How Often Do You Really Need To Switch Up Your Workout Routine?

With group fitness and specialty gyms booming, there have never been so many ways to work out. In just a matter of days, you could do everything from barre, to treadmill sprints, to a CrossFit WOD, to cycling (underwater!). But is there a sweet spot for variety?

“There’s no right way to do it—it depends on your goals,” says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., and assistant professor at Lehman College. If you’re just trying to stay active, you can totally bounce around from class to class as long as you’re banking enough rest.

However, if you’re exercising with a specific goal in mind—like building strength, competing in a sport, or shaping a certain physique—your routine and strategy become more important.

Say you want to build muscle, for example. To develop the coordination and proper movement patterns necessary to get strong and grow those muscles, you’ll first need to spend a few months practicing foundational movements like deadlifts, squats, rows, lunges, and bench presses. The more efficient at these moves you are, the more you can lift—and the more you can lift, the stronger and more muscular you become.

Related: 6 Possible Reasons Why You’re Not Building Muscle

Even as you progress, your routine can stay pretty consistent from there forward. “For the average person, there’s little to no physical benefit to changing their workout routine regularly,” says Schoenfeld.

If you just want to maintain your current level of fitness, you could hypothetically do the same exercises for the same number of reps using the same weights every workout. Plus, if changing up your workouts keeps you from regularly practicing those foundational moves, it could pull you backwards.

But frankly, doing the same exercises over and over again can feel a lot like eating your vegetables; you know it’s good for you, but it can become bland and uninspiring over time. “If you hate your workout or if you get bored of it, you’re not going to do it,” Schoenfeld says. This is when you want to switch things up a little bit; not for your brawn, but for your brain!

Featured Training Supplements

One simple way to keep your workouts feeling fresh without skimping on your foundation: Play around with your accessory exercises. If your workout is focused on your back and biceps, for example, you’ll always perform foundational moves like rows, but you can rotate different variations of single-joint accessory moves like bicep curls in and out from workout to workout. If you perform a dumbbell biceps curl one week, try a preacher curl or a barbell curl the next. This way, you avoid boredom without blowing up your whole routine.

Another simple tweak: Play with the rep schemes and weights you use for your go-to exercises. For example, in one workout you might be squat with heavy weight for fewer reps, but in another you might drop the weight down and up the reps.

The bottom line: Once you’ve found the routine that works for you, just stick with it. By implementing these tweaks and pushing yourself, you’ll be able to complete more reps, lift more weight, and see the motivating results you want. The same goes for endurance training. Instead of changing your entire weekly workout schedule, play with different types of cross-training (like swimming or spinning) and adjust your sprint and rest times on interval days to keep training interesting.

I Thought I Was Healthy—And Then I Did Whole30

As a self-proclaimed health nut and the resident super-healthy black sheep of my family and friends, I’ve been known to squeeze in workouts on vacations and pass on pizza for salad. I love high-intensity workouts like CrossFit and if I’m going to do yoga, it’s going to be hot. I’ve been reading nutrition labels since high school, and though I’ve had plenty of slack moments (like all of college…), I’ve found a healthy balance by living without strict rules and eating a variety of carbs, fats, and proteins to feel good.

That’s why, when I first heard that my parents (ironically) were following Whole30—a 30-day eating plan that forces you to get back to healthy basics by eliminating sugar, alcohol, dairy, grains, legumes, preservatives, and processed foods and snacks—I didn’t think it was for me. I didn’t need a hard reset or rules. My diet was already healthy!

But when I visited home for the holidays, my attitude shifted. Having just completed their 30 days, my parents buzzed with enthusiasm and filled our meals with ‘compliant’ (a ubiquitous term for things you actually can eat on Whole30) foods. I was intrigued—and after my own 10-day stretch of indulging on holiday treats, I felt compelled to give it a shot.

Along with a small crew of friends and co-workers, I decided to go for it—and to say the next 30 days surprised me would be an understatement. Here are the five lessons I learned:

1. I hadn’t been eating as many whole foods as I thought I was…

As a self-proclaimed kale enthusiast (seriously, my boyfriend sometimes calls me ‘KALEsy’), I thought my vegetable and fruit consumption was in pretty good shape. When I started Whole30, though, I realized that I often sacrificed roughage in favor of protein. And I’m not just talking about swapping out greens for lean meat, but for a sugary protein bar or shake.

✌🏻❤️🌿

A post shared by Kelsey Cannon (@sheseesfit) on

Before Whole30, I’d typically start the day with a bowl of oatmeal with protein powder stirred in, eat last night’s dinner leftovers for lunch, snack on a protein bar, yogurt, or protein shake, and then have a serving of meat with a grain and a veggie for dinner. All-in-all not unhealthy, but without grains, dairy, and packaged protein products, I had a lot of gaps to fill once I started Whole30.

