Want to smash your next training session? Then follow this “perfect prep” guide that New Body Plan founder Jon Lipsey used to shed 10kg of fat in just eight weeks to land on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine.
How you go into a training session is going to dictate the quality of that session. If you turn up feeling tired, hungry and distracted it’s unlikely that you’re going to knock it out the park. Arrive feeling fresh, energised and focused, on the other hand, and you’ve laid the foundation for a great workout. Here’s how I prepare for a session to stack the odds of success in my favour.
A few days before the session
The first thing I do is make sure I schedule my training session in advance. Every Sunday evening, I plan when I’m going to train during the week ahead. The sessions get written into my diary as if they are immovable work meetings. If you don’t do this and you just ask yourself on any given day if you have time to train, the chances are that you’re going to feel like you’re too busy. The simple act of planning your sessions in advance is probably the single biggest thing you can do to ensure that you show up for a workout. It also means that you’re not wasting willpower and mental energy wrestling with the ideas of whether or not you’re going to work out. The decision has been made so you can focus on putting all of your effort into executing the workouts.
The day before the session
Most people think of pre-workout nutrition as something they need to worry about an hour or two before a training session. For me, it starts the day before. The better quality food you can eat the day before a session, the better your chances of going into that session feeling good. So make sure that you have an evening meal with a high-quality protein source, some complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and plenty of vegetables.
The night before the session
If you want to go into your session feeling fresh and energised then you need to make sure you get a good night’s sleep. Try to avoid screens during the hour before you turn in, invest in some blackout blinds and keep your room cool. If you’re not focusing on some simple things that you can do to improve the quality of your sleep that’s a real missed opportunity to accelerate your progress.
Two hours before the session
This is when I have my pre-workout meal. I recommend eating a meal balanced with high-quality protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats. If you don’t give yourself at least a couple of hours before the session, you’ll still be digesting your food when you start your first set. Leaving adequate time, on the other hand, allows your body to convert the food you eat into ATP – energy that can be used during your workout. If you’re training early in the morning and your primary goal is fat loss, you could do the session before you eat a meal and rely on your stored energy to see you through, before re-fuelling after the workout.
One of the big mistakes people make if they’re trying to build muscle is focusing only on protein and neglecting carbohydrates. This is a bad idea because resistance training can elevate AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) and put you into a catabolic state where you’re breaking down muscle tissue. Studies have also shown that low glycogen (stored energy) levels can increase AMPK, which is why going low-carb before a workout isn’t ideal if you’re trying to add size.
Including a portion of slow-release carbs in your pre-workout meal reduces how catabolic you become and gets you into an anabolic (muscle-growth) state faster. If your primary goal is fat loss, this becomes a bit less of an issue, but you still don’t want to lose muscle. Going into your session without having eaten any carbs might also risk your performance dipping because you’re low on energy.
30 minutes before the session
This is when you can start to think about taking pre-workout supplements. You could keep it simple, and just knock back a double espresso to get a caffeine hit, provided you’re training before midday – any later than that and you may impair your sleep. There’s a lot of research into the benefits of caffeine and it has been shown to have a positive effect on muscle contraction. It also helps to mobilise free fatty acids from fat tissue so that you use fat as fuel.
If you want to get a bit more fancy, Beta Alanine is a well-researched supplement that can help to buffer lactic acid and allows you work harder for longer. It’s particularly useful for high-volume workouts, such as German Volume Training, where you do 10 sets of 10 reps of an exercise. It can have the side effect of making your face or palms tingle but that’s nothing to worry about. Just be sure to read the ingredients on any pre-workout formula because a lot of them contain caffeine and you don’t want to double up if you’ve already had a coffee.
If you’re aiming to add muscle mass, I’d consider using an Amino Acid supplement. They could help to put you into an anabolic state by elevating your blood and muscle amino acid levels, which has been shown to promote anabolism.
15 minutes before the session
If you can, arrive at the gym early to give yourself a bit of time to get mentally prepared. This might seem like a luxury if you’re trying to squeeze a session into a lunch break. If that’s the case, you can use the time you take getting to the gym to do a few basic mental drills. Be clear about what you’re aiming to achieve in the session, visualise yourself lifting well and hitting your targets and remind yourself why you’re there in the first place.
10 minutes before the session
This is when you should run through some basic mobility drills. If it’s a leg day I’ll do some dynamic lower body work, such as the following exercises:
Walking knee raises: take a step forwards and hug your leading knee up to your chest by grasping the top of your shin in both hands and pulling the leg towards you. Place the foot down and walk forwards, alternating sides and keeping the movement fluid.
Walking quad stretches: take a step forwards and, as your back foot comes off the floor, pull your ankle up to your backside by grasping it with your opposite hand. Place the foot down and walk forwards, alternating sides.
Walking superman: take a step forwards then, when you’re standing on one leg, hinge forwards at the hips so that your body is flat with your arms outstretched and you feel a strong stretch in your hamstrings. Straighten up, take another step forwards and repeat the movement on the other leg.
Side lunges: do a side lunge but instead of pushing back to the middle, keep your weight on your leading leg and let your trailing leg come in to meet your leading leg before repeating the movement. Do about half a dozen lunges on one side, turn round a go back the other way.
Curtsy squat: perform a curtsy squat by placing one foot behind and across your body and bending both knees, making sure you keep your torso upright to feel there stretch in your glutes. Alternate sides and do about 6-8 reps on each side.
If it is an upper body day I’ll do some band drills such as pull-aparts, rainbows, lateral raises and rotations. It gets your joints warmed up and primes your body to lift with good technique and with a good range of motion. It’s also a good chance to get tuned in to the session and get a sense of how you’re feeling.
5 minutes before the session
This is when I’ll do a couple of warm-up sets ahead of my first work set. If I’m starting with a big compound move I’ll always do a set of reps with an empty Olympic bar and I’ll aim to make each rep perfect. It’s good to get into the discipline of drilling movement patterns. It also gives your central nervous system time to get fired up. Depending on the number of reps I’m doing in my first work set, I’ll probably do between 3-5 warm-up sets.
1 minute before the session starts
Time for a bit of last-minute positive self-talk and visualisation. The first rep will set the tone for the session so you want to make sure that it is as good as it possibly can be and that you’ve done everything to help yourself get into the best possible physical and mental state to smash your workout.