You’ve invested in attractive workout clothes and a pricey a gym membership across town. You drive to the gym with every intention of clocking in a 30-minute jog on the treadmill. But after only 10 minutes, you’re huffing and puffing and you feel like your heart is about to explode. Dripping with sweat already, you slow to a walk and realize you’re starving and that your legs are killing you. After walking for another ten minutes, you decide to call it a day. You splurge on Chinese food on the way home (egg rolls are vegetables, right?), and after finishing you’re fortune cookie, it dawns on you that you’re probably in worse shape than you were before you went to the gym. After doing this routine another several times, you realize you’re not getting any results (or a new game comes out for Xbox 360), and you eventually stop working out altogether for awhile.
Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With just a little planning and focus, your workouts can be a lot more productive. Follow these exercise hacks for a smarter, faster, and ultimately more rewarding workout.
A lot of people think that if they go to the gym “on empty” they’ll burn fat instead of the food they just ate. Wrong. To perform well, your muscles need glucose, which comes from carbohydrates. When you work out with low glucose levels, a.k.a. low blood sugar, you fatigue quicker and aren’t able to perform at your full potential. Even worse, you’re ravenous by the time you finish your workout and end up eating a huge meal or binging on snack food when you get home. To make sure you have adequate fuel to perform well at the gym and not feel faint with hunger on the drive home, eat a snack beforehand. Good pre-workout foods include complex carbohydrates, such as fruit, cereal, or whole grain crackers. Complex carbs release a steady flow of glucose into your bloodstream over several hours. (Simple carbohydrates like candy and soda will cause a rapid spike in blood sugar, followed by a crash which might occur before your workout is over.) You also want to make sure you’re adequately hydrated before and during exercise by drinking plenty of fluids (more on that later).
One of the main reasons people don’t see fitness results in terms of weight loss and muscle definition is that they don’t strength train at a sufficient intensity, or else they neglect strength training altogether. Strength training, i.e., resistance exercises using free weights, weight machines or bodyweight, is essential for building up your major muscle groups – your body’s main engine for burning calories. The more developed your muscles are, the more calories you’ll burn, even while you’re at rest. Strength training will also help your cardio, as your muscles won’t tire as quickly.
Your biggest muscle groups are the ones in your legs, chest, back, arms and core, so it’s important to train these muscles at least once a week. To build your muscles, intensity is key. Whether you’re working with free weights or using a machine, you should use enough resistance so that you’re only able to do 8 to 12 reps. Each set should be completed to the point of failure, meaning that you should struggle against the final rep (which you shouldn’t be able to complete). Many people spend half an hour on one machine, doing multiple, relatively easy sets. This is counterproductive. You’ll get better results by doing only one good set per muscle group (hamstrings, glutes, pecs, biceps, abs, etc.), per week. This means you’ll be spending less time at the gym in total. Give your muscles at least a day’s rest before working them out again. Depending on what kind of cardio you do, this may mean scheduling cardio on a different day than strength training (you shouldn’t run for a half-hour after working out your leg muscles, for example). Talk to a personal trainer or fitness coach to learn proper technique and to develop a strength training routine that works for you.
Although resistance training is paramount for losing weight and developing a toned appearance, getting cardiovascular exercise like jogging, aerobics or biking at least 2 to 3 times per week is important for building endurance and for maintaining good overall health. However, it can be difficult to keep your heart rate up for a sufficient period of time required for a good cardio workout, as we often tire early and have to slow down or stop. A main reason why many people burn out half-way into their cardio set is that they overheat. Like hunger or pain, a high body temperature makes your workout difficult and unpleasant, causing you to tire sooner than you would if you felt cooler. In extreme circumstances, such as exercising in heavy clothes or in the hot sun, you even risk heat sickness and dehydration. Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to prevent overheating during aerobic exercise and thereby get a better cardio workout.
First, wear breathable, lightweight workout clothes. Ditch the cotton tee-shirt, which easily gets weighed down with sweat and traps heat, for high-tech fabrics that wick sweat from your skin to keep you cool. Have plenty of cold water on-hand during your workout and try not to exercise in very hot conditions. Finally, choose a pace/resistance level that’s moderate enough so that you can keep going at the same intensity for least 20 the 30 minutes to get important heart-health and endurance benefits.
Even if you plan to eat healthy after your workout, the powerful appetite you work up from strenuous physical activity can tempt you to load up on calories once you get home, potentially undoing much of that day’s fitness progress. In order to prevent this phenomenon, have your healthy, delicious post-workout meal all planned out before you go to the gym. This way, you won’t be tempted to pick up some takeout on the way home or binge on the potato chips in the cupboard. A good post-workout meal doesn’t have to consist of just a sad, little salad; it should be one that satisfies your hunger. Focus on foods with protein and fiber, as these nutrients help fill you up for less calories. Avoid foods with unhealthy saturated fat such as fried foods and fatty cuts of red meat, in favor of foods with healthy fats, such as fish, nuts and avocadoes. Other healthy foods to include in your post-workout meal (and for your other meals and snacks) include non-fat dairy products, beans, your favorite fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
Of course, everyone splurges on less-than-healthy treats like ice cream or pepperoni pizza sometimes. But having an occasional treat isn’t a big deal if you’re dedicated to your regular fitness routine. Which brings us to our final exercise hack …
The most important component of fitness is sticking with your exercise routine over time. If you let yourself be swayed by excuses like “I have too much going on today” or “I deserve a break because I had a bad day,” then you’ll quickly get sidetracked from your routine and lose whatever progress you’ve achieved. Keep in mind that as mentioned in the above tips, with an efficient routine, you won’t even have to spend that much time in the gym to get a good workout. You can also modify your workout so that you can do bodyweight exercises at home on days that you’re unable to get to the gym.
A daily or weekly exercise log in which you document your workout stats (including which exercises you did on which day, how much resistance you used, how many reps, etc.) is a great tool to help you stay on track with your fitness goals and chart your progress. Over time, you should be able to handle progressively more resistance in your strength training routine and also improve your cardio performance. It is very motivating to see your progress in black and white, and as this happens, you should notice positive changes in your body and mood as well. Don’t think of exercise as a chore; think of it as an important part of your life, a gift that helps you look and feel your best.