Throughout those 30 days, I’d have eggs scrambled with kale, peppers, and onions for breakfast, a large salad with a serving of meat for lunch, nuts, fruit, or a ‘compliant’ bar (like an RXBAR or an Epic Bar) for snacks, and a serving of meat with a double helping of veggies for dinner.

With fruits and veggies now front and center, I was forced to try a wider variety of produce and different ways of making them, just to keep things interesting. I found a lot of new go-to’s, including a sweet potato soup (I used butternut squash instead) from The Whole30 Cookbook, which has become one of my all-time favorite sides. It added a nice sweet element to my mostly-savory meals and kept well in the fridge, so I could spoon it out all week long.

2. Sugar is in EVERYTHING.

This is another lesson that falls into the ‘what I thought I knew’ category. I knew sugar was hidden in most foods—I’d even written articles about it myself! But Whole30 taught me that knowing added sugar exists and living added sugar-free are two totally different monsters.

Once I started really combing through the nutrition labels on everything I bought at the grocery store, I realized just how sneaky added sugar could be. After all, it goes by more than 50 names other than just ‘sugar’! At first, determining whether a food contained sugar and finding Whole30-compliant alternatives took a long time—but it fortunately grew much easier with practice. Thirty days later, I’m basically a sugar-molecule sharp shooter.

Related: 10 Foods That Pack More Added Sugar Than You Should Have All Day

Eliminating these secretly-sugary foods was a lot of work. At first I found myself reaching for RXBARs or Lara Bars to satisfy my sugar cravings, but the point of Whole30 is to break the habit itself, so I dug my heels in and tried to avoid using these ‘compliant’ foods as a crutch. Cutting out sugar was by far the hardest part of Whole30, but the farther in I got, the more I noticed and appreciated the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables. I couldn’t believe how sweet a cherry tomato tasted by the end of it!

Featured Products

3. My social life revolves around food.

It’s reality: A lot of socializing happens over food and drink. But on Whole30, birthday parties, date night dinners, and even happy hours became impossible trap-filled nightmares. And while some people are able to make it work—passing up on cake and cocktails, ordering very, very carefully at restaurants, and bringing their own food to get-togethers—I found it much easier to just avoid going out.

#bulletproof and muscle books… #happytuesday

A post shared by Kelsey Cannon (@sheseesfit) on

If that sounds lame, well, that’s because it was! To avoid completely dropping off the face of the earth, I scheduled workout classes or coffee dates with friends who weren’t on the Whole30 train. But after spending a lot of time (and money) traveling to see friends and family in the months before my Whole30, I was more than happy to take a few weekends off and just rest.

4. It takes a village to be healthy.

It may have been for lack of better things to talk about (see above about my rather nonexistent social life), but I talked about Whole30 to anyone who would listen. I even dreamed about it sometimes.

My boyfriend and I got truly excited to plan which cool new recipe to make over the weekend, and our indulgence became finding more elaborate dishes, like Chicken Cacciatore or that homemade butternut squash soup I mentioned earlier.

My coworkers and I traded tips for fighting cravings, and I chatted with friends about new compliant packaged foods we found (I totally blew my boss’ mind when I told her about RXBARs). Our lives were consumed by making Whole30 work, and since we were all in it together, it was easier to face the occasional office birthday party. I even hosted a few ‘compliant’ get-togethers at home!

Looking back, I don’t know if I would have survived alone. Being able to talk to fellow Whole30-ers really helped me stay on track, and it was nice to share my success with others who know how hard I’d worked once I was done.

5. There’s ALWAYS room to grow.

Even though it took a lot of planning, work, and will power, I really felt the benefits of Whole30, and they kept me motivated whenever I started to wane. Around the end of week two, my clothes felt a little looser, I slept better, and I had more energy throughout the day. The strange thing: I didn’t even realize that I could feel better. Since I already ate healthy, drank lots of water, exercised, and got eight hours of sleep a night before Whole30, I didn’t expect that there would be room to improve until it happened.

Despite how difficult Whole30 was, I totally recommend it—even if you’re already a self-proclaimed health and fitness fanatic. The experience helped me redefine ‘healthy food’ (read: low- to no-sugar) and pull myself out of a major boredom rut with my meals. Not to mention, it taught me a lot about my own eating habits—especially my reliance on protein bars. Now if I itch for a protein-heavy snack, I’ll pick up an Epic Bar, which tastes more like food and less like candy.

