The Secret of a Better Workout
Small Changes, Big Results
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stability Balls and Yoga
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."