How To Use Eccentric Training To Get Stronger

No, eccentric training isn’t what you see when some guy uses the cable machine to perform acrobatic moves. Sure, that guy might be an eccentric, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about training the lowering portion of a strength-training move (a.k.a. negative training).

Resistance training exercises are made up of three main parts: the lifting phase (called ‘concentric’), the hold (called ‘isometric’), and the lowering phase (called ‘eccentric’). While a lot of people credit the lifting phase (and the satisfaction of the squeeze) for most of resistance training’s strength and size benefits—think curling a dumbbell or pressing a barbell overhead—eccentric training can actually promote greater overall muscle growth, according to world-renowned exercise scientist Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.

Evidence shows that eccentric training can promote growth in certain aspects of the muscle that concentric just can’t,” explains Schoenfeld. Here’s why: You’re actually a bit stronger when you lower something than when you lift it (think of bringing something heavy down from a high shelf versus lifting it back up there), so specifically training your eccentric strength will help you more fully work your muscles, develop strength, and improve your performance. You may also land yourself more symmetrical looking muscles.

Eccentric training is useful for all types of exercises, but it’s particularly helpful for progressing in bodyweight exercises. Since bodyweight movements like pullups, pushups, and dips often feel like pass-fail without serious modification (you can either do a pullup or you can’t), adding an eccentric focus to your training can help you build the strength you need to perform these moves unassisted.

Related: How To Make 5 Bodyweight Exercises So Much Harder

The drawback: “Eccentric exercises produce more muscle damage than concentric or isometric exercises, so overdoing them is more likely to cause intense (and potentially debilitating) soreness,” says Schoenfeld. To reap the gains of eccentric training without going too far, limit any eccentric-specific exercises to a few sets and save it for the end of your training session.

To correctly supplement your regular routine with eccentrics, try one of these three methods during your next workout.

1. Slow Your Lower

Where you may have previously ignored the negative portion of an exercise, you’ll want to now focus on lowering the weight in a slow and controlled manner. “When you let gravity do the work for you on the way down, you don’t reap all of the benefits of the time you’re putting in at the gym,” explains Schoenfeld. By focusing on slowing the lowering portion of a movement, you’ll tap into the benefits of eccentric training with every rep you perform.

How to do it: Keeping your contraction at its usual pace, control the load (be it a dumbbell, barbell, or your bodyweight) as you lower it back down and extend that eccentric movement for three to five seconds. Try this in one or two sets per workout, and keep your lower at a normal, controlled tempo throughout the rest of your sets.

2. Lower Only

In this method, you’ll perform only the lowering portion of the movement. It’s particularly useful for working on bodyweight exercises (like pushups and pullups) you might struggle with. Remember, your muscles can handle heavier loads in the eccentric phase than they can in the concentric phase. So while you may not be able to pull yourself up in a pullup, you can likely lower yourself down with control.

How to do it: Start at the top of a rep and lower your body through the negative portion of it at a controlled pace. (To do this for pullups, for example, you’d use a box or step to help you jump to the top of the pullup and then lower yourself slowly down from the ending position back to the starting hanging position.)

Try a few sets of these at the end of your workout.

3. Overload The Lower

Since you’re stronger in the eccentric phase of a movement, you can also use more weight when training the eccentric part of a move than you can when performing full reps of that same move. “You can lower a load approximately 120 to 150 percent of your one rep max—the most weight you can lift for just one rep—which gives you the opportunity to overload your muscles to promote greater strength development,” says Schoenfeld.

How it works: In pushups, for example, wear a weight vest or rest a plate on your back. Start at the top of the pushup in a plank position. Lower to the bottom of the movement and then drop to your knees to press yourself back into the starting position.

Reap the benefits and avoid potential muscle damage by tacking just a set or two of these intense reps onto the end of your workout in place of any other eccentric-only training.

Related: Add a recovery supp to your workout routine to support your hard-earned muscles.

Free Weights vs. Weight Machines: Which Are Better For You?

The benefits of strength training are seemingly endless. For starters, since lean muscle is more calorie-hungry than fat, building a little extra brawn can ramp up your metabolic rate. And strength training has also been shown to have other less outwardly-noticeable effects, like reducing resting blood pressure, enhancing heart health, tanking bad cholesterol and upping the good kind, and even promoting bone density, according to research published in Current Sports Medicine Reports.

At many gyms you have two options for getting that strength training in: free weights (barbells and dumbbells) and weight machines (all those contraptions you typically sit down on). Both weight machines and free weights have perks and downsides—but weight machines seem to get a lot of hate from the fitness community.

Is one approach to muscle building really better than the other? We asked the experts for the lowdown.

Weight Machines

Weight machines force you into a fixed track of motion, explains Sean De Wispleaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive and owner of Sean D. Thrive. (Picture someone sitting in a shoulder press machine, pushing the handles, which move only up and down.)

This makes using weight machines beneficial if you’re a beginner, De Wispleaere says. “Staying in a fixed track of movement can help you learn how to pattern some complex exercises, like the squat and deadlift,” he says. You’d perform both of those moves on a Smith machine, which has a barbell fixed to steel rails.

Additionally, they can help you truly isolate certain muscles, meaning you work only one or two muscles at a time. This is helpful for bodybuilders looking to hone in on specific muscle groups as much as possible in a given workout, along with anyone recovering from an injury that needs to avoid working certain parts of their body, according to De Wispelaere.

The issue is, if you don’t fit a machine just right, you could be forcing your body to move in an unnatural way, says De Wispleaere. And that’s a recipe for injury down the road.

Related: Your performance is only as strong as your preworkout.

Plus, if torching max calories is your goal, using weight machines won’t give you the biggest burn for your buck. “Since you’re not often engaging multiple muscle groups at once, the effect on your metabolism is smaller than it would be with free weights,” explains De Wispelaere. After all, performing seated bicep curls demands a lot less of your body than performing curl-ups or a compound free-weight movement like a curl-to-press.

Free Weights

On the flipside, free weights allow you more flexibility and freedom in how you perform an exercise, according to De Wispleaere. Since the weights aren’t on a track or cable system, you need to use more muscles than just the ones you’re specifically targeting in order to keep the weight stable. “This causes you to work harder overall and build more well-rounded strength,” he says. (Picture someone pressing two dumbbells up overhead. The dumbbells wobble side to side and front to back, engaging the small muscles all around the shoulder joint. Plus, you’ll engage your core to maintain your posture and balance.)

And because you’re recruiting additional muscles when using free weights, you’re giving yourself a metabolic edge. While the individual effects might be small, the cumulative effects of hitting more muscles with each move and each workout mean you burn through more calories, while further enhancing your strength, control, and stability.

Related: Should You Lift Full-Body Or Bodybuilder-Style?

While free weights allow you to move in a way that’s more natural for your body, that freedom also means there’s plenty of room for you to perform an exercise incorrectly, which puts you at risk for aches, pains, and injury, Di Wispleaere says. So when lifting free weights, using proper form an appropriate weight need to be top of mind.

The Verdict

Weight machines do come in handy in some cases—especially for beginners who need to build a foundation of strength, or anyone who needs to lay off an injury—and they can certainly be a part of a body-building style strength-training session. But ultimately, De Wispleaere prefers and recommends free weights.

As long as you use lift safely, using free weights will build well-rounded strength and a fit physique more efficiently.

Pin this infographic to keep the pros and cons of each strength-training style top-of-mind:

5 Moves For Sculpted Shoulders

Well-sculpted shoulders can really create the look of a fit physique. Not only does a broad and shapely upper body make your waist look smaller, but your shoulders are also a metabolic power house—meaning the more muscle you build there, the more you rev your metabolism and burn calories, according to BJ Gaddour, C.S.C.S., owner of The Daily BJ.

The catch? Building well-rounded shoulders isn’t as simple as knocking out a few reps of the strict press. “Your shoulders are actually made up of three major parts—the anterior (front) head, the lateral (side) head, and the posterior (back) head—and you need to work them evenly to avoid injury and develop well-rounded strength,” Gaddour explains.

The anterior head is responsible for helping you lift your arms in front of your body, the lateral head assists in helping you hold your arms out to the side, and the posterior head is primarily responsible for pulling your shoulders back (like in a reverse fly), according to Gaddour.