I’m not going to continue eating in a totally-compliant manner all the time (even the founders recommend you only do it for 30 days), but everything I learned—especially about avoiding sneaky sugar and preservatives—definitely stuck.

3 Easy Ways To Add MCT Oil To Your Diet

Whether you’re already an avid Bulletproof coffee drinker or just follow a few health and wellness gurus on Instagram, you’ve definitely heard some buzz around MCT oil. Trendy as this type of fat may be, what it actually is—and how eat more of it—remains a mystery to the average person.

“MCT oil is known as the ‘fat that burns fat,’” says Mike Roussell, Ph.D., author of The Metashred Diet. Oils are made up of chains of carbons of varying lengths. While olive oil, for example, is 18 carbons long, MCTs—which stands for ‘medium-chain triglycerides’—are only about 6 to 12 carbons long. Because these fats have shorter carbon chains, they’re more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream to be used for energy.

And while research is mixed on whether they can boost performance, these MCTs can actually support weight loss by helping to amplify the metabolic benefits of a high-fat, low-carb diet, such as increased insulin sensitivity and decreased appetite, explains Roussell.

Related: Why Is Everyone Talking About MCTs?

Thing is, MCTs are pretty rare in the average diet. “While they’re present in coconut oil, you should really be consuming pure MCTs to get their benefit,” says Roussell. The best way to do so: an MCT supplement, which you can find in powder form or as emulsified oil (either flavored or unflavored). These supplements are versatile and easy to incorporate into your daily routine—even if you don’t cook!

Featured Products

The first, and simplest, way to up your MCT consumption is to just add it to a food you eat often. Mix MCT powder into anything soft, like yogurt or applesauce, or stir it into coffee as a creamer replacement (it has creamy quality to it).

You can also add MCT oil to any smoothie or protein shake recipe for extra satiety and fat fuel. Roussell likes the following MCT-powered blend in the morning or after a workout:

Get the coconut milk, emulsified MCT oil, and vanilla protein powder you need for this blend.

To really maximize your MCT intake, add them to cooked foods and baked treats, like sautéed veggies or banana bread. Just swap MCT oil in for a third of whatever oil the recipe calls for. And keep in mind: “It has a low smoke point, so always cook on low to medium heat,” Roussell says.

As tempting as it may be to go MCT-crazy, Roussell recommends starting off slow, with just a tablespoon in your daily coffee or smoothie. Too much too quickly can cause GI distress and send you running to the bathroom. (Your intestines absorb fats slowly, so if you eat too much too quickly it doesn’t get absorbed fast enough and literally goes right through you.) Plus, “at the end of the day, it’s still fat and it still has calories,” says Roussell. “Like anything else, you can’t eat as much as you want without any consequence.” If you’re not sure how MCTs should fit into your overall macronutrient and calories goals, a dietitian can help you identify what works best for you.

7 Things You Should Never Do After A Workout

Churn out tough workouts all you want, but if you really want to see results from your efforts, you’ll also need to pay close attention to what you do after those gym sessions.

Poor post-workout practices can steal your success—but they’re pretty easy to avoid if you know what to look for. Read on to arm yourself against any unintended backtrack.

Immediate No-No’s


You Rush Out Of The Gym

We get it, you have places to be, and after tossing around heavy weights or ramping up your heart rate on the tread, the last thing you want to do is more work. But sticking around for a few extra minutes of mobility drills can really pay off in the long run, according to Sean De Wispelaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive and owner of Sean D. Thrive.

When you push, pull, squat, and hinge, you put a high demand on your joints and the muscles that surround them, says De Wispelaere. Mobility work—like sitting in a deep squat or moving your arms through Y-, T-, and W-shaped patterns—helps you maintain your full range of motion and avoid injury when it counts.

By increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to your muscles and connective tissues, they’ll also prevent that stiff, locked-up feeling that sometimes follows a tough workout, says De Wispelaere.

You Stay Jacked Up

Not only does working out tax your muscles, but it also taxes your nervous system. During exercise, your sympathetic (‘fight-or-flight’) nervous system kicks in to power you through—but to recover, you need your parasympathetic (‘rest and relax’) nervous system to take over, says Joe Dowdell, strength coach and owner of Dowdell Fitness Systems.

To shift gears from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state, Dowdell recommends doing some light stretching and diaphragmatic breathing after training. As you hold each stretch, take a few slow and controlled deep belly breaths. This tells your system to calm down and sets you up for muscle-building recovery. If you regularly struggle to cool down and recover after exercise, try a supplement like True Athlete’s ZMA With Theanine, which contains zinc and magnesium to promote muscle recovery and the amino acid l-theanine to support relaxation.

