“Improving my workout” definitely means different things to different people. It involves parameters like performing your routine with a correct form and intensity, whilst being well fueled and hydrated throughout. Here are a few things to consider:
Intensity check: make sure you’re training at an intensity level that is challenging for you – except if you’re just starting your fitness routine (in this case, you’d better focus on your form) or getting back to exercise after an injury (in this case, follow your therapists’ suggestions/advice). Intensity can be increased in various ways depending on your goals (muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness etc.) and your experience. Whatever your case, however, unless you train at an intensity level that is sufficiently high for you, you most likely won’t improve or accomplish your fitness goals.
Nutrition: make sure you’re eating well enough to support your workout. I know a lot of people who are not eating well, so pay special attention to the foods you eat before your workout (that is, your workout fuel) and post-workout (that is, your recovery fuel). Leaving the exact number of your macros outside the picture, whether you want to improve your athletic performance, lose fat or build muscle, you should be eating carbohydrates (esp. slow-digesting ones) and protein before and after your workouts. It would be good to avoid higher-fat meals for up to 4 hours before your workout, so you can optimise your fuel. If you are on a slight caloric deficit in order to lose weight, pay special attention to eating your carbs around (pre- and post-) workout time. Plan your last meal for at least two hours before your workout, to avoid digestive issues.
Variety check: in order to keep improving and staying motivated whilst exercising, you need to be modifying the workout you are doing every, say, 2 to 3 weeks. This can be changing the order of the exercises you are performing, playing with the number of reps and sets, doing slower or faster repetitions (along with adjusting resistance accordingly so you can keep proper form), or doing a timed circuit instead of your regular strength training routine now and then. It’s important to keep your body guessing. I like to play with my workouts within the same week. For example, if I’m swimming, on Monday I’ll swim for 30-45’ in a slow-medium pace. On Wednesday I’ll do a warm-up and then go for a higher intensity 50m x 10 times to work on my anaerobic endurance. On Friday I’ll focus on my technique by doing various drills and active recovery for my shoulders. I always try to look equally at all sides of “improving” in anything and believe me when I say that there are a lot of ways to get better in any sport. Take away point: don’t do the same thing over and over again.
Overdoing it check: For those of you who are over-motivated with exercising, make sure you pay respect to the 48hr rule (48 hrs between consecutive training of the same muscle group). Give your tissues enough time to heal between sessions, have some kind of manual therapy once in a while (or, rather, once a week if you’re training hard) and incorporate adequate time for active rest and recovery. You don’t need to stay in the couch in order to rest, and certainly don’t sit on your chair for hours! Examples of active recovery can be a walk, an easy bike ride, some stretching / mobility work, some light cardio or even gardening if you fancy it. Foam rolling also helps as it stimulates blood flow to the muscles. If you’re having a particularly stressful week at the office or at home, take it easy with your workouts. Improving doesn’t mean beating our body up until it breaks. It means listening to it and respecting it.
Focus on the muscle you’re training: during every movement, draw your attention to how your body is working to produce it. If you’re swimming freestyle, focus on how your arm is flexing and rotating to come out of the water and then extending as it gets back in, followed by pushing the water back. If you know the muscles involved, look them up on a youtube video (there are so many out there!) or ask a trainer to explain to you how they work. Research says that if you focus on the muscle(s) while doing the work, you have more muscle activity than if you’re thinking about what you’ll have for dinner! More muscle activity can result in more muscle growth, plus you’re keeping your form in check!
Train your core and learn how to activate it: your core is where your bodys’ center of gravity is located and where all movement originates and is supported from. I know personal trainers who never ask their clients to train their core specifically, saying that they get to use it throughout their workouts. Leaving outside exercisers who have done some serious pilates training, most people I know aren’t aware of the stability needed in your so-called lumbo-pelvic-hip complex. Your core needs to be able to stabilise during dynamic movements, increasing spinal stiffness (which basically means not allowing your spine to move whilst loads are being transferred between upper and lower extremity). With the goal being both intervertebral and lumbo-pelvic stability, you can improve all your other movements by training your core musculature, so don’t neglect it!
Last but not least, make sure you warm-up and cool down properly. Depending on the activity you’re doing, start your workout with some dynamic exercises: these can be the exercises you have in your routine (perform them with no weight, doing 8 reps for each one), or simply moving your joints, progressively increasing their range of motion to warm up the muscles crossing your joint capsules. If you’re running, cycling or swimming do a 5’ warm up, progressively increasing your pace. At the end of your workout, before you come to a complete stop, take another 5’ until you reduce your pace. Not doing that can cause blood pooling, especially in your legs and feet. I’m sure many of you have at some point felt dizziness when you suddenly stopped after exercise – we don’t want that! Stretch all the muscles that contracted to get your workout done!
Enjoy your training!