“Symmetry among the three major parts of the shoulder is critical for posture, aesthetics, and performance,” he says. And because many of us do so many pushing exercises, the anterior (front) part of our shoulders are overdeveloped, while the other parts miss out. To even out your strength and take your physique to the next level, make sure your next shoulder day includes Gaddour’s five go-to moves.

Ready to hit the dumbbells?

(If your workouts have been very pushup and bench press-heavy, Gaddour recommends performing extra sets and reps of the moves that work the lateral and posterior parts of the muscle group.)

Move #1: Lateral Raise

Targets: lateral (side) head

Grab a pair of light dumbbells and stand with your feet shoulders-width apart with your hands at your sides and palms facing in toward your legs. Tense your core and squeeze your glutes. Keeping your arms straight, lift the dumbbells up and out to the side until your arms are parallel to the floor. (You’ll look like a giant ‘T.’) Pause, then slowly lower to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Perform 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps.

Related: Grab a performance supplement to support muscle growth.

Move #2: Reverse Fly

Targets: posterior (rear) head

Grab a pair of light dumbbells and stand with your feet shoulders-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and hinge forward at the hips until your torso is nearly parallel with the floor. Your arms should be hanging straight towards the floor with your palms facing each other (this is important for zeroing in on the posterior head), and your elbows should be softly bent. Keeping your back flat and your torso locked into place, lift your arms straight out to the sides until they are in line with your body. (Your upper body will look a bit like an airplane.) Pause, then slowly lower to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Perform 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps.

Move #3: Front Raise

Targets: anterior (front) head

Grab a pair of light to medium dumbbells and stand with your feet shoulders-width apart. Your arms should hang in front of your body with your palms facing your quads. Clench your core and tense your glutes to keep your back straight. Then lift your arms in front of you until they’re parallel to the floor. Pause, then slowly lower to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Perform 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps.

Move #4: Dumbbell Arnold Press

Targets: all three heads

Grab a pair of moderately-heavy dumbbells and find a bench. Adjust the bench to a seated position so your back is supported and upright. With elbows bent, hold the dumbbells at shoulder height with your palms facing each other. Press overhead, rotating the dumbbells as you do so, so your palms face forward at the top of the move. Pause and then reverse to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Perform 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps.

Move #5: SingleArm Overhead Carry

Targets: all three heads (plus your traps and core)

Grab a moderately-heavy dumbbell or kettlebell. Stand with your feet shoulders-width apart and the weight in your right hand. Tense your core and glutes to keep your torso from tilting to the side, and press the dumbbell overhead. Walk 10 to 20 yards and then lower the dumbbell to switch hands. Repeat on the left side. That’s one round.

Perform 3 to 5 rounds.

Related: The 5 Most Effective Abs Exercises

The Best Full-Body Strength Workout For When You Only Have 30 Minutes

When it comes to building strength, a lot of people think you need to spend hours in the gym every day. And while it does take long-term commitment and dedication to sculpt the perfect physique—we’re talking months and years here—it can still be done when you’re crunched for time. So skipping a workout just because you only have a half-hour to sweat isn’t an excuse.

In fact, you don’t even need to haul yourself to the gym most of the time. “Your body is the only tool you need,” says fitness and wellness coach Gideon Akande, C.P.T., who coaches entire strength-building bootcamp classes that use nothing but bodyweight.

We know what you’re thinking: Are bodyweight moves really going to get the job done? The bottom line: yes. “No one is too strong to build more muscle during a bodyweight workout,” Akande says. You can dial up the intensity of any exercise by simply shifting something about the movement—like changing your hand position during a pushup, or adding an explosive element to a squat.

The next time you need to cram in a workout—or just don’t feel like going to the gym—try Akande’s 30-minute strength-building bodyweight workout for yourself, and you’ll become a believer.

Let’s get to work:

There are five total exercises. You’ll perform each exercise for 45 seconds and then rest for 15 seconds. You’ll repeat that pattern for each of the following four exercises. After you’ve finished all five exercises (five minutes), rest for a full minute. That’s one set. Repeat for five sets total (30 minutes). If you’re super short on time, you can stick to just two or three sets.

Related: 6 Ways Building Muscle Benefits Your Health And Well-Being

You’ve got three variation options for each of the five exercises so you can scale the workout to your abilities and turn up the heat for an extra challenge. Check out Akande’s demonstration videos, below, to choose which variation to use in your workout.

Exercise 1: Upper Body

To keep things simple, perform: Pushups

To turn up the heat, perform: Alligator Pushups

To make your workout insane, perform: Plyo Alligator Pushups

 

Exercise 2: Lower Body

To keep things simple, perform: Bodyweight Squats

To turn up the heat, perform: Drop Squats

To make your workout insane, perform: Jump Squats

 

Exercise 3: Core

To keep things simple, perform: Bear Crawl Holds

To turn up the heat, perform: Bear Crawls (forward and backward)

To make your workout insane, perform: Lateral Bear Crawls (side to side)

 Exercise 4: Total Body

To keep things simple, perform: Caterpillar Crawls

To turn up the heat, perform: Caterpillars + Pushups

To make your workout insane, perform: Caterpillars + Pushups and Jumps

Exercise 5: Conditioning

Trust us, these will be hard enough as is: Shuffle Sprints

Related: Shop muscle-building supplements to get the most gain out of your workout.

 

 

3 Ways To Improve Your Deadlift And Crush Your Next PR

The deadlift is one of the highest ROI movements in the exercise bank. That’s because it’s one of few exercise that forces you to use your entire body throughout the movement, says professional strength coach Matthew Ibrahim, M.S.

Many exercises—we’re looking at you, bicep curls—only work one to two muscles at a time. But in activities outside of the gym, you rarely use just one or two muscles at a time. Instead, your body usually has to work as a complete system, even to do something as simple as taking out the trash or carrying bags of groceries into the house, says Sean De Wispleaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive.

These full-body movements come with an added bonus: “When all of your muscles have to work in unison, it’s more taxing on your nervous system, which provokes a higher calorie burn,” says Ibrahim.

It’s no wonder deadlifting gets your heart pumping so hard. But if you’re not doing the move quite right, you may not be reaping all of the potential benefits—or making strength gains. Make sure none of these potential pitfalls are messing with your deadlift game, so you can shore up your strength, torch a few extra calories, and hit your next PR.

#1: You Can’t Touch Your Toes

Don’t move a muscle. If you can’t touch your toes with your feet together and your legs straight, you should not perform a traditional barbell deadlift, says De Wispleaere.

Not being able to reach the floor means your hamstrings are inflexible, and inflexible hamstrings sabotage your form. When you hinge at the hips during a deadlift, it pulls on your hamstrings, which absorb the majority of the weight you’re trying to move. If your tight hamstrings don’t allow you to properly hinge, your lower back and spine are forced to bear the brunt of the load, says De Wispelaere. Since the muscles in your back are not nearly as strong as those in your legs, this not only keeps you from lifting heavier, but also sets you up for potential injury.

Related: I Stretched For 30 Days With The Goal Of Touching My Toes—See How It Went

The quick fix: To reap the benefits of a similar motion with less risk of injury, swap your deadlift for a hip thrust. Think of it as a deadlift on your back. “It’s a hip hinge, so it will hit the big fat-burning muscles that build strength and rev your metabolism, without the stress on your spine,” says De Wispelaere. The hip thrust will also help you build strength in the muscles you’ll need to rely on when you can graduate to the deadlift.

To perform the hip thrust, sit on the ground with your back against a bench—it should hit right at your shoulder blades—with your legs out in front of you. Roll a barbell over your legs and onto your hip crease. (You may want to cushion this with an extra towel or pad.) Then place your feet flat on the floor, with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Driving through your feet, push your hips up to the ceiling until your body forms a flat table-top. Pause, then lower down. That’s one rep.

The long-term solution: To increase the flexibility in your hammies, Ibrahim recommends doing this sequence during your warmup: Foam roll your hamstrings and glutes for 10 seconds each, and immediately follow that up with five reps of the single-leg lower on each side.

For the single-leg lowers, grab a resistance band and lay flat on the floor with your legs straight up in the air. (Your torso and legs should form a 90-degree angle.) Loop the band around the bottom of your right foot and hold the band so it’s taut and keeps your right leg from moving. Then, slowly lower your left leg until it hovers right above the floor. Pause, and bring it back to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Ibrahim recommends cycling through this warmup protocol three times before beginning your workout.

