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5 Habits That Could Be Sabotaging Your Workout


Time management is one of the hardest parts of college. You’ve got to balance a full class schedule, assignments (like that Russian novel you should have had finished last week), eating (the cookie you snuck from the dining hall), working it off at the gym, social events and the ensuing drama. You’re strapped for time, and you’ve got to use every moment to the fullest, especially when it comes to your workout routine. Here are a few simple mistakes we all make at the gym and how you can fix them to be a lean, mean, time-efficient machine.

Skipping Your Warm-Up

There are plenty of excuses we make to bypass warming up—it’s a waste of time, it looks silly, you need to snag the elliptical/treadmill while it’s open… But let’s not fool ourselves, collegiettes: skipping a warm-up is the equivalent of putting off research for a term paper. It’s going to make starting really tough.

Why It Doesn’t Work

Warming up prepares your muscles for the activity they’re about to do, which relies on the muscles contracting. Hopping on the elliptical or another machine without warming them up leads to strain and serious injury that will set your fitness routine back. “Warm-ups are preventative…but also start increasing heart rate for the workout,” Sue DenHerder, a ACSM-certified personal trainer in the Boston area, says. Basically, warming up gives you a head start on the workout. Instead of playing catch-up for the first ten minutes of exercise, your body is acclimated to the work it needs to do. And you know what that means? Your workout starts off less grueling so you can push harder for longer and really get the most out of your time.

How to Fix It

Warm-ups don’t have to be complex or lengthy. Take five minutes at the beginning of your workout to just get moving. Try jumping jacks, jogging in place, jump rope—simple exercises that will heat your muscles and get your heart pumping. If you’re more familiar with gym lingo and exercises, add in some squats or lunges.

Falling into the “Steady State” Workout

Obviously our lives are jam-packed with daily challenges. Just getting ourselves to the gym is one. Why make the workout hard too? Why not multitask, get some reading done, or enjoy a magazine? Because when you’re not 100% focused on your workout, you’re not getting the most out of it.

Why It Doesn’t Work

Workouts, like most parts of life, fall under the “you get out what you put in” category. Doing the same routine without pushing yourself gets you on a never-ending treadmill or elliptical plateau. “Going at the same level, same speed for 30 minutes doesn’t help you. If you’re not breathing hard and working to get through the exercise, you’re not taking full advantage of the workout,” DenHerder explains. Kristen McGill, an AFAA-certified personal trainer and Fitness Specialist at Emerson College points out, “Some women fear ‘getting big’ and therefore might continue to do the same routine week after week. Using the specified time periods/target heart rates can ensure that time is being used effectively. A low intensity workout a couple times a week may not allow an individual to achieve the results they are looking for.” Just so you know, 121 beats per minute (BPM) is considered moderate intensity for a 20-year-old woman and vigorous intensity is 160 BPM. Reaching this range is ideal for your workout.

How to Fix It

Switch up your routine. Shake things up on the elliptical and treadmill; before starting, set a plan based on cycles of work and recovery. Run for one minute, increase the resistance to a steep incline, walk for one minute and repeat, adjusting the resistance according to your walk/run pattern. Don’t have a timer? Use your music and alternate running and walking every song, adjusting the resistance accordingly. If you only use the elliptical or treadmill, try some of other machines in the gym. Just make sure you learn how to use them before getting started!

Sticking Exclusively to Cardio

Running, jumping, stepping and all of that good stuff are, undeniably, an important part of getting and staying fit. But cardio is not the end-all-be-all. Equally important is building muscle through strength training.

Why It Doesn’t Work

Cardio workouts target (surprise!) the cardiovascular system, meaning your heart and lungs, first and your muscles second. Cardio exercise is known for high calorie burn. The thing is, the best way to boost calorie burn is by building muscle. “The more muscle you build, the more calories you will burn during exercise and at a resting state,” DenHerder says. Extra bonus of including strength training to your routine? Muscles are denser than fat, so building muscle makes clothes fit better and tones your body instead of just slimming it down.

How to Fix It

McGill says to include a resistance/strength training routine “2-3 days a week to begin, potentially working 2-4 days a week. This includes working all major muscle groups with a series of either resistance machines or free weights depending on flexibility, experience and current health state.” If you’re just starting out, don’t be afraid to ask a trainer to help you get going with the machines or a free weight routine. Depending on your strength and the weight you’re using, aim to do 10-15 repetitions of each exercise. For added fun and motivation, bring a friend and try a weekly weight training routine together!

Limiting Your Core

Crunches and basic sit-ups are often still thought of as the best way to get a flat stomach, no matter how hard fitness advertisements for various ab-machines try to de-bunk this myth. Sadly, we still seem to think these moves are the key to getting rid of our bellies, so we do them. And then we do more. And more. Yet we may not see the results we expect. What gives? 

Why It Doesn’t Work

Like with most exercises, sit-ups and crunches are good and do engage part of your core. Key word: part. Abdominals are a 360-degree muscle group, including the rectus abdominus (the “six pack” we’re all after), internal and external obliques (the elusive side abs), and the transverse abdominal (wrapping from front to back). If you’re looking to make the most of your time at the gym, it just makes more sense to do one exercise that works all of the abs instead of just part. Crunches simply don’t justify the time and effort they consume.

How to Fix It

Enter: the plank!

No, not planking a la the crazy internet phenomenon. There’s no lying down with this exercise. Get into a pushup position with your arms supporting your body, hands under your shoulders…and hold it. “Start by holding the position for 20 seconds and build to a minute. Sounds easy, but you feel the burn,” DenHerder says. Try adding it in three or four times a workout and you’ll see what she means. Push-ups, a great variation of planks, are another exercise that hits all parts of the core with the additional bonus of your shoulders and chest. The key to a good pushup lies in keeping your spine straight, not dropping your head down or arching your back. Also important is hand position; most people tend to go too wide, when your hands should be just outside your chest, under your shoulders.


What Does an Effective Workout Look Like?

Try this 20-minute workout that blends cardio and strength training and alternate it with your other routines. If you have more time, just do a few more rounds, and make it fit your schedule.

Warm Up

  • 1 minute jogging in place
  • 30 jumping jacks
  • 15 squats
  • 15 toe touches (bring your leg up straight in front of you and touch your arm to it)
  • 1 minute jumping rope (you don’t need rope, just follow the motions)

Round 1

  • 20 squats, while holding weights (try 10-15 lbs. to begin, heavier if that’s too easy)
  • 20 second plank (slow count ladies, even if it hurts)
  • 20 jumping jacks

Repeat round 3-4 times.

Round 2

  • 20 shoulder presses, with weights (try 5-10 lbs. to begin, heavier if that’s too easy)
  • 20 bicycles (lie down with your hands behind your head, bring your left elbow and right knee to meet over your body, do the same with your right elbow and left knee)
  • 1 minute high knee run (try to bring your knees up like you’re tucking them to your chest)

Repeat round 3-4 times.

Stretching & Cool Down

“Stretching should be used in order to avoid injury and optimize results with all your training. Generally, you should hold a stretch anywhere from 10-30 seconds, and be sure to stretch out all major muscle groups. Repeat this 2-3 times for each muscle group,” says McGill. Be sure to dedicate the time to proper muscle flexibility, even if you can only afford 5 minutes of it. Stretching doesn’t have to be a gym-only activity, so there’s no reason not to do it. Be good to your body and reward it for working hard for you and making the most of your workout.

Getting and staying fit is just as much a part of a healthy college life as all the other things you have to do. Don’t treat it like a torture, but a chance to take some “you time” and challenge yourself beyond the books.

Got more tips to make your workout better? Let us know in the comments section!

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