By Alexa Tucker
If your New Year’s resolution has you planning to lift more, run more, or sweat more, chances are, you’re looking to do it in the most efficient and effective way possible. Sure, showing up may be half the battle, but the other half of the battle is made up of hard work, consistency, and training smart.
Whether you’re a seasoned gym-goer or you’re new to fitness, here are 19 workout tips to take your fitness to the next level. And remember: doing any type of physical activity is a great first step.
Wake up with a cup of coffee before your morning workout.
The caffeine in a pre-workout cup of joe helps stimulate your central nervous system, so you’ll have a little extra oomph in your indoor cycling or boot camp class. Plus, in addition to a performance boost, research shows that it can actually make exercise feel more enjoyable, so you’re more likely to push harder.
Drink up a half hour before you start sweating to give it time to kick in, Jessica Cording, R.D., tells SELF.
Walk into the gym with a plan.
Having a plan of action before you step foot in the gym can help you avoid wandering aimlessly around while you decide what to do next. This indecisiveness not only adds time to your workout, it also makes it less efficient, since you’re letting your heart rate drop. “A clear plan is your secret weapon,” Jared Kaplan, founder of Studio 26, previously told SELF. Know what exercises you’re going to do, where you’re going to do them, and in what order.
It’s also a good idea to have a plan B, just in case the machine or floor space you were planning on using is taken. Move on to other parts of your workout and come back, or be armed with a backup exercise in mind that utilizes different equipment.
Get motivated with a solid workout playlist.
Get pumped up on your way to the gym and during your workout with songs that make you feel strong, powerful, and like you can do anything. If you’ve been using the same earbuds since who knows when, upgrade your sound quality and comfort with one of these four best workout headphones rigorously sweat-tested by SELF staffers as part of our annual Healthy Living Awards.
Put your phone on airplane mode.
Resist the urge to chime in on your group text or check that Snapchat message. Your workout is the time you get to invest in yourself, so turn your phone on airplane mode to avoid unnecessary distraction. Even better? If you don’t need your phone for your music or any workout apps, leave it in the locker room. The workout ‘grams can wait.
Start your workout with some dynamic stretches.
Dynamic stretches are a core component of pretty much any warm-up. With dynamic stretching, you’ll be moving through different stretches, rather than holding the stretch in place. This gradually raises your body temperature and heart rate and starts to warm up your muscles, priming your body for activity. A dynamic warm-up also helps improve your range of motion, so you can get deeper into each exercise and reap the full strengthening benefits of each move. The exact stretches you should perform in your warm-up depend on the type of workout you’ll be doing: Try this 5-minute warm-up before you run, or this dynamic warm-up to do before a strength-training session.
Master foam rolling, and do it often.
Foam rolling is another excellent way to improve your range of motion, so you can get more out of every squat, lunge, and push-up. Foam rolling helps relieve tightness by releasing knots your fascia, the thin sheath of tissue that surrounds your muscles. This tightness gets in the way of your ability to do exercises with a full range of motion, which may limit the benefits of the exercise. Foam rolling before a workout (and when you have spare time) is a good habit to get into to make every gym session more effective. When you roll, make sure to go slowly and pay special attention to any spots that feel particularly tight, like your hips or calves.
Embrace strength training.
If you’ve steered clear of the weight room in the past, now’s the time to get familiar with strength training. Having strong muscles can help prevent injury and help you move better in day-to-day life, whether you’re lifting a moving box or climbing stairs. Strength training also improves your bone density, which is important to prevent fractures and osteoporosis. It also prevents against age-related muscle loss—the natural decrease in muscle mass that happens as you age—which keeps your metabolism humming. And although you probably associate cardiovascular exercise with heart-health benefits, research shows that strength training also helps keep your heart healthy by lowering your blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels. Read more about the many benefits of strength training for women here.
Maximize your gym time by minimizing rest between exercises.
Strapped for time in the gym? Cut down your rest intervals. By taking minimal rest, you’re automatically upping the intensity of your workout and keeping your heart rate elevated throughout your weightlifting or interval training session. This cardio challenge trains your body (and mind) to work efficiently and persevere through fatigue, Rob Sulaver, C.S.C.S., founder of Bandana Training, explained to SELF. When you do cardiovascular training regularly, your body gets better at delivering fresh oxygen to your muscles, so you’ll actually get better at pushing through your workouts even when you’re tired.
The right amount of rest varies depending on the workout and the person, but as a rule of thumb, you should aim to take just enough that you can go hard during your next set, but not so much that you’re totally recovered. A quick disclaimer: If you’re already feeling this way during your strength workouts, you might not want to cut down your rest intervals any further; too little rest won’t allow your muscles to recover enough to be ready for your next strength set.
Here are some guidelines on how much rest to take depending on your workout.
Incorporate compound movements to hit more muscles at once.
Compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups and two or more joints at once. That’s opposed to isolation exercises, which target one muscle group (like bicep curls). Because they help you get more done in less time, they’re great for increasing overall muscle mass, and they also burn more calories because they require more energy output. Compound exercises can be single moves that put multiple groups to work at the same time (like lunges and squats), or they can be two moves strung together (like bicep curls to shoulder presses).
To make the most of the time you put into the gym, you should aim for compound moves to take up 70 to 80 percent of your workout (and target specific muscles you want to work with isolation exercises the rest of the time), Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness, told SELF. Check out seven of his favorites here.
Amp up exercises by adding weights.
While you can get a heart-pumping workout using only bodyweight exercises, adding in weights gives your muscles an extra challenge. If you feel like you’ve mastered moves like basic squats and lunges, try holding a set of dumbbells or a medicine ball to make these types of bodyweight moves more challenging and effective.