#2: Your Knees Bend Too Much

If your knees are flying way out over the bar when you’re setting up your deadlift, your hips are too low, according to De Wispelaere. This shifts the weight from your hamstrings to your quads—making the deadlift almost like an awkward squat. “This reduces the effectiveness of the movement by not stimulating your hamstrings and diminishing the total-body burn as a result,” he says.

Think of a hip hinge movement like a bow and arrow, says De Wispelaere. The further you pull the bow straight back, the more power it snaps forward with. But if you pull back and down, you create slack in the lower part of the string, reducing its potential force and downgrading the benefit of your deadlift.

The quick fix: When you’re setting up for the deadlift, push your hips back, like you’re trying to close a car door with your butt. This will maximize the bow and arrow effect of your hamstrings, so you can pull more weight.

The long-term solution: To really hammer home the hinge pattern, Ibrahim recommends adding the cable pull-through exercise to your routine. “When you repeat a movement pattern over and over, your brain can reference that feeling when it’s time to move bigger loads,” he says. In the pull-through, a cable machine or a band pulls you backwards, which forces you to hinge properly at the hips.

To perform the pull-through, lower a cable machine pulley (with the rope handle attachment) to the setting just above the floor. Stand with your back to the machine and your legs on either side of the cable handles, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Grab the handles and walk a few steps away from the machine. Keeping your back straight, your core tight, and your knees slightly bent, reach your hands through your legs until your back is parallel to the floor. Pause, and then use your hamstrings and glutes to extend your hips and stand upright.  That’s one rep. Ibrahim recommends doing eight to 10 reps right before you deadlift. If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can tie a moderate-resistance band low around a sturdy post instead.

Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Squat

#3: Your Upper Back Rounds

“A rounded upper back usually means that your upper body is taking too much load away from your legs,” says De Wispelaere. “And this significantly reduces the amount you’re able to pull.” It also likely means that you’re crunching your shoulders up near your ears. And this kind of unnecessary muscle tension uses energy and detracts from what the rest of your body is able to do. While the effect is small, it can mean the difference between snagging that PR or missing it.

The quick fix: When you grip the bar, pretend like you’re trying to break it in half between your hands, recommends De Wispleaere. This will naturally lock your shoulders into a position that will prevent your upper back from rounding, making you stronger from head to toe.

The long-term solution: If you feel like your upper back is the weak link preventing you from reaching your next PR, reinforce it over time with the RKC plank, recommends Ibrahim. “By strengthening your core—specifically in this position—you’ll be better able to keep a neutral spine through all phases of the deadlift,” he says.

To do the RKC plank, get into plank position with your elbows on the floor and your body forming a straight line from your head to your toes. Clench your abs as if you’re bracing for a punch to the gut and try to pull your elbows to your toes. Squeeze and hold this position for 10 seconds. You should be shaking by the end. Perform two to three of these during your warmup to wake up your core before any workout.

“You can also do the RKC plank right before your deadlift to maximally activate your core right before the lift,” he says.

Related: Find a performance supplement to help you lift your way to a PR.

Here’s What’s Keeping You From Getting Bigger Calves

A lot of guys know the struggle of trying to build bigger calves and never seeing noticeable gains. That’s because many men “suffer” from ‘high calves,’ which means they have a long Achilles (the tendon that connects the heel to the back of the leg) and small muscle bellies. Basically, this means the calf muscle is naturally shorter and a lot less likely to grow into that boulder.

But less likely does not mean impossible, according to former high-calf sufferer BJ Gaddour, C.S.C.S., owner of digital workout platform The Daily BJ. After seeing his social media followers constantly nit-picking of his toothpick lower legs, the magazine cover guy got seriously diligent about his calf strategy—and now his lower legs are the objects of envy.

Related: The Hard Gainer’s Guide To Packing On Size

“Guys tend to make three big mistakes when they’re trying to beef up their lower leg muscles,” Gaddour says. But fear not, high-calvers, you can fix these common blunders by adding Gaddour’s calf-building workout to your routine.

Mistake #1: Thinking Running Will Do The Trick

Our calves have become conditioned for the endurance to do basic things, like standing, running, and walking. “The calves are stubborn, strong muscles that have a lot of stamina, so they need to be shocked into growth,” Gaddour says. So, just doing more of the same thing won’t make them bigger. (Check out the workout below to get yours growing.)

Mistake #2: Saving Calf Exercises For The End Of Your Workout

Far too many of us quickly tack on a few calf raises to the end of leg day—and by doing so we sabotage our calves’ potential. “The movements you do first in your workout are the ones you’ll get the most out of,” says Gaddour. Even if you don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to training your calves (and most people don’t), hitting them hard early in your workout will produce better results because your body is fresh and not fatigued, he says.

Mistake #3: Ripping Reps Too Quickly

“If you want to basically guarantee growth in any muscle, you need to increase the amount of time it’s under tension,” says Gaddour. So if you’re flying through reps, your muscles may burn, but they’re not getting the maximum stimulus they need to get bigger. Gaddour advises performing reps methodically, and sometimes even slowly, lingering at different phases in the exercise in order to build evenly-distributed strength and muscle.

Follow this mini-calf workout from Gaddour to avoid these physique-sculpting faux pas and maximize your results. Perform the exercises at the beginning of your workout at least two to three times a week.

Make sure your form is on-point and you’re maxing out your gain potential:

Seated Calf Raise

This exercise zeros in on the Soleus, which is the large muscle in the lower calf. This portion of the lower leg is largely composed of endurance-focused fibers that respond well to high reps and short rest periods, according to Gaddour—which is why he recommends performing two to three light sets of 25 to 50 reps.

How to do it: Sit in a seated calf raise machine or sit on a bench with a weight plate in your lap. Your feet should be firmly planted on the floor and your torso should be upright. Pushing through your toes, use your lower leg muscles to lift your thighs upwards towards the ceiling. Pause at the top and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Standing Calf Raise

This move, on the other hand, targets the Gastrocnemius, which is the upper calf muscle. Since this muscle is comprised more of fast-twitch muscle fibers—meaning it’s primed for explosive movements or heavy loads—performing moderately-weighted sets of 12 to 25 reps will help promote growth, says Gaddour. However, he adds, this portion of the muscle also responds to heavier loads of six to eight reps, as well as burn-outs of light weight high reps—so feel free to mix up your approach from workout to workout.

Related: Shop supplements to support muscle growth.

How to do it: Stand tall with the balls of your feet on a platform a few inches off of the ground (the base of a squat rack or a step works perfectly) and your heels hanging off the back. Using your lower leg muscles, press through your toes to elevate your body. Pause at the top and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Donkey Calf Raise

Donkey raises take the traditional standing calf raise and turn it on its head—almost. By hinging at the hips, you transfer the bulk of your weight forward, which stretches the gastrocnemius muscle while you work it, says Gaddour. This can help promote even more calf-building power by introducing a new stimulus to these stubborn muscles. Perform two to three sets of 12 to 25 reps to start, and increase your reps as your legs become more adjusted to the movement.

How to do it: Stand on a low step or a platform a few inches off of the ground in front of a bench or a box. Instead of standing tall, hinge at the hips (keeping your legs straight) until your arms rest on the top of the bench or box. Lift and lower your heels as you would in the standing calf raise.

3 Ways To Improve Your Squat

Sorry, leg day loathers, squats aren’t going anywhere. This classic move is just that important. “Whether you want to shore up your strength, build muscle, or lose fat, squats are one of the foundational movements that you have to be doing,” says Sean De Wispelaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive and owner of Sean D. Thrive.

Since they work some of the biggest muscles in your body—your glutes, quads, hamstrings, your abs, and back—squats provide some of the biggest return on your reps. Since big muscles burn more calories in order to power through and recover from exercise than small muscles, squatting is crucial whether you’re looking to build strength or slim down. “And you don’t have to load up barbells to make squatting worth your while,” says De Wispelaere, “cranking out a few sets of bodyweight squats will have your muscles burning in no time.”

