Are you undermining your workout? Fitness experts weigh in on common exercise infractions—and how to correct them easily.
1. You Need to Switch Up Your Workouts
Action plan: Once a month, change one thing about your cardio and weight-training regimens: Take a Zumba class in lieu of your Saturday walk, for instance, or use a resistance band instead of dumbbells. Bonus: Mixing things up may help you stick with exercise. A 2001 study conducted at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, found that people who varied their routines enjoyed their workouts more—and exercised more regularly—than did people who went with the same thing every day.
2. Cardio Isn’t the Magic Bullet for Weight Loss
Action plan: Keep doing cardio three times a week, but add two or three strength-training workouts. Aim to work all the major muscles over the week; complete one to two sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise. To get started, check out the website of the American Council on Exercise for an extensive library of weight-training moves.
3. Wimpy Weights Will Get You Nowhere
Action plan: Choose a weight that you can lift for only 10 to 15 repetitions before losing good form—trainers call this “working to failure.” (That doesn’t mean your arms should feel like noodles when you’re done, or that you can’t bang out a second set after a minute or two of rest.) Don’t worry: You won’t bulk up. “Women’s bodies have a biological limit on how much muscle mass they can build,” says Halevy. “It’s hard for women to get big without using steroids.”
4. Muscles Come in Pairs; Train Them that Way
Action plan: Consider doing weight training in what’s known as a split. Work, say, your biceps and hamstrings one day, then your triceps and quadriceps the next. This way, you’ll hit every muscle pair over the course of a week. One exception: the back muscles. “Many women have weak back muscles from working at a computer all day,” says Carly Pizzani, a New York City–based personal trainer. If you’re deskbound from nine to five, follow a two-to-one ratio when working your back and chest. That is, for every exercise you do for the chest, do two for the back.
5. Crunches Aren’t Crucial for Strong Abdominals
Action plan: Although you don’t have to eliminate crunches from your repertoire, you’ll get more bang for your buck with moves that work the entire core area. The plank is a good one: Lie facedown on the floor with palms down and forearms under your shoulders. Tuck your toes under and tighten your abs to lift your torso. Keep your body in one line from head to feet. Hold for 30 seconds.
6. A Workout Doesn’t Merit a Post-Gym Pig-Out
Action plan: To stave off grazing after exercising, have a healthy snack an hour or two after your workout. And stay mobile as much as possible. Take the stairs, do a loop around the office, or pace while you’re on a conference call.
7. Bad Form Is Bad News When You’re Strength-Training
Action plan: Even if you’ve been weight-training for a while, it’s a good idea to brush up on form. You can find videos that illustrate good lifting form onExRx.net. Or, even better, invest in a session with a personal trainer. A few general tips: Count “one one-thousand, two one-thousand” as you lift the weight, says Sokol, and “one one-thousand, two one-thousand” as you lower it. “If you lift too fast, you let momentum, not your muscles, do the work,” he says. When doing upper-body exercises, keep your wrists straight; when doing squats and lunges, align your knees and ankles; and when bending over for an exercise (like a dumbbell row), keep your back flat. Always keep your neck aligned with the rest of your body.
8. Working Out on an Empty Stomach Won’t Burn More Fat
Action plan: Eat already! Even a small snack with carbohydrates, protein, and a little fat, eaten a half hour before, will power your workout, says Morgan. Good choices: low-fat yogurt and a banana, whole-grain cereal and low-fat milk, or oatmeal and fruit. Or make it really easy and choose a fruit-and-nut bar, such as a Lärabar ($28 for 16, larabar.com).
10. The Fat-Burning Zone Isn’t Really a Fat-Burning Zone
If you’ve ever played around with the controls on a cardio machine, you may have experienced the “fat burning” program, in which you exercise at a low, steady intensity. The idea is that low intensity is better for weight loss than more vigorous effort, because you can sustain it longer. But studies show that even in a shorter workout, boosting your intensity can burn as many, if not more, calories than long, steady-state cardio. And “when it comes to losing or maintaining weight, it’s the total number of calories that counts,” says Halevy. Plus, by working harder, you can get out of the gym faster.
9. A Death Grip on the Cardio Machine Strains Your Body and Burns Fewer Calories
Action plan: Maintain proper form. On the treadmill, you should be able to stand tall and pump your arms. On the stair-climber, keep your body centered over the pedals, with your head up and shoulders relaxed. It’s OK to hold the handrails lightly, as long as your posture is correct.