If your workouts consist of doing light weights and steady-state cardio, you might be in for some bad news: These things alone won’t likely get you the results you’re after, say experts. To increase your fitness level, burn fat, and improve muscle tone, you’ve got to step up your game.
1. High-intensity training.
All that time coasting on the elliptical at a comfortable pace probably hasn’t done much for your body, says Panama-based trainer Belinda Benn, creator of the Breakthrough Physique home fitness system. In fact, the biggest mistake women make in their training is not exercising with enough intensity, she says.
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is typically a 10- to 20-minute workout that alternates short, intense bursts of activity with moderate-exertion recovery periods. “High-intensity interval training is the best way to improve your overall fitness, burn fat, and stimulate your hormones for a stronger body,” says Benn.
How to tell if you’re training hard enough? Look to your body for clues, Benn says. Good indicators are sweating, increased heart rate, and lactic acid production (i.e., feeling the “burn”) during exercise. Moderate muscle soreness for up to a few days post-workout is also a good sign. “If you feel nothing,” Benn says, “you probably didn’t work out hard enough.”
2. Heavier lifting.
For most women, a typical weight-training session equals light dumbbell exercises, says Toronto-based strength and conditioning specialist Craig Ballantyne, creator of the Turbulence Training Program. But doing fewer reps with more weight—say, 8 reps per set with a 15-pound dumbbell, instead of 15 reps with an 8-pound one—will burn more fat, he says. Lifting heavier will also increase your strength and muscle definition.
Start by swapping out your normal weights for slightly heavier ones, and gradually work your way up.
3. Upper body workouts.
Women tend to store body fat around the waist, hips, and thighs, so that’s where they typically focus their exercise efforts—neglecting their upper bodies, Benn says.
But you can’t spot-reduce fat, and sticking with what’s easy can stunt your progress, says Benn. Because you may feel weak while attempting pull-ups for the first time, Benn suggests doing the hard stuff at the start of your workout, “when you’re freshest and feeling mentally strong.”
“Focusing on underdeveloped muscles will improve the contours of your body,” Benn says.
4. Training with a barbell.
Think barbells are synonymous with back-breaking chest presses? Not so. “You can do a tremendous workout just with a barbell,” Benn says. “If you’re holding a bar rather than using two separate weights, it forces you to get your body in sync.”
Barbells are great for both upper- and lower-body exercises. Balancing one across your shoulders while doing squats, lunges, or walking lunges helps develop posture and balance, Benn says.
If you’re flirting with a barbell for the first time, go as light as you need to. Even 10 pounds is a good start.
If you’re worried you’ll bulk up with any of these exercises, consider your body type. Benn says women generally fall into two categories: those who build muscle easily, and those who don’t. If you build muscle easily, she suggests emphasizing high-intensity exercises. If you develop muscle slowly, you’ll benefit from spending more time on heavy lifting.
Chelsea Bush writes for AskFitnessCoach, a site that promotes a down-to-earth approach to fitness and weight loss.