Assess, Accept, Adapt: A Guide to More Productive Training Sessions

This little fitness blogger is always on the go.

Seriously, I ride planes, trains and automobiles like it’s my job. Well, it kind of is.

Often, I am packing for a trip when I have yet to unpack from the last one. It’s exciting. And exhausting. Additionally, I split my “domestic” life between NYC and Baltimore, which is simultaneously fabulous and a complete pain in the ass.

As much as I enjoy travel, I don’t particularly care for how it affects my training. While I stay pretty consistent, I end up training at 3 different places every week and often get to the gym right after a 3 hour train ride. Add to that the fact that I get significant motion sickness, and you get a tired, nauseous, stiff girl attempting to move heavy stuff with some level of proficiency.

Therefore, I haven’t been having the most amazing training sessions. They’ve really just been mediocre and maintenance based.

A few weeks ago I walked into the gym directly from the train station, and realized after the initial impact, the foolish thing I had done.

It was a commercial gym. On a Monday night. In January.

Adding insult to injury, the two girls I normally train with were at work, so it was just little ol’ me and my iPod shuffle. Given that I was already feeling blah from the events of the day, the absence of my workout buddies was painfully apparent.

Alas, I was greeted, like manna from heaven, with an open squat rack–which, on a Monday night at your local Globo-gym is akin to an effing unicorn sighting. You can’t really be a brat when you stumble upon an open squat rack; you just have to suck it up and squat. So I popped in my headphones, tuned into my favorite new playlist and wouldn’t you know it: low battery.

Exhausted, unmotivated, companionless…and sans music. Are. You. Serious?

What’s a girl to do? I could leave, sure. I could pout. I’m really good at pouting. I could stay and have the worst training sesh ever. Or…I could take a step back and make the best of it. Ultimately, I decided that I would just be as strong as I could be in those moments; I wouldn’t give myself a hard time for failing to hit the numbers I’d planned and I wouldn’t dwell on the fact that I was dragging. I’d just…be.

Be as strong as you can be. Right now. Today. Whatever that is.

I figured I’d let it ride and see how long the iPod gods would see fit to grace me with the dirty, raunchy rap playlist I’d compiled, then loaded up the plates, and dropped it like it was hot. And, because, ain’t nobody fresher than my clique (obviously), I sent a picture of my lonely squat rack to the girls I train with, informing them how much their presence was missed:

Miraculously, my iPod battery lasted 45 minutes before completely dying. I pushed through the entire workout, and even though it wasn’t the most inspiring training session, it was productive in the realm of consistency.

They can’t all be winners; at some point, you have to make a decision–what kind of session is this going to be? Sure, we have plans and programs, but can we always stick to them? Should we? Often, circumstances necessitate adaptation, and we are faced with the choice of following the program as written, or making changes to ensure our ultimate success. In my extensive lifting experience, I have always found that molding to your surroundings (versus the opposite) produces better results.

There are several factors that can affect your performance, and will determine what kind of training session you’ll have. Just to name a few:

  • sleep
  • nutrition
  • mental preoccupation
  • illness
  • circumstances
  • menstrual cycle
  • headaches
  • injury/soreness
  • emotional distress
  • hormones
  • etc

So what do you do if you walk into the gym and are experiencing fatigue, discomfort or a lack of motivation due to one of these factors? Well, I have a simple 3 step process that I am going to share with you in order to help you have the most effective training session-regardless of physiological or environmental circumstances.

1. assess

The first thing you need to do is assess your physical and mental state. Are you sore? Are you under-rested or over-trained? Do you have a nagging pain in your left hip, a sinus headache or menstrual cramps? Are you experiencing heartache or just in a plain yucky mood? Bottom line-you have to check in.

One very effective way to assess is by doing a thorough dynamic warmup, including foam rolling, mobility and some type of dynamic movement. Mine usually looks something like this:

  • Foam roll, 5 minutes
  • Hip flexor stretch
  • Spiderman
  • Reverse lunge
  • Lateral lunge
  • One leg deadlift
  • Bodyweight squat
  • Turkish Get Up

I can always tell by the end of my warmup what kind of training session I’m going to have. If simple bodyweight movements feel challenging, what are the chances I’m going to move some serious weight during my lifts? If my calves are significantly sore, should I really sprint? Using a warmup to gauge the intensity and direction of your training session is a great way to assess.

Bonus tip: When I’m short on time, foam rolling and TGUs will do the trick. 

2. accept

For most of us, this is where the real challenge lies. Over the course of our gym evolution, we have the unfortunate tendency of developing emotional attachments to exercises and workouts. For example, if I told you that you needed to take a break from deadlifting, would you consider punching me in the face? Probably.

Be honest with yourself. How difficult do you think it would be to deviate from your proposed plan, accepting that circumstances can necessitate change? Breaking emotional ties to lifts and acknowledging that modification is imminent will help make your training session more effective.

3. adapt

There is truly no greater skill in life than adaptability. Being malleable in all aspects is integral to success, because let’s face it-things don’t always go the way they should. Conversely, remaining rigid in the face of challenge can often lead to disaster.

As I noted previously when discussing assess and accept, often circumstances can present challenges that impede our ability to complete our workouts as planned. It’s imperative that we have strategies in place to adapt to these challenges. (Relevant side note: Pouting is not an effective strategy).

