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The best trainers have a gift for reading people. They are smart, observant and totally keyed in to your fitness experience. They know when to push you hard and when you need to ease off. They notice the moment your form is beginning to suffer.

Trainers like this help you achieve better results in less time, boosting your motivation and fitness confidence while sparing you from boredom and injury.

But what if you could go one better? What if you could work with someone who was also nearly psychic, who could detect the tiniest twinge of pain anywhere in your body? Whether we realize it or not, all of us have that trainer within us at all times. To access it, we just need to learn the art of intuitive training.

As fitness approaches go, intuitive training — also known as autoregulatory training — is fairly straightforward: You look to your body for direction on what you should be doing, and how hard you should be working, and when. Rather than doing an extra-tough workout just because your current fitness program says so, you go hard when you’re feeling up to it and easier when you’re feeling off.  You do only the miles, speed, sets, reps and weights that your body tells you it wants (via instinct or simple biofeedback evaluations) and can safely handle.

Intuitive training has been around for a while, but these days, it has found increasing support in the scientific community and has been gaining traction among top trainers, too.

“The body is constantly telling us what it needs: what and when to eat and drink, when to rest and sleep,” says Adam T. Glass, co-owner of Movement Minneapolis gym and multiple-world-record holder in grip sport. “Training intuitively simply means listening to your body for similar cues on how to exercise.”

Learning to pick up on your body’s cues takes practice and a willingness to notice subtle changes in mood, coordination, balance and heart-rate variability.

The main goal is to routinely gauge the state of your central nervous system (CNS), which is constantly broadcasting the condition and capacity of every muscle and energy-generating mitochondrion in your body.

You may need some direction and coaching from a trainer familiar with the intuitive-training techniques before you can self-monitor and self-regulate with confidence. But once you get the hang of it, autoregulation is a skill that anyone — from beginner to gym veteran — can apply to any type of exercise or sports training.

The best part is, whether you work alone or with a personal trainer, the skills and awareness you master through intuitive training will make you a more informed and proactive participant in your own training.

Read on to learn about intuitive-training techniques and concepts, and to discover some helpful self-testing methods that will let you make the most of your own hot-shot “trainer inside.”

Method, Not Madness

Poke around on health and fitness websites and you’ll see “intuitive training” defined in a variety of ways. Some intuitive exercisers mix and match drills arbitrarily, giving little apparent thought to the structure or purpose of a single workout, much less an entire program. But a hit-or-miss approach almost never leads to optimal results.

Perhaps the most reliable and effective method of self-regulating (and the application we like the best) is to start with a structured workout plan — a strength-building program, a long-distance running plan or a sprint-distance-triathlon regimen, for example — and then make alterations depending on your mood and energy on the day of your workout, and even during the workout itself.

A beginner to strength training, for example, might decide his knees feel unsteady on lunges and opt for step-ups instead. Similarly, a competitive triathlete could take advantage of a high-energy day and do an unscheduled “brick workout” of both cycling and running instead of the short run she had planned.

To help themselves generate an even more complete snapshot of their readiness for hard exercise on any given day, some exercisers use biofeedback, which involves spot-testing simple functions like jumping, finger-tapping and cardiovascular functioning. (For more on these tests, see “Spot-Check Your CNS,” below.)

If you’re feeling strong, amped up and “in the zone,” and your biofeedback tests indicate you’re in peak form, that’s a sign you can go for more weight, more reps, a faster time or a longer run.

If you’re feeling strong, amped up and “in the zone,” and your biofeedback tests indicate you’re in peak form, that’s a sign you can go for more weight, more reps, a faster time or a longer run. Pain, fatigue, lack of focus and low biofeedback scores, on the other hand, indicate you should proceed with caution and stick closer to your known limits.

Some fitness pros are skeptical of autoregulation because it appears to contradict the “no-pain, no-gain” principle long advocated by trainers and fitness enthusiasts alike. Properly executed, however, autoregulation doesn’t mean going easy all the time. (If anything, your hard workouts will be even harder than usual because you’ll reserve them for days when your body is really up for them.) But it does mean listening to, and respecting, your body’s limits whenever you work out.

Using intuition means focusing on the process, and not just the end result, of training,” says Jeri Lynn Sunok, CPT, a trainer from Orange County, Calif., and founder of For Sunok, proper self-regulation and detailed explanation involves slowing down and paying closer attention to form, breath and alignment, as well as your internal dialogue, while you exercise.

The result is a mind-body workout that develops not just strength and endurance, but also a sharper kinesthetic sense, or awareness of your body in space, which helps avoid needless injuries and accelerates desired outcome.

“Training intuitively is not too far away from the experience of movement that a child has. You’re moving how your body wants to move, taking a break when you need it. A good workout should feel like recess.”

“I know plenty of high-level athletes who follow rigid routines,” says Glass. “They get injured all the time, because they do their scheduled workout regardless of how they feel. The competitive athletes I train work intuitively, and injuries are very, very rare.”

