Ace your race, nail a pull-up, or check off that body goal—this is your ultimate guide to being your personal best this year.
Reach Your Fitness Goals
1 of 5All photos
Even if you're in killer shape, chances are you have a workout weakness you'd love to beat. Instead of giving up on triathlon training, taking child's pose over a headstand, or cursing your jump rope while you trip through double-unders, pinpoint the source of your hang-ups to craft a success plan so you can get faster, stronger, and leaner.
"With the right approach, your body can adapt and increase its capacity for performance," says Maren S. Fragala, Ph.D., the director of Athlete Health & Performance at Quest Diagnostics. Follow these tactics to make your breakthrough. (Need more guidance? Here's your guide to conquering any and every goal to make this the year of your Personal Best.)
Get Your Form Down Pat
2 of 5All photos
As you aim to ramp up your strength training or mileage, proper form becomes critical. "If you have poor biomechanics, you'll use more energy because you'll be working at a higher intensity than if you move more efficiently," says Heather Milton, a senior exercise physiologist at the Sports Performance Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. This means you'll fatigue faster—ending up farther from your target. (Seriously, proper form is beyond important.)
A quick test that can let you know if you're ready to take a move to the next level: Check your form in a mirror as you do the simplest version of it, Milton says. If your goal is to squat heavier, examine your positioning while doing an air squat. If your form is spot on, try the move again with some weight, eventually building up to your goal. If your positioning changes drastically when you advance (say, you hunch, you don't hit the same depth, your knees shoot forward), that's a sign that you need to dial back the weight until you can get through it properly. (Also read these other tips for perfecting your squat.)
As for running farther, look at the soles of your sneakers. If the heels are very worn, you may be overstriding, which wastes energy. Count how many steps you take per minute to track your cadence, then try to get that number to the sweet spot of around 180, Milton says. (Related: 10 Ways to Improve Your Running Technique)
3 of 5All photos
Strength is a weakness if moves that involve multiple muscle groups (compound moves) are tough for you, says Michelle Kulovitz Alencar, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach.
Build strength all over with this plan from trainer Adam Rosante, a Shape advisory board member: Weight train four days a week, focusing on compound movements. Choose one, like a deadlift, as your first exercise and do three to five heavy reps. (Just make sure you're not making these common deadlift mistakes.) Each week, try to add five to 10 pounds to that. For the rest of the moves in your routine, shift to moderate weights and stick with the 10- to 15-rep range.
"This can help you maintain strength over a longer stretch of time," Rosante says. "The stronger you are, the easier everything becomes. You'll be able to use less effort to do the same work."
4 of 5All photos
If you fatigue quickly during exercise, then endurance is an issue, Kulovitz Alencar says. While HIIT workouts can boost your aerobic and anaerobic fitness, you need to train at a moderate intensity for a longer duration to build up staying power. "If you always do short, intense exercise, when you do go out for a steady run, you'll probably go straight to 80 percent of your max heart rate or higher," Milton says. After the first few minutes, you'll hit a wall. Swap out one weekly HIIT class for a run or a swim; keep it to a steady pace, working at or below 70 percent of your max heart rate, Milton says. (Try this endurance-building spin workout if you can't get outside to run or in the pool.)
If you still struggle with endurance, boost your aerobic base. In a nutshell, exercise for just four to six weeks at an easy to moderate intensity to build up mitochondria (cells' mini power centers) in your muscle fibers that help break down energy easier, so that eventually you can go for longer without feeling as breathless or as much fatigue, Milton says. Then add a little time to your workout each week. As for muscular endurance, reduce the amount of weight you're lifting so you can get through two to three sets of 15 to 25 reps, resting for one to two minutes between sets. Slowly begin to up the resistance by 5 to 10 percent weekly as you progress, Kulovitz Alencar says.
ID Your Weakness
5 of 5All photos
Your fitness experience and history are two important factors that determine how long it will take you to adapt to more difficult exercise, says Jonathan Mike, Ph.D., an assistant professor of exercise science at Lindenwood University in Missouri. If you've historically had trouble with a move, progress it by perfecting the movement pattern and strengthening all the muscles that get you through it. Take the push-up, for example. Rather than dropping to your knees, identify your weaknesses. You may lack strength in your shoulders, back, core, or hips. Eliminating weaknesses, Mike says, will fast-track nailing any exercise. (Pull-up on your to-do list? Here's how to finally nail one.)
Log your workout details to see the time you're putting in and the progress you're making, Mike says. For strength goals, note your reps and sets, your recovery time, how you're feeling during and after the workout, if you have to decrease resistance, if you advance, and so on. For cardio, log your pace, splits, distance, time, or number of intervals. You'll end up with detailed info that can help you determine if you're working often enough and improving so that you can set realistic expectations.
Personal Best: The tools and inspo you need to crush your goals (whatever they are!) all year long. Join our Personal Best Facebook Group for 24/7 squad support and share your wins—big and small—on social using #mypersonalbest.