Experts reveal the tips you've never heard before that guarantee you'll see better, faster results from your favorite ways to exercise
No matter how dedicated you are to your preferred fitness poison, there are always ways—often little ones—to further maximize your training's benefits. From form corrections to focusing on specific muscles to performing certain moves, these refinements could be the way to go from having a nice body to having a stunning body. Here's how to rock your next workout—and that slinky, sexy dress.
Success secret: A personal AMRAP goal
CrossFit workouts often call for performing as many reps as possible (AMRAP) of each exercise in a set amount of time, but setting a specific goal can help you truly challenge yourself, says Melissa Simson, a CrossFit instructor at CrossFit NYC in New York City. [Tweet this tip!] Having a definitive end goal helps you dig a little deeper and discover the inner strength needed to push through to the very end. And finding that extra intensity in each and every workout can help you reach your goals sooner because intensity is what yields the quickest and most profound results, Simson says.
Make it work for you: “I like to offer a ‘score to beat’ for my advanced athletes, and ‘goals to aim to reach’ for intermediates and beginners,” Simson says. Create your goal based on your last session if it was a good one, or ask your coach for guidance. Don't forget to factor in how you are feeling that day, especially if you are recovering from an illness or have any injuries.
Success secret: Lift your toes
When challenging standing poses make you want to grip the mat with your toes, instead lift them up. "This will make you engage your abs, thigh, and glutes muscles, which are needed to maintain balance," says Stacey Halstead, a certified power yoga instructor at CoreFit Studios in Royersford, PA. They're also the muscles intended to be worked. “As they become stronger, the yoga pose will become easier, which can lead to a great sense of accomplishment and the ability to take the more challenging modifications of each pose,” Halstead adds.
Make it work for you: Start by simply checking in throughout your practice to see if you are gripping with your toes for balance. Guilty? Try to relax your digits and wiggle them a bit, shifting your weight into your heels. When you are ready to lift your toes, don't try all 10 at the same time, as it could cause foot cramps, Halstead warns. With your weight in your heels, go toe by toe and take breaks when your balance starts to waver.
One of the easiest poses to start with is chair pose; once you've mastered that, try others, such as extended side angle pose and triangle, which have a wide base so you'll still feel steady. Don't attempt to be a hero and try every pose in one class, though. "Take it slow, starting with poses that you feel steady in and those that you find yourself gripping the mat with your toes," Halstead says.
Success secret: Listen up
Bootcamp is a high-intensity class that typically involves a large group of people and has a lot of moving parts. A good instructor will cue loudly and repetitively to the group, sharing valuable information to help you use proper form. Take the time to think about what they say and then apply it so you can avoid injuries and maximize your calorie burn, says Danica Ansardy, owner of Altitude Peak Fitness in Denver, CO.
Make it work for you: No matter how chaotic class may seem, focus, paying extra close attention to your instructor's tips on form. If you can't hear what is being said, ask them to speak up or turn down the music a tad, and consider standing closer to them if possible. You'll pick up on all of their exercise science principles and inspiring tips, plus the occasional funny anecdote.
Success secret: Recruit your glutes
Pilates seems to be all about abs, but in reality, it’s centered around all of the core muscles, which include the glutes, back, hips, and abs, says Nicole LaBonde, a certified Pilates instructor at True Pilates Miami. “Recruiting your glutes and not your hip flexors or abs is often very challenging, yet it's incredibly important, as your glutes help hold up your spine, keep your hips in alignment, and can help power your legs so you avoid knee injuries,” she explains.
Make it work for you: Stand with heels together, toes apart, and knees slightly turned out (think about zipping your inner thighs together.) Visualize your butt as trying to make the shape of a heart: Your side bottom muscles wrap down and in to make the top point—but be careful not to clench your cheeks together, as that will displace your pelvis and throw your spine out of alignment, LaBonde says. Then throughout your workout, pay attention to where you feel the work. If it's more in your knees or hip flexors, your glutes likely aren't firing, she adds.
