Pre-Workout Routines

pre-workout routine

Do you ever feel that your effort is not reflected by your results?

Feel frustrated that despite "doing everything right" while working out...

And putting as much energy in to your exercise as you possibly can...

You simply don't see the progress that you think you should be?

It is of course possible that you've simply reached a natural training plateau... but there's another, more common reason.

Have you ever considered how much of your potential fitness success you're leaving on the table... by failing to prepare properly?

How much better and more productive could your workouts be if you had a better pre-workout routine?

Your pre-workout routine can literally make or break your workout...

And if you routinely fail to follow effective habits over the long-term...

Your overall results are potentially going to be severely restricted.

And by "pre-workout routine", we're referring to a lot more than a typical "5 minute warm-up" and a couple of stretches.

Depending on the time of day that you like to exercise, an effective pre-workout routine could include anything and everything that you do for approximately 90 minutes, or more, before you begin to train.

That doesn’t mean that you have to abandon whatever else you are doing for 90 minutes.

But you should at least be thinking about whether that time is being spent helping or hindering the upcoming workout.

And if you’ve spent years “getting on just fine” without a pre-workout routine...

Don’t assume that this doesn’t apply to you!

If you think you have been successfully dropping everything and instantly switching into “workout mode”…

There is A LOT that you can, and should, be doing to improve your mental and physical game.

Just imagine the difference it would make if you could optimise every single one of your workouts, rather than just going through the motions most of the time, for the sake of ticking off a box to say you “did” the workout...

What's Wrong With Just Turning Up?

In most cases, your typical daily routine is not going to be designed for optimal physical performance.

  • waking up early, after low quantity/quality sleep

  • a stressful day at work

  • the typical 'Western' sedentary lifestyle

  • the typical 'Western' diet

  • excessive caffeine

  • yo-yoing blood sugar levels

  • etc etc...

It's going to take more than a good 'workout playlist' and a half-baked warm-up to get your body and mind primed for a quality workout.

As a result of the above obstacles, you will neither be physically or mentally firing at anywhere near 100% if you don't prepare properly.

The irony is, even if you feel that you are overcoming these challenges and giving maximum "effort"...

Issues related to poor sleep, stress, eating and drinking the wrong things (quantity and quality)...

Is probably increasing your level of perceived effort!

In other words... you feel that you are at 100%, while in reality you are significantly underperforming compared to what a well-prepared version of yourself can/should be doing...

...and obviously, when the time comes to monitor your results/progress... you'll be disappointed.

Many people will misinterpret a lack of progress under these conditions as a training "plateau"...

While they are plateauing... the dramatic changes to training programmes that a lot of people often resort to, are actually unnecessary... and are probably doing more harm than good as the frequent, premature changes actually mean you are sabotaging your body's efforts to gradually adapt to any individual specific stimulus.

Simply thinking about a pre-workout routine, and turning up in a much stronger physical and mental state, is often all that's needed to make sure you're 'on form' and able to push past these apparent plateaus.


bowl of porridge with fruit

Arguably, the food and drink that you consume pre-workout will have the biggest effect on the quality of that workout.

Skipping meals before exercise because "you're busy" is self-sabotage!

While there's a variety of theories, opinions and beliefs around the type of diet that is best for health and performance, there are certain boxes that most people (probably everybody) should ideally be ticking to ensure that they are optimally fuelled for exercise.

That usually means supplying your body with it's preferred energy source (usually carbohydrates, especially if the workout involves any type of high intensity exercise), and considering any nutrients that may be detrimental to exercise (bare in mind that this could include nutrients that are otherwise considered essential for health at any other time of the day... 'not ideal before exercise' doesn't automatically mean 'unhealthy'... and 'healthy' doesn't automatically mean 'ideal before exercise')...

...which foods are going to provide you with energy and which foods are going to make you feel sluggish and tired?

Try to think of pre-workout meals in the context of your overall diet...

For example, you can eat foods that are low in fat and fiber before exercise, to help avoid digestive discomfort but still meet your daily intake requirements of those nutrients at other times of the day. In other words, tactically avoiding foods that are otherwise considered essential, (eg. fiber), for a good reason before exercise, doesn't have to mean that you are at risk of following a diet that is low in fiber overall... you would just need to ensure that other meals, at other times of the day, cover those nutritional requirements.

Food timing is important too. While the optimum time can vary from person to person, approximately 90 minutes should provide the balance between having enough time to digest food before exercise, while making sure that your body is actually 'using' those nutrients in the intended way and that you have time to train before getting hungry again (ideally we also want to be ready to think about post-workout nutrition without long delays).

Again, the specific timing might vary from person to person, and will also be affected by what you eat (example - high fat and fiber meals will usually take longer to digest compared to meals that are higher in carbohydrates.... be especially careful with high sugar foods that might actually cause a 'rise and crash' in sugar levels if you are not mindful of what you are doing and when you are doing it).