Whether you’re squatting heavy loads or sticking to bodyweight squats, proper form is key. “Allowing your knees to cave in or your back to round, for instance, can potentially lead to injury,” says De Wispelaere. “And if you load weight on top of improper movement pattern, you’re likely in for a world of hurt at some point.” That’s why De Wispelaere recommends establishing a solid foundation with the bodyweight squat before progressing to weighted versions.

And even though the squat isn’t a terribly difficult-looking move, it can be tricky to master perfect form. Look out for these common mistakes—and take De Wispelaere’s advice for a more effective burn the next time you drop it low.

Mistake #1: You’re Rounding Your Back

What it means: Your core is weak. (Your “core” is more than just your abs. It’s all the muscles on your front and back between your hips and shoulders.)

While your legs are working to bend and extend through the reps of your squats, you want your core in what’s called an isometric hold, a.k.a. braced as it would be when you do a plank. If your back rounds while you squat, it indicates that your core isn’t strong enough to maintain the tension needed to keep you upright throughout the whole movement, says De Wispelaere.

Why it’s a problem: Repeating a movement over and over with your spine in flexion (meaning your spine aggressively rounds forward, causing your vertebrae to run into each other) can do damage to your back, even if you’re squatting without any weight.

The quick fix: Before lowering yourself down into the squat position, tense your core as though someone is about to punch you in the gut. Keep your abs clenched and pull your chest up in order to keep your back as straight as possible. “No matter how strong you are, only squat as far as you can without your back rounding,” De Wispelaere warns.

The long-term solution: To build lasting strength, performing other isometric holds—like planks or hollow holds—can help build your core strength. You can also practice tightening up your torso during the movement by practicing wall slides, De Wispelaere recommends.

To perform wall slides, face a wall and stand at arm’s-length away from it with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart. Raise your arms over your head until you form a “Y” shape. Keeping your chest up and your arms high, squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor. If your hands do not touch the wall at any point, inch yourself a little closer and perform another rep. Repeat until you can’t perform a squat without your hands brushing into the wall. This is a great load-free way to make sure you’re practicing good form.

Related: How To Lift Heavy For Maximum Strength Gains

Mistake #2: You’re Lifting Your Heels

What it means: Your ankles are tight.

This sounds silly, right? Unfortunately, tight ankles are more common than you think, because pretty much everything you do contributes to the struggle. Walking, playing a pickup game, and even sitting on the couch with your feet relaxed can shorten and tighten the tendon (your Achilles) that connects your heel to your calf. Since your ankles are so close to your feet—which are your physical foundation—having tight tendons can affect everything up the chain from there, even leading to knee and hip pain, warns De Wispelaere.

Why it’s a problem: While squatting, you want all parts of your feet—heels, ball, and toes—firmly planted on the floor for maximum stability. This stability will not only keep you from tipping forward or back, but will give more power to your push as you stand, helping you to lift more weight or perform more reps.

“If your heels come off the ground, your base of support is less stable, which means you won’t be able to perform the full range of motion of your squat,” according to De Wispelaere. This undercuts the benefits of the move and sabotages your ability to progress. Think about it this way: You can’t build a solid house on a shaky foundation. You can’t build well-balanced strength and muscle with and unstable base either.

The quick fix: Put a weight plate under each of your heels so they’re elevated while you perform your reps. While this doesn’t fix the problem of inflexible ankles, it does allow you to fully access the squat without lining yourself up for injury, according to De Wispelaere. If you feel unstable with your heels elevated, hold a light five to 10-pound dumbbell in front of your chest for counterbalance.

The long-term solution: To gain more range of motion in your ankles, De Wispelaere recommends performing a super-simple ankle mobility drill.

Here’s how it works: Face a wall and plant your palms on it about shoulder-width apart. Assume a split stance, like you would if you were about to lower into a lunge, with your front foot about six inches away from the wall. Keep your feet hip-width apart. Without taking your feet off the ground, try to touch your front knee to the wall by driving it forward until your heel lifts off of the floor. Hold your position wherever your heel pops up for five deep breaths. Repeat five times on each side.

Related: I Stretched For 30 Days With The Goal Of Touching My Toes—See How It Went

Mistake #3: Your Knees Are Caving

What it means: Your hips are weak.

Shakira might be the only person whose hips don’t lie. For the rest of us hip weakness is really common, according to De Wispelaere. From prolonged periods of sitting at your desk, driving in your car, and relaxing on the couch, your hip muscles shorten and weaken because, in those seated positions, they hardly have to work.

Most people fall into one of two categories: Those who found out they had weak hips and fixed them, and those who don’t know they have weak hips, he says.

Why it’s a problem: When your knees cave in towards each other instead of staying out over your toes while you squat, it can make you more susceptible to knee injuries over time, says De Wispelaere. Why? Your knees are meant to travel front to back (unlike a joint like your wrist, which can rotate around in circles), so any time you force them to go diagonally or sideways, you’re making demands that your tendons and ligaments just can’t keep up with.

The quick fix: Focus on pushing your knees away from each other and lowering yourself down between them as you squat. If you can’t do this on your own, De Wispelaere recommends squatting with a light-resistance miniband and looping it around your legs just below your knees. “The feedback from the miniband will naturally force you to push against it, driving your knees out as you squat,” he says. And, bonus perk: Squatting with the miniband will also help you build strength in your outer hips.

The long-term solution: De Wispelaere recommends doing banded walks to strengthen your hips for the future. To perform a band walk, loop a miniband around your legs just below the knee and stand with your feet a little further than hip-width apart. Keeping your legs the same distance away from each other the whole time, walk yourself in a box pattern using short, choppy steps. Perform 10 steps to the left, then 10 to the front, 10 to the right, and 10 to the back to return to your starting position. Repeat three times.

Related: Shop training accessories for effective workouts anywhere.

The Hard-Gainer’s Guide To Building Muscle

There’s tons of advice out there about how to lose weight, but what if you want to gain it? Anyone with a persistently scrawny build understands the struggle of trying to pack on pounds—especially pounds of bod-shaping muscle.

Just like losing weight, putting on the pounds has a lot to do with genetics—but with the right diet and exercise plan, you can forge that mystic muscle! Spoiler alert: You’re going to be spending a lot of time picking heavy things up and even more time chowing down. If you’re game, read on for some expert-backed body-building strategy.

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The Gym

Putting on weight requires a very specific approach to exercise—and it can be tricky. You don’t want to end up actually losing weight when you ramp up your routine, says Brian Neale, C.S.C.S., performance coach and owner of Brian Neale Personal Coaching in Westchester, New York. And that’s even more likely to happen if you haven’t been exercising regularly for a while, he says.

The solution? “The best way to ensure you don’t create an inverse effect is to limit your cardio,” he says. (What you eat plays a big role, too—but we’ll get into that a little later.)

But why nix cardio? Cardio and metabolic conditioning-style exercise is considered a catabolic process, meaning it breaks down tissues in the body, says Neale. While it’s effective for breaking down fat, it often takes some muscle with it. Instead, you want to focus on lifting weights, which is considered an anabolic exercise and helps build tissues in the body, he says.

Find The Rep/Set Sweet Spot

You know you’re safe from endless bouts on the treadmill, but that doesn’t mean you should just start throwing around the heaviest weights in the gym. “There’s a very small window in which to maximize how much muscle size you build,” according to Neale. That means finding the perfect balance of weight and reps.

Lifting weight that’s too light or performing too many reps can put your body right into that cardio state you want to avoid, he explains. On the other hand, lifting weight that’s too heavy and performing too few reps might help you build strength, but not necessarily size.

Related: 6 Ways Building Muscle Benefits Your Health And Well-Being

The muscle-building sweet spot, according to Neale: Find a weight you can lift for 12 reps with good form, but that requires a seven-out-of-10 effort for the last couple of reps.

This moderate rep range allows your muscles to adapt maximally for size (instead of for endurance or strength) by triggering a hormone response that promotes muscle fiber growth. Neale recommends performing two to three sets of each exercise when you’re first starting out, and then progressing to four sets as you ramp up after a month or so of training.

Now, you may think that if four sets is good, eight sets is even better, right? But that’s where you can get in trouble, according to Neale. “When you work your body too intensely, you won’t have enough time to recover between workouts, which can ultimately hinder your performance in the gym and slow your progress,” he says.

