, without a warmup, and hitting the weights with proper pre-routine drills. You’ll sink deeper into your squat, feel less resistance from ‘creaky’ joints when you bench, and more more fluidly while deadlifting.
9. Find your feet
Your feet are the foundation of our body. “You probably know pushing your feet into the floor will help your move more weight in the squat and deadlift,” Okafor says. But did you know pushing your feet through the floor will also help you push more on the bench press?” Believe it or not, it’s actually a full-body movement, so when you plant and push your feet through the floor, the force from the ground keeps you stable and completes the chain so there’s no loss of power, he says. Read how you can train your feet to lift bigger and run faster.