Designing an effective workout regimen isn’t always intuitive. Sometimes, seemingly logical tweaks to intensify a session can have the opposite effect. If you’re aiming to improve results, or simply want to be in and out of the gym in less time, experts say don’t waste a minute on these five things:
1. Time-waster: Spot training
It’s smart to hit the gym with specific goals. But zeroing in on a single body part or muscle group—called spot training—isn't efficient. “The results are limited,” says Craig Ballantyne, strength and conditioning specialist and creator of the Turbulence Training Program, a workout guide for burning fat and building muscle quickly. Take crunches and sit-ups, for example. People often concentrate on these moves to trim and tone the midsection, but “you don’t need [to do] them to see your abs,” says Ballantyne: You need to lose body fat to reveal that six pack Same goes for bicep curls to beef up your biceps or calf-raises to tone your calves. Isolated exercises fall low on the fat-burning scale; even if they help you achieve muscle definition, you probably won’t notice results under the fat.
What to do instead: Total body resistance exercises that incorporate your target area. For example, push-ups and deadlifts to work your abs; they’ll simultaneously tone your core muscles (abdominal and back) and rev up your fat-burning results by adding bodyweight resistance, which you don’t use for crunches and sit-ups. Bonus: Your arms and legs get a workout too.
2. Time-waster: Doing too many reps
When it comes to strength training, you don’t get points for how long you spend in the weight room—it’s the size of your load that counts. Whether you’re working your upper body, lower body, or core, using adequate weight will improve your fat-burning and strength results, says Jessica Matthews, exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer for the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit resource for fitness professionals and consumers. If you’re cranking out sets of 20, 30, or 50 reps, it’s a sure sign that you’re not lifting enough weight to see significant results, she says.
What to do instead: Choose a load that puts you in the rep range of 8 to 15 for general muscle conditioning and 6 to 12 if you’re going for muscle hypertrophy (bulking up). If you get to rep 12 or 15 and could keep going, that’s your cue to add weight, says Matthews.
[4 Things Women Should Be Doing in Their Fitness Training—But Aren’t]
3. Time-waster: Five-minute rest periods
“Resting is an important part of strength training, but people often get sidetracked,” says Matthews. “Next thing you know, 10 or 15 minutes have passed.” Even a five minute rest is excessive (for the average exerciser), she says, and can actually hurt the quality of your workout by letting your muscles cool down between sets.
What to do instead: Limit rest periods to no more than 90 seconds, Matthews says. During that time you can do active recovery—low-intensity movement such as walking in place—to keep the blood moving and heart rate elevated while giving your muscles a break.
4. Time-waster: “Fat-burning zone” treadmill settings
The “fat-burning zone” is a low-intensity cardio setting on treadmills and other machines. According to Matthews, the feature became popular about 15 years ago, when research suggested the body primarily uses fat, as opposed to carbs or protein, to fuel lower-intensity exercise. But, she says, the findings were completely misconstrued: “Your body does use primarily fat at that level, but the more intensity, the more calories (and fat) you burn,” she says. Maximizing fat-burning is as simple as maximizing intensity.
What to do instead: Ignore the “fat-burning” treadmill presets and up the intensity of your workout by adding intervals of increased speed or resistance.
5. Time-waster: Splitting cardio and resistance
Forget 45-minute blocks of cardio and strength training; if you’re pressed for time, you can get the benefits of both with interval training, which can be done in as little as 30 minutes. Ballantyne says interval workouts—such as total body circuits, a key component of his Turbulence Training program—are just as effective for building muscle and burning fat as doing separate cardio and resistance workouts.
What to do instead: Follow a total body circuit-training routine like Ballantyne’s: String together six strength training exercises, alternating upper body and lower body with short rests in between. This segment is followed by 15 reps of squats, pushups, lunges (each leg) and mountain climbers (each leg). No rest is required because you’re switching muscle groups constantly, so your workout involves less clock-eating downtime. The rapid succession of exercises also keeps your heart-rate up, especially when interspersed with quick bursts of cardio like jumping jacks.
Zumba is another great interval workout; this high-energy dance routine combines cardio with squats, lunges, kicks and other total-body resistance moves.
The caveat to hyper-efficiency at the gym
While you can get a well-rounded, results-packed workout in just 30 minutes, more physical activity may be necessary for optimum health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. If you spend less time than that at the gym each week, be sure to schedule additional ways to stay active.
Chelsea Bush writes for AskFitnessCoach, a site with straightforward advice on how to gain muscle and lose weight.
Corrected on 9/20/11: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the rep range for general muscle conditioning and muscle hypertrophy. The article has also been updated to more precisely reflect the advice given by Jessica Matthews.