To prevent your routine from getting stale, though, Neale recommends adjusting your reps from week to week. Try the following structure:

Week 1: 2-3 sets of 12 reps of each exercise
Week 2: 2-3 sets of 10 reps of each exercise
Week 3: 2-3 sets of 12 reps of each exercise
Week 4: 2-3 sets of 8 reps of each exercise

“Remember, you always want to keep your exertion level at a seven out of 10,” says Neale. So when you decrease your reps, up your weight slightly to maintain that level of intensity, he says.

Repeat this four-week cycle three times, for a total of 12 weeks. After those 12 weeks, you’ll focus purely on strength for four weeks. That means dropping your rep ranges down super low—like two-to-five reps total per set. (We’ve already got that strength-building plan ready for you, here.)

These four weeks will help you increase the weight you can lift in that eight-to-12 rep range. Then, you’ll restart the 12-week muscle-building cycle, using heavier weights and renewing the optimal stress put on your muscles to maximize growth.

Neale recommends hitting the gym no more than four to five times per week. “In some cases less is more,” he says, “in order for your muscles to grow, they need time to recover and repair between tough workouts.”

Use The Right Moves

That also means you shouldn’t be hammering the same muscle groups workout after workout. Neale recommends breaking up your training sessions by movement type instead of muscle group. Why? “You want to perform exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time, so you build muscle efficiently,” he says. So instead of focusing on hitting just your shoulders, pick upper-body exercises—like the overhead press, for example—that will hit your shoulders, upper back, and core.

Here’s what your weekly breakdown might look like:

Day 1: 2 upper-body horizontal push exercises (like bench press and pushups)
Day 2: 2 upper-body vertical push exercises (like overhead press and dips)
Day 3: 2 upper-body horizontal pull exercises (like barbell or dumbbell rows)
Day 4: 2 upper-body vertical pull exercises (like cable pulldowns or pullups)
Day 5: 3 lower-body exercises (like squats, deadlifts, and lunges)

food

Nutrition

Just as important as your work in the gym is how you fuel your body for building muscle. What you eat, when you eat, and how much you eat all come into play.

“While genetics play a role in how much muscle you gain and how quickly you gain it, the biggest impediment for most people is an insufficient intake of calories,” according to Mike Israetel, Ph.D., sports physiologist and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization.

How Much To Eat

If you’re working on a muscle-building program, you should be chowing down on enough grub to gain about a half-pound to a pound of weight each week, according to Israetel. No fancy calculator needed—just get on the scale! “If the number is going up week to week, you’re eating enough,” he says, “If it’s not, you need to take in more calories.”

Think of it like you do your money: If you make more than you spend, you start to build savings, while if you spend more than you make, you start to go into debt. So, if you consume more calories than you burn, you store the extra, while if you burn more than you consume, your body blows through those calories for fuel. Too few calories means muscles that are too starved to grow.

What To Eat

While eating enough is the most important part, what you eat plays a role too. Your muscles are made of protein, so one of the best ways to insure they grow is to add more protein to your diet. Most people should eat about one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight in order to gain muscle, suggests Israetel. You can bump your intake even higher, but all the protein in the world won’t do much good unless your total calorie-intake is high enough, he says

Related: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

That’s where the other two macronutrients come into play. Carbs and fats will help you reach that higher calorie intake, says Israetel. Carbs have gotten a bad rap from recent fat-loss fads, but they’re crucial for your muscle recovery after a workout. Israetel recommends at least two grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight for hard-gainers. If you’re still not putting on weight with two grams, bump it up to three, he says.

If you’re finding it difficult to eat enough calories to put on weight (eating a lot more than you’re used to is harder than it sounds!) fats come to the rescue. Since fats contain nine calories per gram—carbs and protein contain four—adding some extra fat to your diet can really boost your caloric intake. So go ahead and smear an extra tablespoon or two of peanut butter on that toast.

When To Eat

If you’re really trying to pack on pounds, it’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll be able to consume as much food as you need to in only a few sittings per day, suggests Israetel. Eating four or five meals a day will make your big eating a little easier.

These don’t have to all be full-on dinner-type meals, Israetel says. Some might be as simple as a protein shake. The key is eating regularly throughout the day. “For individuals with a fast metabolism and a small appetite, getting enough food regularly to gain muscle is the toughest part,” he says.

Instead of focusing on specific times to eat—like immediately post-workout, for example—just try to spread your meals out evenly from when you wake up to when you go to bed. That’s a meal every three-to-four hours if you’re getting a good eight hours of sleep. And remember: protein, protein, protein!

Related: Find a carb- and calorie-packed gainer protein to support your goals.

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 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

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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

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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.

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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

Let’s Set The Record Straight About Fasted Cardio

Breaking a sweat on an empty stomach has long been touted as an effective approach toward fat loss. You may have even endured a hungry early-morning treadmill session in the name of a better burn.

The laymen’s theory is that when you exercise without food in your system your body has to burn fat for fuel.  Easy peasy, right?

Not exactly. According to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, fasted cardio may just be a hunger-inducing waste of time.

Related: Are You Making This Crucial Breakfast Mistake?

The study had 20 healthy, college-age volunteers perform one hour of steady-state, moderate-intensity exercise (they jogged on the treadmill) three mornings per week for four weeks—that’s 12 workouts total. All participants followed a specific diet plan throughout the four weeks, but 10 of the volunteers received a meal-replacement shake right before their workout while the other 10 worked out without having eaten since the night before.

There was no significant difference between the weight lost by the fasted cardio folks and those that drank a shake pre-workout, indicating that there’s no significant benefit to doing cardio when your tank is on empty, says study author Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, Director of the Human Performance Lab at CUNY Lehman College.

The misunderstanding around fasted cardio started decades ago, when there were just a few short-term studies—researchers tested subjects for just a workout or two—that suggested fasted cardio burned more fat, according to Schoenfeld.

The logic made sense: When you perform cardio exercise after hours without food (in the early morning, for example) your body relies on fat to fuel you. So over time, you’ll lose more fat—right? Thing is, when you do eventually eat again, your body uses that food to replace the stored fuel it just lost, according to Schoenfeld. Which is why when researchers broadened the period of time they studied their subjects it became clear that fasted cardio wasn’t as effective as they thought. “Fat loss takes place over days, weeks, and months, not just in the minutes on the treadmill,” says Schoenfeld.

Related: 5 Treadmill Workouts That’ll Make The Time Fly By

That’s why the best strategy for fat loss is to eat fewer calories than you expend (maintaining what’s called a ‘caloric deficit’), he says. Schoenfeld suspects that it was the extended 1200- to 1300-calorie diet plan his study participants followed which led to their fat loss.

It may have no real benefit, but is it bad for you? Well, that depends on the type of cardio you’re doing. You might get through moderate steady-state cardio a-okay, because your body can steadily oxidize your body’s fat and use it for fuel. But if you’re doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or strenuous lifting, your body can’t rely on your fat stores because fat cannot be utilized quickly enough to produce sufficient fuel for your muscles, according to Schoenfeld. Instead, your body needs to rely on fast fuel sources, like carbs and sugars, to keep you going, Schoenfeld explains. So if you haven’t eaten in a while—like, say, since last night—you’ll likely see a negative effect on your performance.

Related: Find the performance supplement that’s perfect for your workout grind.

Next time you hit the gym, try an easy-to-digest snack, like a banana or a scoop of protein in your shaker cup.

10 Super-Common Fitness Myths—Busted

True or false? When it comes to fitness there’s a lot of misinformation out there. (Looking at you, guy in the gym who wants to share all the advice.) Hint: It’s true.

Whether it’s a tip from a well-intentioned (but under-informed) friend or out-of-date research, it’s difficult to dig through the noise to get to the real meat of what you need to know about working out. So we asked three trainers to tell us the biggest fitness fallacies they hear on a day-to-day basis. Consider these myths ‘busted.’

Myth #1: Mixing Up Your Workouts Constantly Is The Best Way To Get Fit Fast

Constantly changing up the exercises in your workouts can actually sabotage your hard work in the gym, especially when it comes to strength-training. If you’re always trying new moves, you don’t build the muscle memory and skill you need to perform exercises well, which can slow your progress, says Sean De Wispelaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive, and owner of Sean D. Thrive. “I’d rather have someone get really great at the goblet squat, for example, over the course of eight weeks and increase the weight they lift, than try to learn 14 variations of the squat in that period,” he says.