You Don’t Eat

Some people feel ravenous after an intense workout, while others can’t even stomach the thought of eating—but food fuels your recovery and progress, says Mike Roussell, Ph.D.

What to eat? Roussell recommends carbs. “Protein is typically the post-workout go-to, but exercise sensitizes your muscles to carbohydrates, so you need those as well,” he says. In the few hours after your workout, your body will use carbs for good (a.k.a. energy storage in your muscles) instead of evil (a.k.a. storage as fat). Replenishing the carbs you store in your muscles (called ‘glycogen’) helps you recover and feel ready for your next session faster.

Featured Products

Eat something that contains both protein and carbs after your workouts, whether it’s chicken and rice or a smoothie (made with protein powder, fruit, and yogurt or oats), or a protein bar.

You Try To Annihilate All Inflammation

We usually think of inflammation as the enemy, and in many cases it can be a sign that something is wrong—“but when exercise produces an inflammatory state in the body, it’s actually is a good thing,” says Roussell.

You see, exercise is stress, and your high heart rate and muscle fatigue signal to your body that something is up, which triggers an inflammatory state. “However, one of the ways your body gets bigger and stronger is by dealing with that inflammation,” says Roussell. So while you might be tempted to down antioxidant supplements right after hitting it hard, these substances can potentially hinder your muscle gains.

Related: The Best Post-Workout Snack For Your Fitness Goals

Instead of focusing on blasting your body with antioxidants, focus on replenishing your body with carbs and protein, recommends Roussell.

Same-Day Mistakes


You Stew in Your Sweaty Clothes

Sweat can feel like a badge of honor, but please get out of your gear ASAP. Otherwise you’re more prone to skin issues like rashes and staph infections, not to mention B.O.

Plus, washing up can also benefit your freshly-worked muscles, says Dowdell. Soaking in an Epsom salt bath (which is rich in magnesium sulfate) can promote relaxation and help reduce muscle soreness, he says. Mix about a cup in with your bath water and soak for up to a half hour. You don’t need to hop in the tub right after you’re done sweating; a long soak will still do you good later in the evening.

You Don’t Catch Enough Zzz’s

The hard work you put in at the gym doesn’t transform into results right then and there, but in the hours and days after you finish—and sleep is a key component of that process. “Sleep is crucial to recovery and often overlooked,” says De Wispelaere. Since fitness-boosting hormones like growth hormone are released while you’re dreaming, whether or not you get to bed early can really affect your results.

To score high-quality sleep, De Wispelaere recommends the following steps:

  • Four hours before bed: Stop consuming caffeine.
  • One hour before bed: Limit how much you drink. (You don’t want to have to pee in the middle of your muscle-building sleep!)
  • 45 minutes before bed: Ditch the screens. The blue light that emanates from phones and laptops sends the wrong signals to your brain about what time of day it is, potentially keeping you up.

Next-Day Mistake

If an intense workout left you delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), jumping right into another tough session will not only hurt, but it can also backfire on your results. Remember what Dowdell said about those sympathetic and parasympathetic states? If you go hard day after day, your body can’t fully shift out of that sympathetic state, and you don’t recover properly.

“On the day after an intense session, stick to 20 to 30 minute low-to-moderate intensity exercise,” he recommends. (That’s about 65 to 70 percent of your max heart rate.) Jogging or biking, for example, boosts blood flow to your muscles and help remove waste products associated with DOMS. For extra points, tack on 10 to 15 minutes of mobility work after your cardio.

What’s REALLY In Your Pre-Workout?

Using a pre-workout supplement can help you reap the benefits of every rep you put in at the gym—but sometimes it feels like you need a degree in chemistry to figure out which one is best for your goals.

Here’s the full breakdown of the most popular pre-workout ingredients in the game, so you can sprint faster, lift heavier, or cycle further without having to wonder what the heck you’re sipping on.

1. Caffeine

Many fitness enthusiasts have one major demand of their pre-workout: energy. So more often than not, caffeine will be one of a pre-workout’s MVPs. Stimulants like caffeine don’t actually give you extra energy (only food can do that), but they can make you feel more energized and alert by stimulating your central nervous system, boosting your heart rate, opening up your blood vessels, and increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients throughout your body.

Featured Pre-Workout Supps

You’ll find anywhere from 100 to 300 milligrams of caffeine in pre-workout supplements. (400 milligrams total of caffeine per day seems to be the safe upper limit.) If you don’t do caffeine or work out at night, look for a pre-workout labeled ‘caffeine-free’ or ‘stim-free.’

