Doing Other Stuff While Working Out is Okay!

By on July 30, 2021

A little “meta-cognition,” or self-reflection, can go a long way to helping you stick to your plans and achieving your goals.

In my case, I’ve realised that the days I don’t want to train have little to do with a lack of time. And to my surprise, energy isn’t a problem as often as I thought it would be, either.

Incidental training

The issue isn’t even that I don’t like training. Because I do! I love training.

The problem, is that there is sometimes something I want to do more.

Running a business and being a Dad leaves me with only a couple of hours to myself in the evening. I want to spend the majority of that time with my wife, as that’s the only time we have together.

So, when she goes up to the bathroom to get ready for bed, I have about 30 minutes before I follow suit. This is often when the bulk of my training takes place.

But it’s hard when that’s also my only opportunity to play Streets of Rage 4 (my current favourite). Or to watch Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Those options are exciting and stimulating. Training, although fun, is often quite repetitive. Especially when it’s an evening “living room workout.”

How to Make Training More Stimulating

I’ve tried a number of solutions to varying success. One is to make sure I get more time to do the things I enjoy (this might involve staying awake for an extra 30 minutes, but that leads to tiredness). Another, is to make sure my training is as stimulating as possible. I shy away from exercises I find dull and boring, and focus more on hand balancing, crawls, kettlebells, etc.

Hand Balancing

But it doesn’t quite cut it.

The solution I have found that really works, is to train at the same time as doing whatever the thing is that I want to do.

This is something we’ve been warned against. But as I’ve thought about that advice, I’ve come to realise that it’s one of those things we just accept as fact, when in fact it’s really just a random platitude.

You Were Lied To

It doesn’t help that one of the people who most warns against the dangers of being distracted in the gym, is also one of the absolute legends of training: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnie describes looking at your phone or watching music videos between sets as “Mickey Mouse stuff.”

Arnie Terminator
Remember when I told you not to watch TV while working out? I lied!

And many others have proclaimed that not focusing 100% on your workouts will always result in a less effective session. The mind muscle connection rules supreme, so how can you build maximum strength when you’re thinking about other things? How can you ensure perfect form?

Keep your head in the game, soldier!

But this line of reasoning is flawed for numerous reasons.

Why Multitasking During Workouts is Great

Firstly, I’m not suggesting that you read a book during your actual lifting. You can still focus your attention 100% on the lifts themselves. I’m talking about the stuff that you do between the sets, during your rest.

Surely, though, this means your mind is going to be rapidly switching between your training and whatever else it is you’re doing? That’s going to occur a “task switching penalty” and result in a less effective workout. Right?

Wobble board

Well… not necessarily. Frequent readers of this blog may be familiar with “contextual interference” and some of the implications this has for things like spaced learning.

See also: The Contextual Interference Effect in Training, Learning, and Skill Acquisition

The simple version is that when you switch between tasks while training or learning, you do see impaired performance during that training. However, you also see greater gains outside of a learning setting.

Because in real life, we don’t repeat the same movement over and over without anything to break up those repetitions. In sports, you might do some running, then some tackling, then some standing around watching… And in real life, you call upon your strength at random points throughout your day.

Going from a computer game to a big lift might just be the perfect example of contextual interference. You’re learning to focus on one thing intensely, only to then exert massive strength. Then you have to focus back on the game! In fact, given the considerable cognitive benefits of gaming, you could even go as far as to say that playing Doom between workouts could be ideal brain training. It’s one thing to juggle multiple enemies, prioritize targets, and aim steady. It’s another thing to do that while you’re shaking after pressing a heavy weight!

Doomguy is badass

That’s a bit hypothetical. But what’s certainly true, is that it’s better to perform a “slightly distracted workout” than it is to perform no workout at all! If doing the thing you’re excited about is what it takes to motivate yourself to train… then who cares if your workout is 5% less effective?

And let’s be real, the difference isn’t going to be any greater than that.

Video Games and Action Movies

I agree that music videos and social media are “Mickey Mouse stuff.” That’s not what I’m talking about (with that said… you do you!).

As I already alluded to, what I really want to do most of the time, is watch action movies or play action video games. Right now, that means Streets of Rage 4. I’m also hankering to re-watch the John Wick trilogy.

John Wick Gun Fu

Far from distracting me from my workouts, these options get me psyched to train. The same goes for reading the current Dragon Ball Super manga (no spoilers… but Vegeta was badass in the last issue).

See also: How to Train Reflexes, Focus, and Decision Making (Like John Wick)

These are the same things that inspired me to start training in the first place. They’re the perfect motivation to get stronger and pull off awesome moves and lifts. After punching some guys as Adam in SOR, I can’t help but want to drop and do some push-ups.

Last night’s workout looked like this:

10 minutes of SOR

Shadow Boxing

10x Dragon Flag

30x Bodyweight Dips

30x Bodyweight Rows

10x Hindu Squats (I’m nursing a shin injury)

*All while listening to the new SOR Mr. X Nightmare soundtrack by legendary Sonic Mania composer Tee Lopes.

8 minutes of SOR

10x Dragon Flag

30x Bodyweight Dips

10x Alternating One-Legged Tuck Front Lever

30x Bodyweight Row

100x Push Ups

Shadow Boxing

This short workout was made all the more intense by the game and the music. This also made for a more rewarding and fun experience. I also packed up some of Emmy’s toys and did some shoulder stretches.

On another night, I’ll just throw on an action film and half-watch it until the action scenes at which point I’ll either take a rest, or perform something like curls in front of the TV.

heavy bag

Just a quick tip, though: this type of training creates longer rest periods and can lead to distraction. For the best results, try and make the actual sets themselves as intense as possible so that you get maximum benefit in the minimum time.

Closing Comments

This works wonders for me because it makes working out that much more stimulating and exciting. I train harder because I’m primed by whatever media it is and I don’t miss out on the other things I enjoy.

This is how I started training. My first ever workout was while watching Exit Wounds with Steven Seagal. That’s not even a good film! From then onward, I would always put on an action movie while training. It never failed to get me in the right mindset.

Curls while reading

The day I discovered Rocky was a revelation (I accidentally tuned into Rocky 2, halfway through, and my little mind was blown). I must have watched Rocky 4 a million times. And Commando was only just behind that!

So, if you love comics, games, or action movies, maybe give this a try.

And the bigger takeaway is to stop worrying about how you’re “meant to work out.” Do what’s fun and effective for you!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

5 Comments

  1. onekickman says:

    For me personally, I would get way too distracted and have long rest times. I prefer having short rest times of 30-60 secs at max.

  2. Bryan says:

    I use this principle by doing a bunch of incidental training while I cook dinner. In those 1-2 minute spaces between stirring soup or turning a steak I’ll crank out pullups, hindu squats or practice with my escrima sticks stuff like that.

  3. Gorim says:

    Just wanted to say Vegeta indeed “turned it to eleven” last episode! 😉

  4. Little is better than nothing.

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