Yes, putting new demand on your muscles will help them grow, but you don’t need to change your leg-day exercises every other workout, or even every other week. Often, adding weight or reps to your go-to moves every two to three weeks is all you need to do to stimulate your muscles, says De Wispelaere.

Related: The Best Rep Range If You’re Strength-Training For Fat Loss

Myth #2: You Should Do The Same Exact Workout Every Day

We know, this seems to directly contradict what we just said—but hear us out. This myth isn’t about what you’re doing within each workout, but the overall picture of what your full week of workouts looks like.

If you do the same thing every time you walk into the gym, whether it’s 30 minutes on the treadmill or three sets of 12 reps of the same five strength moves, you put yourself in the fast lane to plateau city.

Featured Pre-Workout

Instead, you want to create a weekly exercise schedule that will help you build well-rounded strength, says Francine Labiran, C.P.T., and owner of Fit Life with Fran. That means finding balance between cardio and strength-training. For example, you might lift weights two to three days a week, do Pilates once a week, and maybe go for a jog once a week.

Myth #3: No Pain, No Gain

Nope, harder isn’t always better. “This is one of the oldest and most widely-used gym mantras, and it needs to go,” says Jim O’Brien, C.P.T., and certified group fitness trainer for Orangetheory Fitness.

Sure, you may feel uncomfortable at points throughout a workout, but it’s important to draw the line between discomfort and pain. A little burn in your muscles indicates you’re working hard, but regularly pushing yourself to failure or fatigue will likely result in performance-limiting soreness or exhaustion the next few days, he explains. It’s hard to maintain a consistent workout program when you associate gym time with suffering and feel totally wrecked afterward, isn’t it?

More importantly, you should never push through any kind of sharp sting, zap, pull, or ache, warns O’Brien. When you push your body beyond these warning signs, you set yourself up for injury, keeping you down and out for days, weeks, or even months.

Related: Support your hard work in the gym with protein and fitness supplements.

Myth #4: You Should Do Cardio To Get In Shape Before Starting Strength-Training

No, you don’t have to spend your first two months working out on the elliptical before busting into the weight room. Cardio, like running, is an important piece of overall fitness, but it’s not a prerequisite to strength training. In fact, performing tons of cardio without strength-training might even set you back. “If you’re not mobile and strong enough, a lot of high-impact cardio, like running, will likely just land you on the injured list,” says De Wispelaere. But why? The stronger the muscles around your joints are, the less likely you are to deal with nagging wear-and-tear injuries like runner’s knee (damage to cartilage beneath your knee cap).

Instead of hitting the cardio hard-io right off the bat, incorporate strength training into your workout routine from day one, recommends De Wispelaere. Start out with exercises like squats, lunges, and planks to build strength in your legs and core.

Related: 5 Exercises Every Gym Newbie Should Master

Myth #5: Distance Running Is The Best Workout For Weight Loss

If you want to lose weight you don’t have to run miles and miles. Instead think small: small spurts of intense work and small amounts of rest. You probably know this wonderful style by its moniker: interval training, says De Wispelaere.

Here’s how it works: Your muscles need to burn fuel to function, and part of that fuel comes in the form of oxygen. When you perform aerobic exercise, your muscles use oxygen at a rate that you can replenish with a little heavy breathing—that’s why you start to huff and puff when you jog. And while this burns a lot of calories while you’re working out, that’s pretty much the extent of it.

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But when you perform sprint intervals—or reps of any short-burst power movement—your body is put in an anaerobic state, meaning you’ve depleted your muscles’ oxygen stores enough that your body can’t immediately replenish it. (Think sharp, heaving breaths instead of light huffing and puffing.) As a result, you burn calories both during and after exercise as your body replenishes that oxygen.

Related: The Best Cardio Workout For Weight Loss

Myth #6: You Can Work Out To Lose Weight In Certain Areas

When people talk about their so-called problem areas, they usually want to ditch some extra fat in that place. While having qualms over our flabby arms or soft tummies is totally normal, it’s actually impossible to zero in on those specific areas and zap the fat away, says O’Brien. So, no, the 100 bench dips a day probably aren’t worth it.

“Spot reduction is like asking the sun to only melt the snow in your driveway,” he says. Your body loses fat as a whole, not in one specific place at a time. When you lose weight, you might notice that your face or neck looks slimmer first, but that doesn’t mean you’re only losing flab in those areas.

The best way to melt fat is by performing exercises that use your biggest muscles—your legs and glutes—because they fire up your calorie burn the most, O’Brien says. By hitting these muscles hard, burning calories, and shedding fat all over the place, you’ll start to reveal the shapes of your other muscles, like those in your ‘problematic’ arms and abs.

Myth #7: Lifting Weights Makes Women Bulky

Can we all just stop perpetuating this myth? “Too many women avoid lifting weights because they fear they’ll get too big,” says Labrian. “But it really just doesn’t work that way.”

‘Bulking up’ takes a lot of concentrated effort, time, and specific nutrition (we’re talking lots and lots of calories) for both men and women. Plus, women lack the high levels of testosterone that fuel muscle growth in men, so it’s even harder to get big, she suggests.

Strength-training—especially lifting heavy weights for just a few reps at a time—counts as a form of that anaerobic exercise we mentioned earlier. So, women who lift heavy are more likely to get lean than get large. The truth couldn’t be any farther form the myth!

Myth #8: More Workouts = More Progress

Consider this your invitation to take a rest day. “You don’t need to spend hours in the gym, seven days a week to see results,” says Labrian. Working out every single day may actually hinder your progress.

When you work out, you put stress on your muscles, breaking them down bit by bit. But afterwards, when you rest, your muscles recover and adapt, making them more able to handle that stress again by getting larger and stronger.

If you constantly stress your muscles without giving them the time they need to repair, you’re just doing damage on top of damage. Take heed, because you’ll be setting yourself up for possible injury, while feeling sluggish, Labrian explains.

Labrian recommends capping workouts to an hour (or less!) three to four times a week if you’re a beginner, and five to six times a week if you’ve been exercising for a while. But even if you prioritize rest days, external factors—like work stress, poor nutrition, and insufficient sleep—can also slow your recovery. So if you’re sore for days and days or feel ultra-tired performing exercises that aren’t usually difficult for you, Labrian recommends taking a day or two off from breaking a sweat.

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

Myth #9: Stretching Before Your Workout Messes With Your Performance

Ok, this one is technically true. Some studies show that static stretching (where you sit or stand still while holding a certain position) before big-time power movements, like a vertical jump or a serious lift, can hold you back. However, unless you’re taking part in a competition, you probably don’t need to worry, according to De Wispelaere.

In fact, De Wispelaere recommends moving through a dynamic stretching routine (where you actively stretch your body with different movements) before getting started. This will help you activate your muscles and get warm and limber before your workout.

Try the following before your next workout:

Web

Myth #10: Muscle Can Turn Into Fat

Here’s where this misconception comes from: Often, when people start building muscle, they start losing fat. Then when they stop building muscle, they start gaining fat. So, then the muscle must be magically morphing into fat, right? Wrong.

“Muscle and fat are two totally different substances—they don’t shape shift,” says O’Brien. Muscle requires more calories to maintain, so when you have a lot of muscle your metabolism is faster than when you have a lot of fat, he explains.

When you stop working out your muscle starts to break down because you are no longer stimulating it. Then your metabolism responds by slowing down, which leads to fat gain, he explains.

Your best bet for keeping that metabolism revved up and warding off fat is to maintain or build the muscle on your body. So, make sure strength-training is a regular part of your exercise routine.

Related: 6 Ways Building Muscle Benefits Your Health And Well-Being

Should You Strength Train Before or After Cardio?

Everybody has their own routine when they go to the gym. Some like to warm up by hitting their heart rate hard, breaking a sweat before making a move for the free weights. Others prefer to tackle strength first, leaving an intense cardio burner for last.

And while we’re all about you finding the gym rhythm that works best for you, it’s worth knowing that whatever activity you choose to do first can potentially impact your performance in that second activity.

According to an article published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal, which reviewed more than 20 relevant studies, you should structure your workouts according to your priorities. If you want to improve your heart health, conditioning, or endurance, start your workout with cardio. If you want to make strength gains, start with the weights.

