Strong, well-defined shoulders and biceps were the reward Judy Taylor, a NewYork City publicist in her early 40s, got from regular weight-lifting sessions. She also got constant pain in her neck, which she figured was a price worth paying―until she met a personal trainer who changed her mind. He pointed out that she was hunching her shoulders up to her ears as she did strengthening exercises. He advised her to focus on pressing her shoulder blades down into her back while pushing her chest slightly outward. And poof!―no more pain. Better yet, Judy could do more repetitions than before.
Getting the Most From Your WorkoutTricks like these make workouts work better. Knowing the secrets to performing an exercise correctly―like shifting your alignment or modulating your speed―will not only save you pain but also help you burn more calories, build strength, and avoid injury.
Real Simple consulted fitness experts and put together this guide to getting the most from 11 popular forms of exercise: walking, running, weight training, spinning, stability balls, yoga, stair-climber, elliptical trainer, swimming, rowing, and tennis.
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Think about your feet. "Instead of moving through the standard heel-toe, heel-toe step, lead with your heel and roll through your entire foot before pushing off with your toes," says Carol Espel, an exercise physiologist and the national director of group fitness at Equinox Fitness Clubs. "This can turn a stroll into a power walk that also engages your shins," she says.
Also remember to...Pump your arms. By making your stride more purposeful and energetic, you'll pick up the pace, which means you'll burn more calories and get a better cardio workout. Bend your arms at a 90-degree angle and punch them forward and back, rather than across your body.
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Take longer strides. It's a body-friendly way to increase speed. Many runners try to go faster by taking more steps more quickly, but this is tougher on both the knees and the lower back. "Find the stride length that enables you to be lightest on your feet and moves you fastest," says Jay Blahnik, a fitness consultant for Nike who also trains elite-level runners and speed walkers in Laguna Beach, California. "Test out several strides. Once you find the one that makes you feel like you're gliding rather than pounding, that's your ideal length."
Also remember to...Increase the incline. When running on a treadmill, set it at a 1 percent gradient. Running on a treadmill is much easier than running outdoors on real terrain, even when it's fairly level, Blahnik says. A 1 percent incline mimics outdoor conditions. Over time, increasing the incline (or the number or height of hills when running outdoors) will make you work harder and may improve your speed once you go back to flat ground.
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Don't slouch. Perfect posture is crucial to injury-free and effective strength training. "No matter what exercise you are doing, you want to tuck your hips slightly forward, engage your lower abs, and keep your ribs lifted," says Diane Isaacs, a Los Angeles-based personal trainer and Ironman triathlete. "Not only will this let you work more muscles than the ones you are targeting but it will also give you more stability. When your body is stable, you will be better able to lift the weights with a controlled, fluid motion, rather than a jerky one, which can cause injury."
Also remember to...Take it slowly. Slow movement is the most effective approach because it uses actual muscle movement, not momentum, to move the weight, thus lessening the amount of stress on joints, says Wayne Westcott, the fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA, in Quincy, Massachusetts. Just how slow is slow enough? Westcott recommends taking two seconds to lift the weight and four to lower it.
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Sit back and low in the saddle. Before you pedal another mile (or even start out) in this high-energy stationary-bike class, ask the instructor to help you adjust your seat and handlebars. Sitting too high and hunched close to the handlebars puts pressure on your knees. "Plus, you'll be doing the majority of your work with your quadriceps," says Johnny G, creator of the Spinning program. Sit a little lower and farther back and your glutes, calves, and hamstrings will do the work―especially if you keep your heels down (no toe-pointing).
Also remember to...
Stay in control of your jumps. When doing jumps―quick intervals of standing and sitting―many people never sit or stand fully; they move forward and backward in a push-up-like motion, which is hard on the back and the elbows. Doing this means you are "out of control," says Johnny G, and you should either slow your jumps to half-time (do one for every two the instructor does) or put more resistance on your flywheel, which will force you to pedal more slowly and have more control over each revolution.
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Stability Balls and Yoga
With a stability ball, use your core muscles―not just your feet―to keep your balance. Those big, bouncy balls in the gym help intensify any workout that is performed either seated or lying down―shoulder raises, biceps curls, triceps extensions, crunches, and bench presses. The reason? "Working out on an unstable surface forces all muscle groups, especially your core, to engage to help your body remain stable," says Gunnar Peterson, a Beverly Hills―based personal trainer. "It gives you more bang for your exercise buck."
Staying on the ball can be a challenge, however. Some people make the mistake of using only their feet, planted on the floor, to keep steady. But you'll balance better if you keep your abdominals tight. If you still have trouble, sit or lie closer to the center of the ball to take some of the weight off your feet. Also remember to...
Watch your neck. For seated exercises, keep your feet flat on the floor, abs in, shoulders down and relaxed, and chin neutral. Lifting your chin too high or tucking it can strain your neck muscles. "You should be able to fit a baseball in between your neck and chin," Peterson says. When lying down, position your knees over your ankles (not your toes), and protect your neck by not letting your head drop back over the ball.