Glass’s clients — athletes and first-timers alike — also recapture an element that’s often missing from workouts that focus exclusively on intensity: Fun. “Training intuitively is not too far away from the experience of movement that a child has. You’re moving how your body wants to move, taking a break when you need it. A good workout should feel like recess.”

Integrating the Intuition

In practice, intuitive training isn’t difficult or esoteric: It’s simply a process of asking yourself questions and listening closely to the answers. The first step is a simple check-in. Before you pick up a weight, run your first lap or do a single jumping jack, says Jeff Rosga, NASM-CPT, education director of Life Time Academy in Chanhassen, Minn., “you should ask yourself a simple question: How am I feeling today? You’d be amazed at how many professional trainers don’t even do this much for their clients, nor do clients self-assess how they are feeling as part of their workout experience.”

Your inventory should include what you did leading up to the workout, as well as sensations that are physical, like aches and pains, and mental, like your emotional state, fatigue level and mood.

Are you excited to train? Apprehensive? Bored? Any nagging pains cropping up? As answers start to occur to you, consider how these factors may affect your planned workout. “If your lower back is killing you,” says Rosga, “maybe it’s not a great day to do heavy deadlifts. If you’re stiff from sitting most of the day, maybe you should stay off the bike and go for a run instead.”

You’ll find the approach requires both flexibility and a particular kind of discipline. As your intuition and body awareness improve, so will your workouts. You will start to learn which days you can push through and which days to pull back. “Going to the gym is a little like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet,” says Glass. “Just because you’re there doesn’t mean you have to eat till you need to loosen your belt.”

It’s possible that you’ll feel exhausted when you walk into the gym, and then feel great once you get started, so don’t take this first check-in as the final word. The goal is to assess how you’re feeling with greater specificity.

“Let’s say you have a really tough sprint or strength workout planned out for the day,” says Rosga. “But while you’re warming up, your legs feel heavy and your breathing is labored. If your heart rate is also unusually elevated, then you probably shouldn’t go all out that day.”

Because warm-up moves are familiar and relatively easy, you should take any deviation from this routine — positive or negative — as a sign of a significant change in the state of your CNS. So instead of spacing out, chatting or watching TV during the first few minutes of your workout, pay attention to subtle cues like your balance and coordination, and your sense of mastery of each movement: If you’re jumping rope, do you feel sharp and fast, or are you mistiming your jumps and landing on the rope more often than normal? If you’re doing a step-up exercise, can you stand easily on either foot? If you’re squatting with an empty bar, can you descend fully without breaking form?

These details may seem inconsequential, but fatigue in your central nervous system affects everything, so even minor changes are important clues to how you should adjust your upcoming workout.

At this point, you can start to suss out whether it feels like a “green light” day, in which you can feel free to push your limits, a “yellow light” day, on which you should keep your effort level in a more moderate range, or a “red light” day, when you should back off considerably.

You can also give yourself a biofeedback test, if you wish (see below for some options), but remember that the best way to self-assess involves a combination of both the subjective and objective information that you gather before and during your workout.

“Let’s say you have a really tough sprint or strength workout planned out for the day,” says Rosga. “But while you’re warming up, your legs feel heavy and your breathing is labored. If your heart rate is also unusually elevated, then you probably shouldn’t go all out that day.”

If your heart rate remains steady, or if it’s even a little slower than normal, you might still be up for the workout, notes Rosga, but you may need to spend a few more minutes ramping up before you hit your hardest pace.

If you think this all sounds too complicated and time consuming, think again. Most biofeedback tests take just a few seconds. It requires almost no more time, and just a little more effort, to run through your warm-up attentively than it does to do so while watching ESPN. These mini-check-ins will probably become second nature after just a few weeks. The key, of course, is to use the information to plan your upcoming workout. If you’re unsure about how to apply what you discover, feel free to ask a trainer or coach for additional guidance.

If you decide you need to make changes to a planned workout, most fitness professionals recommend shifting the volume and intensity of it, rather than doing different movements altogether: Instead of performing four sets of lunges with dumbbells, for example, do two with body weight; instead of running five miles, try doing an easy three; instead of hitting a heavy bag for six rounds, you might shadowbox for four.

There may also be days when it’s most beneficial, based on your fatigue level, to skip your workout completely — and that’s OK, as long as it’s a deliberate decision. “Your level of fatigue can and should override everything else,” Glass says.

Results Matter

Although working out intuitively allows you more flexibility in your training schedule, Glass suggests that you pay close attention to the effects your workouts produce. “We evaluate clients every two weeks to make sure they’re on track,” he says.

If you’re getting stronger, faster, leaner, more athletic or closer to your goals in general, then your intuition has been guiding you well. If not, you’ll need to make appropriate adjustments: Have you been doing too much of the same thing? Choosing easier workouts more often than not? If so, you may need to take a broad view, not just of your gym activities, but of what’s going on in your life.

For instance, a lack of sleep, too much stress, an inconsistent diet or too many outside obligations will certainly keep you from giving your all in the gym. Listening closely to your body may bring to light some of the areas in your life that need attention, so you can commit to challenging workouts more consistently.