Related: The Best Rep Range If You’re Strength-Training For Weight Loss

Whatever you do first will make you more tired than you would’ve been for what you do second—especially your legs, which are often used heavily in both cardio and strength exercise, according Nicholas Ratamess, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, one of the authors and associate professor or Health and Exercise Science at The College of New Jersey.

If you want to hit cardio before a big lift, monitor your intensity. “If your cardio is low-intensity and short in duration, it may not have as many negative effects on your strength workout, for example,” he explains.

But if you’re attacking an intense cardio workout like HIIT (high-intensity interval training) right before lifting weights, expect your performance to be diminished, according to another one of Ratamess’ studies, published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The study had young, fit men perform intense running exercises, wait 10 minutes, and then perform a strength workout. The result: The participants who ran prior to lifting performed nine to 18 percent fewer reps than those who didn’t. Not surprisingly, the most dramatic difference was seen in leg exercises. The men also had higher heart rates, reduced power output, and higher overall ratings of fatigue.

Related: The Best Cardio Workout For Weight Loss

The good news: If your goal is to lose weight, both cardio and lifting will help you get there. “Both aerobic and resistance training increase your calorie burn,” says Ratamess. Aerobic exercise helps you burn more during exercise, while strength training will help you burn more after exercise.

Here’s how it works. Your muscles need to burn fuel to function, and part of that fuel comes in the form of oxygen. When you perform aerobic exercise, your muscles use oxygen at a rate that you can replenish with a little heavy breathing—that’s why you start to huff and puff when you jog or hit a quick round of burpees. But heavy lifting exercises (known as ‘anaerobic’) deplete your oxygen stores enough that you body has to work to replenish them long after you’re done exercising—burning extra calories the whole time.

The bottom line: Unless you’re training specifically for extreme cardiovascular performance or ultra-heavy weightlifting, how you order your workouts won’t have much impact on the benefits of breaking a sweat. However, you can still give sequential preference to one or the other if you’re training for specific goals (like wanting to become more muscular) or to improve certain weaknesses (like knee or ankle joint stability), according to Ratamess.

For most people, training both strength and cardio simultaneously can be a good long-term approach to fitness. Hence why what Ratamess calls “hybrid programs,” like CrossFit, Orangetheory, and Barry’s Bootcamp, have become so popular. In these types of fitness classes, you’ll bounce back and forth between cardio efforts like running or rowing and strength exercises like pushups or squats. The workouts require both cardiovascular capacity and strength, and create more of a hybrid athlete instead of a specialist, he says.

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Is It Worse To Skip A Workout Or Skimp On Sleep?

If you have a busy schedule (and who doesn’t?), chances are you’ve set your alarm for an ungodly hour of the morning in order to squeeze in a workout. Most of the time it just takes a little discipline to drag yourself out of the comfort of your bed, but when your alarm is blaring after a night of tossing and turning and you just can’t shake your sleepiness, should you suck it up or snooze?

Sufficient sleep and exercise are both integral to your health, but if you’re faced with having to sacrifice much-needed  shuteye or a good sweat,  sleep is the answer, says Sina A. Gharib, M.D., sleep researcher and associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

Related: Support your immune system with a large selection of supplements.

Sleep helps to regulate your hormones and immune system, says Nathaniel F. Watson, M.D., board certified neurologist and sleep specialist at University of Washington Sleep Center. So routinely getting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night can lead to serious side effects that can sabotage your health, such as metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, decreased immunity, and obesity.

Plus, if you’re chronically sleep deprived, your early-morning session could be doing more harm than good: You might just sabotage the size or strength gains, or fat-loss results you’re looking to see from your workouts. “Without adequate sleep, our bodies don’t get a chance to recover and rebuild after a workout, meaning they’re in constant breakdown mode,” says says Jim O’Brien, C.P.T., and certified group fitness instructor for Orangetheory Fitness. Not to mention, your workouts themselves will probably decline if you’re feeling super tired, he says. No one wants to walk out of the gym feeling even more zonked than when they walked in.

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

So how can you tell when to push through and when to hit snooze? Be on the lookout for signs of chronic fatigue: “Sleep deprivation causes excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty focusing, and even feelings of depression,” warns Gharib. If you can’t stay awake and alert throughout the day without caffeine, or if you sleep much longer on weekends than you do on weekdays, you aren’t getting enough regular sleep, cautions Watson.

To avoid having to sacrifice your workouts to catch more Zzz’s, O’Brien recommends setting a bedtime for yourself and sticking to it. Then, to avoid falling into a black hole of Facebook videos, put your phone on silent mode and out of reach. If you use your phone for your alarm, then you’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off in the morning.

If A.M. training sessions continue to feel like too much of a struggle, you may want to consider hitting the gym after work or dinner—just keep in mind that exercise stimulates the body, and a nighttime workout may cause some people to have trouble falling asleep afterward, according to Watson. He recommends you leave at least one to two hours between the end of your workout and the time you want to hit the sack. Once you’ve got your sleep schedule on lock, though, it’ll be easier to identify what time of day works best for your workouts.

Related: Find a supplement to promote sleep, relaxation, and recovery.

So You’ve Hit A Weight-Loss Plateau—Now What?

Let’s get one thing out there right away: Plateaus are a totally normal part of any weight-loss journey. They happen to even the most arduous and motivated health warriors. So don’t beat yourself up if the scale is no longer budging, ya hear? You’re not doomed!

In order to turn things around, your weight-loss strategy most likely needs a few tweaks. Read on to find out the most common exercise and diet traps, and what you can do to bust out of them.

Woman training on ellipse
photo credit: iStock

Exercise Culprits

On the fitness side of the equation, there are two main reasons your results may be tapering off. The first: You’re doing the same thing day after day. The second: You’re doing too many different things each week, according to Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S., professional trainer, and author of The Great Cardio Myth.

Here’s the issue with too much consistency: “If you do the same exercise program over and over again without increasing your weight, reps, or intensity, you’re no longer stimulating your body to adapt and change,” he says.

On the other hand, if you’re doing too many different types of workouts—for example, lifting weights on Monday, going to spin class on Tuesday, taking a bootcamp class on Wednesday, running intervals on Thursday, and then hitting up CrossFit on Friday, your body can’t make sense of everything that’s happening, says Ballantyne. “You need to give your body time to recover and adapt to what you’re doing,” he says. “It’s not about doing more, more, more; it’s about doing the right things and then letting your body recover.”

To avoid both of these potential pitfalls, Ballantyne recommends picking a lane and making it your primary focus. Since building muscle is the best way to ramp up your fat burn, lifting weights is your most advantageous option, he says.

If you’re going to make strength-training your go-to grind, it should make up the majority of your week’s workouts. But that doesn’t mean you’re bound for boredom. You can switch up what you’re doing by adding days of muscle-building-friendly activities like bootcamp classes between straight lifting days, Ballantyne suggests.

The key: “Don’t let more than three weeks go by without ramping up your intensity,” he says. Whether that means picking up more weight, adding more reps, or performing exercises faster for a bigger heart-rate boost, you have to keep challenging yourself. “As soon as your workout starts to feel easy, make a change,” he says.

Related: The Best Rep Range If You’re Strength Training For Fat Loss

Woman chopping mushrooms with knife on cutting board.
photo credit: iStock

Diet Culprits

If you’re watching what you eat to lose weight, you’ll have to adjust your approach as your body adapts over time, especially when it comes to cutting calories, says Mike Israetel, Ph.D., sports physiologist and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization.

You want to aim to lose around one percent of your bodyweight per week (three pounds for someone who weighs 300 pounds, and a pound and a half for someone who weighs 150 pounds), so the number of calories you may need to cut varies depending on your starting point.  In that first month of dieting, a smaller person (say somewhere around 150 pounds) should start by reducing their caloric intake by 250 calories. A larger person (say somewhere around 300 pounds) should start by cutting 500.

You’ll notice that after a few months, though, this approach will stop working. “As you diet successfully, your body starts to shrink in size,” explains Israetel. “And because fewer calories are required to maintain a lower body weight, your metabolism slows down.” After you make that initial progress, your body needs fewer calories than it did when you started, so your initial nutrition plan becomes less effective.