Time of day will also be a factor. Exercise is not going to be optimal on an empty stomach. But early morning workouts naturally require a different approach to later workouts. If a 90 minute gap between breakfast and your early workout is not possible... what are you going to do about it to make sure your workout doesn't suffer? How does this change if you're training late and want to get to sleep fairly soon after training?


pouring water

Even slightly less than ideal hydration will affect your physical performance...

That means;

  • less reps

  • slower speeds

  • lower endurance

  • reduced strength and power

  • slower recovery between sets

  • reduced ability to transport blood, nutrients and oxygen around the body...

...the list goes on.

Drinking enough water before exercise should be simple... but failing to do so is common.

Whether that's because of work distractions, forgetfulness, or because you've literally just jumped out of bed... you need to consider whether this vital part of your routine is missing... and make the necessary adjustments a priority.

Approach hydration with a maintenance mindset... drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated. Spending the day in a dehydrated state and then downing a pint of water before a run is not smart!

State Of Mind...

Most regular exercisers are now fully aware of the mental health benefits of physical activity. We know that frequent exercise leads to positive psychological effects.

What gets overlooked, is that this is a two-way relationship...

Your initial state of mind will have a major effect on the physical outcomes that you can potentially achieve via exercise.

That will mean different things for different people, depending on your personality and the type of exercise that you are doing.

For example, high intensity, "aggressive" exercise (such as most HIIT workouts), will require a different optimal mindset to something 'slower', requiring more concentration than aggression eg. Pilates, yoga etc.

Regardless of the "mood" that you should ideally be in during that workout, it helps to spend time pre-workout, getting into that mood... rather than turning up in the wrong frame of mind and compromising the workout.

Consider anything that may be causing stress, mental fatigue, tiredness or even being overly relaxed during the ~90 minutes before exercise... and make the necessary changes.

More On Stress & Anxiety...

Exercise is known for being a popular way of burning nervous energy, reducing stress, and alleviating anxiety.

In some cases, your workout intensity may even benefit from what could normally be seen as a 'negative' state of mind.

Again, this is more likely to apply to more aggressive types of high intensity exercise where you arguably need to be less mentally focussed...

Sprinting, spinning etc...

But many types of exercise benefit from being "in the moment" and concentrating on what you're doing...

Even lifting weights, where you would assume that "taking out your stress" on the exercise may be helpful.

It's equally important that you are focussed on your exercise technique and the 'mind-muscle connection'.

If you're suffering from excessive stress and anxiety during your workout, this can become a distraction.

Think about the type of 'mood' that you should ideally be in for your own workouts.

And then start to think about how your pre-workout routine might be affecting this.

If you're currently at work, for example, or scrolling through social media, up until the very start of your workout... how will this affect the quality of your exercise?

What (if anything) can you do to improve your routine and mitigate the negative effects?

The Caffeine Paradox...

coffee pouring

If you're a regular coffee/tea drinker, you already know the effects (positive and negative) of caffeine.

Commonly used to give a lift, mentally and physically, caffeine can be a useful tool.

Caffeine has also been well researched as a potential pre-workout supplement.

That research shows that caffeine, when supplemented appropriately, can;

  • temporarily increase muscle strength/maximum power

  • temporarily improve muscular endurance

  • increase blood flow (more blood = more oxygen and glucose available to muscles, plus increased rate of waste product removal)

  • increase your perception of your energy levels

  • (possibly) increase your short term ability to burn fat for energy

  • decrease reaction time (extremely valuable in most sports)

  • decrease perceived effort (workouts might 'feel' easier)

  • potentially reduce perception of pain (useful if we're talking about muscle discomfort due to fatigue, NOT as a painkiller if you're either injured or doing something that is risking injury!)

But caffeine also has it's drawbacks...

Again, you'll need to consider the context of your own routine...

Caffeine isn't going to leave your system, and stop affecting your biology as soon as you stop exercising.

The half-life of caffeine (the amount of time it takes your body to reduce your caffeine levels by 50%) is approximately 6


So if you're training later in the day, you'll need to consider the effect of pre-workout caffeine on your sleep...

Sleep quantity and quality is absolutely critical to all long-term health and fitness goals...

So while you may get a short-term benefit during a single workout... if pre-workout caffeine inhibits that sleep (and therefore your recovery and overall progress), you're probably going to end up sabotaging your long-term results rather than progressing towards them.

Deal With Distractions...

The later you train, the more likely it is that "something will come up" which may delay or prevent your workout.

You don't have to train early in the morning...

But if you are training later in the day, you'll need to make sure that you minimise distractions immediately before you're supposed to start.

