The Effective Cardio Machine You’re Not Using

When you think “cardio,” a treadmill likely jumps to mind, right? But pounding away on this hamster wheel isn’t your only option. One of the most effective ways to get your heart racing also happens to be impact-free: the rowing machine.

“Rowing is one of the most effective forms of training because of the amount of large muscle groups that are used in every stroke,” says Greg Hammond, rowing coach and training subject matter expert at Concept2. Think about running or biking—even though your entire body is in motion, it’s mostly your legs powering your progress. But when you row, you recruit your legs, your core, and your shoulders, says Hammond. This means more muscles are calling for oxygen and fuel—and you’re burning more calories—all at once. (A half-hour of moderate rowing equals about 260 calories burn for someone who weighs 155 pounds, and 311 calories burned for someone who weighs 185 pounds, according to Harvard Health Publications.)

The full-body effort shows in the physiques of competitive and pro rowers. “They tend to have a good balance of muscle all over their body,” says Hammond. (Sounds pretty good to us!) And there’s another rowing perk that might just sell you: In addition to its muscular and cardiovascular benefits, rowing also spares a lot of wear-and-tear on your joints since it’s low impact. “Since you don’t experience a lot of pounding forces on the body, rowing is a great way for people who are overweight or have sensitive knees or hips to get in shape.”

Related: 7 Reasons Your Joints Are Aching—And How To Deal

But if this stationary contraption seems totally foreign (or old-school) to you—aside from its occasional appearance in and episode of House of Cards—you’re definitely not alone. Luckily, nailing the movement boils down to four simple steps. So take a seat on the rowing machine, strap your feet in nice and snug, and grab that “oar” handle.

  1. The Catch

This is the moment that your body is ready to spring into action—imagine an oar catching on the resistance of the water if you were rowing in a boat. Your upper body should be leaning forward with your arms straight, your core tense, and your knees bent.

  1. The Drive

This is when you start to apply force to the hypothetical oar. Pressing through your feet, and keeping your back upright (core tight!) and arms straight, powerfully push through and extend your legs. (While many newbies might think you row with your arms, the first part of the movement comes from your lower-body, says Hammond.)

  1. The Finish

Now you engage your upper body to dig that last bit of “umph” out of your stroke. At this point in the movement, your legs should be extended, but not so much that you end up locking your knees. Keeping your torso straight and your core tight, lean back slightly and pull the “oar” to your ribs by bending your elbows.

  1. The Recovery

Once you’ve gotten the most out of your pull, you have to reset your position in order to catch the hypothetical water again and take your next stroke. To do so, perform the prior three steps in reverse order: Extend your arms, lean your torso forward until the handle passes your knees, and then bend your knees until you return to the starting position. (Think ‘arms, hips, legs.’)

Related: Power through your workouts with a performance supplement.

If your still a little intimidated, don’t worry: There aren’t too many serious form ‘don’ts’ when it comes to rowing, since the exercise is so low-impact, Hammond says. Your form may even improve as you start to feel winded, since your body will naturally default to the most efficient movement possible. So just keep hauling along!

And since rowing doesn’t produce the joint-pounding forces that other forms of cardio and weightlifting do, it’s relatively safe for anyone to use during nearly any phase of training. Whether you’re old, young, a seasoned gym veteran, or just starting out, rowing is a great way to work up a sweat, suggests Hammond. Plus, a light and easy row can also provide a great recovery stimulus if you’re feeling super sore from a few days of going hard.

And the benefits of rowing are really catching on. Group classes—like Row House in New York City, Indo Row in California, and LIT Method in Chicago—are popping up all over the country.

Ready to hop on the rower at your gym? Whether you’re going for a moderate, steady row or pushing through sprint intervals, you’ve just found your new favorite workout.

Pick one of these three workouts from Hammond, and get rowing!

page-0.jpgRelated: 5 Treadmill Workouts That’ll Make The Time Fly By

6 Exercises That Double As Cardio AND Strength-Training

Juggling a job, family, friends, and fitness can sometimes feel like a circus act, with quality time at the gym hard to come by.

