Experts reveal how to spot the signs of an effective fitness plan
A Specific Purpose
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“Great workouts have a specific purpose,” says Rick Richey, a master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and owner of R2Fitness in New York City. Whether the goal is to help you burn more calories, gain strength, or just shimmy into your skinny jeans with confidence, the program you choose should clearly define what it’s going to do for you, and those end results should align with your personal goals.
“You will need to know where you're going before you show up,” Richey says. “Too often people arrive aimlessly at the gym and without a clear picture of what they want or why they are there.”
The best workouts should help you define your goal, and then provide you with a plan to reach it.
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You know warming up your muscles for exercise is important, but most people don't realize that completing a series of movements specifically designed to prepare your body for the workout you are about to do is crucial to your performance.
“Industry wide there has been a push to limit the general warm-up and transition toward something called ‘movement preparation,’ ” Richey says. “Movement prep specifically primes the body for the workout, sport, or activity (instead of simply running on a treadmill beforehand), and can include any or all of the following: cardio, functional flexibility, core activation, balance, plyometrics, and sports-specific conditioning drills.”
This type of progressive warm-up helps your body and brain gear up for the movement ahead so you can perform better during the actual workout with less risk of injury.
Look for a workout that begins with a specific series of movements designed to get you ready for the exercises that follow. Tip: A 5-minute jog on the treadmill does not count.
An Element of Fun
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“Programs must be enjoyable, or simply put, they have to be fun!” says Jay Cardiello, SHAPE fitness editor-at-large and founder of the JCORE Accelerated Body Transformation System. “Let's face it, ‘working out’ sometimes is not the most pleasurable thing to do. However, if your program is built around an activity (such as boxing, cycling, or a certain DVD) that you enjoy, you will have a greater chance of creating a habit and succeeding,” Cardiello says.
Find an instructor with a sense of humor, participate in activities that you love, join a group with a great sense of adventure—or all of the above—to find a workout program that will help keep you coming back for more.
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It’s important to find a workout that works all areas of your body evenly.
“Too many women spend too much time training the anterior [front] side of the body and forget their posterior,” Cardiello says.
Spending too much time doing crunch-style abs exercises, for example, and not enough back work could lead to imbalances in your muscles and body alignment that can cause problems down the road. Hyper-focusing on one area of the body (those so-called "trouble zones") and neglecting others can lead to poor posture, injury, and even back pain, Cardiello says.
Stability and Balance Training
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“The best programs include balance and stability training,” Cardiello says. Training your body in ways that help improve your body’s ability to perform everyday activities, maximize your workout, and prevent injury is a sure sign of a great program.
“Proprioception (balance) exercises like one-legged squats can help develop stability muscles around the hip joint, while causing greater muscle recruitment with muscles fibers/groups that might have remained dormant if you only train in one plane [of motion].”
Choose a workout that utilizes a variety of different exercises, moves through various planes of motion (and makes sense for your body and fitness level) for a functional and well-rounded program.
It Combines Diet (or Emphasizes a Healthy One) and Exercise
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It doesn't matter how amazing your workout routine is, you can't change your body unless you clean up your diet too. And while not all workout plans include a nutrition component, they should at least acknowledge that a healthy diet, in addition to regular exercise, is key to seeing visible results.
“Eighty percent of a successful workout program is based on diet,” Cardiello says. “If you work out for an hour a day, you still have 23 other hours left to mess up or fuel up the body. Diet makes a good program a great one!”