When it comes to exercise, most trainers agree that any workout is better than none at all. Just getting to the gym is an achievement in itself, and whether you’re looking to dial up the intensity of your fitness routine or take a slow, steady pace, you’re still reaping the mental and physical rewards of exercise.
Gone are the days when doing a hundred crunches in a row were the way to washboard abs. Turns out that crunches can be pretty ineffective, especially if you have poor form.
“There is a huge misconception that the key to obtaining six-pack abs is by doing a million sit-ups and crunches. And while core exercises can help with the breakdown of muscle in the abdominal region, they cannot reduce fat,” says Rebecca Gahan, C.P.T., founder and owner of Kick@55 Fitness in Chicago.
When you’re increasing the number of crunches that you do, your form can get sloppy, which makes those crunches even less effective. “When people say they do 1000 crunches a day, I wish they would just do 10 perfectly,” says Astrid Swan, celebrity trainer in West Hollywood, L.A.
A better plan? Eat clean, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and activate the core with compound movements. (Another thing to try? Our time-tested Anarchy Abs workout.) “To really be able to see defined, chiseled abs, then you need to have a lower body fat percentage,” says Swan. She adds that a great example of a core workout that does the trick is the goblet squat, which involves squatting with heavier weights, like dumbbells or kettlebells.
You can also get that burn on the floor, too.“It is much more effective to complete a core exercise in plank position, utilizing multiple muscle groups. This will then force your deeper core muscles to contract from multiple regions, stabilize the body, and challenge the core muscles more effectively and efficiently then a series of crunches,” says Gahan. For example, elevate your feet using a TRX band or on an exercise ball, or complete a series of push-ups or pike and planks.
There’s an idea that using small weights while you’re in spin class or going for a walk will help you burn more calories. But that’s just not the case, says Gahan. Heavier weights would be much more effective in improving the metabolism, shedding fat, and prolonging after-burn, says Gahan.
“The only way to break down a muscle and then build it up to create a lean, toned body is by lifting a weight at a rep count of approximately 12-15 reps, through multiple sets,” she says. “And when you lift a one or two-pound weight, you need to complete an exercise for 60 seconds or more to feel a ‘burn.'”
Even if you feel that burn from using small weights during cardio class, don’t confuse that sort of fatigue with the feeling you get after doing reps of weighted lunges. “The feeling of exertion is not from the muscle being challenged. It’s an extension of your cardio endurance. By completing a single exercise for this high rep count, you will not create lean muscle mass nor will you increase bone density,” says Gahan. (Stronger muscles means greater bone density, says Swan.)
What’s more, using smaller weights during heart-pumping cardio can also be dangerous, especially for those who are just starting a fitness routine.
“If you are completing strength exercises while pedaling on a spin bike, you risk injury because you might maneuver yourself in an unnatural way, such as falling off the bike, or twisting or contorting your body,” Swan explains. “Light weights can lead to speed, which can lead to incorrect form, where you’re no longer using the muscle, but rather relying on momentum.” It’s safer to be 100% focused on the cardio you’re doing, instead of taking time to multi-task with weights — and as a side note, those weights can get slippery.
Instead, Gahan prefers doing weights on the floor, such as a kettlebell swing or a snatch to build muscle and focus on form, rep count, and performance, without any other distractions. You can also try the Metashred Workout from Men’s Health if you’re focused on building strength.
But if you’re still keen on spinning with weights, rather than just focusing strictly on cardio, here are a few tips. Dry off your hands before picking up or putting down the weights, and make sure your resistance module is set at a pace that’ll help you feel stable when reaching behind to grab or place the weights. It’s also helpful to know the exercises you’ll be doing beforehand, as well as the amount of reps or time you’ll have to do them to better choose your ideal weight size, says Swan.
“I love yoga, and I prefer a warm class where I have to create the heat,” says Swan. But while she does recommend that beginners try a regular or slightly heated class, she says it’s a bad idea to jump right into Bikram.
“When your body is so hot from the heated room, you do not know your limitation of flexibility and you risk pulling a muscle,” says Swan. In a heated environment, she says, it’s not uncommon for people to feel as though they have more flexibility and agility than they actually do — and while the heat does loosen you up, it’s not a superpower.
What’s more, Swan adds, hot yoga can lead to nausea and dizziness, especially if you’re not prepared for it. “Yoga is so good for the mind, spirit, and body, but finding the right class for you is important. Drinking lots of water and understanding the flow will help you reap all the positive benefits of yoga and still stay safe,” says Swan. (It’s also important to note that sweating does not equal greater calorie burn, so don’t go downing a chocolate milkshake right after class.)
Gyms like Orange Theory feature heart-rate monitors with specified “zones,” encouraging people to strive to stay in the “red” zone for optimal calorie burn. But Gahan says these monitors aren’t super accurate, which can cause people to overestimate just how effective their workouts were. What’s more, they can also be distracting: if you’re crushing it on the treadmill, but you’re constantly checking to see if you’re in the red zone, you might get winded, fall to the side, or even fall off the bike (yikes).
Instead, focus on giving your workout your all every time and go by how your body feels. If your heart rate is up, you’re sweaty and out of breath, you’re pounding those weighted reps, and you’re enjoying yourself, you’re likely kicking serious butt.