As I’ve become a more experienced health professional, I’ve quickly realized just how much time we’re wasting in the gym. The reality is, just because you’re doing something during a workout doesn’t automatically make it healthy and productive. Today we’ll peer into 3 areas of training that many people overthink. By intentionally addressing the ‘why’ behind your regime, you’ll become much more in-tuned with what your body really needs.
Here’s to cutting out wasted time and making more space for the exercises that will take your performance to the next level!
3 Habits To Wave Goodbye to at the Gym
I want to start by clarifying that some of these habits aren’t necessarily bad. In other words, you won’t be doing yourself any lasting damage by foam rolling your quad or holding a hamstring stretch. The efficacy of each practice is being judged from a physiological point of view, so if there are still mental benefits to doing them, knock yourself out! What’s important to realize, however, is that these habits aren’t nearly as effective as we once thought.
There may be certain cases when health professionals will instruct you to do continue performing one of these strategies. As with any health advice, it’s going to be completely dependent on your specific case and goals. This is especially key for those with chronic conditions who need to be more intentional with all aspects of their workouts from a safety standpoint. If you’re at all concerned with the advice below, please check in with the professional that knows you best!
Fortunately for most of us, the tips below should prove to be safe and effective. If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at each subject, I have you covered with links at the bottom! Without further ado, let’s dive into it.
1) Obsessing Over Foam Rolling
When I was in school, I remember students foam rolling before and after sessions for a good 10–15 minutes. Sure, foam rolling has some limited benefits including a (very) short-term pain relief effect and a slight range of motion boost for your workout. Unfortunately, it gets far too much credit for being a ‘myofascial release’ solution when it’s nothing of the sort.
Fascia is a band or sheet of connective tissue that surrounds and stabilizes muscles and organs. During physical activity, adhesions or fibrotic scars can build up within layers of this tissue. To achieve true myofascial release, these two sites (whether between muscle and skin AKA fascia superficialis or between two muscle fibers AKA fascia profunda) need to be able to slide past one another.
When we’re foam rolling, there is no relative motion of these two layers because we’re simply compressing the tissue. This is due to foam rollers being unable to grab onto a tissue layer and hold it in place as another glides past.
Even if rolling did accomplish relative motion, there is little evidence to show that it would result in permanent tissue changes. Furthermore, there is evidence to show that foam rolling certain areas, such as the IT band, can even cause damage. As of now, the consensus is that foam rolling can subtly boost your range of motion, but that’s about it. You’re probably better off doing dynamic mobility exercises instead!
2) Doing Static Stretching
Just to be clear, certain populations will find static stretching to be beneficial (older adults, adaptive populations), but most of us can certainly go without. Sure, it does feel good…but it’s important to know just how unproductive it really is.
First off, there is little evidence to show that static stretching will reduce DOMS. In other words, stretching won’t alleviate the stiffness and discomfort felt in your muscles one to three days post activity.
One review study states that “Muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness.” Even if there is the tiniest benefit over a long-term period of static stretching, the statistical evidence is so minimal that it is rendered useless.
Secondly, there is no scientific evidence to show that stretching will have a preventive effect on injury. Even if static stretching did improve elasticity (which it rarely does), there’s no link to it reducing harm to your tissues!
If you’re committed to doing static stretching for prolonged periods at a painful threshold, then yes, you may experience increased flexibility. But even if you get there after months of training, your gains are far more likely to be due to neural effects than muscle fiber adaptations. Yes, that’s right — static stretching rarely lengthens muscle tissue!
Interestingly, O’Sullivan et al. reveal that eccentric strengthening exercises, such as the Romanian deadlift (RDL), can achieve muscle lengthening and tissue health. If you’re looking to increase flexibility, think strengthen over stretch!
If you are going to stretch, do so because of the temporary satisfaction you feel, and not with a preconceived notion that you’ll be achieving any long-term benefits.
3) Extending Your Warm-Ups / Cool-Downs
If you haven’t been instructed to intentionally elongate your WU/CD period due to health concerns, there is no reason why they should be more than 5 minutes each. Not only will this save you time, but it will also improve the quality of your workouts.
If we’re doing too much cardio before a resistance training session, we may run into central fatigue. The simple definition of central fatigue is the inability to maximally recruit a muscle. According to The Muscle Ph.D., this is rooted in a decreased input to motor neurons, increased afferent inhibitory feedback, and reduced responsiveness of individual motor neurons. Fancy physiological terms aside, just know that when this type of fatigue emerges, it’s much harder to achieve muscle growth because you’re not lifting to your maximal capacity.
The reality is, when you’re scrambling to squeeze in one more set or feel like you’re burning out due to ‘sore’ or ‘tired’ muscles, the nervous system may just be tired. It sounds a little funny, but research proves that your fatigue is far more complex than physical exertion or mental weakness…you might be (quite literally) ‘getting on your own nerves’.
To avoid getting in the way of your own workouts, don’t burn yourself out in the warm-up. My recommendation is to literally just do a few minutes of cardio and then go through a short mobility routine. When it comes to the cool-down, avoid stretching and just walk it out! The bigger priority is to eat and sleep well after your session.
Want an in-depth look at the subjects above? I’ve got you covered! Foam Rolling Is a Myth Static Stretching Is a Waste of Time ‘Central Fatigue’ May Be Killing Your Gains The Anatomy of a Perfect Warm-Up The Best Cool-Down Is Also the Easiest
When it comes to your workouts, time is money. If you’re wanting to design an ultra-efficient session in the gym, it’s time to drop the 3 habits above. Not only are they wasting your precious time, but they may also be interrupting your potential gains. Instead, focus on smart, concise warm-up & cool-down periods and be wise about balancing your cardio and strength work.
The most important takeaway is that more work in the gym doesn’t always equate to better health. By building awareness for what you’re injecting into your workouts, you’ll have a much more productive training session while saving time for the other activities that you love!