I used to be one of the world’s most inefficient gym rats. I’d hop on the elliptical every single day after work for up to an hour. While the elliptical can give you a great, low-impact cardio workout, I’d zone out while watching TV rather than using it intentionally enough to really get the benefits—or, you know, doing anything to improve my strength.
When you’re putting in major time (and sweat!) at the gym, you’re probably hoping to see major results. But sometimes, no matter how hard if feels like you’re working, your body’s not changing from working out, and you’re just not getting any closer to your goals. So, what can you do?
Sometimes, all it takes is a fairly simple change to turn a ho-hum training session into one that’s genuinely effective. Here, three veteran fitness pros share the six small tweaks that they’ve found can make a real difference to what you’re getting out of your workout.
1. Grab an extra set of weights
Many of us (especially beginners) are often afraid to lift heavier weights. Though it’s smart to start small when you’re new and build up from there, if you’re working with weights that are too light, they might not be challenging your muscles enough.
“When you’re getting toward the end of a set, it shouldn’t be something that you can easily complete,” says Zoe Shipton, CPT, fitness manager at Crunch in New York City. “If it’s not uncomfortable, then you probably haven’t instituted the change you’re looking for. That discomfort is what leads to growth.”
When you’re joining a class that uses dumbbells, it can be tricky to decide which to use—will the five-pounders be too easy, or will the eight-pounders be too intense? Paige Moe, an instructor at CorePower and a founding coach of the studio’s new Strength X class that uses heavier weights, has a smart solution: Grab a couple sets of weights to keep by your mat so that you have options. “Maybe you do one of the circuits with the heavy weights, and you’re like, holy cow, my booty is on fire, so then you set ’em down so you are in control,” she says. Or, if you feel like the lighter set isn’t quite enough for a particular exercise, then you can level up. Having options will help you get the most out of every single set (particularly since certain parts of your body are likely stronger than others).
And if the instructor says you’ll be using two sets of weights in class? Maybe grab three just in case.
2. Come back to a few benchmark moves
Having variety in your workouts is critical for building well-rounded fitness. But it’s also beneficial to return to the same moves over and over again. “I know it does get a little bit boring occasionally doing similar movements, but that’s also how we can really gauge any sort of progress over time,” Shipton says.
Maybe you find you can do more reps before you fatigue, or something that used to feel totally awkward (hello, mountain climbers!) now comes with more ease. Repetition will help you appreciate strength gains that you may otherwise not notice. One smart strategy is to track your workouts in a journal so you can see your progress week-to-week. Marking off small milestones on the way to the big ones will encourage you to keep at it.
3. Focus less on how your movements look, more on how they feel
We all know that our bodies are all different from each other. Yet it’s so tempting to try to match your movements exactly to the instructor’s, or that guy on the mat next to you (even if he might be, you know, a foot taller). “Think about how things are working rather than, you know, aiming for a certain external shape or external range of movement or distance,” says Amy Jordan, founder of WundaBar Pilates. “If I worry about going deeper inside my own body, deeper inside my own skin, then that’s when I get better results.”
She finds clients often worry about things like, Am I going low enough in my squat? Am I holding my arms high enough? “It’s really not about what it looks like, the shape you’re making,” she says. “What matters is the connection you’re finding in your body.”
Rather than looking in the mirror, focus on which muscles you feel activating, and where you’re feeling the burn in your body. Spoiler alert: You’ll likely find that this approach makes it burn a lot more than it used to! “If you have proper alignment, if you’re working with breath, if you’re working with intention, if you’re working slowly, you’re gonna find so much more work,” adds Jordan. “I can get anyone to shake in under 30 seconds.”
4. Make sure you’re on the right surface
Not all exercise mats are created equal. And that’s for a reason. “Sometimes people bring those real thick mats that are more squishy—those are for restorative yoga. And if you try to jump on that, you’re gonna be wobbly, right?” Moe says. (A standard yoga mat is typically about four or five millimeters thick, she says.) Or, if you choose something super thin for, say, a Pilates class, your knees or hip joints might uncomfortably dig into the floor because there’s not enough cushion. When you don’t have the right foundation for the workout you’re doing, you’ll find yourself holding back so you don’t hurt something, and then you won’t get the full benefits.
5. Time your rest periods
Is you’re strength training on your own or doing cardio intervals, don’t throw all your hard work away during your rest periods. Keep yourself accountable and don’t let your breaks linger longer than they’re supposed to be.
“If I am not timing my rests, I’m not really performing the program that I set down on paper,” Shipton says. “Your rest time is just as important as the exercises that you’re performing.”
That’s because part of the challenge is diving back into the next interval or set with only the recovery allotted. If your heart rate completely calms down when it’s supposed to stay elevated, for instance, you’re not pushing your body as hard as you’re supposed to.
6. Run your goals by a fitness pro
No matter your reasons for working out, there’s nothing more disincentivizing than feeling like you’re not seeing the progress you think you should be. This is why Shipton always suggests running your goals by an expert.
“Even if someone can just get one hour of face time with a fitness professional to get guidance around what the realistic expectations are for that goal and how long it’s going to take, then we’ll find that they stick with the gym a little bit longer,” she says. Many gyms offer a complimentary consultation with a personal trainer to new members—take advantage of it. Whether you’re chasing big goals or small ones, learning what to expect should be your very first step.