When it comes to your fitness routine, the time you spend sweating it out in the gym tends to get all the credit—but it shouldn’t. If you know what to do before a workout and what to do after a workout, you’ll know exactly how to tweak your routine in order to impact your progress and results.
“The workout is actually the easiest part of a fitness routine,” says Jay Cardiello, celebrity trainer and Gold’s Gym Fitness Institute member. “Whether you walk, jog, lift weights, or do CrossFit, an hour is only four percent of your day, and you can’t [make that more important than] the 23 other hours.”
Things like good nutrition and quality sleep matter too, and smart pre- and post-workout rituals can ensure you’re recovering properly, fueling your efforts, and crushing it in every single workout. Here are the 10 things that should definitely be a part of your fitness routine if you want to maximize your results.
Before your workout:
1. Prioritize getting enough good quality sleep.
“The most imperative thing in any fitness program starts the minute you go to sleep—that’s where all the magic happens,” says Cardiello. Being well-rested not only energizes you through every burpee or sprint, but it also keeps your hunger hormones in check, so you’re not undoing your efforts in the gym by overeating the rest of the day.
“Whoever I work out with, they don’t show up to the gym unless they’re getting seven hours of sleep,” says Cardiello. “I tell them to go home.” (Whoa.) If you can’t do seven, at least try for six and a half hours, he says—he recommends his clients set boundaries with their electronics before bed so the light doesn’t keep them awake. A good sleep is also super important after a workout, too—that’s when muscles really get to recover.
2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
You already know that drinking your H20 is crucial to overall health, but it plays an especially important role in a fitness routine—when you’re sweating it out, you need to make sure your body is properly hydrated since you’re losing water. Plus, being hydrated will make sure your energy levels are where they need to be, says Cardiello.
“Just look at the parallels between oil in a car and water in a body—a car can’t run without oil, a body can’t run without water,” says Cardiello. You should be sipping it before, during, and after a workout.
Although exact water needs vary from person to person, he recommends aiming for half of your bodyweight in ounces per day (so, if you weight 150 pounds, try to get in 75 ounces). If your urine is dark, it probably means you’re not hydrated enough. Here are easy ways to drink more of it.
3. Grab a snack.
If you’re really not feeling a pre-workout snack, there’s no need to force food down ahead of time, but don’t ignore your body if you feel like you need some fuel. “If there’s no food in, there’s no energy out,” says Cardiello. He suggests a piece of toast with almond butter to get you going. The sweet spot? “I don’t want you to be starving, but I don’t want you to be feeling full either.”
4. Make sure you’re wearing the right clothes and footwear for the workout you’re doing.
Being able to move, jump, run, stretch, and get into certain positions and poses is about more than just your athletic prowess or your mobility and flexibility. It’s also about having the right gear for the job. For example, you might not care much about which sports bra you choose for yoga, but for running, you’ll want a high-impact one. Wearing the right sneakers on a long run will mean way more comfort, which could translate to better endurance and a more enjoyable workout. There’s nothing worse than arriving at the gym or setting out the door only to discover you’re actually a little (or a lot) uncomfortable. Before you head out the door, do a once over and make sure you’re outfitted properly. Check out the leggings, shorts, and sports bras that SELF editors loved so much, they won the SELF Fitness Awards. Check out more winners (and more apparel to choose from!)
5. Work in a dynamic warm-up.
Skipping your warm-up is a definite no-no—even if your workout is only 10 minutes long. “[The warm-up] is meant to give your body the opportunity to raise your body temperature, increase range of motion, and prepare yourself for what you’re about to do,” says Cardiello. It also helps decrease your chance of injury when you ease into your workout, rather than jumping straight from a resting state to the hard work.
Increasing your range of motion can help you make the most of your workout, because you’ll be able to recruit more muscles during an exercise (for example, getting deeper into a spot means putting more muscles to work). This is done through a dynamic warm-up, which essentially means moving through stretches that aren’t held in place. (Here’s a five-minute dynamic warm-up to try).
After your workout:
6. Stretch it out.
Use static stretching to cool down and reset after a workout. “A cool-down brings your body back to a resting position—the way you walked into the gym is the way you want to leave,” says Cardiello. Stretching may also be beneficial for joint mobility and range of motion. This is the opposite of the stretches you do in a warm-up—after a workout, you should hold your stretches for at least 15 seconds each, says Cardiello. (Here are some cool-down stretches to try.) And because muscles are best stretched when they’re warm, you definitely don’t want to go straight from your workout to a seated position, like at a desk or in a car.
7. And use a foam roller.
According to expert opinion (as well as some preliminary research), foam rolling can help you recover from workouts and might also increase your range of motion. Experts also recommend it as a way to minimize post-workout soreness, which it does by increasing blood flow to the tissues you used while exercising. Foam rolling regularly (and properly) is a great way to speed up recovery.
8. Refuel with post-workout nutrition.
A pre-workout snack is more optional than a post-workout one. Giving your body the fuel it needs to recover after a tough sweat is essential. After a tough workout, your body looks for carbohydrates and protein to help replenish glycogen stores and rebuild muscle, respectively, so getting your body the nutrition it needs to recover in a timely manner is important.
Plus, not eating after a workout can leave you feeling ravenous later on. And no one likes to be hangry and tired. To make it easy on yourself, pack one of these post-workout snacks in your bag. Or, if your gym offers this, “pre-order your shake and pay for it ahead of time, so when you’re walking out to your car or the street they can just hand it to you.”
9. Log your workout.
Keeping track of what you did in every workout will help you keep challenging yourself each time you exercise. It’s also a great way to make sure that overall your workout routine is giving you what you want. Each week you can look back at what you did and how you felt while doing it and decide when it’s time to go a little heavier or a little faster or do a few more reps, or maybe when it’s time to slow down and take it a little easier. And after a few weeks or months, look back at all the time you’ve put in and the progress you’ve made and pat yourself on the back.
10. Consider a cool shower, especially if you worked out in the heat.
The evidence for cold water immersion doing something highly beneficial after a workout is not rock solid; it’s by no means a guarantee that a cool shower after a workout will make you recover quicker or stave off post-workout soreness. However, ice baths after a particularly hot workout or when the athlete is overheated do seem to be helpful. Moreover, some researchers say cold water therapy may contribute to the perception of recovery which, in turn, does actually aid recovery. Basically, if you’re overheated, a cool shower will help your body get back to baseline. And if you’re one of the many people who feels that a cool shower after a workout makes you feel better mentally and/or psychologically, consider making it part of your post-workout ritual. You don’t have to jump in an ice bath like the pros; just turn the shower temperature down lower than you usually do.
By making sure your body’s been warmed up, worked out, and cooled down properly, you can maximize the results you’re working towards. Cheesy as it may sound, fitness really is a lifestyle, and one that doesn’t begin and end with your actual workout.