No one hits the gym hoping for so-so results. You go in wanting to get 100% out of every rep, run and hard-earned bead of sweat. Fortunately for you, scientists and researchers want the same thing. Here are 13 incredibly efficient strategies, courtesy of the latest research, to get the biggest benefit out of every one of your workouts.
1. Lift weights “If you just do cardio, you’re sabotaging yourself,” says Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., certified strength and conditioning specialist and associate editor of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. “Your metabolism will actually go down, making weight loss more difficult. Resistance training, however, builds muscle to increase your metabolic rate.” That explains why, in one Harvard School of Public Health study of 10,500 adults, those who spent 20 minutes a day weight training gained less abdominal fat over the course of 12 years (compared to those who spent the same amount of time performing cardio).
2. Listen to music Everyone knows that your favorite tunes can fire you up for a workout, but in one Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology of 30 men and women, people who listened to music (especially slow music) after their workout recovered faster than did those who went sans tunes. “Music boosts the body’s levels of serotonin and dopamine, hormones that are known to foster recovery,” says Perkins . Try listening to a few of your favorite, most relaxing tracks as soon as you finish your workout. It will help your blood pressure and heart rate get back to normal and recovery happen ASAP.
3. Swap stretching for a dynamic warmup Don’t stretch in vain. In one Austin State University study, people who warmed up with light leg extensions and squats were able to squat with 8.36% more weight during their workout than if they had performed typical “bend and hold” stretches. Their lower bodies were also 22.7% more stable. “Think of a rubber band,” says Wilson. “If you stretch it around a lot and then pull it back to shoot it, it’s not going to go as far. The same thing happens with your muscles and tendons.” However, dynamic bodyweight moves—ones that mimic the workout you’re about to perform—increase blood flow and improve your range of motion without compromising your muscles’ and tendons’ elastic properties. So for instance, if you’re about to go for a run, it’s a good idea to move through about five to 10 minutes of lunges, knee raises and leg swings before hitting the treadmill.
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4. Preface your workout with carbs You might think of carbo-loading as something you do to run a better marathon. But eating carbs before your workout can also help you during those intervals, according to 2013 research published in Sports Medicine. “Carbs are your body’s primary fuel for any high-intensity workout, and when your body is fueled, your body is going to put forth a better effort and get a better value, both in terms of caloric expenditure and muscle growth, than it would if you were in fasted state,” says Wilson. So even if you like your morning workouts, make sure to eat some toast or oatmeal before you head out of the door.
5. Do intervals Minute per minute, high-intensity intervals—periods of all-out effort interspersed with short, low-intensity “breaks”—come with more cardiovascular and fat-loss benefits than any other workout, says Wall. For instance, in one study from Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, people who performed a 20-minute interval workout with exercises including pushups, burpees, squats and lunges burned an average of 15 calories per minute—nearly twice as many as during long runs. To burn similar calories, follow the workout’s protocol: Perform as many reps as possible for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds and repeat for a total of four minutes. Rest one minute, then repeat for a total of four rounds.
6. Drink water Losing just 2% of your body weight in fluids—some gym-goers sweat out 6 to 10%—can make your workout feel harder, reduce your exercise performance and reduce your body’s ability to recover after you leave the gym, according to a review from the University of North Carolina. Unfortunately, “we find that many people are dehydrated when they show up to the gym,” says Amanda Carlson-Phillips, M.S., R.D., vice president of nutrition and research at EXOS. She recommends everyone drink ½ to 1 ounce of water per pound of bodyweight per day. To make sure you’re drinking enough water during your workout to replace any fluids you lose, weigh yourself both before and after a sweat session, says Carlson-Phillips. You shouldn’t be losing more than 2% of your bodyweight.
7. Use free weights Weight machines are great for helping gym newbies learn correct form, but once you’ve got it down, it’s time to move to free weights. Exercises using free weights like dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells lead to greater hormonal responses compared to similar exercises performed on exercise machines, according to a 2014 Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research study. That’s largely because free-weight exercises tap a wider range of muscles. “Whenever you have to move a free weight and you don’t have anything guiding or supporting you like a machine, all of your synergistic muscles have to fire to help you,” says Holly Perkins, certified strength and conditioning specialist, author of Lift to Get Lean and founder of Women’s Strength Nation.
8. Get a better night’s sleep Quality shut-eye is vital to getting the most out of your time spent in the gym. And that goes for every night of the week. According to one 2015 Sports Medicine review, poor sleep hinders not only your exercise performance (and the number of calories you burn), but also your body’s ability to come back stronger after every workout. “Sleep drives the hormonal shifts that promote the body’s recovery to exercise,” says Carlson-Phillips. Without appropriate sleep, symptoms of over-training, including fitness plateaus, set in. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every single night.
9. Indulge in a massage That post-workout massage does more than just feel good. According to research from McMaster University in Canada, it influences genes in your muscle cells to decrease inflammation and increase their number of mitochondria, which help power exercise and recovery. It’s important to remember that your muscles don’t get fitter during your workout; they do so between your workouts as they recover and adapt to exercise, says exercise physiologist Anthony Wall, M.S., director of professional education for the American Council on Exercise. “Massage helps this process along.”
10. Drink chocolate milk A recent Journal of Exercise Physiology study found that cyclists who drank low-fat chocolate milk after their workouts recovered just as well as those who drank commercial recovery beverages. That’s largely due to its 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein. The protein stimulates muscle repair, while carbohydrates replete your energy stores and even help protein get into your muscles, says Carlson-Phillips . After high-intensity or long duration workouts, try drinking a glass as soon after your workout as you can.
11. Switch things up It won’t just keep you from getting bored. In a 2015 East Tennessee State University study, exercisers who performed both deep and full squats reaped greater fitness gains than those who performed only deep squats. The same holds true for any exercise variation. Performing multiple variations of an exercise changes the muscles recruited and the amount of weight you can lift, leading to greater gains than if you did the same exact movement month after month, says Wilson. While you can include multiple variations of the same exercise in a single workout (like planks and planks with one leg raised), changing those variations every month will also keep your body guessing.
12. Get a cardio buddy In one Annals of Behavioral Medicine study, cyclists who exercised with a partner pedaled almost twice as long as those who rode solo. Having someone else around pushes you to perform at your best and even makes workouts feel less difficult, says Perkins . The results: You can exercise longer and harder and get more out of every trip to the gym.
13. Eat protein before bed Protein helps your muscles build back up after a workout, and for optimal fitness results, that shouldn’t stop when you’re snoozing. Luckily, research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands shows that a nighttime snack rich in casein, a slow-digesting protein, keeps amino acid and muscle protein synthesis rates elevated all throughout the night. To get the casein protein you need, Carlson-Phillips recommends eating Greek yogurt or cottage cheese after your workouts and before you turn in for the night.