When The Gym is a Waste of Time

In our last post, we talked about the value of strength training for action sports athletes.  Whether you’re a weekend warrior or an aspiring/current professional, a well-planned and well-executed strength training program can help prevent injury, improve endurance in practice and competition, and take your performance to the next level – there’s no debating that.

So, when IS going to the gym a waste of time?

Well, depending on what you do while you’re in the gym, going can be worse than a waste of time – it can be detrimental to your health and your development as an athlete.  

Many people believe that if they can just make it to the gym every day, then just walking through that door is going magically make them better. Unfortunately, the truth is more complicated.

While making it to the gym consistently is definitely a critical part of any training program, I’m here to tell you that what you do while you’re there is way more important.  Here are the TWO questions you need to ask yourself to make sure you’re not wasting your time in the gym:

  • Do I have a plan?

This boils down to one thing: why are you in the gym in the first place?  Let’s say your answer is “to get better at my sport” — then, what is your plan to do that?  

What are the performance parameters that you are targeting for improvement?  

What exercises are you using to stimulate adaptation in those specific parameters?

How many sets of how many reps are you doing?  At what tempo?  With how much rest?  

How many times per week?

What metrics are you using to track your progress?

These are critical questions and, if they aren’t answered, then you’re basically trying to assemble an IKEA table without the instruction manual…it’s not going to come out the way you envisioned.

How does that look in practice?  

Maybe you start to feel like you’re out of energy while practicing or competing on your sport.  That is probably due to improper periodization and lack of programmed recovery.

Maybe you just don’t see/feel any improvement in your strength or endurance, despite months of work in the gym.  That is probably due to not applying sufficient levels of stress to elicit the desired adaptation.

These things happen to ALL athletes at some point during their career.  However, the ones that have a plan simply adjust their plan appropriately and continue to progress.  

The ones that don’t have a plan continue to fumble around in the dark, always making it to the gym, but never actually making progress towards their goals.

  • Do I know how to correctly execute my plan?

If you already have a plan – congratulations! – you’re doing better than the vast majority of the gym going population.  You’re aiming to improve specific aspects of your athletic performance, you’ve researched which exercises to use to do that, and you know how to measure your progress so you know if your plan is working.  That’s a great start.

However, there is still one more important aspect of training that could be keeping you from effectively using your time in the gym – do you know how to actually execute your plan?

Let’s say you’ve decided that you want to improve your lower body strength endurance in an effort to improve pedaling power and extend the length of time that you can effectively practice on your bike.  You’ve decided that the exercises you need to use for this are primarily squat variations and you’re going to test your progress by measuring your time pedaling up a certain hill.

Which exact squat variations are you going to use and why?

Do you know how to safely and effectively perform those variations?

How are you going to react if your body starts to tell you it’s overstressed?

How are you going deal with surprises, like injury or sickness?

These questions are arguably even more important than those in number one.  Having a

plan is one thing, knowing how to put it into practice is a whole ‘nother story.

Unfortunately, this is where many people go wrong and it’s one of the worst places to do so.  If you are incorrectly performing movements, for example, you are not only wasting time, you may also be putting yourself at risk for injury both in the acute sense and the chronic sense, as improper execution can lead to imbalances, poor movement patterns, and, ultimately, the waiting room of your local physical therapist’s office.

If all this seems overwhelming, that’s OK.  You’re not required to be an expert in strength training in order to benefit from it, just like you don’t need to be a mechanic to drive a car.  However, if you want to upgrade your (metaphorical) engine, improve your (metaphorical) fuel efficiency, and increase your (metaphorical) horsepower, you probably need to either go to a qualified mechanic or spend some serious time learning how to do it on your own.  Otherwise, the best case scenario is that you waste a bunch of time and end up paying a mechanic anyway.  In the worst case scenario, you screw up your engine and end up putting the mechanic’s kids through college.

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