Dear Swole Woman,
Hi there! So I do Crossfit classes three to four times a week and have access to open gym time for lifting weights the rest of the time. I like the mix of cardio and weightlifting the classes give me, but I want to dedicate my open gym time strictly to lifting. The problem is, I often feel like I go in the gym, do one or two movements for an hour and then go home. I'm not sure what, exactly, I should be doing to maximize my solo open gym time—should I be creating open gym programming for myself? Just track the movements I do & the improvement I see? I know the first step is apparently buying a sexy moleskine to take notes in (at least that's what I see my fellow gym people doing), but what on earth do I put in it?
I love this column, thanks so much for writing it!
– Perplexed About Practicing
Lifting movements are one of the core components of Crossfit, but given that Crossfit workouts are often done with the goal of completing your reps at a high intensity, open gym sessions would be a good time to slooooow down and lay that groundwork.
I never get tired of talking about how magical strength training can feel—you don’t have to do that many reps, you get to focus on quality and not quantity, you get to rest for a minute between sets, and the sessions are generally over in 30-45 minutes. In a world where we are always pushed to break a sweat and go as hard as possible and leave the gym dizzy and with sore abs for the next five days, strength training is a beautiful and focused (if intense) reprieve from all that.
Having at least a strength base (that is, taking the time to build your ability and technique in basic strength movements) may have a significant payoff in “functional fitness” overall, as Crossfit terms it, according to experts. One of the core tenets of Crossfit is that the structure of workouts always varies—if you wanted to get better or even competitive at Crossfit, putting time and care into how you train in the more intense strength-oriented stuff may really help you.
I’m not a coach, but if your goal is to improve at lifting, I’d highly recommend a starter strength training program. Beginning programs are generally three training days per week. Worth noting that most coaches recommend maximizing rest outside of the three lifting days, because it’s necessary for recovery and building strength. You might not make a ton of progress strength-wise if you try to keep up other intense activities on top of a strength program. That being said, I think at least using that time and shooting for that frequency of training to focus on developing the core movements, including squat, bench, deadlift, rows, and overhead presses (or if you want to pursue Olympic weightlifting, snatches and cleans and jerks) might really help your overall progress. There are lots of simple starter programs you can follow that involve only three movements per workout, which is not a whole lot more than what you’re doing now. But rather than focus on pushing yourself to do a lot of reps, you focus on rep quality.
“Quality” is a little bit of a nebulous term, but generally it means favoring doing slightly less weight (though still heavy enough that you are tired after only a few reps) so that you can do the movement correctly. “Correctly” is also a little bit of a nebulous term, and entire books have been written about how to do proper squats or deadlifts or presses, but it doesn’t take much to learn basically good form. I can’t cover it all here, but I highly recommend checking out videos online of proper form, and then also filming yourself during your open gym time so you can see how you’re doing. If you’re not sure how to read your own form, posting those videos online as form checks can get you feedback if you feel like you’re stalled on how to get better.
The way this will pay off is that how good (or bad) your form is can actually present a roadblock to getting stronger. If you don’t take the time to do these movements correctly, there is a higher risk of injury, and you won’t be using your body’s muscles together in concert the way that they are literally made to be used. If you put in the time to take it slow and focus on quality, it will lay the groundwork for you to get better and stronger at your sport. (As an aside, particularly if you keep up your Crossfit classes at the same frequency as you’re doing them now, make sure to eat enough and get your sleep and take at least some rest days. Muscles are not made of dreams deprivation, they are made of food and self-care.)
As for what goes in that notebook—mine is personally a mess, but I write down what I intend to do, including which movements, for how many reps and sets and how much weight, and then what I actually did, sometimes with notes on whether I failed a rep, how the movement or weight felt, or whether I punked on form at all so I remember what to watch out for next time. You can also write down how the workout felt overall, which can help you notice trends. It’s like a little diary!
I also sometimes take a few pages to write out notes from my coach or the whole mental setup of cues I’m trying to remember before going into a movement, e.g., when I’m deadlifting I want to square my feet at a particular position related to the bar, flex my lats, hamstrings, and glutes, press my stomach toward my legs to help set my back straight, get my body weight back behind the bar, set my gaze slightly to the left to adjust for my slightly crooked spine, and then push the ground away. All these cues have piled up over years of iteration and are particular to my challenges with doing this lift, but as you practice and notice what you struggle with, you’ll get a similar sort of workflow going, and the goal is to get to a point where it comes second nature. It’s impossible to do it all perfectly every time, but that is part of what I love about lifting; it’s all iterative, and there is not really a perfect or even universal standard to hold yourself to. Many of the best lifters have eminently weird form and still do it better than the rest of us, and that is the beauty of it.
Your challenges will also change year in and year out, and lifts can feel a little complex, so writing it all out every once in a while helps me. You can draw pictures. You can doodle. There are no rules, it is just a notebook. But as far as making your time in the gym productive, basically making notes on what you intended to do and what you actually did is generally the idea. A nice thing about following a set program like what I described above is that you will know at least what to write down to begin with, what your intention is, and then filling in what you actually do will be your goal. This way also you don’t have to try and remember you did last time. Remembering doesn’t sound like it will be that hard given all the beautiful simplicity I was talking about before, but I get a particular kind of blissful blank mind when I lift, and when I add in the two days of rest I take before I am meant to go back and do another workout, there is no way I’ll remember the weights I did, or more importantly how they felt or whether I did them right, so it’s extremely useful to have those notes.
Strength is for everyone, but it’s especially for women. Ask a Swole Woman is a column for people who are tired of trying to always be less, eat less, do less, and make it look perfect and effort-free. Have a question for me about strength training or anything related? If you’re ready to give your body what it needs, to test your grit, and become more than you ever have been, email AASW@self.com.
Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @caseyjohnston.
Letters to AASW are edited for length and context, and the content of each AASW column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.