Related: 6 Possible Reasons Why You’re Still Not Seeing Results From Working Out

Why does this happen? Since our more primitive ancestors’ primary struggle was finding food, not over-consuming it, we’re wired with natural coping mechanisms that kick in when our bodies think food is scarce (a.k.a. when we’re cutting calories).

You may start to feel fatigued as your body starts to subconsciously conserve energy, burn fewer calories at the gym and throughout the day, and even start to feel hungrier, says Israetel. So unfortunately, your success has brought about the exact one-two punch that will push you straight onto a plateau.

“No amount of willpower and motivation will help you overcome this,” says Israetel. It’s just not realistic. Your body is physically reacting to what you’re doing, so you have to treat the problem physically. And in order to do this, you need to shift your diet into a ‘maintenance phase.’

Related: Check out an assortment of supplements to support your weight-management efforts.

During a ‘maintenance phase,’ you gradually increase your caloric intake to reengage your metabolism, explains Israetel. Here’s what you do: Add back either the 250 or 500 calories you cut from your diet slowly over the course of about two months. As long as you’re diligent and patient, this should help your metabolism speed back up without you gaining much weight back, says Israetel. If you gain more than a few pounds in that window, you’re adding too many calories too quickly.

Israetel recommends reevaluating after a few months of this approach. If you’re still feeling fatigued or super-hungry, you’re best off continuing to slowly add calories to your daily intake. Otherwise, you may be ready to switch back into that ‘cutting’ phase.

“Everyone thinks they’re the exception to the rule,” Israetel says. Pacing yourself and finding your rhythm between about two months of maintenance for every three months of calorie-cutting should help ward off that dreaded plateau.

Related: Exactly What To Eat To Build Muscle

 

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7 Mistakes You Might Be Making On The Weight Machines

When it comes to getting in shape, your best bet is to find a specialty gym that’s all about functional fitness (it’ll be filled with power racks, platforms, and barbells) and a coach to teach you the ropes. But with training often costing hundreds per month and big-box gyms offering the promise of fat loss for a fraction of the price, it’s not surprising most people opt for the latter.

While many coaches dislike them, machines do have a place in your workout routine, especially if you’re a beginner, says Sean De Wispelaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive, and owner of Sean D Thrive. But it’s also easy to get lazy and complacent on machines, he says. And that can hurt more than just your progress.

Be wary of these 7 weight-machine traps the next time you hit the gym.

Mistake #1: You’re Spending Too Much Time On The Wrong Machines

In the absence of a coach, machines are great for teaching you movement patterns of complex exercises, says De Wispelaere. Take the squat, for example. You might not have a perfect squat, but with a machine assisting you with good form, you can learn the exercise and build the strength you need to do it in the free weight space, he says.

But where you’re generally wasting your time is on any machine that only works one muscle, like the leg extension or the hamstring curl. While these machines can be beneficial for experienced bodybuilders, if you’re a beginner, you likely don’t have a strong enough base for these isolation exercises to be really effective, according to De Wispelaere.

Working multiple muscles is better for revving your metabolism than isolating one at a time, says De Wispelaere.

Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted

De Wispelaere recommends seeking out machines that make you move multiple joints at once, like the the leg sled (which involves your hip and knee) and the lat pulldown (which involves your elbow and shoulder). These will give you the best burn for your buck and help you learn more complex exercises at the same time.

Mistake #2: You’re Putting Excess Pressure On Your Joints

When you use machines that only work one muscle at a time, you’re not just minimizing your efficiency; you’re also putting yourself at risk for injury.

Take the leg extension machine, for example. “A lot of people love this one because it burns and gives you a good feeling of accomplishment,” says De Wispelaere. But it also puts a lot of pressure on your knee joints, which could lead to injury, he says.

If you want to zero in on specific muscles, De Wispeleaere recommends ditching the machines and performing isolation exercises with dumbbells or just your bodyweight. A functional movement like a walking lunge will put your knee in a more natural position and still give you that serious burn in your quad, he says.

Mistake #3: Your Heart Is Set On A Machine That Doesn’t Match Your Bod

In theory, weight machines are meant to accommodate all sizes. However, in practice, that’s not actually true.

While you might be able to adjust certain pieces on a machine, everyone’s body is different. “Whether because of genetics or mobility work, your shoulder might move differently than mine, which means putting both of us in the same rigid setup is going to be a bad experience for one of us,” explains De Wispelaere.

Related: Shop training accessories for a good burn, wherever you are.

Forcing yourself to adopt an unnatural-feeling position is likely to lead to pain, and not the kind you want to push through. “There’s a difference between the discomfort of tough exercise and pain,” he says. “If you feel a sharp stinging, tugging, pinching, or pulling, stop what you’re doing immediately.”

Fortunately, there are a ton of different machines and exercises that work similar sets of muscles. Take the pec fly, for example: If this very specific machine setup causes you pain, try moving to a cable fly or bench press—or even do pushups—to target your chest.

Mistake #4: You’re Not Sizing The Machine Correctly

This one is simple. If the machine is set up for a size that’s too large or too small for you, you’re not going to maximize your muscle development, says De Wispelaere

If it’s too big, you’ll be forced to reach and wriggle your way into completing an exercise, which can lead to unnecessary pressure on your joints or the use of muscles that shouldn’t be involved, he says. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to detect when you’re over-reaching.

What’s trickier to pick up on is if the machine is sized slightly too small. It may feel pretty normal, but you won’t be accomplishing a full range of motion with each exercise, De Wispelaere says. “This can be damaging because you’ll be priming a bad movement pattern, and not building well-rounded strength in your entire muscle.”

On the side of each machine is a diagram of how the exercise should look. If you don’t look exactly like that diagram, consider it your cue that something needs to change.

Mistake #5: You’re Only Using Machines That Move In One Direction

The human body was meant to move in all 360 degrees, but most machines have you moving only from front to back or up and down, says De Wispelaere. This can limit your muscle development and your real-world strength.

When you do things like put groceries away or play with your kids, you don’t have a metal exoskeleton keeping your movements in line, he says. Instead, your body needs to stabilize against gravitational forces all around it.

In order to keep your body performing at its peak, try working cable machines into your regular routine. The cable pulley allows you to perform exercises at a variety of angles (pulling from down low, up high, shoulder level, or varying degrees in between) and in a number of ways (twisting, pushing, pulling and pressing), says De Wispleaere. You’ll also have to stabilize the cable throughout the movement, which will help you the next time you need to shovel snow or lift a suitcase into the overhead compartment of an airplane, for example.

Mistake #6: You’re Resting In The Machine

It’s tempting to rest between sets by sitting in the machine you’re using. Sometimes, it feels necessary, just so someone doesn’t come along and snag your spot.

But if you spend most of your day seated—from commuting, to work, to relaxing on the couch—it’s not a good idea to park your butt at the gym, too, according to De Wispelaere.

Instead, he recommends active recovery between sets. By getting up to perform mobility exercises or stretches in front of the machine instead of staying seated, you’ll maximize your time at the gym without sacrificing your spot.

In order to keep from fatiguing the muscles you’re trying to work, mobilize the opposite half of your body, De Wispelaere says. If you’re between sets on the leg sled or leg press, for example, try this thoracic mobility move to help combat poor posture:

Take a deep breath. Keeping your hand in place, exhale and roll your left shoulder towards the ceiling, twisting your upper back. Hold for a second. Inhale and rotate back to the starting position. Repeat for 5 breaths on each side.

Mistake #7: You’re Not Using The Weight Machines As Training Wheels

“The primary role of machines should be to help you get acquainted and comfortable with movement patterns,” says De Wispelaere. Think of them as training wheels, not a long-term plan for fitness development.

And just like training wheels, you want to slowly wean yourself off of them. If you’re a beginner at the gym, De Wispelaere recommends spending one to two weeks focused on using the machines to learn. Then, starting in week 3, after you’ve primed your movement patterns and built a small amount of strength, transition to performing a set or two of the bodyweight versions of the exercises you’re doing. For example, if you’ve been using the leg sled or press, try a bodyweight squat. Or if you’ve been using the pec fly, try dropping down into a pushup.

Related: This Is The Best Cardio Workout For Weight Loss

As you get increasingly comfortable with the bodyweight movements, start to add light loads—only a few pounds at first—by grabbing some dumbbells or a medicine ball, he suggests.