Success secret: Multi-muscle exercises
A Tabata workout has the potential to burn about 15 calories per minute and double your metabolic rate afterward—but only if you perform it correctly. Simply doing 20 seconds of pushups or crunches followed by 10 seconds of rest isn’t enough to cut it, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., principle researcher at the Auburn University Montgomery Kinesiology Laboratory, who has studied Tabata's calorie-torching effects. The best results come from performing multi-joint, multi-large-muscle movements that allow you to really push to the limit and super max your effort during those 20 seconds. [Tweet this tip!] "The more muscle you use, the more calories must be expended to fuel them," Olson explains
Make it work for you: Pick one major effort move, such as box jumps, skaters, lunge jumps, or any cardio sprinting, and do each round with maximum intensity—if you’ve made it through all eight rounds feeling like you could do more, you probably haven’t pushed hard enough. Tabata newbies may want to start with only four to six rounds at this high level of intensity and progress to the full eight rounds, because even seasoned athletes may find themselves totally spent after six rounds when first starting properly performed Tabata training, Olson says.
Success secret: Foot placement
Barre workouts are typically performed barefoot or in socks, so you must mimic the support of shoes by focusing on where your feet are, says Laurie Alfano, director of continuing education for Xtend Barre. "Improper foot placement can strain the tendons rather than sculpt muscles, and too much pressure in the big or little toe may stress the knees and ligaments," she says.
Make it work for you: When your heels are down in weight-bearing exercises, make sure your feet are evenly placed on the floor, big toes in line with inside heels and pinkie toes in line with outside heels. In relevé, check that your weight is placed evenly on the balls of your feet and that all 10 toes are evenly pressed into the floor.
Success secret: Gradual increases
If aches and pains keep sidelining your running, take a close look at your training plan. Although some programs call for upping your mileage in consecutive weeks from, say, a total of 15 to 25 miles, Jason Karp, Ph.D., a running coach and author of Running for Women, recommends progressing slowly. Running the same mileage for a few weeks will enable your body to adapt to the stress before increasing that stress, heading off injuries and improving speed and endurance. You should also avoid increasing volume and intensity at the same time.
Make it work for you: Karp suggests running the same mileage each week for three to four weeks before increasing either distance or intensity. To boost mileage, tack on one mile per day for as many days of running you are doing each week. For example, if you are currently running 15 miles over 3 days, try running 18 miles by adding 1 mile to each of your training days. To increase intensity, add one faster workout—either a tempo run at a faster-than-normal pace or an interval workout—each week, Karp says.
Success secret: Let emotions rule
The gym isn't a place you usually think of expressing your feelings (except perhaps some yoga classes). But if you take zumba or other dance fitness classes, bring it! Tapping into the emotional connection of dance and movement can help you leave class feeling even more amazing. "Our minds and bodies work hand in hand," says Ilyse Baker, an L.A. dance instructor and creator of the DVD Dancinerate: Burn with the Beat. So going all-out and expressing yourself with movement could make the difference between a calorie-burning, stamina-building, high-intensity workout and one that is only so-so.
Make it work for you: Allow your emotions to connect with the song, and your body will do the rest, Baker says. If you need some help unleashing your Sasha Fierce, use your imagination and picture yourself as Britney on stage in Vegas, or let the music be your guide: If the song is particularly sexy, picture dancing for a secret crush or fantasy celeb—whatever helps you feel flirty and hot.
Success secret: Train unilaterally
Your body likes to play favorites, so if you use machines or barbells, your naturally stronger side will take over and do more work. By training one side at a time (also known as unilateral training), you can correct these muscle imbalances and improve core strength to boot since you'll need to activate your core to stay stabilized, says certified personal trainer Jennifer Cohen, star of the Weight Watchers: 15-Minute Boot Camp Series DVD. And recruiting more muscles means you're burning more calories. [Tweet this tip!]
Make it work for you: Cohen suggests trading moves like squats for single-leg squats and lateral raises for single-arm raises—yep, even if a move typically calls for using two dumbbells at once, work each side separately. Remember to complete an even number of reps and sets on each side, unless you notice a muscle imbalance. In addition to being able to knock out more reps more easily on one side than the other, if one side of your body looks lower or more slumped during an exercise, that's likely your weaker side. To remedy an imbalance, Cohen recommends adding three to five extra reps on the weaker side until you notice an improvement.
Success secret: Saddle height
Whether you bike outdoors or in a spin class, 25 degrees can make or break your form. Adjusting your saddle so your knees create a 25- to 35-degree angle at the bottom of your pedal stroke will protect your knees from overuse and reduce the impact on all of your lower-body joints, especially when you're out of the saddle, says Brandy Jans, a certified cycling instructor at New York Health and Racquet Club. Maintaining that bend when you're up recruits more strength from the muscles surrounding your knees and prevents fully extended or even hyper-extended legs, which can break up the fluidity and momentum of your revolutions, creating an impact that can potentially harm your joints, Jans explains.