With yoga, remember to breathe. No matter how much yoga instructors emphasize the importance of breathing, their students rarely pay attention. Most people are focused on getting themselves into the poses. Smooth, deep, regular breaths "open up" your muscles, says Sutat Waddington, a former Buddhist monk and a yoga instructor in Mill Valley, California. For instance, when your muscles are relaxed, the poses come more easily. "For beginners, if you are grunting or your muscles are shaking, it may mean you are pushing yourself too hard or staying in a pose too long and not breathing enough," Waddington says.
Also remember to...
Lose the competitive instinct. It's tempting to compare yourself with others in the class, but yoga is not a competitive sport. "The poses were created to facilitate breathing and help us live in the moment," Waddington says. Besides, forcing the body to go deeper into a pose than it's ready to can lead to injury.
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Stand up straight. Check out the stair-climbing section in any gym and you'll see at least a few people hunched over their machines, gripping the side rails for dear life or reading a book. This posture strains the shoulders even as it makes the exercise easier. To get the most from your climb time, stand up straight with your hands at your sides or resting lightly on the rails for balance only. If this posture is new to you, you almost certainly will have to lower your usual speed or resistance. But as David Harris, the national training director of Equinox Fitness Clubs, points out, "you will actually burn more calories, because your heart and the rest of your body now have to work harder."
Also remember to...Vary your stride and your resistance. Short, quick steps with lighter resistance help you go faster, but it pays to spend some time taking longer, slower ones with higher resistance, too. "Going short and quick all the time can put stress on your knees," says Eddie Carrington, a trainer at Bally Total Fitness in New York City. "Mixing it up will help keep your workout interesting, work more muscle groups, and preserve your knees."
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Glide. Elliptical cross-trainers are designed to be easy on the joints, but they don't work unless you use the proper form. "Moving with a short, jerky stride rather than a smooth, full-length one puts stress on joints," Harris says. "If you find yourself moving that way, it probably means your resistance is too high for your present capabilities." On the other hand, setting the resistance too low―and swinging out of control at astonishing speed isn't an effective way to exercise, either. Discovering the balance between too much and too little resistance may take some experimentation. "A good rule of thumb is that if you are using a higher resistance, your muscles should be challenged but not straining to complete each stroke," says Harris.
Also remember to...Drive in reverse. One of the elliptical's advantages over other equipment is that it can go backward. Stride forward and you work your hip flexors and quadriceps; go backward and you use your glutes and hamstrings. "Working all those muscle groups not only strengthens your legs evenly but also helps prevent injury," says Harris. He recommends either alternating intervals of forward and backward, or moving forward for the first half of the workout and backward for the second.
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Swimming and Rowing
When swimming, give yourself a good push. It might feel like cheating, but giving a hard push off the wall when you turn improves your time and is also good exercise, since it "engages your thighs, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and abs," says Greg Isaacs, a competitive triathlete and the national fitness director for L.A. Fitness. "It will also give you the momentum you need to develop the rhythm that will let you glide through the water." The best method is to place your feet flat against the wall with your weight on your heels, bend your knees, then push off hard with your toes. "Be sure to keep your arms straight over your head and close to your ears so your body is as streamlined as possible," Isaacs says. "That way, you'll move through the water faster and more efficiently."
Also remember to...Start off easy. "I've seen so many people, even ones who've been swimming for years, charge right in and start tearing up the water, and they're exhausted after just 15 minutes," Isaacs says. "You will be able to swim much harder and much longer if you take some time to warm up in the water, swim a few easy laps, then stretch out a bit before you dig in."
Push, then pull, when you row. Although it's generally one of the least popular cardiovascular machines in any gym, rowing is one of the most beneficial, since it works both the upper and lower body simultaneously. But it's important to start with your legs, pushing before you pull with your upper body. "Many people start out the rowing movement by yanking backward with their arms and back," Peterson says. "Using your legs first and then engaging your upper body allows you to put more power into each stroke and takes the strain off your lower back."
Also remember to...Exhale when you pull. "This may sound obvious, but rowing is hugely cardiovascular, and if you hold your breath, you'll lose steam pretty fast," Peterson says. "To keep things simple, make sure you exhale on the exertion portion of the move, when you're pushing and pulling back."
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Stay on your toes. "Most people focus on their serve and their return. But while these are, of course, important, it's footwork that will make or break your game," says Los Angeles tennis pro Drew Gerstein, who recommends staying on the balls of your feet throughout the match and taking fast, short, shuffling steps. "The second you return the ball, you should already be starting to move," he says.
To improve your footwork, Gerstein suggests you practice shuffling steps without having a ball in play, and also watch your favorite tennis players during a match: "Notice how they prepare their returns, staying on the balls of their feet, so they can move anywhere as quickly as possible."
Also remember to...Keep your wrist out of it. "A lot of beginners bend their wrists when they hit the ball, but the wrist should be rock solid, as though in a cast," Gerstein says. Letting your wrist bend adds stress not only to the wrist itself but also to the elbow, which can lead to injury.