By using your intuition to help shape your workouts, you’re simply acknowledging your body’s natural fluctuations in energy and focus.

By using your intuition to help shape your workouts, you’re simply acknowledging your body’s natural fluctuations in energy and focus. At the same time, you’re also calling in a bit of the improvisatory spirit that helped give rise to the fitness industry in the first place.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, there weren’t exercise scientists telling people how to build strength, endurance, muscle and power,” says John Hart of, founder of multiple fitness centers and a 30-year veteran of the industry. “Those athletes simply did what they felt.”

Take your cue from some of those early fitness innovators. Get friendly with your own inner coach and you’ll soon make some interesting intuitive discoveries of your own.

The Science of Intuition

Intuition” may sound like too vague a concept to test empirically, but a number of recent studies have done just that, with compelling results. In 2010, researchers at the University of Missouri found that Division I football players who used an intuitive (or autoregulated) approach in their strength-training routines got better results than those following a more structured program. Also in 2010, a study at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., indicated that college students in a beginning strength-training class who were allowed a measure of flexibility in their programming made significantly better progress in leg strength than those whose programs were more rigidly controlled. Autoregulation, these studies suggest, has benefits not only for veteran trainees but for novices, too.

Why autoregulation works isn’t fully understood, but part of it has to do with the fact that your mood, motivation, energy and stress levels (all of which profoundly affect your performance in the gym) don’t always follow the schedule of a structured exercise plan. After an unusually stressful day, says Jeff Rosga, NASM-CPT, education director of Life Time Academy in Chanhassen, Minn., “you can’t expect to be able to perform like superman or superwoman in the gym.”

Many exercisers know this from experience: It’s certainly easier to have a great workout when you’re riding high after a productive day than when you’re reeling from an argument with a coworker.

What does that mean for non-competitive types primarily interested in staying healthy? That when you hit the gym, you should tune in to everything — your physical state, your emotional well-being, your level of motivation. It all affects physical performance — probably more than you’ve ever suspected.

Spot-Check Your CNS

If you want some hard data on your readiness for hard exercise, try one of the biofeedback tests below. Any one of them will give you a quick assessment of the current state of your central nervous system (CNS) — the combination of your brain and spinal cord, which communicates with the rest of your body — and whether you should make it a high-, medium- or low-intensity day in the gym.

Finger-Tapping Test

What It Is: A measure of how many times you can tap a pen to paper in 10 seconds

Equipment Needed: Piece of scrap paper, felt-tip pen and a watch with a second hand; or a finger-tapping test application (FTT)

How To Do It:

  • Sit at a desk holding the pen in your dominant hand.
  • Timing yourself with the watch, tap the pen as fast as you can on the piece of paper for 10 seconds, keeping the heel of your hand in contact with the surface of the desk.
  • Count the number of dots you made on the paper.
  • Alternatively, follow the directions on the app, tapping the screen as many times as possible in 10 seconds with the index finger of your dominant hand.

What It Means: If your 10-second tapping score is below your average score by 10 taps or more, make it an easy day. (Determine your average over a period of five sessions.)

Broad Jump

What It Is: A measure of distance jumped forward

Equipment Needed: A tape measure and a flat section of floor at least 3 feet by 10 feet, preferably with a nonskid surface

How To Do It:

  • After your warm-up but before hard exercise, place your toes just behind a line on the floor.
  • Squat slightly and lean forward, swinging your arms backward.
  • Swing your arms forward and jump off of both feet as far forward as you can.
  • Measure the distance from the starting line to the point where your heels landed.

What It Means: If you’re 4 inches or more below your average jump, make it an easy day. (Determine your average over a period of five sessions.)

Heart-Rate Variability (HRV)

What It Is: A measure of the variation in the amount of time between heartbeats, measured over a one-minute time period

Equipment Needed: HRV monitor app and receiver, such as ithlete or BioForce, available for the iPhone

How To Do It: Upon waking, put the heart-rate monitor in place, sit or lie still, and breathe normally for one minute. The ithlete measures HRV on a 100-point scale and indicates your readiness for training.

What It Means: High heart-rate variability — a green light — means your cardiovascular system is highly attuned to the metabolic conditions inside your body. An amber indicator means proceed with caution; a red light means go very easy. (Learn more about HRV here.)

Range of Motion (ROM) Test

What It Is: A test of the range of motion of your hamstrings and lower back

Equipment Needed: None

How To Do It:

  • Assume a shoulder-width stance with your feet parallel.
  • Bend forward, reaching toward your toes.
  • The moment you feel the slightest pull in your hamstrings or back, stop. This is not a max-effort stretch!
  • Whatever level you reach — 2 inches below your knees, midshin, hands on the floor — that’s your measurement.

What It Means: The flexibility in your back and hamstrings changes depending on the state of your CNS. Take note of how your measurement on the test changes throughout your workout. If it gets easier to stretch fully throughout your session, thumbs up. If not, take it easy.

This article has been updated. It was originally in the March 2013 issue of Experience Life.

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