8 Tips For Working Out with ADHD - Stay Motivated and Get Strong!
If you have read anything about managing the symptoms of ADHD, there's one tip that will come up time and time again - exercise is extremely effective. Before I was formally diagnosed with ADHD, I had already intuitively worked this out. While I was not aware I was managing symptoms of my ADHD, I was aware that I was at my best when I was constantly being active.
But while on paper ADHD and exercise may seem like a match made in heaven, it is a little bit more complicated than that. While symptoms of ADHD can be managed by working out, they also have a nasty habit of working against them. Just one of the many unique contradictions of the ADHD brain.
Despite this, I have managed to not only create a consistent, sustainable relationship with strength training, but I have also made a career out of it.
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Why ADHD Can Make Strength Training A Challenge.
There are a few different factors that can make staying consistent with an exercise routine a challenge.
Impatience: Progress takes time. People with ADHD tend to chase dopamine. They tend to go for the low-hanging fruit, the stuff that triggers an instant reward and a hit of dopamine, so it can be hard to sustain a long-term training goal without losing interest in it.
Lack of Focus: One of the biggest challenges for those struggling with ADHD is staying focused on the task at hand - whether that be a work project or a set of squats.
Poor Planning: Training with ADHD means that you need to be prepared for anything - have contingency plans in place, as well as an understanding of what works best for you on any given day. Alongside this, it's important to have an understanding of what you need to do to reach your goals.
Social Anxiety: Training with ADHD can be difficult if there are other people around as the atmosphere can be distracting, and perhaps even anxiety-inducing. Training at home or a private gym may provide more focus, but it also means less accountability - something that is essential for those with ADHD. Without even realizing this, on reflection, I can now understand this to be a major drive for me to open my semi private gym Strength Block.
Procrastination: Training with ADHD can lead to delays and procrastination, which can disrupt your progress significantly. Training on a consistent schedule is key to success in any endeavour, especially when it comes to strength training.
8 Tips To Train With ADHD From A Strength Coach
Even before my diagnosis with ADHD, I had implemented these strategies into my training to keep me on track. While this list was written with ADHD in mind, there are also some nuggets of gold for ANYONE who wants to keep their training interesting.
Tip #1: Your Phone is the Enemy. Use a Notebook.
Technology has revolutionised the way we workout. There are apps for everything, and many of these are incredibly useful in the gym. I even use a robust app to manage and deliver programming for my online clients.
There is a caveat to this though when you have ADHD. Your phone is a major distraction as it offers almost unlimited potential to fall into an attention-grabbing rabbit hole between sets. While other people may have success using it to follow and track workouts, odds are if you pick it up while resting to input your results or check what you have next, your muscle memory is going to open Instagram or TikTok. Before you know it, you can't account for the last 10 minutes and you're getting some nasty looks from people waiting for your squat rack.
A simple, elegant and analogue solution to this is going back to pen and paper. Use a notebook. You can still use all your online tools and apps, but this is done before and after your workout. Even if your program is online, before you train take two minutes to write out what you need to do for the day in your notebook. Then put your music in and put your phone away. Write and reach your results in your notebook between sets, and if need be, transfer your results back to your phone only once the workout is done.
Rather than fighting distraction, just remove it entirely. You'll be amazed how quickly you can get back to your set when you no longer can stare at your phone screen.
Tip #2: The 80/20 Rule - Leave Room For Novelty.
Working out by its very nature is repetitive - and to progress, you need to embrace that repetition. But this can be boring as hell, and boredom is the ADHD brain's kryptonite. As a coach, I am always going to preach about consistency, progressive overload, and repetition to achieve long-term goals. You don't bench 3 plates without pressing 2 plates thousands of times. There is also something about building mental toughness by doing the things you don't want to.
Embrace the suck.
But while proper programming is essential for long term success, everything doesn't have to be perfect. If throwing some novel stimulus into the mix is going to keep you coming back, don't be afraid to. Let 80% of your programming be meticulously calculated progression models that build on themselves, and then 20% be free to have fun.
Whatever tickles your interest. For instance, I am presently trying to learn how to use nunchucks. Why? Because I thought it would be cool. Does it help me achieve my overall strength goals? No. But I look forward to it every single week. And if that means helps me with deadlifting 200kg for the umpteenth time, that's good enough for me.
Being optimal with your programming is great, but sticking to a routine because you enjoy it is even more important. And when you get bored with whatever novelty you've added to your program, drop it for something else. The major metric you're tracking for this isn't progression, it's enjoyment.
Tip #3: Follow The Dopamine - Hyper Focus When The Opportunity Presents Itself
Following on from the last tip, sometimes when engaging with novelty in training, it may spark that incredible ADHD superpower - hyper-focus. What was once just a bit of fun becomes a fixation and improving it may eclipse your current training goal. Follow the white rabbit. It should be noted that I do recommend pursuing the novel stimulus if it has somewhat of an overlap with your long-term training goals so as not to just end up program hopping and making no progress long-term.
For instance, when I first decided I didn't care about aesthetics and wanted to focus on strength training, I was OBSESSED with powerlifting. I lived and breathed for the squat, bench and deadlift. It dominated every second thought I had. To this day, maximal strength training is what I return to and the squat, bench and deadlift are still my benchmarks for my current condition.
