6 Exercises for a Better Body
While the fitness industry has seen more than its fair share of trends, exercise fundamentals have pretty much stayed the same: To get your best body, challenge your muscles with heavier weights and new exercises. To burn fat and calories, increase your workout intensity. And to stave off boredom, mix up your routine. That's not to say the basics can't stand a little updating every now and again. To make sure you're getting your best workout, we tracked down the current thinking on everything from maximizing fat burn to stretching. Try one of these new approaches every day this week and we bet you'll feel stronger, firmer, and more energized. After all, the only thing you have to lose is flab. Crunches
Do crunches to tone your belly.
Get off the mat and add resistance.
"Performing crunches on a stability ball allows a greater range of motion and calls on more muscles to help you stay balanced," says Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada. This is only true if you put the ball in the correct spot, though. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that using a stability ball significantly increased abdominal activity only when the ball was placed under the lower back. Centering it under the shoulder blades was less effective than doing crunches on the floor. (Get a stability ball here.)
If your middle's weak, do 4 sets of 20 crunches on a ball with 30 seconds of rest between sets. As you get stronger, increase the number of reps or decrease the rest period. If you want to create firmer, more visible muscles, hold a 10- to 15-pound dumbbell or weight plate against your chest and do 3 sets of 8 crunches on the ball, with up to 3 minutes of rest between sets. Finally, add core moves, such as plank pose, to challenge your abs and back and help stabilize your spine during daily activities.Lunges
Perform walking lunges to strengthen your legs and butt.
Use jumping and bounding exercises (plyometrics) instead.
While many athletes rely on plyometrics to improve their power (a muscle's ability to quickly produce force), incorporating them into your routine can help you tone up faster and ultimately make your workouts feel easier. Jumping moves are also excellent bone builders, but do your joints a favor and perform them on a soft surface, such as grass or a mat.Cardio
Do moderate intensity cardio to burn fat.
Boost the intensity-but not too often.
While exercising at a moderate level does melt calories, the harder you push, the more calories and fat you'll blast. But vigorous sessions are physically demanding, so you shouldn't do them every day. To get a high calorie burn you can maintain, spend most of your workout time at your lactate threshold, or LT, which is your fastest sustainable aerobic speed. Depending on your fitness level, that can be anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate (go to here to see how to estimate your max heart rate) -or a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of about 7. Exceed this intensity and fatigue sets in rapidly. Research has shown that the highest rate of fat burn occurs at or slightly below your LT. "Working out at this level teaches your muscles to use more fat during exercise," says Todd A. Astorino, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University San Marcos.
Here's how to do it: After a 5- to 10-minute warm-up, exercise for 15 to 20 minutes at your LT. (You might have to experiment to find a level that feels hard but sustainable.) Finish with a 5- to 10-minute cool down. If you can't maintain your LT for 15 to 20 minutes, break up your workout into shorter segments with rests: Do 5 minutes at your LT, rest for 1 minute, and repeat 3 times. Build up to 20 solid minutes.Reps & Sets
Rack up 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps every time you strength-train.
Vary the sets, reps, and weight each session.
While the old approach will sculpt muscles, doing it day in, day out can get boring for you and your body. "Any time you add variety to your exercise program, you create a new way for muscles to adapt," says Len Kravitz, Ph.D., coordinator of the exercise science program at the University of New Mexico. And as they adapt, they get stronger. A number of studies have shown that periodized exercise programs-those in which you vary the sets, reps, weight, and/or rest times from workout to workout or week to week-yield better results than regular resistance-training routines, in which you usually change only the weight as you progress.Your Mindset
Focus on how exercise helps you physically.
Let your workouts help you mentally too.
We wholeheartedly recommend working up a sweat, but so much of what we do at the gym is focused on outside factors, whether it's the treadmill readout, the person beside you, or your reflection in the mirror. The next time you're putting in your time on the elliptical, try turning your attention-and intention-inward. " 'Working out' sounds hard, but 'working in' is energizing and therapeutic," says David Yukelson, Ph.D., director of sport psychology services at the Morgan Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes at Penn State University. Think about how your body feels-can you calm your breathing or lose that side stitch? -then once you find your groove, brainstorm ideas or meditate on personal issues.Stretching
Stretch after you finish working out.
Stretch several times during the day.
While those hamstring and quad stretches feel so good when you're done with your run, limiting your limbering up to the end of your workout is a mistake. It's the repetitive activities (or inactivity) of your daily life that can lead to muscle tension and tightness, especially in your neck, back, chest, hips, and hamstrings, which is why you should make it a point to stretch throughout the day. "It counteracts stiffness and corrects flexibility imbalances," says John R. Martinez, a physical therapist in New York City. "It also helps maintain or improve your range of motion, which will keep you healthier and more active in the long run." Try this easy at-your-desk stretch: Place your right ankle over your left knee and clasp your hands behind your hips; pull your shoulders back. Keeping your chest lifted, lean forward from your hips until you feel a stretch across your right glute. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths, then sit up and switch sides.