Exercising for quality is difficult.  As a personal trainer and Muscle Activation Techniques™ practitioner in Schaumburg, this is an issue I run into on a daily basis.  Exercising for quantity, on the other hand, is much easier.  This tends to be the default most people fall back on when they start exercising.  It is completely understandable because, as mentioned, it is far easier to exercise for quantity than it is to exercise for quality.  But there is a way to change that, and it is simpler than you may think.

First, though, what is exercising for quality versus exercising for quantity?

Exercising for quality means that, when you are working out, you are not concerned about the number of reps you perform, the number of sets you do, or the amount of weight you use.  Instead, you are focused on the quality of three things — 1) the contraction, 2) the motion, and 3) the intention.

Exercising for quantity, on the other hand, takes on much more of “just do it” approach.  The goal of the workout becomes completing a certain number of sets and reps of a predetermined number of exercises (“I am going to do four sets of 10 reps of squats”).  Or it will be about working out for a certain amount of time or distance (“I am going to run for an hour.” “I am going to bike for 30 miles.”).

When exercising for quantity, if the predetermined reps/sets/distance/time are met, the workout is a success.  We may even go as far as sacrificing how our body feels during and after the workout in order to reach a sufficient quantity of exercise (“My calves really started to tighten up after the first two miles of my run, but I just had to push through it to finish the 5k.”).

Conversely, when exercising for quality, our focus is 100% on what is going on within our body.  When we can see or feel that our body has had enough, or that the quality of output is starting to diminish, we consider it a job well done and end our exercise session for the day.  It does not matter if we exercise for half the time or twice the time that we thought we would.  We meet our body where it is at on that day and attempt to stimulate it, not annihilate it.

The problem is that, ever since we have been taught how to exercise, we have been taught to focus on the quantity of exercise, not the quality.  We are told that, in order to prevent heart disease, we need to be physically active for at least 20 minutes each day.  We are told that if we lift weights for sets of 15 reps, we are working on the endurance of the muscles, but if we lift weights for sets of 2 reps, we are working on the strength and power of the muscles.  And while there is a certain truth to the idea that there is a minimum amount of stimulation that is necessary in order to reap the physiological and biochemical benefits that we desire, our focus is still on the wrong thing.

In order to maximize the quality of your exercise sessions, there are three things you must focus on.

  1. You must focus on the quality of your muscles’ contraction.

When you are doing an exercise, the goal of the exercise should not be about getting a certain number of reps.  Instead, it should be about stimulating your body.  One of the easiest ways to make a shift towards the latter is to keep your focus on squeezing your muscles while you are doing the exercise.  There are many reasons to focus on squeezing your muscles while you exercise, from improving your results to decreasing your risk of injury, but, overall, focusing on the quality of muscle contraction will be a tremendous boost to the quality of your exercise session.

Action tip:  When you exercise, think about squeezing the muscles you are wanting to work instead of moving the weight or moving the machine.

  1. You must focus on the quality of your motion.

Not all motion is created equal.  A lot of times, we may feel the need to do more motion or perform an exercise through a “full range”.  What we often end up sacrificing in the pursuit of more motion is our control of the motion.  We think that we if don’t complete a “full rep”, the rep doesn’t count, or if we don’t go below parallel with our butt that we aren’t doing a squat.  This is complete nonsense.

What should always trump the quantity of the motion is the quality of the motion.  Make sure that you are able to control whatever motion is being performed.  If the motion becomes an act of flinging your body in an attempt to get more of it, you have completely missed the point of exercising in the first place.  Motion for motion’s sake has little value when it comes to exercise.  But controlled motion for the sake of challenging your body has tremendous merit for improving the quality of your exercise session.

Action tip:  When performing an exercise, don’t get caught up in going through the “full range” of motion.  Find a range that feels comfortable for you and that you are able to move through with ease.  And remember that on the entire continuum of motion, often times the best place to start is with no motion at all and instead choosing to hold positions, also known as isometric exercises.

  1. You must focus on the quality of your intention.

What are you thinking about when you exercise?  Are you watching the TV?  Looking at the people around you?  Running through your to-do list for after you finish?  Your intention while you are exercising can drastically change the quality of your exercise session.

Don’t get me wrong, I know many people use exercise as a “mental escape” of sorts, zoning out while they run or listening to their favorite songs while they lift weights.  And while there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, keeping your focus on the muscles you are squeezing, the motion you are performing, and how your body is feeling while you are exercising will not only help to improve your results but will also help to decrease your risk of injury.  Remember, if the reason you are exercising is to change or challenge your body, then that is where your focus needs to be — on your body.  If exercising is your mental escape and you choose to zone out because of that, just understand the risks that you are taking on with that choice.

Action tip:  When you exercise, make sure you understand the reason you are exercising and place your focus and intention accordingly.  If you are exercising to change or challenge your body, your focus needs to be placed on your body — the muscles you are squeezing, the motions that are occurring, and how things are feeling.  If you are exercising for other reasons, then feel free to explore other options with your focus and intention.

Make no mistake about it.  Exercising for quality is a difficult thing.  It is far easier to get caught up in the quantity of exercise we are doing.  It is far easier to give a 50% effort for 30 minutes than it is to give a 100% effort for 30 seconds.  It is far easier to perform three sets of an exercise to fatigue than it is to perform one all-out set to momentary failure.  It is far easier to try to make up for a lack of high focus and extreme effort by increasing the volume of just “going through the motions”.

But easier does not mean it is worth it.  In fact, rarely is that ever the case.

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Charlie Cates

Charlie has been helping men develop their strength and athleticism since 2008. A former college athlete turned sports performance coach at the collegiate and professional levels, he has taken his knowledge of athletic and muscle-building performance and combined it with an advanced education in biomechanics, physiology, and biochemistry to help men in their 30s and beyond build their strength and health without injury. A father of two, he has authored the best-selling book "The Exercise For Life Method" and hosts the highly-acclaimed Exercise Is Health® podcast with his wife, Julie. He is a certified full-body MATRx practitioner, the highest certification level of Muscle Activation Techniques®. In 2016, he graduated with a Master's degree in Exercise Science. Follow him on Instagram @CharlieCates!