Why You Gotta Be the James Brown of Your Workout

03/03/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015
The Power of Forever Photography via Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, several people have asked me why their workouts aren't working for them. They tell me they eat well, exercise regularly, but nothing seems to be happening or changing. When I ask them how hard they're exercising, they've all given me similar blank stares, followed by passing looks of guilt.

This week I was working out at a hotel gym and took a minute to look around. A woman to the right of me was on an elliptical, watching a television show. An older gentleman to my left was on a stationary bike, enraptured by his eBook. Down the line there was a guy on a treadmill with his neck craned, watching ESPN on a television hanging from the ceiling.

And it struck me: I am the goddamn James Brown of this fitness center. I am the hardest working person in this room.

(For those of you pups who are too young to understand this reference, James Brown was a singer and entertainer known as "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.")

I was the only person singularly focused on their workout, not multitasking, giving it all I had. I was on the elliptical, headphones blasting my workout-dance-oontsa-oonsta-gottamovethis-mix, eyes squinched shut (save for when I was making the above observation), sweat was flying and I was gasping desperately for oxygen.

Planning your workout, getting your gear on and showing up take a lot of effort. Kudos to you. It's awesome. But then simply putting in your time and going through the motions undermine the optimal return on investment you just made. Focusing more on how many minutes are left than working at a challenging intensity and checking it off the to-do list for the day aren't enough to get most people to their goals. If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you. Doing your time is a waste of your time.

It's akin to showing up for work, sitting at your desk, going through the motions without much engagement or productivity, then getting irritated you're not getting promoted or being handed the keys to the corner office. As one of my favorite workout playlist artists Britney Spears would say, "You Better Work B----".

You may be wondering, "How hard is working hard?"

  • When you're doing cardio, you should be able to talk and breathe at the same time, but not sing and breathe. You can speak three to four words before you need to pause and pant.
  • You should be hearing voices in your head. These voices are telling you you're bored, asking you why on earth you're doing this, and that now would be a great time to organize your sock drawer.
  • You are close to contemplating vomit. You absolutely know you are not going to, but the thought has crossed your mind.
  • When you're doing resistance training, your last few repetitions should be burning like a mo-fo, but not painful.
  • It should be difficult to finish your set with good form.
  • You may need someone to help you complete your last couple of repetitions.
  • A small guttural or rather large groan/roar/howl/bellow escapes your lips.

(Please note if you're just starting out, you need a period of time to ease into this level of intensity.)

So the next time you workout, I want you to channel your inner James Brown. Sweat buckets. Blow people away with your energy. Finish with the splits, yell "Hit me!" and throw that towel around your shoulders like a muther f'ing cape.