It’s no secret that getting in great shape takes time and effort. After all, if every quick fix, late-night infomercial claim were true, we'd all have perfect bodies. The good news is you can take steps to speed up your results. One proven strategy: Change your routine every six or so weeks. Your muscles adapt to the same workout day after day (think back to your first bootcamp class and how much easier it got as you became stronger). Challenge your body by adding a new angle, mixing up the order of your exercises, or simply adding a twist to recruit different muscles.
Here are seven more expert tips to upgrade your workout.
Warm-ups don't have to be boring. While jogging on the treadmill may work for your legs, it does little to prepare your upper-body muscles. Try replacing your tired warm-up with a dynamic version.
"Dynamic, full-body warm-ups take your body through a variety of movements, allowing you to increase circulation to the muscles you'll be using in your main workout," says Polly de Mille, RN, RCEP, CSCS, exercise physiologist at Women's Sports Medicine Center a the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Try this move before your next workout for a total-body warm-up.
Medicine Ball Woodchop: Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and hold onto a light to medium medicine ball (5 to 6 lbs). Push your hips back and drop into a squat as you bring the ball down to touch your left foot, shin, or knee (depending on your flexibility). Rise up out of the squat as you simultaneously rotate and raise the ball up and across your opposite side, as if throwing it over your opposite shoulder. Do 2 sets of 10 lifts to each side, alternating sides after each set.
One-legged moves demand more neuromuscular (nervous system and muscle) coordination in order to stabilize both the ankle and knee as well as the femur (thigh bone) and pelvis, says Irv Rubenstein, PhD, exercise physiologist, and founder of S.T.E.P.S., a Nashville, TN fitness facility. “Additionally, the single leg has to lift not just the same upper-body weight but it also has to carry the other limb's weight, which proves greater strength benefits overall."
Developing single-leg stability is a powerful tool in preventing injury, particularly in sports such as running, de Mille says. "In running you're essentially jumping from one leg to another. Shaky single-leg stability leads to loss of alignment every time you land—a perfect setup for injury."
For your next workout, try standing on one leg for half of every set of upper-body moves; switch to the other leg for the other half, or try to incorporate unilateral moves like one-legged squats into your routine.
Off-center moves involve an unequal weight distribution that requires your body's core muscles to "kick in." Many everyday activities involve off-balance maneuvers&mdashlcarrying a heavy suitcase or purse, swinging a tennis racket, or carrying a child or a bag of groceries in one arm.
Simple ways to incorporate off-center moves include performing a squat while pushing a fitness ball against the wall with one arm; or hold a kettlebell in one hand while performing a squat or lunge.
"Practicing off-center moves in a focused, controlled manner helps develop the core stability necessary to maintain good alignment when performing these movements in real life," de Mille says.
More than 85 percent of the muscles encircling your core are oriented either diagonally or horizontally and have rotation as one of their functions," de Mille says. "Yet most people focus on one vertical muscle—the rectus abdominis, the 'six pack' muscle."
Rotational moves work your core, says Tamilee Webb, MA, fitness trainer known for the Buns of Steel video series. "For example, try rotating your torso while holding a medicine ball during a front lunge, which requires more stability than a lunge without the ball or the rotation," Webb says. These movements also mimic real-life activities like stepping and then rotating/twisting to put groceries in the car.
No, we’re not referring to the treadmill. By raising the position of the bench while performing chest presses, you add variety, which in itself may elicit strength gains, de Mille says. "Your body adapts to the stress you apply to it, so variety is key to gaining overall functional fitness."
Performing exercises on a flat surface, incline, decline, or unstable surface like on a stability ball can all offer slightly different loads to the muscle. "Whenever you change the incline to do an exercise, you're changing the intensity and the muscle groups that will perform the exercise," Webb says. For example, the flat bench focuses on the anterior deltoid (front of your shoulder) and pectorals (chest), but doing the same exercise on an incline requires more deltoids (shoulders). Try raising the incline for your next set of chest presses, or perform them on a fitness ball.
Combining several exercises into one move works several muscles groups at once (and gets you in and out of the gym faster). "You can also lift more weight," Rubenstein says. For example, instead of doing biceps curls alone, do a squat and perform the curl on the way up. "The momentum provided by your legs enables you to lift more weight than doing the curls on their own," he says.
For even greater benefits, add an overhead shoulder press after the biceps curls. "At the end of the biceps curls, when hands are near the shoulders, drop into a half squat and use the momentum to press the weights overhead."
The complete sequence: squat + biceps curls + half squat + overhead press.
Adding weight to your exercises makes your body work harder, Webb says. "It's why heavier people have a harder time walking up stairs." Webb recommends adding a weighted vest or weight belt to your daily chores.
"You'll find your heart rate increases. It takes more strength and more muscles to perform the same, everyday tasks," she says.
Webb takes her 15-lb, three-legged rescue dog Izzie in her backpack when she walks on the beach to increase the intensity of her walks. You can do the same by adding bags of water or sand to a backpack on your next hike. When the weight gets too heavy, simply dump out the water or sand and keep walking.