To make the most of your your precious muscle-building moments, you need to be as efficient as possible. The best way to do this? Kill two birds with one stone and perform exercises that work your muscles and your heart rate at the same time, suggests Sean De Wispelaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive, and owner of Sean D. Thrive. You’ll reap the benefits of both strength-training and cardio at once, instead of focusing on each separately.

The following six powerhouse moves do just that—so put them to work the next time you need to churn out a killer workout in a hurry. Just start out with a few slow warmup reps before going all out: “A few slow reps to pattern the movement will help wake up your muscles to make the exercises more effective and keep you safe at the same time,” De Wispeleaere says.

Total Body

kbs guy

Kettlebell Swing: “The kettlebell swing is king when it comes to building muscle and jacking up your heart rate at the same time,” says DeWispeleaere. The exercise hammers your hamstrings and glutes—some of the most metabolically-active muscles (meaning they torch the most calories when you work them) in them. But the kettlebell swing also demands serious work from your core and upper body, making it an effective total-body burner.

Place a kettlebell on the floor in front of you and stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Grip the handle tightly and lock your shoulders back and down. Swing the bell back between your legs. (Your forearms will make contact with your inner thighs and your hamstrings should feel like they’re stretched.) Once your hamstrings reach maximal stretch, snap your hips forward to shoot the kettlebell up to chest height. The kettlebell should feel like it’s floating at the top of the rep.

At the top of the swing, you should be in a vertical plank—arms out straight, core tight, legs clenched.  Once you feel the bell start to fall back to the ground, swing it back between your legs to start the next rep.

Related: 6 Kettlebell Moves That Work Every Muscle

sled push

Sled Push: This movement doesn’t have to be fast to be super effective. Slowly pushing a heavy sled is a great way to work your legs, core, upper body, and lungs, says De Wispelaere. “It’s like performing a walking plank,” he says. “You need to tense every muscle in your body to help propel the weight forward.” And even though you’re methodically marching forward, it feels like you just sprinted the 200 meter.

Grab the posts of a sled near the top. Lock your back and down, tense your arms, pull your chest up, and tighten your abs as if you’re about to be punched in the stomach. Step forward by driving your knee to your chest and sharply stomping into the ground with the ball of your foot landing first to push. Repeat and walk the sled 10-30 meters.

Upper Body

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Plyo Pushups: The pushup is a staple in any workout routine because it’s great for hitting your upper-body and core-stabilizing muscles, says De Wispelaere. Dialing up the intensity by making it faster and more explosive will not only test your strength, but also leave you breathless.

Get into a plank position, with your hands directly under your shoulders, your heels together, and your abs tight. Bend at the elbows, (keeping them tucked) and lower your chest to the ground. Once your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, quickly push away from the ground so your hands jump off the floor. Land with your hands directly under your shoulders and repeat.

If you can’t make your hands leave the floor just yet—or if the impact bothers your wrists—you can get a similar effect by powering through fast-paced pushups with your palms firmly planted.

Related: Find a preworkout formula to power your next sweat session.

push press.jpg

Push Press: If you’re looking to build boulder shoulders, the push press will help you load up the pounds. Since you’re using some lower-body strength to heave the dumbbells overhead, you can use heavier weights than you’re typically used to, according to De Wispelaere. After pumping out a few fast-paced reps of this exercise, you’ll be panting.

Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at shoulder level. Bend you knees a few degrees to get in the loaded position. Pop up by pushing through your legs, clenching your glutes, and driving through your heels. At the same time, use your shoulder muscles to punch the dumbbells up to the ceiling until your elbows are fully extended. In a controlled manner, lower the dumbbells back to your shoulders. Repeat.

Lower Body

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Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat Jumps: Single-leg exercises are critical for building well-rounded strength. “When you only perform bilateral—or two-sided—exercises you can end up with strength imbalances that affect your performance and can potentially lead to injury,” says De Wispelaere. That’s why one of his favorite exercises is the rear-foot-elevated split squat (also known as the Bulgarian split squat). “It takes one leg almost completely out of the equation so you’re forced to rely on the muscles in one side of your body,” he says. Plus, adding a jump to the movement will send your heart-rate soaring.

