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10 Things You're Not Doing at the Gym (But Should Be)

You Don't Use the "Heavy" Weights

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It can be intimidating to venture out onto the weight room floor, especially when it's full of bodybuilding types throwing weights around. But you aren't doing yourself any favors by staying in the corner with those little pink dumbbells!

"You have two types of muscle fibers: slow and fast. If you don't use heavier weights, you neglect an entire set of muscle fibers, namely the fast fibers, which are important for moving quickly, lifting weighty objects (your heavy purse, grocery bag, suitcase), and for spine and hip stability," says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery and creator of the Perfect Legs, Glutes & Abs DVD.

And if you're worried that you'll bulk up, don't be. "Women cannot add much size to their muscles to begin with since we have low concentrations of the male hormone testosterone, which is necessary to enlarge muscle to any noticeable degree," Olson says.

Photo: iStock

You Don't Use Your Upper Body Enough During Cardio Sessions

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Does your typical cardio session always involve the treadmill, stationary bike, or stair stepper? You may not be burning as many calories as you could be, Olson says. "Using your upper-body muscles more can up your total calorie count and will help you develop better endurance. Athletes with the fittest cardiovascular systems are total-body, aerobic athletes such as cross country skiers and swimmers (movements which use both the arms and the legs)."

Olson recommends using machines with an upper body component, like a total-body elliptical machine, and alternating intervals focusing on your upper and lower body. For example, try pumping the handles more aggressively with your arms for 2 minutes, and then focus on moving with your legs for the next 3 minutes. Or mix things up by using an upper-body arm bike (or try a Krankcycling class) that forces you to raise your heart rate using only your upper half—it's tougher than it sounds!

You Don't Have a Plan

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Do you want to lose 10 pounds, run a 5K, or become more flexible? "There are special workout plans for each of the above, and they are not interchangeable—there is no "one exercise-fits-all" program," Olson says. "If you do not have a plan to address your greatest fitness needs and desires, you can stall results and actually create changes you do not need or that might not even be appropriate for you." (Find a plan that fits your needs using our training plan generator!) 

Your primary objective (weight loss, endurance, strength) should influence the volume (amount you do), intensity (how light or hard/heavy) and the mode (cardio, resistance exercises, stretching programs) of every workout, which is why Olson says it's so important to take the time to meet with a qualified trainer at your gym for an assessment and to help create your goal-specific program.

You Don't Push Yourself Enough

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You may have just spent 2 hours at the gym, but how much of that time were you intensely exercising? Yes, fitness should be fun, but if your set routine involves reading a magazine on a card machine followed by the same weight machine circuit, chances are you aren't seeing the results you want.

"In the beginning exercise can feel unruly and even excruciating—which is clearly not fun—but once your body learns how to do various exercise movements and your strength and stamina improve, it's time to upgrade your program," Olson says. "Time and again research has shown that increasing to more vigorous levels of activity bring about greater health benefits and noticeably improved fitness and appearance."

And you don't have to spend more time at the gym. In fact, if you focus on the quality of your workout, you may actually spend less time there. "This is why interval training has become so popular," Olsen says. Experts recommend a range of intensity levels, but many interval workouts go up to 85 percent or your max heart rate. "If you can learn to push yourself appropriately, you can also land the benefit of a higher metabolism following exercise—that means you are rewarded for your extra effort following exercise with an extra energy burn!"

You Don't Take Advantage of the Experts Who Work There

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"If your club has trainers, movement specialists, physical therapists, nutritionists, or registered dietitians, use them!" Olson says. "They are skilled to determine some needs you may have that are not obvious but could prevent you from making progress or possibly causing you injury."

This is especially important if your goal is weight loss. If you're trying to lose weight, what you eat is incredibly important, especially if you're regularly exercising.

"A trained expert can speed up your progress and results as well as prevent you from burning out, under-eating, or over-doing," Olsen says.

You Don't Do Eccentric Exercises

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We like to work the muscles we can see in the mirror (like our abs), but we can't ignore our backsides, especially the muscles around our spine, Olson says. For example, we tend to crunch, curl, and shorten our abs, but it's also important to try some eccentric movements to help balance out the strength of those muscles during "lengthening" movements.