Make it work for you: To set up your bike properly, stand to the left of it and adjust the saddle and handlebars to hip height. Next bend your right arm 90 degrees, form a fist, and place your fist at the center of the handlebars closest to the seat. Move the saddle forward or backward until it touches the back of your elbow. Finally climb on to check your alignment: In the saddle with your leg extended downward, your knee should have a 25- to 35-degree angle. And when both pedals are parallel to the ground, your front knee should be directly above the center of the pedal. If it's not, slide your seat forward or backward until your body is in proper alignment. If you still aren’t sure if you are positioned correctly for a class, arrive five to 10 minutes early and ask for help (and be sure to record your settings for future use).
Success secret: Control the carriage
Most people think the "work" in a Pilates reformer class happens when you're pressing the carriage out, working against resistance as you would when weight training, says certified Pilates instructor Elizabeth Ordway, star of the Element: Targeted Toning Pilates DVD and founder of the Movement Studio in L.A. However, you actually use the most muscle when you bring the carriage back in. "This requires accessing the deep abdominals, primarily the transverse abdominis, which wrap around to the small of your back," Ordway says. Focusing on your inner abs will lead to a more challenging workout and help flatten your stomach.
Make it work for you: When you press the carriage out, rather than pushing only with your legs, pull in and up in your waist first (as if there is a corset being tightened especially below the navel), and lead your movement from there for both standing and lying exercises, Orway says. Then as the carriage moves in, rather than using the springs, control it by pulling in with your abs, making sure the carriage returns all the way to the bumper (without crashing) every exercise. "You will find that pulling in the last inch is all abdominals," she says. "Keep this awareness of moving with precision throughout your workout for accelerated results."
Success secret: Power from the ground up
"One of the biggest mistakes I see in boxing classes are students using only their upper body for punches," says Guillermo Gomez, a fourth-degree black belt, kickboxing instructor, and owner of Martial Fusion. A truly powerful strike requires using your entire body: From a fighting stance, the hips and torso should rotate into the punch, transferring energy from the lower body into the arms. Engaging more muscles from head to toe will boost the intensity as well as the calorie burn of your workout.
Make it work for you: Always keep your knees slightly bent and your back straight during a boxing class, and your body will naturally stay more stable so you can generate more force, Gomez says. While the exact movement will depend on the punch you are using, focus on drawing your power from the ground up by incorporating the feet, legs, and hips into your movement. When it’s time to throw a cross punch, for example, raise the heel of your back foot, rotate the hips and torso into the punch, and exhale as the rear arm punches forward.
Success secret: Rotate your torso
“Most swimmers propel themselves with their arms and legs as if they were a surfboard with four appendages,” says Gary Hall, M.D., a three-time Olympian and director of stroke technique for The Race Club in Islamorada, FL. By remaining relatively flat in the water, you miss out on a major source of power, he adds. Rotating your body side to side can add speed by getting your core and latissimus dorsi (the largest and broadest back muscle) into your stroke, increasing your arms' pulling strength. Plus as the pull begins in front of your shoulder, your body is counter-rotating, creating a force or anchor for your hand to pull against.
Make it work for you: Hall suggests starting your swim with this body rotation drill, using a pair of fins and the Finis snorkel, if available: Look straight down at the bottom of the pool, keep your head still, and quickly rotate your body to one side, stacking shoulders and hips vertically, and opening up your hips and chest. After about six kicks, quickly rotate your body to the other side for six more kicks, repeating all the way to the other side of the pool.
Once you’ve mastered that, try this one-stroke, six-kick drill using fins: With right arm in front and left arm at your hip, kick on your right side while looking down at the bottom of the pool. Imagine you have a string going from your left shoulder out of the water to the sky above. Bring your left hand and arm up until your hand is directly over your shoulder and touching the imaginary string (elbow can be straight or bent slightly). Stop and shake your wrist loosely to relax it, then continue with the stroke coming from above the shoulder. Before your left hand enters the water, begin pulling with your right hand and rotate completely to the other side. Kick six more times, then repeat the drill on your left side. Do this as many times as needed to feel comfortable with the rotational movement, working up to 50 meters or yards. Hall suggests incorporating this drill in your warm-up, in between sets, or in your cool-down.