One of the most important — and most overlooked! — aspects of productive training is also one of the simplest. The best type of training is fun. Yeah, it sounds simple, maybe even stupid, but it’s the truth.
If you’re not having fun with your training, then it’s impossible to really be at your best. I’ve written a lot about the mental side of lifting, so it should come as no surprise that I really believe having fun can be a game changer.
The secret, of course, is in finding ways to have fun without doing things that will hurt your progress or even your body. That’s easier said than done, especially because many people have the most fun by going all-out, all the time. That’s simply not a productive manner of lifting for anyone. But there are ways that you can make your lifting more fun, more productive, and better overall. Here’s three ideas to get you started:
1. Optimize Free Time
“Free time” is a strategy I incorporate in my powerbuilding programs, and the idea is simple. Every so often, you can program set periods of time (15-20 minutes is a good bet) to do whatever you want in the gym. Curls, handstands, balance ball crunches — it’s all fair game, as long as (1) you don’t go all-out and (2) you stay within the time limit.
Free time is great because it gives you the opportunity to get the “have tos” out of your system. Have tos are exercises that you feel emotionally attached to, but can’t logically include in your program for some reason. These types of disconnects can be very frustrating for some people, and so it’s really important to account for them when planning a training program.
Now, you do need to program free time fairly carefully. I usually include this during low-volume training blocks, because you probably don’t want to add more work to an already high-volume training session. I also keep free time to 20 minutes max, and usually 10-15 minutes. This is enough time to get some stress out doing some fun, different movements, but not enough time to really exhaust yourself.
Here’s what that might look like in practice (remember, this is a low-volume training block):
Bench/Chest & Shoulders Light Day
- Flat/competition bench press: 3×5 @77% 1RM
- Overhead press: 2×5 @ 80% 1RM
- Dip: 3×10 @ RPE 9
- Free time: 20 minutes (20 minutes of chest/shoulder movements, like flyes, lateral raises, or even handstand pushups – whatever you feel like!)
Squat/Legs Heavy Day
- Squat: 1×5 @ 85% 1RM
- Front squat: 2×5 @ 80% 1RM
- Stiff-leg deadlift: 3×10 @ RPE 9
- Free time: 15 minutes (movements like leg extensions, leg press, or step ups)
I prefer to allow a bit more free time for the upper body and for light days, because they’re less systemically demanding and already allow for more recovery. I’m sure you know that you don’t often have a lot of motivation to crank out 20 minutes of leg extensions after an all-out set of squats!
The biggest key is to not worry about performance during your free time. These exercises don’t need to be physically demanding, you don’t need to train them progressively, and you don’t need to get hung up on whether they felt easier or harder than the last time you did them. Just have fun doing them, and you’ll be stronger for it in the long run.
2. Speed It Up
Most good training programs include some amount of drudgery. Maybe it’s light training, or assistance work, or maybe it’s simply an exercise you simply don’t enjoy. In any of these cases, you can make your training more fun by trying to move through it as quickly as possible. Challenging yourself to push harder through a part of your training that you would typically just phone in will obviously improve your results — and probably help you to get that endorphin rush that can be so rewarding after a good training session.
To do this, I recommend starting with a time limit for your programmed sets. I usually allot 5 minutes per set of squats, bench press, and deadlift — but remember that’s total time, including setup, execution, and rest between sets. So, if I’m doing 3 sets, I’ll try to finish all of those in 15 minutes total. If you’re doing singles, of course, this will be easy, and you’ll want to lower that amount of time. If you’re doing sets of 10, your training is probably plenty difficult without adding a timer in the first place!
For isolation or bodybuilding movements, I use a different approach: I just try to move as quickly as I possibly can, without turning the session into a cardiovascular workout. That’s a little more qualitatively, but a good rule of thumb is this: if you’re having more trouble catching your breath than you are lifting weights, you’re moving a bit too quickly. If you’re losing focus between sets, time to speed it up.
Here’s an example, this time from a higher-volume off-season program:
Bench/Chest & Shoulders Light Day
- Bench press: 5×5 @ 77% 1RM, 20 minutes total (space your sets to use all 20 minutes)
- Incline bench press: 2×6 @74% 1RM (no time limit)
- Tri-set of dumbbell flye/cable crossover/weighted pushup: 3×15 reps per movement, 30 seconds max between movements, 2 minutes max between tri-sets (moving faster if possible)
- Superset of dumbbell lateral raises and machine overhead press: 2×20 reps per movement, no rest between movements, 3 minutes max between supersets (moving faster if possible)
Squat/Legs Heavy Day
- Squat: 1×5 @ 85% 1RM (no time limit)
- Front squat: 3×5 @ 80% 1RM, 15 minutes total
- Tri-set of leg extensions, single-leg presses, and lying hamstring curls: 3×10 reps per movement, no rest between movements, 3 minutes max between tri-sets
- Weighted plank: 3 sets of max time (no time limit)
We allow a little more rest on the lower-body day because again, squats are going to usually be a lot more demanding then bench, and because we’re training heavier. Pretty intuitive, right?
Intuitive or not, you need to be careful with this type of training. It’s easy to over-estimate your abilities and under-estimate how much the shorter rest periods will impact your performance, so err on the side of being conservative here.
3. Find a Lifting Partner
So many people have written about the benefits of having a training partner that I’m not going to rehash them here. I am going to focus on one of the biggest benefits: the fact that it’s usually more fun to lift with a friend than to lift by yourself. Camaraderie is huge in anything, and training is no exception.
This is an easy one to implement, assuming you can find someone with relatively similar goals and who also has a schedule compatible with your own. You can spot each other, offer feedback on technique and weight selection, and help get each other psyched up for heavy sets. Perhaps more importantly, having a partner can help you get in the zone for the workout itself when you’re not really feeling it — and, of course, you can do the same for them.
Remember: you and your buddy don’t necessarily need to do the same thing to get the benefits of training together. If your training partner is prepping for a figure show and you’re getting ready for a powerlifting meet, that’s fine — you can still encourage and support each other and share some really rewarding training experiences. Don’t, however, just turn the gym into a chat room. You need to focus on the task at hand first, and a good training partner will respect that and enhance your lifting, not distract from it.
If you can’t find someone who can work with your schedule, that’s okay. My training partner and I don’t even live in the same city! We share videos of our training sessions over text and email, and ask for feedback and advice afterwards. While it’s not quite the same as interacting with someone in person, it’s still useful: sharing your progress is always validating (and therefore fun), and you still get that ever-important objective opinion on your performance.
Obviously, these are just a few suggestions, and there are no right answers. So I’m curious: how do you have fun in the gym? Share in the comments below!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.