2. Creatine

This natural compound, which is made from three amino acids, affects how energy is used, recycled, and stored in your muscles, and helps you use your finite supply efficiently during weight-lifting or high-intensity interval training, according to Tod Cooperman, M.D., President and CEO of ConsumerLab.com, which independently tests health and nutritional products. Creatine also helps jump-start the muscle-building process by drawing in water and stimulating a compound called insulin-like growth factor, or IGF. Research shows creatine can support muscle growth and strength, as well as improve sprint performance.

Related: How Many Times A Week Should You Strength Train?

Since creatine takes a few weeks to build up in your system, you have to use it consistently, according to Cooperman. In addition to your pre-workout supp, you can also find it in foods like eggs, beef, and fish. Experts typically recommend about five grams a day.

3. L-Arginine And L-Citrulline

The amino acids arginine and citrulline are used to produce nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes our blood vessels to increase blood flow.  “And since your blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your tissues, this increased flow ups the supply of the good stuff to your muscles.” Research show citrulline to be the more effective of the two, with one study, for example, finding that citrulline helped cyclists feel less fatigued and perform better on time trial tests. Fitness enthusiasts also often find this nitric oxide-induced blood flow boost contributes to a satisfying muscle ‘pump’ and extra ‘vascular’ look.

The amount of arginine and/or citrulline in pre-workouts varies greatly from brand to brand—but experts often recommend up to six grams total before getting sweaty. (If you have any cardiovascular issues, check with your doc before supplementing with these, advises Cooperman.)

4. B Vitamins

B vitamins are often credited for giving us energy, but what they really do is help our body better convert the energy from food into energy it can use. The four you’ll most often see in pre-workout formulas: vitamin B6 (involved in hundreds of functions, including central nervous system activity), folic acid (key for brain function and production of DNA), vitamin B12 (important for nerve health and energy production), and niacin (supports the metabolism of fats, carbs, and protein into energy.)

Different formulas pack different amounts of these B vitamins, but they’re often higher in B12 than the other Bs.

5. BCAAs

Of the 20 amino acids (the building blocks of protein) our body needs, three in particular—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—are especially crucial for our muscles. These three aminos are known as the BCAAs, or ‘branched-chain amino acids.’ Of the three, leucine gets the most glory for its pivotal role in triggering muscle protein synthesis, the process through which our muscles recover and grow. Meanwhile, isoleucine can be converted to energy in our cells, regulate our blood sugar, and enhance our hormonal and immune responses. Valine can also be converted into energy, but also helps keep the ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin—which can make us a little drowsy—from getting in the way of our performance.

Supplementing with about five grams of BCAAs before a workout can promote muscle-building and ward off soreness afterwards, says Cooperman. A study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness confirms this, finding that athletes who supplemented with BCAAs during intense training reported less fatigue and soreness and had lower measures of muscle damage than those who did not.

6. Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine, which is produced in the liver, contributes to our levels of muscle carnosine, another amino acid-like compound that supports performance and endurance by buffering the compounds that cause that burning, fatigued feeling in your muscles. Carnosine is found in type-two muscle fibers, which help you power through high-intensity activities like sprinting or heavy lifting, so beta-alanine offers a boost for circuit- or interval-style workouts that involve bouts of effort lasting one to four minutes, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN).

You can find beta-alanine in protein-rich foods like eggs and meat, but a supplement can best ramp up your muscles’ concentrations of carnosine. According to the ISSN, it takes about four weeks of four to six grams of beta-alanine a day to make the magic happen.

7. Betaine

Though this amino acid-like compound has been understood for a while, betaine has recently gained popularity with fitness enthusiasts for its ability to help the body utilize protein efficiently. One recent study tested betaine’s potential and found that fit men who supplemented with 2.5 grams daily throughout a six-week training period increased muscle size and power, and improved their body composition (amount of body fat compared to lean mass, like muscle), better than those who took a placebo.

Since other studies on less-active individuals did not return such favorable results, researchers believe that betaine is most effective in already-fit people performing high-intensity exercise.

Read pre-workout labels like a pro with this infographic:

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.

Featured Recovery Supplements

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.

 

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.

Featured Sports Supplements

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.

Featured Performance Supplements

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.

Featured Products

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.

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.

Featured Products

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.

gym.jpg

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

kbs guy

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

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

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

Related: 6 Kettlebell Moves That Work Every Muscle

sled push

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

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

Upper Body

plyo pushup.jpg

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.

Featured Workout Supps

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.

push press.jpg

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

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

Lower Body

split squat.jpg

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.

jump squat guy.jpg

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.