Monday, March 16, 2009

Are Your Workouts Efficient Enough?

During my hiatus from large-scale health clubs, I've been working out in my apartment complex's fitness center. It's surprisingly well equipped for a gym in a rental community. Five flat-screen LCD TVs, plus another in the adjacent playroom. Two treadmills, two ellipticals, two bikes. A set of weight machines, including a dual-weight-stack cable column, a free-weight area, and an adustable incline bench. A basic knowledge of strength training is all you really need to get an adequate workout in this space.

What's interesting, then, is to observe how residents utilize this rather generous resource. First of all, I prefer to work out in an empty gym, so when I walk in and find a few other people in there (it's not a huge space) I'm already a tad irritated. So while I'm on the treadmill thinking about learning how to share, I figure everyone else is busy getting their workout done. I mean, that's what I came to do---get in, get it done, get out in under an hour if I can.

Twenty-five minutes later when I turn around, however, there's the same guy sitting on the lat pull-down machine watching (inexplicably) a monster truck rally. Here's another dude who's still
doing biceps curls. It's not even that they're occupying space or equipment that I'd like to use; it's that they're not really doing anything.

This pretense of working out is not an uncommon sight in any health club. It can be annoying, when you'd like to get on a piece of equipment but can't because someone's made it into his personal Barcalounger. It can be downright insulting, when you're there to work---purple-faced and dripping rivers of sweat---while some woman is stretched out on the mat next to you reading UsWeekly.

But it should serve as a reminder that your time is valuable, and that you can and should make the most of your time in the gym. Most of us could afford to make our workouts a little more efficient, but we could use some new ideas (as well as some new motivation). Here are a few suggestions for getting a better workout in less time:

  1. Dedicate as much if not more time to lifting weights as you do to cardio. If you're trying to build mass, you likely already do this. If you're trying to lose weight and tone up, you may be in the rut of doing endless cardio sessions, when 25-30 minutes should suffice. The important thing is to keep your intensity---and therefore your heart rate---up, and then carry that intensity over to your strength-training workout. Aim for about 25 minutes of interval-style cardio, where you alternate brief bouts of high intensity movement with a lower intensity "recovery" period. This might meaning sprinting for 30 seconds followed by walking for 90, for instance. Allow yourself up to 5 minutes to cool down, and then spend another 30+ minutes on strength training.
  2. Choose strength exercises that involve big, full-body movements. This will ensure that you keep your heart rate up and increase the number of calories burned throughout your workout. Lunges and push-ups are great examples. You can increase the effectiveness of other exercises by combining them: add a shoulder press to a squat, or combine a row with a Romanian (straight-legged) dead lift, or perform biceps curls while sitting against the wall. Choose exercises that involve standing up whenever possible, rather than sitting on a machine.
  3. Perform your exercises circuit-style to minimize time spent resting. Rather than doing all 3 sets of a chest exercise in a row, do a set of chest followed by a set of legs followed by a set of crunches, and so on. By avoiding doing multiple sets on the same muscle group in a row, you eliminate the need for a rest between sets (unless, of course, you need to drink water/catch your breath). This means a shorter workout overall.
  4. Do cardio and strength every time you work out. Rather than spend upwards of an hour on a full-body strength session 2--3 times per week (when you're also trying to cram in 4--5 days of cardio per week), why not do a little bit each time you're at the gym? This will result in more varied workouts, since you don't want to work the same muscle groups the same way 2 days in a row. Maybe one day you'll do rows, shoulder presses, and biceps curls with deadlifts, squats, and wall-sits. Maybe the next you'll do chest flies, push-ups, and triceps extensions with reverse and side lunges. The point is, you'll learn to pay attention to what's sore and mix it up, and by doing a little each day, you'll be less likely to get burned out on your workouts.

By enacting any or all of these strategies, you'll get a better workout in less time. At the very least you'll set a good example for those guys who use the gym as their personal theater.

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