Try this eccentric move during your next workout to help balance out your body:

Rotating Super Girl:This move uses a 'sit-up' board (or bench) adjusted on a decline. Start sitting on the bench and hook your legs under the pads to hold them in place. Keeping your abs drawn in tight and your spine straight, hinge back away from your legs until your body is making a 'V' shape. Bring both arms up and bend your elbows, turning your palms in as if you were holding a giant ball above your head. Slowly rotate your torso to the right (as shown), then back to the center, and to the left (counting each rotation as one rep). Work your way up to three full sets of 15 reps to target your abs in a whole new way.

You Don't "Pound" Enough

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You already know that it's important to do weight-bearing exercise to help protect your bones, but you may not realize just how much loading you need to do in order to reap the bone density benefits. "While treadmill walking is sufficient to keep the spinal bones strong, your hip bones need more loading," Olson says. "To do this, think "steep," or "stomp." If you want to stick to walking, increase the incline on the treadmill to seven percent for 3 minutes, followed by 5 minutes on level ground, alternating five times during a 40-minute workout.

Other options: Take a step class, use that machine with the revolving stairs, or walk the stairs in your gym. This extra impact is not too heavy but at a level that is much more effective at getting your hip bones to take up more calcium and become more dense.

You Don't Do Unilateral Training

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Every time you use a leg press, leg curl, or leg extension machine at the gym, you work both legs together at same the time. The problem? This could be causing some muscular imbalances in your body, according to Olson.

"Most of us do not have equal muscle fitness on our right versus left leg, and when you exercise both legs together, the stronger one tends to naturally do a bit more of the work," she says. Try using less weight and doing a full set on your weaker (usually the left) side first. Then, switch legs and do a full set with your stronger side.

"It's a real eye-opener—try it! Training like this will also go far to help you balance the strength between the right and left sides of you body," Olson says.

You Leave Without Stretching

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Skipping a post-workout stretch is the most common mistake exercisers make, Olson says. After, not before, your workout is the perfect time to stretch, as your muscles are warm and flowing with oxygen-rich blood.

All adults should be stretching at least three times a week, Olson says. Stretch the front side of your body first, since tighter muscles on the front of the body can reduce flexibility in the back of your body. For example, if your hip flexors are tight, your hamstrings will have limited flexibility.

Short on time? Even doing just two stretches before you head out the door can make a big difference. Here are some of Olsen's favorites:

Heel to Glute Stretch (top image): Lie facedown on a mat or towel with your legs extended out behind you. Reach your right arm out in front of your shoulder, palm pressed into the floor. Bend your left knee and grab a hold of your left foot with your left hand, gently pulling your heel in towards your body. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and then switch legs. If you have time, repeat up to three times total with each leg.

Prone Abs Stretch (bottom image):Lie facedown with your legs extended out behind you, bend your elbows in underneath your shoulders and lift your chest off the floor, propping your body up with your forearms (palms should face the floor). Let your lower body relax and try to keep your hips on the ground as you extend your spine and stretch the front of your body. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then release. If you have time, repeat up to three times total.

You Don't Change Direction

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Changing your direction is another great way to mix up your cardio workouts for better results. If you always move forward on the treadmill, elliptical, or bike, try moving sideways and backwards too, Olson says.

"We are so used to moving forward in one plane of motion, but research on treadmill exercise has shown that you can burn more calories and activate lesser-used muscles such as your outer hip muscles, shins, and hamstrings if you turn your walk or jog sideways and backwards."

Try this routine: Walk or jog for 3 minutes forward, and then turn to the side and do a side shuffle for 30 seconds with your right leg leading, and then turn around and lead with your left leg for 30 seconds. Return to your forward stride for 3 more minutes, and then try walking backwards for 30 seconds. For safety, be sure to slow your speed and/or use the handrails as you adjust to moving in new directions.

"Since your body is not used to this (even though it is designed to move in all three directions), it will pump your heart rate up higher and cause you to burn extra calories." You can also do this on the elliptical or stationary bike. Use the interval routine above but simply pedal backwards for the 30-second intervals.