Especially if you're not feeling very motivated... it's far too easy to come up with a reason (or excuse) to abandon the workout. So a large part of the pre-workout routine may simply be about clearing your schedule and making a commitment to that workout.

Deal with anything (or ignore) that could lead to procrastination...

Apart from emergencies, your workout is now your top priority for the time that you've allocated!

Warming Up...

Thigh stretch

For a lot of people, even those who have been exercising regularly for years, it can be tempting to neglect the warm-up.

A couple of minutes of very light cardio and one or two stretches seems to be very common... while some people will even skip the warm-up altogether.

This will be based on a misguided assumption that they either don't need to warm-up, or are willing to ignore the assumed increase of injury...

...failing to acknowledge or understand the variety of benefits;

  • increasing internal muscle temperature* (affects muscle function/performance and oxygen uptake as well as potentially reducing injury risk due to decreased muscle viscosity)

  • prompting your joints* to self-lubricate with synovial fluid (further reduces injury risk and reduces joint friction during movement - think WD-40 on a stiff door hinge!)

  • mobility work will help to either improve or maintain healthy movement patterns - adding to your injury prevention arsenal and improve the quality of your upcoming exercise

  • 'switching on' your nervous system - it's easy to assume that your muscles are solely responsible for your balance, stability, strength, power etc. All of these skills/abilities originate from your brain and rely on your nervous system to relay that information to the relevant muscles*... include 'nervous system activation' exercises in your warm-up to tap-in to your body's full potential!

  • gradually increasing heart rate and breathing rate allows you to physically and mentally build up to your peak levels.

*Note: Make your warm-up relevant to your upcoming workout - which muscles, which joints, which movement patterns need attention? Are you neglecting anything important?

To achieve the above... consider including;

  • at least 5 minutes for a general, light and simple cardiovascular movement. Remember... you're looking to gradually build up to a point where you're ready to train. This isn't the time for complex, heavy or high intensity exercises.

  • specific movements or light resistance exercises that contract/mobilise the muscles and joints that are most relevant or most at risk of injury during your warm-up. Again, remember that the point is to prime/prepare/activate your body for exercise, not to fatigue it! This could include warm-up sets for resistance exercises, specific activation exercises and specific mobility exercises.

  • taking the time to practice new or complicated movements... check your 'form' or technique before going heavy. Not only will your nervous system benefit from the increased repetition of movement, but you'll further enhance your mental readiness by focussing on exercise (and hopefully forgetting any distractions).

Can Simply Having Any Routine Work As A Placebo?

Hopefully it's clear that a large part of your pre-workout routine is for mental/psychological purposes - it isn't purely physical!

Physically... you DO need to be 'fuelled', hydrated, well rested and finally, thoroughly warmed up. There's no getting away from the importance of those aspects.

But in terms of the psychological aspect... while there are many possible habits that could form an effective routine... it's possible that simply having any routine at all is an advantage compared to no routine at all.

In other words, while what you do during your routine is important, the fact that you are doing something/anything, might be an advantage in itself.

Simply having the intention of following a deliberate pre-workout routine, the association of certain behaviours with physical activity, believing that you are preparing well for exercise may be enough to produce benefits through a placebo effect, or promoting self-efficacy/a 'self fulfilling prophecy' ("I behave in a certain way... therefore I am that person").

The relevance of this, is that if you are thinking about skipping a workout due to fatigue, low mood/energy etc... consider following your pre-workout routine anyway...

See how you feel after. The routine might be enough to lift your mood and provide the sense of motivation to continue with the workout...

In the long-term... you are far more likely to maintain your programme due to a positive mindset!

A Quick Word On Pre-Workout Supplements...

Supplements are never a substitute for proper nutrition. They are literally supposed to supplement your existing diet after you have made every effort to eat the foods that cover your required nutrition...

The same goes for any supplement that has supposedly been designed and marketed for use as a "pre-workout".

Ignoring all of the above and assuming that a powder will provide a shortcut is a mistake.

That doesn't mean you can't use a supplement... but again (assuming that you have a supplement that works and is safe), that supplement is only going to produce the optimal effect if you have made an effort to prepare properly.

As with any training programme...

There is no "perfect" one-size fit all routine that everybody must follow prior to exercise.

The routine that works best for you will be an individualised approach based on your lifestyle, current habits and the specifics of your programme.

But hopefully thinking about the above, if you're not already, will represent an improvement in how well you prepare for workouts...

And therefore a significant improvement in what you can achieve via those workouts.


Disclaimer: This blog is for general information purposes only. It does not constitute specific advice for any individual and is not a substitute for a personal, tailored exercise or lifestyle programme. The information/opinions in this blog must not be treated as a substitute for medical advice.

The use of any information or opinion on this blog is at the user's own risk.

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