Find a bench or box that’s about knee height and stand about a foot in front of it with your back to it. Reach back with your left leg and rest the top of your left foot on the box or bench. In a controlled manner, lower yourself until your right knee is bent at a 90-degree angle. Pause, and then explode up, jumping your right foot off of the floor. Pause to reset if needed and then repeat. Perform the same number of reps on your left side as you do on your right.

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Jump Squats: These are a doozy no matter how fit you are. Jump squats hammer the large muscles in your lower body to jack up your heart rate and rev your metabolism. If you want to make them even more potent, try performing them after a set of slower weighted goblet squats, suggests De Wispelaere.

This activates what’s called post-activation potentiation (PAP). By doing the weighted version of the movement, you stimulate your muscle fibers and nervous system, so when it comes time to drop the weight for explosive reps, you recruit more of the muscle to do the work, resulting in a bigger burn for your buck and better performance, according to De Wispelaere.

Grab a moderate-to-heavy kettlebell. Hold it at chest level by gripping either side of the handle. Perform weighted squats by bending at the knees and lowering your backside as though you’re about to sit into a chair until your knees form just below a 90-degree angle. Pause, then extend your knees to return to standing. Do five to 10 reps before dropping the weight an adding an explosive jump on your way up for another five to 10 reps.

Related: 15 Moves Your Booty Will Thank You For Doing

Should You Cut Fruit From Your Diet If You Want to Lose Weight?

No matter how strong your sweet tooth, you probably know that consuming tons of sugar is not the best move, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. After all, sugar hits our bloodstream fast, causing a ‘sugar spike’—which forces our bodies to release a hormone (insulin) to get that sugar out of the blood and distribute it throughout the body so it can be used as energy. Too much of this over time can put us at risk for weight gain and diabetes.

But if your goal is to lose weight, does that mean you should slash all sources of sugar—like fruit? (Gasp!).

The short answer: Nope.

“There is no reason why anyone—average exercisers, bodybuilders, or anyone else—should cut fruit from their diets,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., and best-selling author of Eating in Color.

Americans are consuming an average of 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day (amounting to 350 additional calories), when women should consume no more than six, and men no more than nine, says Largeman-Roth.

So if you want to lose weight, start by cutting your intake of foods and beverages with added sugars, not fruit. We’re talking about that flavor pump in your coffee, premade salad dressings, sweetened teas, and packaged snacks—many of which are loaded with the stuff.

Not All Sugar Is Created Equal

It’s important to distinguish between added sugars and natural sugars, says Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D., professor of nutrition at Boston University and author of Nutrition and You!

“The sugars that come in fruit and dairy foods are perfectly fine for you because these food sources provide other valuable nutrition, like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and calcium,” she says.

Meanwhile, many foods and drinks that contain added sugars are pretty devoid of other nutrition. Added sugars are metabolized quickly, leaving you with a quick energy spike but feeling unsatiated, while the fiber from fruit slows down your body’s uptake of the sugar, helping you to stay fuller for longer.

Additionally, your body is taking in much-needed nutrients as it breaks down that fruit. “So, eating an orange is much better for you than consuming a sugary orange drink, like soda,” says Blake. Opting for a piece of fruit instead of a sugary treat is a great, low-calorie way to satisfy your sweet tooth and your appetite.

Related: 8 Nutritionists Share How They Satisfy Their Sweet Tooth

Does that mean you can eat all the fruit you want, anytime? Not exactly. “Anything can be overdone,” says Largeman-Roth. “If you’re subsisting on fruit and not getting enough high-quality proteins, vegetables, and whole grains, your diet will be unbalanced.” But even then, you’d still be hard-pressed to consume upwards of 22 teaspoons of sugar in a day—you’d probably just fill up on fiber first!

FYI: The USDA recommends between one-and-a-half to two cups of fruit daily for adults.

