I am a bit concerned about writing this article, because intuitive training is something that is typically worthwhile at more advanced levels only, and even then, there are a few pitfalls.
What does intuitive training mean?
It means just what the name implies: when you listen to the clues your body gives you, and adapt your daily workout accordingly. I first read about this (in Muscular Development, if my memory serves me right) when dinosaurs still ruled the Earth and I was still a newbie. Back then, I just couldn’t get how it was possible to train without a plan. Basically, I didn’t get the whole article. I mean, I understood the words but failed to get the whole picture.
In that article, the author (I cannot remember his name) wrote that he would always work out on an intuitive basis. This meant he decided in the gym which body part he would train and with how much volume. He did not follow a specific plan. Instead, he always worked out based on the clues his body gave him.
Looking back now, I think this is a bit overdone, even though it might work for some people. However, to me intuitive training means something different. I definitely agree that you can and you SHOULD listen to the clues your body gives you and adapt your training accordingly, even if it contradicts the original concept or the previously planned volume or load.
Training by the schedule
“But the good thing about training plans is right that they give you a schedule”, you might think, and you are right. There must be some guidelines by which you can measure your progress. It can be the number of repetitions, the load, your body weight, strength level, you name it: it can be really helpful to follow some kind of plan in your training routine. This enables you to increase the load from one workout to the next, facilitating further growth in muscle mass or strength on a continuous basis. If you are really conscientious, you certainly have a plan for each workout regarding exercises, volume, increasing the load, etc. And this method works incredibly well for anyone who can devote the necessary amount of energy for those other aspects as well. What I mean is that your diet is OK, you get enough rest and you don’t perform any considerable physical activity during the day that would set you back in training. Your student years can be typically like that (apart from recovering after hardcore party nights). But even in this case, you may have a bad day, but that’s not a sin. Sometimes you can overcome it, sometimes you can’t.
Later, as your life gets more complicated by “minor” stuff like work or family, you are more likely to be tired or in low spirits when you are supposed to work out. That is, if you feel like going to the gym at all. But even if you do, you might fail to realize your grandiose plans because you haven’t had enough food or water during the day, or you didn’t get enough sleep the night before, because your kid had colic and kept crying all night, etc. In such cases, it is pretty difficult to reach your previously set goals. “But if you are truly hardcore, you do it because you have goals and you are f*cking tough anyway”, you might say. But often, this is not enough. In a worst-case scenario, you might even get injured if you keep pushing.
Then you might realize that you should have listened to your body, but it will be too late...
The clues does your body gives you
The most important thing about intuitive training may be the ability to tell the difference between when your body is trying to tell you something and when it is just your mind playing tricks. Because you may be just unfocused, even though you are in a perfect physical condition. This can be easily fixed: all you need to do is pull yourself together mentally, and go on with your original plan. However, if you are really stressed out, you might want to use machines instead of free weights to prevent injury that may be caused by the lack of focus. If you have never encountered stress in your life, you might not know what I’m talking about, but I bet some of you can relate. :)
On the other hand, clues from your body can definitely indicate that you’d better opt for Plan B for that day. It’s easier to describe through examples. However, a certain level of body and muscle awareness (is that a word?) is still required.
a) Let’s say you are planning to do series with 90 kg. You warm up. You feel the blood rushing into your muscles. 70-80 kg: easy as pie. But during the first work set, you somehow lose focus and put down the weight after 4 reps, because you just can’t get the feeling. This is more likely a lack of focus. Hopefully you can pull yourself together for the next set, and carry out the plan. If it is worse than that, you’d better opt for a machine alternative or reduce the weight and focus more on the mind-muscle connection.
a) Again, let’s suppose you are planning to do series with 90 kg. You warm up, but somehow you feel a little “rusty”. You have a hard time getting that pumped feeling, and even smaller weights feel heavy. Your muscles feel acidic and, all in all, the whole thing just doesn’t feel so good. That’s when your body is trying to tell you something. You haven’t had enough rest, food or water, or you are stressed out etc. – the reason doesn’t really matter. If you still keep pushing your original agenda, you might even get injured, but even if you are luckier, it’s likely to be a crappy workout. So, you’d better listen to your body!
But what can you do?
There are several versions, depending on the severity of the situation. If it really sucks, just go home and get some rest. You’ll be far better off than you would be with a crappy workout.
But this is an extreme case. Most of the time a small change is enough. You cannot press 90 kilos? Don’t go above 60 this time, but do more reps. Or skip the bench press and opt for the pec deck instead. In such cases, controlled moves are more useful than free weights, because the risk of injury is lower. Feel like you weigh a ton while doing pull-ups? Head to the pulley then, and aim for controlled moves. The weight is of secondary importance now.
Listen to your body! You will know what feels good that day. I do not necessarily recommend that you work completely different muscle groups in such cases. However, if you feel your chest is not at its best but you could bomb your back to pieces, go ahead! Maybe it’s just you couldn’t fully recover from your last chest workout. Perhaps a previous shoulder day is still interfering with the presses. Or you spent too much time planking in bed above your GF last night. :D It could be anything. Bottom line: find out what your body is trying to tell you.
And finally, some hands-on tips, so you get a better idea about the available alternatives:
- Instead of a standard workout, do the exercises for the current muscle group in giant sets. The weights might be lighter, but not the workout!
- Super- or tri-sets instead of standard sets, or the other way around: if you have been doing supersets so far, do a standard workout just for a change.
- Reduce weights and slow down for more concentrated moves. This might turn out to be more effective than struggling with heavy weights.
- Reducing weights and raising reps drastically—again, just for change.
- Doing some kind of challenge in the current exercise: for example, as many lunges without rest as possible, or sets with 5-second rest breaks etc.
- Doing exercises completely different from those planned.
- Doing machine alternatives for all the free-weight exercises that day.
- And finally, doing a completely different muscle group instead of the one that was planned—and this other one may go better than ever!
As you can see, there are multiple ways you can adapt to your momentary physical condition. Don’t be ashamed to be aware of it. Because a bad day doesn’t necessarily need to be a day of injury or a day of failure.
Just listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Listen to it so it can serve you for a long time.
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