How I Use Behavioral Strategies To Stay Productive At The Gym

We have all had our days at the gym. Days where we feel like a superhero by finally hitting a PR (personal record) we have been chasing for over a year. A max bench press, our fastest 5K, or finally getting a difficult yoga pose. And then the days where you feel like you cannot do anything right and nothing is working. I have been on both sides. We all have.

Yes, the highs and lows of training…

No matter our sport, the daily grind can be challenging. We can talk ourselves out of getting ready to gym, or even leaving early after we get there. However, having a few key tools in our workout arsenal may get us there, keep us there, and stay productive in the gym.

Below, I present 3 behavioral strategies that can benefit any modern athlete.

(yes, I view each of us as an athlete no matter skill level or experience)

The examples below describe weight lifting but can be adapted to any sport.

Strategy 1: Write Out Your Workout (in a paper notebook)

“If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail”

We have all heard this quote before. You cannot reach your destination without your map. Your workout tells you the journey you are going to take your body on that day.

Logging, Logging, Logging…

Why this strategy? Writing down your workouts in a notebook allows you to stay focused on your workout. There are certain things you should be thinking about, like your form or rest time (more on that next). We are bombarded every day with technology and its distractions. Do not let those notifications get you off your game plan. Turn them off. Any text, notification bubble, or alert, can easily take you off your game.

Be wary of this distraction device.

Maybe you write down your workouts using your phone, or constantly look at a website in between sets. Think about all the extra things you have to do…unlock phone, open app, reload.


Why waste the effort when you can use that energy for something else?

The behavioral breakdown: Any notification that disrupts your workout is a stimulus that is associated with something else. Email bubbles get you thinking about a work project and Facebook notifications make you think about the latest conversation with a friend.

A paper notebook comes with no updates or sound effects. Anytime I look at my notebook, I think about working out.

Reducing the amount of these stimuli keeps you focused on your workout. After all, are you there to workout or catch up on social media? Well…ok, some people do go to the gym just to socialize, but that’s a different story.

(I do post on Instagram…but AFTER my workout is over, never during)

Try using a paper notebook if you are having difficulty staying focused with your workouts.

Strategy 2: Write Down Rest Times

In most strength and conditioning programs, you will rest anywhere between 1-3 minutes between sets. When you go heavy, then you often need a little more rest time. Of course, there are other “tempo” workouts where you perform certain exercises every 20-, 30-, or 60-seconds. Then, you do not need to write anything down because you are typically looking at a clock the whole time.

Writing Down Rest Times Keep Me on Track!

But for other work (ex. squats, pull-ups), start writing down your rest times. During the earlier sets, you are not as fatigued and mindlessly start your next set earlier than planned. During later sets when you are fatigued, then your 3-minute rest could easily turn into 5 minutes if you are not careful.

Why this strategy? The point of writing down rest times is so that you maximize the benefits of a workout program (assuming you follow one). Of the many reasons why workout programs are important to follow, mainly, they are designed so that certain heart rates are maintained and that you achieve maximum performance. Keeping track of your rest ensures that you are putting yourself into position to reap these benefits.

As an additional benefit, recording rest time indirectly tracks your completed sets. How many times have you been there? Did I just do 3 sets or 4? I know I have.

Workout time is about working out, not playing a memory game with yourself!

The behavioral breakdown: Individual behavior happens over time, and in my sport (CrossFit), how much you work during a certain period is a good indication of how you fit you are. Performing one, 300-pound deadlift every minute for 10 minutes is way different than performing 10 repetitions as fast as you can. Tracking rest time allows you to test this area of fitness. Essentially, reducing the time between each behavior (or lift) can guide you on improving your strengths and weaknesses.

(If you have never tried it, your heart will tell you the difference real fast.)

Tracking rest time allows you to test this area of fitness. Essentially, reducing the time between each behavior (or lift) can guide you on improving your strengths and weaknesses.

Ultimately, controlling rest time allows me to manage production in the gym. There are days in my programming where I need to perform many sets and reps. When deciding my rest time for each exercise, I can quickly figure out how long the overall workout will take me, and if I can finish all of the work before my morning meetings.

Strategy 3: Workout The Same Way Every Set

Here, I am talking habits and routines.

When you workout, performing the same steps before, during, and after each set allows you to stay focused on the exercise itself.

Nick catching a Snatch at 165 pounds

Why this strategy? Having a consistent routine allows you to put all of your effort into working out…not trying to figure out what you just did. This strategy builds off of the first two: writing down your workout and rest times.

For example, I love Olympic weightlifting (snatch, clean and jerk) and it requires a lot of attention to detail because each lift is super technical. My goals are to keep good form no matter the weight and slowly increase my personal record. A consistent routine allows me to maximize my rest time (strategy 2), review my previous lifts, and focus on the next one.

Now if my routine was inconsistent, I doubt that I would be where I am today.

Most of the time my routine looks like this:

  1. Chalk up
  2. Walk up to the barbell
  3. Perform the lift
  4. Look at the clock
  5. Write down my rest time
  6. Change weights (if needed)
  7. Get water
  8. Sit and rest
  9. Mentally prepare next lift

This all happens in a matter of 30 seconds or so.

Switching a few steps here and there may not seem like a big deal, but over time, you could be wasting precious minutes in the gym.

Inconsistent routines may look like this:

  1. Get Water
  2. Walk up to the bar

(Oops forgot chalk)

  1. Walk away from bar
  2. Chalk up
  3. Perform the lift
  4. Change weights
  5. Sit and rest
  6. Look at the clock
  7. Write down my rest time
  8. Change weights (if needed)
  9. Get water (again)
  10. Mentally prepare next lift

Moving steps around, or adding unnecessary ones, will likely waste extra time and energy. And many times, when I take a few steps out of order I will forget to look at the clock and/or write down my rest time. Then my whole routine gets thrown off!

The behavioral breakdown: What I am describing is a chain of behavior. Each following step reinforcers (or strengthens) the previous step. The more I perform these steps in the same order, the stronger the chain becomes.

It is difficult enough to gain strength, flexibility, and balance in the gym, why not harness what we know about the science of human behavior so that everything is moving in the same direction?!?!

After awhile, you begin performing each step automatically, without thinking about, forming a habit or a routine.

Looking at the first chain above, and by working backward, writing down my rest time REINFORCES (or strengthens) looking at the clock right after the lift, and looking at the clock right after the lift REINFORCES (or strengthens) completing the lift, and so on up the chain…

The Benefits to Me…

Nick finishing a Clean and Jerk

Since the beginning of my CrossFit journey, almost 4 years now, I have noticed by using these strategies every day allows me to:

  • Make the most out of my gym time
  • Focus on the task at hand
  • Keep on a consistent schedule.

They allow us to take action during our workouts and are behavioral in the sense that each strategy requires us to DO something, or behave, in a certain way.

We can find much success in our lives when the simple things we do involve: using a paper notebook, writing down rest time, and perform the same exercise routines each day. We spend many hours in the gym each week, so why not take advantage of a few behavioral strategies that can benefit us all.

Keep moving my friends.


By |2017-10-19T16:20:25+00:00August 10th, 2017|Behavior Analysis, CrossFit, Exercise|1 Comment