How To Slash The Sweet Stuff

To wean yourself off added sugar, Blake recommends first looking at what you’re drinking. You’re probably thinking of sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks, right? One of the biggest sneaky sources of added sugar might be part of your morning ritual: coffee and tea. “They carry a misnomer of being benign and even healthy sometimes, but fancy coffee drinks and blended or bottled tea can contain just as much sugar as a soda,” she says. Even smoothies can sneak up on you, because a lot of store-bought smoothies are flavored with fruit juices and other added sugars. (Hate to break it to you, but kale smoothies aren’t that sweet naturally!).  Cutting out these liquid sugar sources can seriously slash your total intake.

If you’re already straying from the added sugars hiding in drinks and processed foods, but are still concerned about your intake, there are a few fruits that are naturally lower in sugar, says Largeman-Roth.

Grapefruit, oranges, pears, strawberries, and apples all make for a satisfying sweet snack that’s low in natural sugars, too. (A cup of strawberries contains about seven grams of sugar, while a medium banana contains about 15 grams of sugar.)

Related: Browse a variety of supplements to support blood sugar.

Is There A Best Time Of Day To Work Out?

Everyone always says, “Timing is everything,” and that definitely counts when it comes to fitness. If you’ve ever felt sluggish during an early-morning sweat or unmotivated and tired during a post-work gym session, you know just how true this can be.

Busy schedules tend to dictate when you have time to work out, but your personal sweet spot may vary depending on your fitness goals and internal body clock.

Consider An AM Sweat Session If…

You’ve probably heard quite a bit of back-and-forth about fasted cardio—a.k.a. cardio you do on an empty stomach, typically first thing in the morning. “While studies don’t definitively show any timing benefits for losing weight, the exercise window can be manipulated for training adaptation and performance purposes,” says Tasuku Terada, Ph.D., researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada.

So hitting the cardio bright and early may not be necessary if you’re trying to shed pounds, but sweating on an empty stomach may promote greater muscular aerobic adaptations—like your muscles’ ability to store glycogen (and prevent energy depletion) and their number of mitochondria, which help your cells produce more energy, says Terada. Both of these adaptations ladder up to how efficiently your muscles use oxygen—though more research to support these benefits is needed, Terada says.

To reap these muscular benefits, you’d need time to fast prior to hitting the gym, which is often easiest to do overnight, while you’re sleeping.

Related: Let’s Set the Record Straight About Fasted Cardio

You may also want to consider morning workouts if you’re often plagued by sleepytime struggles. “For some individuals, rigorous exercise close to bedtime can stimulate the body and brain in a way that makes it difficult to fall asleep,” says Sina Gharib, M.D., sleep researcher and associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

The hormones released during and after exercise—like adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine—can have energizing effects for some folks. So if you have trouble falling asleep after a gym sesh and don’t have the luxury of sleeping in the next morning, it’s better to find time to work out earlier in the day. Ample sleep is crucial for benefiting from your workouts, after all, since your body uses that time to recover and grow stronger.

Consider A PM Sweat Session If…

Waking up at the crack-of-dawn to work out seems like the move (Did you crush leg day before work? Impressive.), unless, of course, it means you’re missing out on a full night’s sleep.

“The average person needs close to eight hours of sleep per every 24 hours,” says Gharib. If you fall short on that downtime, your body gets stuck in a state of constant breakdown, sabotaging your performance and progress. Waking up at five o’clock in the morning is even tougher when your progress stalls and motivation tanks.

If a morning workout cuts into your sleepy time, consider pushing your workout to later in the day, suggests Gharib.

Related: Exactly What To Do At Night To Have A Great Night’s Sleep

Another reason to exercise later in the day: performance. Chowing down on carbs before endurance events—like a long run or race—helps improve your performance during the event, according to Terada. If you’re training for a distance running event or long obstacle race, fuel is crucial to your ability to kick butt. Since your body needs time to digest and process the carbs so they can be used as fuel, you’re best off hitting these workouts a couple of hours after a meal instead of first thing in the A.M.

