Whether you are a power lifter, bodybuilder, cricketer, baseball player, combat athlete or someone just trying to improve your strength and fitness levels, it is important to keep moving when you are in the weights room. Instead of performing an exercise and then having a break in between sets, try alternating between two exercises without taking a break. Alternating between a very intense exercise and an easier movement which requires less effort will help return your breathing to normal while still getting some important work done.
Using a second exercise to help you recover from the first one will give you the ability to work harder in subsequent sets of your workout. The second exercise can also be used for injury rehabilitation, core stability, activation, bat swings, reflex/reaction drills or self myofascial release. Training this way will make your time at the gym far more productive. You simply get more done in the same amount of time. In my own training I figured out that I spent more and more time recovering in between sets than I actually spent lifting so to accomplish more I knew I needed to use this time in between sets to a) recover and b) get some other work done without compromising the force I could produce in the sets to come. This is known as active recovery and there are many ways in which you can use active recovery in your workouts. You must however follow a few simple rules when training this way:
1. Every exercise has to have a specific purpose. Know what you are doing and why you are doing it.
2. Your mobility or activation exercise must not interfere with the primary exercise you are doing at the time. Be very careful not to pick an exercise that is going to exhaust the same muscles you are using in your primary movements. For example, you don’t want to do push-ups in between sets of heavy bench presses, or core exercises in between sets of single leg squats which require a lot of core strength and stability to maintain good form.
3. It must not make the workout longer (i.e. it should not make the time in between sets of the primary movements longer than it would be without the active recovery movement/exercise). Let’s look at how this active recovery can be applied to your workouts.
For Olympic lifting or Power lifters: Mobility and the Four-Part Squat
I learnt this from Nick Tuminnelo and Gray Cook. If you are performing any Olympic or power lifts then try this drill in between sets. Stand with a wide stance and begin the movement by bending forward and grabbing your toes. Then drop your hips as low as you can while at the same time keeping your back straight. Try and activate your glutes and pull your knees out the sides. Think of sitting like a frog! The last step is to raise one arm overhead and then the other arm before standing up. Repeat this movement for a set of 8-10 reps.
I like to work on mobility drills in most of my workouts so if I am doing upper body strength work I like to incorporate some dynamic lower body mobility movement patterns into my workout. On the other hand of I am doing leg stuff I like to throw in some upper body mobility exercises. If I am doing a combination of upper and lower body exercises in my workout I may include some movement preparation/dynamic warm up that is specific to movements that are coming up in the workout.
Reflex, Reaction and Hand Eye Co-ordination Drills
As a strength and conditioning coach it is my job to help every athlete I am training get bigger, stronger, leaner and more explosive so that they are able to develop their game skills much quicker. However, I am also a skills coach who still actively plays the sport I coach at a decent level. I have found personally and with the athletes I have worked with that practicing sports specific movements in between sets in the gym has benefited us a lot as we get to groove shots and movements under fatigue. This idea can be used for any sport e.g. a rugby player may practice a few passes or boxer may practice some foot movement or some combinations in between sets.
When I am training a cricket player; I might have them bring a cricket bat to the session so that they can practice some bat swings in between sets. This will be there active recovery. This just reinforces the muscle memory that is being developed by their skills coach outside of the gym. I think more important though is that it teaches the athlete to maintain correct form under fatigue. It is under fatigue that athletes lose their shape and make an error so this helps them to learn to be more consistent with their swings. This is especially important if his or her coach has recently altered their swing mechanics.
I also like to do drills to improve reaction time, reflexes and hand eye co-ordination in between sets. A really good one is the card catch. I also like tennis ball rapid fire catching, using a tennis ball with a seam that bounces funny or simply doing some sports eye site exercises.
Rehabilitation Exercises for Injured Athletes
A short time ago I sprained my ankle pretty badly. It kept me from running for a few weeks so I was limited to upper body strength and power work in the gym. Performing some low-intensity rehab exercises in between sets was a great way to recover as the exercises never created any additional fatigue in the muscles I was using for my primary movements. Instead of doing my rehab once a day I was doing it twice a day for an extra three days a week at the gym without spending any more time training. As a result, I was able to get back to running and doing more dynamic lower body work much quicker. If you are recovering from a shoulder injury then have a read of this article as some of these exercises may be useful in your active recovery while doing your lower body work: Best Shoulder Rehab Exercises
Neck-Strengthening Exercises for Combat Sports/ Power Athletes
All our movement requires stabilisation of the neck musculature so everyone can benefit from doing some neck strengthening exercises. The neck is actually part of the core so technically this could all go under the following section of core strength and stability. I have chosen to separate it as I feel it is extremely important and something that should not be over looked. For athletes in combative sports like rugby, boxing, MMA and football, neck strength and stability can be crucial to a player’s longevity in the game. If you play these sports, add a new dimension to your training program by making sure to include some neck-strengthening work in your workout.
Core Strength and Stability Exercises
I think there is a time and place to use core exercises in between primary movements. It makes sense that you never do them in between sets of dead lift, squats, bent over rows or any exercise that requires core stabilisation to protect the spine from unnecessary flexion.
Check this post on core training to find some exercises that you can use to incorporate into your workouts. Obviously your level of strength and fitness determines what you are able to do.