If you simply step foot in your gym, you're already in better shape than most Americans: Research shows that more than two thirds of people who have fitness club memberships never even use them!
But there's showing up, and then there's showing up. However you choose to sweat, chances are you could be getting even more out of your workout. So to make sure your hard-earned dollars are earning you a hardcore bod, we consulted the experts -- from sports docs and top trainers to yogis and running coaches -- to get these 10 crazy-simple gym hacks that'll help you maximize every sweat session:
Gym Hack #1: Don’t Sit Between Sets
We sit way too much when we aren’t working out, so why do we sit so much when we are? “Staying on your feet, even when you’re resting between sets, gives you more total movement, which by itself is a decent benefit," says Lou Schuler, C.S.C.S, author of The Lean Muscle Diet. "But the real payoff, I think, is that you stay focused on your workout. Sitting down makes it easier for your mind to wander." Schuler has even seen one woman turning the pages of a novel between sets! We’re guessing she did more reading than calorie burning.
Gym Hack #2: Use Free Weights
“Machines control the weight so you don’t have to,” says Schuler. And while that can be a positive for advanced bodybuilders who want to load a specific muscle with a crazy-heavy weight, that’s the last thing the average gym-goer wants to do. That’s because, the more muscles you work -- your agonists, antagonists, and stabilizers -- the more fitness gains you’ll reap, he says. Plus, by having to keep your body balanced during your exercises -- rather than moving in only one plane of movement like on a machine -- you’ll train your body for real-life situations (moving day, anyone?) and sidestep muscular imbalances and injuries, says sports medicine physician Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., author of The Exercise Cure.
Gym Hack #3: Follow a Program
“I’m a true believer in the value of progression -- building on what you’ve done before, with the goal of improving something that matters to you,” says Schuler. “If you want to get stronger, find or create a plan for that goal. If you want bigger muscles, or less fat, or anything else that can be accomplished in the weight room, you’ll always do better with a program than without one.”
Gym Hack #4: Stand Near the Mirror
While your exercise class instructor (assuming he or she is a good one!) will roam the room to give individual instruction, standing near the front of your class, and especially near the mirror, will help you get the most feedback on your form, says Lauren Gary Rice, training manager at David Barton Gym Chicago. During instruction, you’ll have a great view of the teacher, and when he or she is moving around, you’ll be able to see yourself to monitor your every movement.
Gym Hack #5:Use Heavier Weights
Are you challenging yourself enough? "The weight we choose is often a reflection of human nature and our innate desire to not fail, says Rice. It’s time to realize that when you "fail" by not being able to eek out one more rep, that’s when you really become stronger. If in a class, Rice recommends choosing a weight with which you can just complete 15 reps with perfect form. "If you aren’t at least a little out of breath at the end of a set, you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough," he says.
In the weight room, consider performing fewer reps of a higher weight. For example, if you usually perform three sets of 15 bicep curls using 10-pound weights, try performing four sets of six using 20- or 25-pound weights. "Results come from effort. An unchallenged body will stay exactly as it is now," Schuler adds.
Gym Hack #6: Lean at Your Ankles
Most runners know they should lean forward with every step. Unfortunately, when most runners attempt a slight forward lean, they bend from the waist, putting too much stress on the lower back and reducing efficiency, says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field certified coach and the founder Strength Running. Instead, focus on standing up straight and leaning forward at your ankles. It’ll help keep your body weight moving forward so that you land with your feet under your center of mass, he says, and make your run so much easier.
Gym Hack #7: Ask for Personal Training Credentials
Sure, your gym’s on-staff trainer has an amazing body and sessions are on sale, but that doesn’t mean you should sign up, says celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, author of 5 Pounds. At least, not without asking for his or her certifications. "Ask for credentials," he says. "Make sure he or she has a certification from the ACSM or NSCA, and ideally a degree in kinesiology, exercise science, or health sciences."
Gym Hack #8: Exercise at Off-Peak Times
In a perfect world, your gym would never be packed, but if you frequently find yourself standing (or worse yet, sitting!) and waiting for a pair of dumbbells or a treadmill, you might need to tweak your exercise hours so that you stay moving and get the biggest burn in the least amount of time. Most gyms have two rushes: in the morning before work and in the evening after work, Rice says. Trying to fit your sessions in before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. is one fix. Also, in some cities, gym traffic spikes at the beginning of the week and tapers down around Thursday, so weekend workouts could help you dodge a crowd.
Gym Hack #9: Breathe
Your body can’t do anything -- let alone anything well -- without oxygen. Unfortunately, when we’re hyper-fixated on a challenging move or pose, our breath is the first thing to go, says Kathryn Budig, yoga instructor and author of The Women's Health Big Book of Yoga.
Get more air: During yoga, it’s best to breathe softly and gently in and out through your nose, Budig says. While strength training, on the other hand, you can lift more by forcefully exhaling on the effort and inhaling as you return to the move’s starting position. Lastly, when running, inhaling for three seconds and then exhaling for two can help your muscles stay oxygenated while distributing running’s impact evenly between both sides of your body, according to Runner's World coach Budd Coates, author of Running on Air.
Gym Hack #10: Lower Your Yoga Gaze
No matter how bendy you are (or aren’t), balancing your way through a yoga class can be super challenging. To stay balanced -- and lessen your chances of falling over mid pose -- Budig recommends starting every one-legged pose by focusing your gaze just forward of where you’re standing. “The lower gaze is grounding and stabilizing,” she says. Then, when you’re ready, slowly raise your focus until you’re eventually looking straight ahead.