Personally, although I do follow a program, I train mostly intuitively. Meaning that although I may walk into the gym knowing I am going to perform squats and pull-ups, I am fully aware that I might need to adjust the load or volume, and am open to the possibility that I may need to modify the exercises altogether. If my lats are sore, I’ll switch to chin-ups which place less stress on the lats and more on the forearms and biceps. If there isn’t a squat rack available, I’ll use heavy dumbbells for reverse lunges or do single leg squats instead. And what if I am just feeling beat in general? Should I skip out on the gym completely, or perhaps go through a bodyweight or condensed version of my program? It’s all dependent on the unique situation, and nevertheless, irrelevant if I am unwilling to bend.

The ability to modify in the gym, however, is contingent upon your knowledge of training progressions. If you aren’t familiar with acceptable alternatives, it can prove nearly impossible to adapt when the occasion calls for it. The following is an abridged list of some of the most common modifications and regressions for basic exercises:

  • Barbell Squat: BB front squat, one leg squat, DB or BB reverse lunge, goblet squat, split squat, walking lunge, skater squat, step up.
  • Barbell Deadlift: one leg deadlift, glute bridge or hip thrust, double KB or DB romanian deadlift, stability ball leg curl, heavy KB swing, skater squat, step up.
  • Pull-up: chin-up, parallel grip pull-up, flexed arm hang, inverted row, bent over row.
  • BB Bench Press: pushup, dumbbell flat bench press (one or two arm), KB floor press, suspension trainer pushup.
  • BB Overhead Press: DB or KB overhead press (single or double), push press, assisted handstand pushup.
  • Kettlebell Swing: KB speed deadlift, KB push press, squat jump.

The overarching concept is this: Figure out what the exercise is supposed to accomplish, and if that exercise cannot be performed, find a way to accomplish the same results using a different exercise. This is more easily achieved if you view them as movements as opposed to exercises. Moreover, understand that adaptability encompasses all aspects of your workout: exercise selection, volume, intensity, load and so on.

The next time you step into the gym, run through the checklist: assess, accept, adapt. Notice that “pout” is not on that list; if assessing, accepting and adapting still doesn’t work, then you have my permission to resort to pouting.

But, because I don’t want you to pout (you’re so much prettier when you smile), here is my gift to you: My current favorite playlist to get my lift on to. It pulls me out of a funk every single time, and is the exact playlist that inspired this blog post.

Lift and be happy!

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  • Karolina Oseguera

    Hahaha I love your playlist! It is similar to mine. I rock out to Wiz Kalifa and Drake.

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  • Jennifer Brownfield

    It is so refreshing to see your blog, which is determined, well written, organized, helpful, AND funny. I’ll definitely be checking back in!!

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  • Jeanne Herbert

    I’m new to Eat, Lift and be Happy. This is great advice for myself and my clients. I downloaded some of your recipes this weekend and made the eggbake. I wondered how often you indulge in this amazing dish and what your portion size is. After I added up the calories/fat/carbs/protein of the dish I made I was somewhat horrified! :) I never eat sausage or cheese although I do eat whole eggs daily. I’m wondering how often your six pack can withstand this meal?

  • Guest

    Reading this makes me doubt that I have much battery left on my Shuffle for todays workout.

  • [email protected]

    Excellent read! Loving the playlist especially Clique!

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  • Renita Kalhorn

    Wow, this was worth the wait. ;-)

    Some of my best workouts have been when I started completely unmotivated and pushed through anyway. Thanks for giving me a systematic way to make the pouting/resistance portion shorter (or maybe getting rid of it entirely). I especially appreciate the dynamic warm-up that I can work through to objectively assess what my condition is — probably better than just standing in the middle of the gym grumbling, “I don’t feel like working out…” :-)

  • ChristenaR

    Wow- you have great timing….I am printing this and hanging this entire post on the wall of my gym. Moving forward, the roll-out and TGU will happen before I assess my next move on those puffy-crampy days. Thanks for continuing to help grow my fitness toolbox

    • Neghar Fonooni

      You’re so welcome! And thank you for sharing at your gym.

  • Lori Davis

    Stealing this playlist. I have several of these songs already!! I always enjoy your posts. I’ve seen a few vague posts that lead me to believe that you maybe engaged to another person whose posts I enjoy as well. If so congrats! You both crack me up:)

    • Neghar Fonooni

      I love this playlist. I’ve been using it for 4-5 weeks and I am still not tired of it! And yes, you are correct in your assumptions :).

  • Maja

    Just what I needed to read today. Thanks Neghar!

    Also, I love the playlist.

    • Neghar Fonooni

      The playlist is pretty legit.

  • Alma Mebar

    Wow, this couldn’t have come at a better time! I had a hide-under-my-blanket day yesterday and was contemplating doing it again today. But after reading this, think I’m ready to get out there and be the best I can be… at that moment :-) Thank you!

    • Neghar Fonooni

      Yay! Happy to hear it, Alma.

  • Taunja Swenson

    This is excellent timing. I appreciate your thought process. I will be keeping this in mind constantly.

    • Neghar Fonooni

      Glad it was helpful :).

  • Natcha Maithai

    Do you have a headphone that allows you to do KB swings without it flying off?

    • Alma Mebar

      Haha that happens to me too! I started to wear the headphones around my back now, with the wire being under my tank top/t-shirt, sometimes even under a bra strap for extra support! It’s hard getting it there, but it works like a charm if you can!

    • Neghar Fonooni

      I wear the headphones under my shirt, and use the new apple headphones as they are contoured. You can also do the kind that loop around your ear!

  • neghar

    It really makes me happy to know that you found the post actionable! Thanks, as always, for your kind words and support, Renita.

  • neghar

    Always gets me pumped!

  • neghar

    You know what-I discovered that once it “dies” if you turn it back on, you actually have another 20-30 minutes!