There are a lot (like, a lot) of fitness myths and exercise tips out there, but perhaps the one that tricks most people is the idea that the more time we spend working out, the more fit we’ll be. While it’s easy to think that gym rats have the advantage, the most strong, fit, and athletic people I know spend the least time at the gym. How? They’re intentional about how they spend their time, mindful about what to focus on, and they maximize the time they do spend exercising. If you want to get into the best shape of your life without spending an unnecessary chunk of time at the gym, here are six easy tips to get the most out of your workout.
1. Be specific with your goals and plan
While fitness can be a great hobby and a fabulous social scene, getting in shape isn’t something that happens by accident. If you’re interested in accomplishing a goal or making lasting changes, it’s time to get intentional. Instead of taking random classes, aimlessly wandering the gym, or going for an open-ended jog, evaluate your goals and make a plan. For example, if you want to build muscle, commit to strength training three times a week and do cardio twice a week (And be specific about those workouts: dedicate one day to upper body, one day to lower body, and one day to core). If you want to run a marathon, do less boxing classes and start training. If you’ve always wanted to do pull-ups, dedicate strength training days to your upper body and get familiar with the pull-up assist at the gym. Specificity is key, and the more focused you are on what you want, the quicker you’ll achieve it.
2. Focus on form
You might be itching to grab those heavy weights to show the trainer/instructor/hot person in the squat rack how strong you are, but if the weight has you sacrificing your form, scale back. While the goal of strength training is to get stronger (duh!), good form should always be prioritized over heavy weights. If something doesn’t feel right, that means it’s probably not, so drop down in weights to ensure that you’re staying safe. My golden rule? If you’re increasing weights, don’t increase more than five pounds on dumbbells or 10 percent weight on barbells.
3. Write it down
Recording the exercises you did, the weights you used, and the way you felt might seem tedious, but keeping tabs on your performance is the best way to improve. If you’ve been using 15-pound dumbbells for the past year, try going up to 20-pound dumbbells and see how it feels. Write down what exercises you did, how many reps you completed, and how challenging it was. Then, the next time you do that same exercise, refer back to your notes and choose a weight or exercise that will both make sense and challenge you. Knowing what you’re doing (and when it’s time increase or adjust) is key to understanding your strengths and weaknesses. Recording your workouts is also beneficial for seeing progress and knowing when it’s time to celebrate new personal records (because celebrating is important too!).
4. Prioritize recovery
No athlete gets by without recovering just as hard as they work, so make sure you schedule days to rest, stretch, and give your body a break. Whether you take the same day(s) off each week, choose rest days based on your schedule, or wait for your body to tell you when it needs a break, make sure you don’t work out more than six days a week (at most). While going hard every day might seem like the right way to achieve your goals faster, putting too much stress on the body without any time for recovery can cause injuries, overtraining syndrome, and deep fatigue that will derail your training. Listen to your body, chill out, and take breaks for optimal results.
5. Be consistent
Consistency is key. Rest days are certainly a valuable part of getting in shape, but working out occasionally or whenever you’re “in the mood” will not be enough to help you accomplish goals. Doing something, even on days when you’re tired, grumpy, or simply don’t feel like it, is better than doing nothing, and it will help you keep your routine. Staying consistent turns exercise into a habit, and an ingrained habit makes the difference between long-term success and failure. My best advice: Schedule your workouts like you schedule meetings, appointments, and hot dates. If you really don’t want to work out or don’t have time for a full 60-minute class, take a walk or do a yoga flow.
6. Implement a fitness test
Nothing is more motivating than seeing your hard work pay off, so schedule a fitness test every four weeks to keep track of where you’re improving and what you want to continue working on. A fitness test can be as simple as counting how many burpees you can do in a minute, how fast you can run a mile, or anything that allows you to see changes from month to month. Don’t think of these fitness tests as a final exam but rather as a road map for how far you’ve come and where you want to go (“Wow! I decreased my mile time by 10 seconds!” or “Looks like my mile time stayed the same, so I should schedule more speed work into my training next month.”). Knowing what has improved and what you still want to improve on will help you stay on track with your training and keep you aware of what you should focus on in order to reach your goals.