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Here's How To Work Out Less And Actually See Results

Slow and steady wins the gains.

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Everyone knows that to get fitter you have to do more work — lift heavier weights, do more squats, run farther distances. Duh.

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But making consistent progress is really a matter of balancing that work with recovery and figuring out just how hard to go in a given workout.

While you do have to gradually put your body under incrementally more stress (like lifting more weight or running faster or farther, etc.), you also need to properly recover to give your body time to adapt to that stress, personal trainer Idalis Velazquez, founder of IV Fitness, tells BuzzFeed Health.

Exercise is stress on the body — albeit a good one — and if your body is stressed all the time and never gets a chance to recover, it won't get stronger. It'll break down.

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That's why "more is not always better," personal trainer Albert Matheny of Soho Strength Lab tells BuzzFeed Health.

And it's also why getting fitter isn't necessarily a matter of going way harder or doing a lot more in a workout. "It’s not how much you do; it’s about how smart your training is,” says Velazquez.

Here's what smart training looks like:

1. Your workout shouldn't get in the way of future workouts.

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Your priority should be training in a way that allows you to continue working out, says Velazquez. Reconsider any workouts that are so intense that you’re sore for days and need extended rest or cause you to go into your next workout feeling totally depleted.

If you’re working too damn hard, you increase your risk of injury or overtraining, both of which lead to missed workouts, which compromises your ability to keep doing more over over time. And if you can’t do that, you probably won't see the results you're looking for.

2. But, OK, you don't want to go tooo easy on yourself.

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Even though we're mostly talking about how going too hard can mess with your results, it's worth pointing out that not going hard enough won't help your gains either.

"No workout should feel easy — you should feel that challenge," says Velazquez. To see if you're going too light, pay attention to your effort throughout the workout.

"If your first rep on your first set feels the same as the last rep of last set — assuming your technique is on point — you need to bump up [the weight]," Tony Gentilcore, Boston-based personal trainer and strength coach, tells BuzzFeed Health. You should always be able to do your whole workout — strength or cardio — with good form, but you should have to work hard to get there.

3. Most of your workouts should be done at a comfortably hard intensity — like a 6 out of 10.

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Whether you’re doing strength training, cardio, or a mix, the bulk of your weekly training should be done at an intensity that feels challenging but doable. On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is rest and 10 is the hardest you can possibly go), this would be about a 6.

And these workouts can last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, says Velazquez. When it comes to cardio, comfortably hard means you can carry on a conversation with some effort. If you're huffing and puffing too much to get a word out, ease up.

4. High-intensity workouts should be short and sweet.

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High-intensity workouts — where you’re working at about a 7 or 8 on that 1–10 scale — are great for all kinds of goals (fat loss, becoming a runner, lifting heavier for muscle gain), but you should only do them a couple times per week, says Velazquez.

The rule to keep in mind: You want to alternate volume (amount of work you’re doing) with intensity (how hard you’re going). In the case of cardio, this might mean doing a shorter workout (maybe 15 or 20 minutes) of alternating sprints and rest periods. In a strength training workout, this might mean doing fewer sets and reps when you want to lift closer to your max.

5. Take a day off between high-intensity workouts.

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When you exercise hard without enough rest in between workouts, “your body has no time to recover, repair, and grow stronger,” says Velazquez. So, seriously, use your days between hard workouts for something lighter. And consider a day or two per week of total rest part of your training schedule.

6. Your workouts should make you feel energized, not exhausted.

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Velazquez says that ideally exercise should give you energy, relieve stress, make you feel strong, and maybe even elevate your mood and make you feel more positive. If it doesn't, you're probably not going to want to stick with it and keep progressing.

So if your workout plan is leaving you exhausted and grumpy and taking away your can-do spirit, you might be overdoing it. Or maybe you just haven't found a plan that actually works for you, yet. Either way, don't just think in terms of #gainz — think of overall wellness.

7. You should never be going so hard that you get sloppy.

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Sometimes the only way you can complete a rep (or a set or a workout) is if you do it sloppily and let your form go. Like, you know you can finish that squat if you just let your knees cave in on the way up. Or you can sprint at that treadmill setting if you stop worrying about your foot strike. Or you can finish the push-up if you let yourself snake up from the floor. You get it.

Yeah, don't do that.

Proper form is there to ensure that you're working the right muscles and moving in the safest way possible, says Gentilcore. That applies to cardio, too, says Velazquez. If you’re trying to sprint faster than you’re capable of going with good form, chances are you’ll be working so hard to get the damn thing done that your attention to the way you're running will fall by the wayside. This is when you could pop a hamstring or a quad, says Velazquez.

8. Actually pay attention to your progress. Are you getting stronger or faster?

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One way to know if you’re hitting that intensity sweet spot and balancing work and recovery is to take a look at the progress you've been making, says Velazquez.

As long as you're working out consistently, you should be able to lift a little heavier or run a bit faster or farther as time passes. And you should feel stronger in your everyday life — like when you're carrying groceries or luggage or walking up the stairs, says Velazquez.

9. But try not to have a “huge gains or bust” mentality.

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It’s true that when you first start working out you might see lots of progress pretty quickly. But results aren’t always about big numbers, says Velazquez. Making progress can be about maintaining better form for a particular lift or having improved balance or stability in a challenging movement.

And when you're looking at your ability to lift heavier or move faster, it’s not necessarily going to be reflected by huge numbers. Progress could mean shaving a couple seconds off a 5K time, being able to do seven sprints instead of six, or moving from 10-pound dumbbells to 12.5-pound dumbbells for a particular lift.

“Even if it’s one pound [more than you lifted last week], it’s amazing,” says Velazquez. Matheny agrees, saying that progress can be anything from doing one more rep than you did the last time to doing the same number of reps while truly keeping your abs engaged to finishing part of a workout without getting as out of breath.

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