The best thing to do before starting any workout program or making any change in your life is to establish a set of ground rules, so you can stay on track no matter what distractions or old tendencies rear their heads.
Here are 21 tried-and-true rules I’ve cultivated over the years that have helped me stay on track. Twenty-one may seem overwhelming, but give it an honest effort. Commit to following them for one week and you’ll find they’re surprisingly simple to adapt to.
It may sounds cheesy, but a sunny outlook leads to real results. One study found people who saw upbeat subliminal messages during a workout (like a smiley face or encouraging words on a screen) exercised longer than their negative counterparts. Just thinking positive thoughts should help. Or, grab a partner who tends to be more glass-half-full than you are. A separate study also found getting positive feedback from a friend can boost endurance.
Keep Your Cell Phone in Airplane Mode During Workouts
Researchers at the University of Utah suggest driving while using a cell phone is as distracting as being drunk. So, it’s not too far of a stretch to assume your phone is monstrously distracting during your workout. Leave it in the locker; or, put it on airplane mode if you need music.
Loads of studies have the same consensus: Listening to music can enhance your workout performance. Get the most out of this tip by listening to tunes with a high BPM. Research shows doing so can push you to work harder.
The average guy needs about .6 grams of protein daily for every pound of body weight, according to recent research. And if you lift, you need even more. But don’t make the mistake of consuming 60 percent of your daily quota in the form of a massive steak dinner; your body can only use about 25-30g of protein per meal. Instead, kick-start the day with a solid protein-packed breakfast of eggs (they have 6 grams of protein a pop, plus energy-enhancing choline and vitamins B12 and D).
A bedtime protein shake is also smart. It can increase muscle synthesis by 22 percent, according to a Journal of Nutrition study. The guys in the study consumed a shake with 27.5g protein and 15g carbs nightly for 12 weeks.
Load the Plate with Less Food Than You Think You Want
Each bite of any meal you eat will taste less delicious than the one before it, according to science. So, start small and be mindful of what you’re eating. If you’re still hungry, go for seconds—but give it some time. Your brain and stomach need about 20 minutes to register fullness.
One study found studying before an endurance workout can hurt gains by tiring you out faster—likely because using so much mental energy also fatigues your body. Take some time to relax after a particularly stressful day at work or school before you hit the gym.
Supersetting is one of the most efficient ways to structure your routines, according to a study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. That’s because you don’t waste any time resting—instead, one muscle group rests while another one works. Guys in the study who supersetted their workout benched about 10 percent more and rowed 23 percent more weight than the ones who didn't.
If that’s not an option, go outside and walk through a park or trail. Or, look at pictures of nature for about 40 seconds before you exercise. A study showed doing so can help you focus and be more accurate during tedious, repetitive tasks (think: a weightlifting circuit).
You may think running miles on miles is the best way to get rid of your gut—but that’s just not true. Weight training raises your metabolic rate meaning you torch more calories and fat during your workouts—and for up to 48 hours afterwards. Just look at the guys in a study in the journal Obesity for proof: The ones who did cardio gained nearly twice as much belly flab as the weight lifters over the course of 12 years.
However, cardio can help fast-track your weight loss results—if you do the right kind and don’t overdo it. Running intervals is a great example. Just be sure to remember proper form: Keep your head still without any up-and-down or side-to-side motion, think about pulling up your back leg with your hamstrings rather than pushing off with your quads, and focus on keeping your back straight. Just like with lifting, doing cardio “wrong” can reduce—if not reverse—the benefits by upping your risk for injury.
It’s not just about getting in a workout every day and eating right (though that’s obviously important). You also need to move throughout the day. Getting up and walking for at least two minutes every hour tacks on extra steps for the day, contributing to your overall fitness, and it also lowers your risk of early death by 33 percent, according to a Univesity of Utah School of Medicine study. Try setting an alert on your phone or use a fitness tracker with move alerts to keep you accountable.
There’s a very clear connection between water and performance. For every 1% body mass you lose through sweat, your heart rate ticks up three beats a minute—which means it has to work harder, says the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. By drinking plenty before and during your workout you’ll keep your heart rate lower so you can exercise at a greater intensity.
Drinking plenty of green tea throughout the day can help you drop pounds faster. A study (granted it wasn't done on humans) from the University of Penn found mice that exercised plus had the equivalent of 8-10 cups of green day a day lost more body fat—especially around their “abs”—than the mice who didn’t get any tea. Sure, 8-10 cups is a lot and we’re talking about mice, but we’re thinking even adding a cup or two a day for humans could help.
Getting seven to nine hours a night is more important than most people give it credit for. Skimping can make you eat more the next day, for one. It can also raise your blood pressure. The good news is that sneaking in a 30-minute nap the day after sleeping poorly can help reverse the negative effects says a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
Look good, feel good. If you’re confident in what you’re wearing, you’ll perform better. One study found that wearing lab coats made volunteers more successful at a task—likely because the coats made them feel more important. The same could hold true for gym wear—if you look the part in the latest, greatest gear, you’ll feel more confident and it could help you perform better, too. (Plus, simply putting on your workout clothes means makes you feel more motivated to actually work out. So, there’s that too.)
You may think you’re saving time by skipping it, but you’ll pay for it by decreased gains in your workout. It literally gets your muscles “warm,” plus jump-starts the mind-body connection, priming your muscles for exercise. Warming up enhances your performance by helping you go into a fuller range of motion during moves like a squat, for example. Aim to spend 10 minutes on dynamic stretches like butt kicks and walking lunges. Foam rolling before a workout can also help.
Stress can lead you to eat straight garbage. One study in the journal PsychologicalScience, found that guys who were primed to feel stressed ate more high-calorie foods than those who weren't. Keep it together. Mediate, do yoga, or just spend more time getting some R&R.
There is such a thing as working too hard for too long—just like your mind needs a break, your muscles do too. One study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that taking a short break away from the gym may help re-sensitize your muscles to m-TOR, a protein that signals muscle growth. That, in turn, can increase your training benefits and enhance recovery when you do hit it hard again.
Don’t underestimate the power of perseverance. It’s a trait shared by many pro athletes—and separates the boys from the men in the gym. Just because you think you’re having a “bad” workout, stick it out—and go back the next day—and you’ll find that it becomes easier the longer you persevere.