Pick the right weight.
One of the biggest questions that beginners have in the gym is, “Which weight should I use?” Choosing a weight that’s heavy enough (but not too heavy) will challenge your muscles just enough to grow stronger. If a weight is too light, you’ll still get some of the health benefits from moving your body, but you won’t see your strength or fitness improve.
Choosing the right weight can take some trial and error. In general, you want a weight where you can finish all of the reps in your final set of exercises, but feel like you’re really struggling on the last two or three reps. If you can finish that final set easily, it’s time to increase the weight. If you can’t finish all of the reps in a set, move down to a lighter weight.
Make a mental connection to your workout by thinking about the muscles you’re targeting during each exercise.
One way to make each and every exercise more effective is to think about the muscles you’re trying to engage, rather than mindlessly going through the motion.”It can be very easy to disassociate from your workout by chatting with your friends or paying more attention to the instructor. But what we’ve seen is that if you focus on contracting the muscle that you’re involving, then you can get a better result out of it,” exercise physiologist and ACE-certified personal trainer Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness podcast, told SELF. For example, if you’re doing a squat, actually think about your glutes powering you through each rep to make sure you’re using good form and the muscles you’re trying to engage are actually doing the work (rather than letting other muscle groups take over).
Log the details of each workout so you can track your progress.
Tracking your workouts is a great way to make sure you’re always challenging yourself, trainer Adam Rosante, C.S.C.S. told SELF. Using a physical notebook or an app, “when you go to the gym to perform that day’s workout, note how many reps and sets you completed for each move, as well as the weight you used for each,” says Rosante. “The following week, you’ll perform the same workout, but increase the difficulty by tweaking one or more of the elements: reps, sets, weight, or another variable.” Plus, over time, you’ll get to look back at your progress and see how much you’ve improved.
Give high-intensity interval training a try.
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, refers to short bursts of very hard work followed by periods of recovery—they don’t call it high intensity for nothing. The work periods are typically 20 to 90 seconds, during which you should be giving it your all, whether that’s a sprint on a treadmill or nonstop burpees.
The main appeal of a HIIT workout is that it’s incredibly efficient. Because you’re packing in so much work during those hard intervals—and keeping your heart rate up during your rest—you’re doing a whole lot of work in a short period of time. This improves your aerobic fitness and, if you’re including strength exercises in your HIIT session, your muscle strength and/or endurance as well.
HIIT can also help with fat loss (if that’s a goal of yours) because you’ll also be burning calories after your workout. This is known as EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). While the effect isn’t huge—the length, intensity, and frequency of your workouts and your nutrition habits matter much more for your overall calorie balance—every little bit adds up over time.
You don’t even need weights to do a HIIT session—here’s a 20-minute HIIT workout you can do anywhere.
If you’re driven by data, invest in a heart-rate monitor.
Wearing a heart-rate monitor can give you an idea of your intensity level by measuring how fast your heart is beating. This can help you make sure you’re not overdoing it on the intensity every day (since not every day should be tough), and show you where you can push a little harder. Here’s how to figure out your heart rate zones using data from a monitor, and use this information to train more efficiently. (It’s worth noting that a heart-rate monitor worn around your wrist is generally less accurate than the type that uses a chest strap.)
Many new heart rate monitors also track your resting heart rate throughout the day. This can give you insights into how well your body has recovered from a workout—a significant dip or spike in your average resting heart rate could mean that something’s up. Learn more about your resting heart rate and what it can (and can’t) tell you about your fitness here.
Try following a specific fitness program tailored to your goals.
If you have a specific fitness goal, consider following a specific program created for that goal. If you’re looking to run a 5K race, for example, following a 6-week 5K training program will prepare your body better than simply running a few times a week. This seems intuitive, but it’s good to understand why: Doing a similar workout over time makes your body adapt to that challenge by getting fitter and stronger. This is exactly what you want when you have a specific goal, like a heavier deadlift or a faster race time. If you switch up your workout too often, though, you’re not forcing your body to adapt in a specific way. (That’s not to say your workouts are worthless: You’ll still be reaping plenty of health benefits and improving your overall fitness.)
Here’s how to create a weekly plan that you can stay consistent with. And if your goal is to get fitter and stronger without living in the gym, check out this complete three-day-a-week strength and cardio plan.
Do workouts you actually enjoy.
Finding a workout you actually like is key to staying consistent with your fitness routine. Plain and simple, “if you don’t love [your workout] and look forward to it, you won’t do it,” Jenn Seracuse, director of Pilates at FLEX studios, told SELF. Hate running? Try a cardio dance class instead. Not a yoga person? Maybe barre is for you. At the end of the day, the best workout is the one you’ll actually do.
Commit to getting your z’s.
Sleep is hugely important for many reasons, your fitness game included. “Exercise is a physical stress applied to the body, and muscles get stronger in the period after the workout when the body is repairing the damage,” Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness podcast, explained to SELF. Allowing your body to recover properly makes it easier to crush a workout the next day. Plus, when you’re sleep deprived, you won’t have as much energy to work your hardest, and you also increase your risk for injury.
Build in active recovery days—they’re important.
When it comes to building muscle, it’s the time you spend outside the gym when the magic really happens. When you work out, you create micro-tears in your muscle fibers. Later, post-sweat session, your body rebuilds those damaged muscle fibers stronger than before. Your body needs days off to repair, recover, and rest—without them, you miss out on the muscle making magic and risk overtraining if you work out frequently). This is where active recovery days, along with good sleep, come in. We’re not talking about lying still on your couch all day, though. On active recovery days, go for a walk, do some gentle stretching, or hit up a restorative yoga class.