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Sure, you spend a lot of time at the gym, but just think how many hours the trainers are out on the floor. During that time, they see an awful lot they wish they could tell you, from the exercises you should be doing more of to the ones that are a waste of energy. We polled top fitness experts for their advice about the best ways for you to get the most out of your workouts.
“Being able to pick something up off the ground safely is one of the most important moves you can do. And it’s a full-body exercise. Everything gets hit with a deadlift,” notes Molly Galbraith, C.S.C.S., co-founder of Girls Gone Strong in Lexington, KY. “There’s a variation for everyone—it’s a skill you should train at every level.”
“It engages every single part of your body, challenging your core, shoulders, quads, hammies, and glutes, no matter how beginner or advanced you are,” says Jacqueline Kasen, a performance coach and trainer based in Miami.
“It’s a basic human movement pattern. And because we are constantly sitting in our cars, at our computers, or on the phone, we often maintain poor posture. The squat helps reverse the crappy movement patterns we do throughout the day,” explains Julia Ladewski, a trainer and strength coach based in Highland, IN.
SEE ALSO: Top 10 Squat Mistakes
Smith Machine Squat
“You’re stuck in one range of motion, and the bar assists you with balance, so overall you’re recruiting fewer muscles,” says Jaclyn Sklaver, a trainer based in New York City.
Do this instead: Weighted squat holding dumbbells or barbells.
Situp or Crunch
“The purpose of the core is to resist movement, not create it!” says Galbraith. “Other exercises are far more aligned to the way you use your abs in everyday life.”
Do this instead: The Pallof press helps you stabilize your core. Hold a resistance band wrapped around a pole. Brace your core and extend your arms away from your sternum, keeping hips and shoulders square, resisting the tendency to turn in.
“Most women need to build a foundation before they bench-press because they simply don’t have the shoulder stability or upper-back strength to make it effective,” says Jim Smith, a strength coach in Elmira, NY.
Do this instead: Pushup.
“It can compress the shoulder joint and cause injury,” says Kasen.
Do this instead: Dumbbell front raises, which focus completely on your delts.
6 Moves For A Stronger Core (without a single crunch)
For a variation, do it with your lower leg under a weight bench and the upper leg on top; focus on lifting from your obliques so your top hip is level with the bench, says Kasen. “The elevation makes it more challenging. It also works your adductor (inner thigh), which is an extra bonus.”
Medicine Ball Twist
Sit on the floor with your knees bent, holding a medicine ball. Twist torso from side to side while holding ball close to the body to protect your back, says Jeffrey Tanu, a New York-based trainer. “You’re involving the majority of your lateral abs, which we often don’t hit.”
Lie faceup on floor, knees bent above hips and arms extended over shoulders. Keep lower back pressed into floor and lower right arm behind you while straightening left leg toward floor. Repeat on opposite side; do for 10 to 12 reps per side. “Many women tilt their pelvis forward. These encourage a neutral pelvis while boosting motor control,” says Galbraith.
Hanging Leg Raise
Hang from a chinup bar and raise your legs in front of you past 90 degrees or do knee raises all the way up to your chest while tucking your tailbone under, says Evan Shy, a trainer and exercise physiologist in Chicago. “Stay controlled—if you don’t achieve adequate height with your legs, your hip flexors are doing the work, not your abs.”
Pick up a single dumbbell or kettlebell and hold it on one side. Carry it 10 to 15 yards, walking slowly without bending to one side. Keep your back straight, shoulders back and down, chest tall, and core braced. Then set it down, turn around, pick it up with the other hand and walk back. “You’ll instantly feel your core fighting to stay upright and tall,” says Galbraith.
“Core doesn’t mean just abs,” says Tanu. “You should develop the back part of your trunk as well.” Lie facedown on the floor. Beginners start by lifting and lowering one arm and one leg at a time. More advanced? Lift arm and opposite leg simultaneously, eventually working up to lifting both arms and legs together. (Do 10 to 15 reps per side).
SEE ALSO: The Crushing-It Core Workout
The best workout time is the one that works best for you, but if you’re an early bird or a night owl who’s looking for a little extra incentive, here’s some ammo:
Why A.M. Workouts
Why P.M. Workouts
“It’s primarily a fat source, and it’s not a complete protein,” says Sklaver. “Pre-workout, you want carbs that will fuel your body, such as oatmeal. Afterward, you want something that will replace glycogen and protein stores as quickly as possible, like a protein shake with fruit. The fat in peanut butter will simply slow the absorption of these nutrients. Peanut butter is great for snacking or a morning pick-me-up—just not any time near your workout.”
Do light sets of whatever exercise you’re going to be doing, says Galbraith. “This allows your body to get used to the movement with proper form before the weights get heavier.”
“Don’t jump into a program like CrossFit without any strength behind you or without knowing how to isolate your muscle groups,” notes Kasen. “You have to assess where you are at the moment, not where you used to be years ago.”
Just five to eight minutes of mobility work a day could reduce the risk of injury, maintains Shy. But don’t confuse mobility with flexibility. “Mobility is being able to move in a variety of planes while staying strong in those movements.” One drill to try: Stand with a mini resistance band encircling your thighs. Walk forward and backward in a wide stance (20 steps), then do a squat with your toes pointed slightly outward (20 reps).
“Ask a friend to take a video of your lifts—then you can see if you’re using a full range of motion or whether your body’s offset, tilted, or moving out of alignment,” says Sklaver.
SEE ALSO: Fat-Burning Cardio Circuit
Treadmill: Trainers love this machine because of its versatility. “Put it on an incline, go fast, go slow, hold weights or a ball—there are so many elements you can incorporate on the treadmill,” says Tanu. More adventurous users can even try skipping on it for a minute, walking backward, or sashaying on each side. (Just start very slowly until you get the movement down.)
Rower: Not only does the erg employ your entire body, it’s supersimple to control, says Galbraith. “When you want to go hard, you just push harder.” Try this 15-minute ladder: After three minutes of light rowing, go hard for 10 seconds, then 50 seconds light/moderate. Keep increasing the hard time by 10 seconds (20, 30, 40, 50) while reducing the recovery interval by 10 seconds (40, 30, 20, 10). Then reverse it and start shortening the hard time. Cool down with three minutes of light rowing.
Assault Bike: Not typically a crowd favorite, but the bike (which features both handles and pedals) gets the job done in a hurry, notes Sklaver. The faster you go, the harder it gets. Try alternating 30 seconds of all-out effort with 30 seconds at 50% effort for a total of eight minutes.
Or Just Do This Instead
Stay off the machines and make your body do more of the work, says Smith. His favorite cardio-strength circuit:
*Repeat This Circuit Five To 10 Times, With No Rest.