Before you hit the gym floor you do so with a plan of attack, right? I mean you do at least have a vague idea of what you are going to be doing that day don’t you?

This may seem like a strange question if you are the type to walk in with notepads full of your previous stats, 1RM records & a commitment to stick to your training plan no matter what. But there are people who simply walk into the gym and think “Ok! What am I going to do today?”

That lack of focused approach is certainly sub-optimal. Yes, waiting to see what how you feel has its benefits, but if you have no idea how you are going to approach your workout you will end up having it dictated for you by what is available, what other people are doing and worst of all, what you are good at (and so naturally inclined to prefer to do).

However, is the more rigid approach of having every weight, rep and set any better?

Possibly a little, as at least there is some level of structure and planning. But, in truth, it’s still a flawed approach.

Probably the most common route to approaching a gym workout is to download something from the web or pick a workout from a magazine or a book. Whilst this can be a useful route for getting new training ideas or just getting you moving, there are a few major flaws to this approach.

Firstly, that workout wasn’t designed for you. Usually it is the workout someone famous, either from TV and movies, or from the physique/ bodybuilding world. But what works for one person does not always work for another. Similarly, they had to put it in a way they could write it and have it easily understood in print, chances are this was simply the basic structure of their workouts and it was a lot more to it than that. Even if it was their exact workout, the lives lived by most media friendly celebrities are not the lives lived by the average person. They don’t have office jobs or deadlines etc. They will have someone telling them exactly what they need to do and when to do it, what to eat and when to eat it. In fact, for a celebrity making a major physical transformation that usually is their job at that moment in time.

Putting all of that aside, the biggest problem with a printed programme is, it invariably doesn’t cater to your personal ebbs and flows.

The programme says you need to hit 62.5kg for 5 sets of 5 because last time you hit 60kg on that move. But last time you’d had a fantastic day leading up to getting to the gym. All your meals were nutritious and well timed; you had a fantastic night’s sleep the night before; the sun was out and you simply felt ‘up’. Today you have arrived at the gym having had a restless night worrying about an issue at work, then had to work your tail off all day on hitting deadlines. You missed lunch and ended up grabbing 4 coffees to get you through the afternoon. Generally you are uptight and now you need to hit these new PBs when you really don’t have more than a 55kg lift in you.

So one of two things are going to happen:

  1. You are going to push to hit those numbers, grind them out and walk out of the gym having completely sapped your nervous system and it is going to take you triple the usual time to recover. So your next workout is going to suffer even more (or you’ll be forced to skip it) and you are on a downward spiral usually resulting in you getting ill.
  2. You are going to push to hit those number by any means possible and in attempting to do so, you are going to injure yourself and be unable to train properly for several weeks.

There’s no good outcome of pushing beyond your limits simply to stay on track with what you have written down as your target for the day.

So what’s the solution?

Remember, training is about challenging your body and your system to develop growth and improvement. Your body grows and develop during the recovery process not the training process. So the ideal scenario is to train your body to a level where it can optimally recover in time for the next workout.

You can’t ever predict what this level will be though.

Some days you will be stressed, tired or fatigued and other days you will be energized and feeling stronger than usual. This could be down to the amount and quality of sleep you had the night before, how well-nourished you have been for the past few days, how well your work days have gone lately etc.

Any level of stress can bring your level down and similarly a small piece of good news or a good day can be enough to charge your system. So on the down days you need to reign things in a little and on the up days take advantage of them.

If you have been training for a long time, hopefully you have started ‘listening’ to your body for feedback. This is something I always try to encourage with clients and members at DCS, but it’s easier said than done and can take years of practice to master. However, you can build your programmes to do this for you for the most part. You’ll still have to take note of how you are performing, but at least there is a fluidity to the plan.

Every plan I write out for others has this element built in and so it should start to develop good habits from those they are given to.

Most of the time the plans you get from your gym induction, online or in magazines follow the same format:

Name of exercise – number of sets – number of reps

If you are lucky it may also give a tempo or time for rest periods.

But the problem is, when something is written like that the person feels obliged to complete the number of sets and reps exactly as written. So if it says 10 reps and the person could do 15 they will still stop at 10 and if they can realistically only do 8 they may force out the other 2 just to have done what it says on the piece of paper.

First stop! Use rep ranges not a number of reps.

Always target doing as many reps as possible based on the parameters you have set. So if you are looking for the set to take you to complete failure, do as many reps as possible to get you there. If that takes you out with the rep range, adjust the weight accordingly.

Keep in mind, there are differing levels of failure. If you feel you are looking to train again the next day (or later that same day) true failure is not an option, certainly on the more CNS draining exercises (more on that in a minute), so you may want to work to explosive failure. In other words, if you start to lose explosiveness in the muscle contractions, stop.

On bigger exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, bench press etc I would generally prescribe ramping as a strong option. In this instance you can work to a fixed rep patter but you simply ramp the weight until that number of reps is no longer possible, then either drop back a weight and continue your sets until you can’t hit the number or use a wave ramping pattern (which is a subject for another day).

Plan your workouts around the level of CNS drain they bring. The more something is going to drain your CNS (Central Nervous System) the earlier in the workout it should be.

As a rule of thumb, here is a solid sequence to follow:

  • Free-standing compound movements (ie Squats and Deadlifts)
  • Seated or Supported compound movements (ie Bench Press)
  • Cable resisted compound movements
  • Plyometric compound movements
  • Bodyweight compound movements
  • Free standing isolation movements
  • Seated or Supported isolation movements

You get the idea – all the way down to eccentricless movements (movements with no eccentric / lowering portion).

Once you have this sequence laid out try to judge how you are feeling after every set and work out if it is time to move on or if you have more in the tank for that particular exercise (always based on how much recovery you are about to have).

Is this simple or straight forward? No! But, it’s not so complicated it causes a major headache or hours of work.

The bottom line is, don’t be rigid with your training.

Have a plan or an outline to follow, even have some goals you are hoping to achieve that day, but don’t be a slave to a piece of paper. Learn to adapt based on your body’s feedback.

A word of caution!

As with all things, this approach is open to abuse and what’s worse it may be unconscious abuse. When you are pushing for your final reps, you could use this as an excuse that you are ‘listening to your body’ and stop a couple of reps before you really should have just because it’s starting to burn. Be aware of this and be prepared to override your subconscious.

Having said that, if you have the workout laid out in descending levels of CNS drain, then as you approach the end of the workout you should have no excuse not to push to absolute failure. It is something you are likely to recover from quite well, but at the same time you can maximize on any failure to commit earlier in the session.

The big problem with a fluid training plan is that it is harder to write down. But if you are aware that you are trying to keep things fluid and you are open to increasing or decreasing your volume and intensity on the day, you can start to get a feel for where your level is at.

If you NEVER come back to the gym feeling fatigued from the previous workout, you aren’t exploring your limits enough. But if it happens every time, you are overdoing it and you should experiment with backing off a little.

The goal is always to OPTIMIZE your training, not to push to annihilation every time.

Again, you develop and grow during recovery, so make your recovery necessary, but not impossible.

As Bruce Lee put it “Be like Water”, go with the flow and maximise your potential.

Is your Training Plan Fluid or Rigid?
Which is Best? by Mark Tiffney

So, what does your training plan look like?

Rigid, fluid, random?

Let me know in the comments below.