Having proper fuel before a workout is also key if you’re trying to build muscle, so scheduling heavy lifts for lunchtime or after work may support your gains. “If your goal is muscle growth, protein supplementation becomes more important,” says Terada. Just like you want to get those carbs in before endurance training, you want to consume muscle-repairing protein before training for muscle growth—and afterward, too.

Related: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

The Bottom Line

With all these different variables, penciling in the perfect time to work out probably feels a little daunting—especially if you choose to challenge your body differently and do different workouts from day to day. But here’s the good news: The best workout time for you ultimately boils down to your preference.

“The bottom line is, performing exercise at any time of day is better than no exercise,” says Terada. If you find a time that fits your daily life, you’ll be more likely to make it a routine and reap the benefits of a consistent healthy lifestyle.

Related: Find a recovery supplement to help you rebound after a tough workout.

How Much Do Genetics Factor Into Getting Ripped Abs?

We all know ‘that’ person. You know, the one who somehow manages to maintain a ripped midsection no matter what they eat or how little they work out. But on the flip side, we also all know someone who grinds it out in the gym day after day and just can’t unveil those mythical abs.

No matter who you are, the appearance of your abs is largely based on your genetics. “How visible they are, how they’re shaped, whether they’re aligned or crooked—it boils down to your DNA,” says Mike Israetel, Ph.D., sports physiologist and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization.

Are You In There, Abs?

You can probably guess that having visible abs depends on your total body fat percentage. After all, the less fat you have, the more visible your muscles are underneath your skin.

But, unfortunately, this is complicated by genetics. “Some people are just more resistant to losing fat from their abdominal region, even if there’s not a whole lot of fat there to begin with,” says Israetel. “Meanwhile, others may hold a disproportionate amount of fat under the skin on top of their abs,” he notes. (Think of someone with slim legs but a rounder middle.)

Since you can’t “spot treat” fat loss (a.k.a. lose fat from specific places), you have to lean out all over before you’ll catch a glimpse of your six-pack. You can do all the planks and sit-ups you want, but it doesn’t matter how toned those muscles are if they’re covered in a layer of fat.

Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted

All Abs Are Unique

Even if you can get those muscles to peek through, don’t expect them to look just like your favorite celeb’s toned tummy “Your genetics also determine the shape of your abs as they appear from the front—how aligned they are, how big the borders are between them, and whether they’re short and wide or long and narrow,” explains Israetel.

But while you can’t change your abs’ shape, you can help augment their thickness (how far they stick out from your core) with strength training, he says.

Related: How To Lift Heavy For Maximum Muscle Results

Performing ab-targeting exercises can help make your individual abdominal muscles stand out more for a more awe-inspiring six-pack. Your abs respond to stimulus just like the rest of your muscles do—by growing, Israetel explains. Stress them with weight and they’ll respond over time by adapting and growing bigger and stronger.

Israetel recommends performing the following ab-focused movements three times per week in three to five sets of eight to 20 reps to really help those core muscles shine. Watch these video demos from Renaissance Periodization to check your form.

V-UP
Hold a light medicine ball or dumbbell and lay on your back with your legs straight and your arms extended overhead. Crunching your abs, lift your hands and feet until they meet extended above your torso. Then pause and reverse the motion to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Hanging Knee Raise
Hang from a pullup bar with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart. Using your lower ab muscles, lift your knees up towards your chest. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Slant-Board Situp
Find a slant board at the gym (it looks like a bench that’s positioned at an angle with footholds at the top). Sit on the board facing the footholds. Flex your feet and secure them in the footholds. Using your abs, slowly lower yourself until you’re parallel with the floor. (Don’t lie all the way down onto the board!) Pause, and then sit back up. That’s one rep.

Related: Power through your next workout with a performance supplement.

How To Lift Heavy For Maximum Muscle Results

Strength training offers up a ton of benefits beyond big biceps—like preventing injury and improving overall body composition. But just going to the gym and picking up the heaviest thing you can find day in and day out isn’t going to help you maximize your potential, according to Brian Neale, C.S.C.S., performance coach and owner of Brian Neale Personal Coaching in Westchester, New York. It’s a little more complicated than that.