But I have wandered off the path of powerlifting multiple times. From Olympic lifting and strongman training to high-volume kettlebells and vertical jump training - I have followed the dopamine into a whole bunch of different training modalities over the years. Not only has this kept my training interesting, but it has also made me an incredibly well-rounded athlete and a highly experienced coach.
So follow these moments and find out where they take you. You might be surprised.
"Jack of all trades, master of none, though often better than a master of one."
Tip #4: Take Advantage of the Clock
Odds are, if you have ADHD, your time management sucks. I refer to this as time traveling, moments where I am catapulted into the future without any knowledge of what happened in the previous hour. This can be a real problem when working out. Two-minute rest periods become ten minutes, and one-hour workouts crack the two-hour mark.
So take the time keeping out of your hands. Be accountable to the clock. Use EMOM sets (every minute on the minute), AMRAPs (as many rounds or reps as possible) and set yourself up with time barriers.
For instance, 3 sets of 10 reps is an effective time-tested scheme for volume. It's also boring as hell. So why not use an EMOM set instead? Set a timer to go off every minute on the minute for 10 minutes. Every time that buzzer goes, perform 3 reps. That's 30 reps in 10 minutes - the same amount of overall volume as 3x10, but most likely half the time if you have ADHD.
For more high-intensity things, such as working up to a 1 rep max, give yourself a time window. Your level of experience will dictate the length of the window. For me, it might be "Take 30 minutes to find a 3 rep max".
Finally, super and giant setting accessories it is a great tool to keep your brain interested, and seeing how many rounds you can get through in a given amount of time can be an effective motivator. These are AMRAP sets.
For anyone following along, your training day could look like this
30 minutes to work up to a bench 3 rep max.
10-minute EMOM of 3 reps at 70% of that 3 rep max
15-minute AMRAP of 15 push-ups, 15 tricep extensions and 15 curls.
That's a 1-hour workout with plenty of volume and intensity to keep you busy.
Tip #5: Find or Create The Perfect Training Environment.
This is the most important tip I can offer. Finding the right environment to train in is essential for ADHD Training success. This is especially true if you have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), as extra stimulation and distractions are even more of an issue.
There's a huge chance that your standard commercial gym is too much of an overpacked sensory explosion to maintain a productive level of focus.
Find one that suits your needs, or create it yourself, but having a place to train where you can focus on the task at hand and stay in your zone is essential.
This may be a dedicated garage gym, a well-equipped commercial facility, or just an area of your house that can be sectioned off for training. Consider what will help you focus and create this environment as best as you can, to set yourself up for success.
My semi-private gym, Strength Block was designed around creating a training environment that is conducive to ADHD Training success. This is partly due to tailoring it to my training needs, but now I realise why. From the open layout and minimal distractions to the natural light and clean air - every element was designed with a purpose. To top it off, we have a limited membership to ensure that the facility is never overcrowded.
Tip #6: Pick your Swolemate - Train with a Friend that understand.
If possible, enlist the help of a training partner who is aware of your ADHD, and can help provide external cues like reminders and triggers for changeovers in exercises throughout the workout. Training with someone else also helps keep you accountable and motivated - something that is super helpful when dealing with ADHD.
Tip #7: Create a Deadline by Competing
This one isn't for everyone. Giving your training purpose by competing can be the perfect motivator to allow you to laser focus on your goals and push yourself to the next level.
When I competed in powerlifting meets, I found that my motivation and focus skyrocketed in the lead-up to a competition date. Having a deadline created a sense of urgency, which is perfect for someone with ADHD who needs external motivation from time to time.
Tip #8: Hire a Coach or a Personal Trainer
If you're really struggling with training and don't have the internal motivation to keep going, why not outsource it instead? Hiring a coach or personal trainer can be super helpful in creating structure around your training, provide positive reinforcement and help keep you on track.
An experienced coach will be able to hone in on how to structure your training to keep you motivated and interested. All of our motivations are unique and when it comes to the ADHD brain, those motivations are dynamic. If you can find a personal trainer that can make training fun and progress you towards your goals, they may be one of the best investments in helping manage your ADHD symptoms.
Damienlifts - the ADHD Strength Coach I Guess?
This is the part of the blog where you usually have your "call-to-action". You know, "hire me as your coach and I will help you with exercising with ADHD". And while you are free to do that here, I honestly just hope this helps. I've had a reputation for a while for my unique approach to training and programming. I've always put it down to my love of creativity - it has only been very recently that I have realized that these strategies were formed out of necessity for keeping me on track. As a result, I have attracted a fair few clients with ADHD, resonating with their needs without ever realizing it was because I also had ADHD. So this decade of coaching has had me developing these skills without knowing why I was doing it. It all makes sense now, and I hope you can get some value out of it too.
I just want you to succeed.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out on Instagram.
Want to learn more about Damien experience with ADHD and gyming? Check out his other blogs on his website: http://damienlifts.co.nz/blog/2023/1/3/8-tips-for-working-out-with-adhd Or visit his gym: http://www.strengthblock.co.nz/