How to Work Out Smarter, Not Harder

6 tips to help you get results


For those in pursuit of body perfection, twice-a-day workouts are increasingly becoming the status quo, but doing too much can actually derail your training goals.

You've heard the expression,"You can achieve anything if you work hard enough at it." It's certainly true in some pursuits, but in the gym, too much sweat equity is more likely to leave you exhausted and uninspired. Rather than admiring your accomplishments in the mirror, you may find yourself smack in the middle of a physical and mental plateau. Just consider the person at the gym every day, panting and dripping as he talks about his killer workouts, all of which belie a body that looks exactly as it did three months ago. Chances are, after a while, you'll see him less and less.

Can you blame him? Sustaining high-intensity workouts most days can not only overtax the body, but also sap ambition and enjoyment of exercise. Plus, such a regimen can keep you from your ideal physique. After an intense weights session, for example, muscles need about two days to regenerate and repair. Work them again too soon and, rather than rebuilding stronger and denser muscles, they stay the same or even decrease in strength. A similar phenomenon can happen with fat-burning cardio. When the body reaches a new, high level of intensity, new capillaries form to deliver more blood to working muscles. Similarly, the nervous system recruits more muscle fibers, eventually making us more balanced, fluid, and powerful. However, on a fatigued or unprepared body, these improvements are less likely to occur.

"In the 24 to 48 hours immediately following a moderate to intense exercise session, the body is busy removing metabolic wastes, replenishing energy stores, building muscle proteins, and repairing tissue damage through a physiological process known as adaptation," says Geralyn Coopersmith, an exercise physiologist and head of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. "Back-to-back, high-intensity workouts don't give the body sufficient time to complete these processes and can reduce performance, cause sidelining injuries and prevent you from getting results." The good news is there are lots of things you can do to help your body regenerate and even speed results. Here, Coopersmith's top 6 ways to pump up your progress:

1. Do Less. Don't work out hard every day. Studies show that two high-intensity sessions per week are enough to achieve most fitness goals.

2. Keep Moving. Although the phrase "active rest" may sound like an oxymoron, researchers have found that doing a light workout the day after a challenging one can actually help speed the recovery process. Gentle activities such as Hatha yoga, walking, or an easy swim can help bring blood to tissues and remove waste products, speeding the regeneration.

3. Take a Shower. During your post-workout scrubdown, use hot water for two minutes, warm water for one minute, and ice-cold water for 30 seconds. Repeat the cycle three to four times. This process, know as Contrast Water Therapy, dilates and constricts blood vessels, which may help remove metabolic waste products and speed recovery.

4. Get Hands On. If you're exercising on a regular basis, massage isn't a luxury—it's essential. Massage can improve the circulation of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, help remove waste, and reduce pain. It can also break up excessively tight areas in muscle tissue, known as "trigger points," caused by muscle tension and scar tissue.

5. Hit the Sack. Sleep is the ultimate regeneration tool; unfortunately, most of us aren't getting enough. Experts believe we need at least eight hours of sleep, and the average American is getting only six-and-a-half to seven hours of shut-eye. Try to be mindful of how much sleep you're getting, and set a regular sleep schedule.

6. Drink Up. Dehydration impairs metabolism and prevents adequate nutrient transfer, which is the process of bringing food and oxygen into the cells and removing waste products. Replenish the fluids lost during exercise immediately afterward. Weigh yourself right before and right after a workout. Any weight lost during the session is water weight (not fat) that needs to be replaced. Down a few glasses until you're back to your pre-workout weight.

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Liz Miersch is editor-in-chief of Q, By Equinox. A former fitness editor at Self, she has written for magazines including Fitness and Details. Liz admits a newfound obsession with power yoga— specifically arm balances. Get your daily guide to fitness, life, and style at Q, a blog by Equinox.