First Off, What Qualifies As ‘Lifting Heavy’?

If you’re lifting hard for serious strength, you’ll want to use a weight that’s 80 percent of your predicted 1RM, or one-rep max (how much you think you can lift for just one rep of an exercise) for just one to six reps per set for a total of four sets, says Neale.

How To Find Your One-Rep Max

Testing your 1RM without the supervision of a coach can be a fast track to injury, but that doesn’t mean you’re outta luck if you don’t have a trainer. To find out, use the National Strength and Conditioning Association-approved method to estimate that max weight. It may not be exact, but it’ll get you pretty close!

For the exercise(s) you want to test, find a weight you can lift five times. (That fifth rep should be tough.) Let’s say, for the back squat, you perform five reps at 175 pounds. Multiply 175 pounds by 1.15 to get your predicted 1RM: 201.25 pounds, or about 200 pounds.

The Prerequisite You Need Before Lifting Heavy

Once you’ve figured out your 1RM, you’ll want to make sure you have a solid strength-training base before focusing your entire routine on going heavy.

Your body gradually adapts to be able to withstand large amounts of weight as a whole. Lifts like the back squat require core strength, strong quads and glutes, and joints that are accustomed to heavy loads,so taking time to build overall strength and condition your body to lifting will prepare you to go hard later.

Related: 5 Exercises All Gym Newbies Should Master

Neale recommends gradually building your foundation for eight to 12 weeks before hitting the heavy loads. For the first four to six weeks, use a weight that’s about 60 percent of your 1RM for three to five sets of 12 to 15 reps. Then, for the following four to six weeks, progress to a weight that’s 70 to 75 percent of your 1RM for 3-5 sets of six to eight reps.

Time For The Big Weights

When you’re ready to focus on heavy lifting, it’s important to vary your workouts from week to week using a method called periodization. “It helps ensure that you’re maximizing your muscle-building by pushing your body without overdoing it,” says Neale.

Neale recommends adjusting your reps week-to-week as follows:

Week 1: 4 sets of 5 reps (83% of one-rep max)
Week 2: 4 sets of 3 reps (90% of one-rep max)
Week 3: 4 sets of 4 reps (86% of one-rep max)
Week 4: 4 sets of 2 reps (93% of one-rep max)

So, if your predicted 1RM squat is 200 pounds, you’d use the following weights each week:

Week 1: 166 pounds (83%)
Week 2: 180 pounds (90%)
Week 3: 174 pounds (86%)
Week 4: 186 pounds (93%)

Calculate the appropriate weights for every exercise in your workouts, and voila, you’ve got a four-week periodization plan. After you finish week four, recalculate your  1RM and reset at week one, adjusting your weights accordingly. The weights you use will gradually increase month to month as you build strength, but your strategy remains the same, says Neale. Repeating this for a few months should help you see some serious strength gains.

Related: Grab a preworkout formula to pump up your next training session.

How Much Is Too Much?

To avoid overdoing it, Neale recommends having just one heavy day per muscle group per week. But that doesn’t mean you can only squat once per week and that’s it. If you hit a muscle group a second time within a week, just use higher-rep sets of lighter weights—say three to five sets of 12 to 15 reps. You’ll hit your muscles with a slightly different strength-building stimulus and practice good technique under lighter loads.

Even if you do stick to a once-per-week schedule and keep the weights heavy, working out at this intensity may call for extra rest. “Training heavy puts a huge load on your central nervous system, so your fatigue extends beyond just the muscles you’re using,” says Neale.

That’s why it’s important to get adequate recovery time between intense workouts.  If you’re feeling tired, sluggish, or extremely sore, it’s better to wait a day or two before lifting heavy again, even if you’re going from leg day to back day.

Eating ample protein (figure out just how much you need here) and banking at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night will help promote recovery and keep you going for those heavy weights, Neale adds.

Related: 5 Signs You Need A Day Off From The Gym