Exercise: love it or hate it, we can all agree that if you’re going to spend the time to do it, you better get the most from it. We’re all busy, hustling, and exhausted, so when we designate time to work out (on the days we actually can), you best believe we’re going to want to get the most out of it. The 30-minute sculpt class or the time spent sweating it out on a run gets all the credit, but the steps you take before and after exercise matter just as much. The right pre- and post-workout rituals can help you recover, get stronger, and crush every workout. Ready to optimize your bicep curls and high-intensity intervals? Make these 10 steps an important part of your workout routine:
1. Get enough sleep
If you’ve ever had a sluggish workout (or general lack of energy) after a night of not-so-great sleep, you know why this one is key. When you get enough quality sleep (around 7-9 hours), you have better focus, energy levels, and stamina, meaning you can likely get better results from the same workout. Bonus: exercising can help you sleep better, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Prioritize sleep the night before to make the most of your workout the next day. Also, if you have to choose between getting seven hours of sleep and waking up for a morning workout? Either go to bed earlier or fit in exercise later in the day.
2. Plan it out
While it may be tempting to show up at the gym and figure out what to do on the spot or to Google a yoga flow whenever you have time during the day, making a plan in advance ensures you’re making the most of your designated workout time. “Having a specified and well-thought plan can make a huge difference in your workout routine,” suggested Bianca Grover, an exercise physiologist, personal trainer, and owner of Bianca Grover Fitness. “A planned workout can also help keep you accountable. You may be tired after your second set of squats, but that number will help you push yourself to complete your goals.” If you go to a gym, put together a routine ahead of time. If you’re more of a class girl, sign up for online workout classes in advance and write them in your calendar.
3. Warm up
It’s true for new relationships, and it’s true for exercise: when you go from 0-100 way too quickly, it can cause some damage. “Never skip your warmup, which helps reduce injury and improves recovery,” said Barbara Brosnan, NBC-HWC, NASM-CPT, CNC, and a personal trainer and owner of Project Fitness. “Your pre-workout warmup should consist of dynamic stretches (moving stretches rather than holding stretches) that target the muscles you will be focusing on during the workout.” The goal is to warm up the body to ensure your muscles have enough oxygen and increase flexibility to reduce injury. Fit in at least five minutes for a warmup. Try active stretching and low-heart rate cardio like walking on the treadmill.
4. Get in your liquids
What can’t water do? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking two to three cups of water a few hours before you plan to work out, which can maximize hydration levels during exercise. Without proper hydration, your body can’t perform at its best. Curious about other types of pre-workout fuel? Good news for our Starbucks addiction: “Caffeine is an ergogenic aid; which means it can aid in performance by increasing energy, focus, and endurance,” explained Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N to Byrdie. No matter how you prefer to fuel your body before a workout, make sure it feels best for you. If coffee makes you feel jittery (or if you work out in the evenings), stick to water—and get lots of it. Bottom line: make sure you’re properly hydrated and fuel your body with whatever makes you feel your best.
5. Listen to the right playlist
Because what could be more motivating than the chorus of Run the World (Girls) or make you pick up the intensity quite like the first 45 seconds of Lose Yourself? Getting in the right mindset is just as important as getting in the right physical space, so while prepping your body for a spin class or yoga flow, don’t forget to prepare the mind, too. You shouldn’t feel dreadful, apprehensive, or irritated going into a workout. If you do, you haven’t found the workout that’s best for you. Try listening to your favorite pump-up playlist (I’m biased, but this one slaps) to boost energy and excitement, visualize how good you’ll feel moving your body, and pick a type of workout that will make you feel good for the rest of the day.
Yes, stretching gets a point before and after a workout because it’s just that beneficial (and crucial). “Post-workout, focus on isolated stretches: stretch and hold for 20-30 seconds to target the muscle groups that you used during your workout,” Brosnan recommended. Stretching after your workout also has benefits of injury prevention and improved recovery, but the difference is that you should hold each stretch to go deeper. Make sure to target the muscles you worked on, as well as the areas we often forget about, like inner thighs or upper back. Oh, and if you dim the lights, play some relaxing music, and light a candle or two? You just might feel transported into a fancy yoga studio.
2. Eat nourishing food
There’s a reason spin class and brunch go together like PB&J: refueling post-workout is crucial for your health and achieving fitness goals (although I’m guessing bottomless mimosas don’t count toward that). After using up its available energy, the body needs to refuel (especially with carbs and protein) to get more energy and repair muscles. If your goal is more strength, endurance, or stamina (or just to be overall healthy), don’t ignore that stomach growl. Think about it: your body is like a car (a Rolls Royce, might I add), and food is gasoline. To keep going fast—and get even faster—you need to continually replenish the gas. A fruit smoothie with protein powder and chia seeds, eggs with avocado toast, or a grain bowl make for ideal post-workout meals since they combine protein, carbs, and fats.
3. Try a foam roller
Remember the importance of stretching? Similar benefits apply when getting a massage (as if we needed another reason) by releasing tension in the muscles and helping the body recover from workouts and strain. But since getting a massage is not always feasible (or good for our wallets), enter the foam roller. “Foam rolling seems to make muscles more receptive to stretching and moving. It’s the best thing I’ve found to make people feel better immediately,” explained Michael Bento, a personal trainer at Massachusetts General Hospital, to Harvard Medical School. If you’re new to foam rolling, try out these moves to help with muscle soreness and tension.
4. Take a rest day
If you’ve had a particularly tough workout, taking a rest day might actually help you maximize the work you did the day before. “Your muscles need time to recover after an intense workout,” explained Ashlee Van Buskirk, a registered nurse, personal trainer, and founder of Whole Intent. “However, if you’re itching to get active and you want to maximize the impact of yesterday’s workout, consider some light exercise. Walking, swimming, or doing yoga are great ways to stay active while letting muscles recover.” The key to health is tuning in to your body to find out what it needs. If you’re feeling too sore or exhausted, take a rest day. Listening to your body will help you get stronger.
5. Indulge in some self-care
“Recovery is the missing piece of self-care, and designing a post-workout recovery ritual is key to repairing, rebuilding, and strengthening our bodies from the inside out,” said Dr. Sharif Tabbah, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Miami. In other words, how much you care for yourself after a workout is just as important as how much you push yourself during a workout. Whether that means taking a warm bath to soothe sore muscles or a work break to destress, self-care deserves to be a part of your fitness routine. Going back to the car analogy: if food is gasoline, self-care is the “check engine” light. You have to care for the engine if you’re going to want the car to go faster. Self-care replenishes and nourishes the body so that you’ll be more motivated, ready, and energized for the next workout.
What habits have improved your workouts?