So, you work out. But maybe you want to take things up a notch this year.
It’s frustrating to put in the work and not see the results you’re looking for. Or maybe you just want to train a little harder and smarter…without blowing a paycheck on a personal trainer.
We can help with that. BuzzFeed Health talked to certified strength and conditioning specialist Albert Matheny, of ProMix Nutrition and Soho Strength Lab, and Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., author of Lift To Get Lean and creator of Women’s Strength Nation, for tips on how to work past your fitness plateau and reach those goals.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. Stop trying to make gains in tons of different areas at the same time.
When you first started out, you probably wanted to just get fitter in general. But as you get more advanced, it’s better to hone in on specific goals and tailor your training to those in order to really see results. So don’t expect to simultaneously build muscle, train for a half marathon, and increase your max bench press. Instead, pick one of those to be your focus at any given time.
This will help you tailor your weekly workouts, track your progress, and help you see results more quickly. You can always change the emphasis, but make those focus areas a priority until you see the progress that you want. You can find examples of possible workouts and exercises to build into your weekly routine here.
2. Go hard(ish) three times a week with workouts tailored to those goals.
Perkins says that you should be going in and “killing it” (your exertion being around an 8 or 9 on a scale of 1-10) three times a week at most. These really hard workouts should be made up of exercises that focus on helping you accomplish your main goals, whether it’s a leg day to make your glutes stronger, a running workout to lower your mile time, or an upper body workout that will get you closer to doing that headstand you’ve been practicing.
3. And then actually go lighter the rest of the time.
On your non-killing-it days, try to do something a little lighter but still active and enjoyable, where your exertion level is around a 5-7, says Perkins. So maybe yoga, jogging, Zumba, or just an overall lighter gym day. You can still work the muscle groups you trained on your harder days, just make sure it’s at a much less intensity to avoid fatigue and injury. Oh, and don’t forget one or two actual rest days — more on those later.
4. Don’t skip workouts altogether when you get super busy.
When you’re in a great workout routine, it can feel like you have to always be going hard or not at all. So when you get busy and can’t stick to that routine, it’s tempting to just say fuck it, take the week off, and try again later.
That’s completely understandable, but it can also slow down your progress. So don’t freak out when you can’t do your usual hour-and-a-half leg day — just squeeze in a 20 or 30 minute workout (maybe even at home) and really commit to it. Even short, high-intensity workouts can help you get to those goals, says Matheny. If you know making it to the gym just isn’t going to happen, just do it at home. These apps are super helpful for when you’re not really sure how to do that.
5. If you’re not seeing changes in your body (and you want to), look at your eating habits.
“A huge reason why a lot of people who hit the gym don’t see the results they want is because they aren’t paying attention to what they’re eating,” Matheny says. “You can be extremely fit and not have toned biceps, and that could have nothing to do with what you’re doing in the gym.”
If you’re not seeing the results you want, Matheny recommends laying off the alcohol a bit and changing your eating habits. Drinking heavily multiple times a week and going to boozy brunch on the weekends will really hinder your progress, especially if your goals are aesthetic. Here’s more information on how your body burns calories during a workout.
6. Consider scheduling most of your carb intake around your workouts.
“Sometimes people aren’t seeing the results they want because they aren’t strategic in their carb intake,” Perkins says. “If you work out in the morning, carb-load before the workout, after the workout, and then taper off as the day goes on. And focus on getting mostly low-glycemic foods on your rest days, such as vegetables and whole-grains.”
Here’s why: Your muscles actually need carbs because they’ll turn it into glycogen to fuel your body while you’re working out. But when you’re not working out, your body will store those carbs as fat. Here’s more information on how that all works.
7. Test your progress by testing your one- or two-rep max each month.
One way to see your progress is by testing your one- to two-rep max: doing one or two reps at the heaviest weight you can manage for those one or two reps, says Matheny. This will help you track how much weight you’re capable of lifting and which of your muscle groups need improvement to meet your goals — that way you can plan your future workouts accordingly.
Make sure that when you doing this you’re using proper form and that you’re being safe and using a spotter. Learn more about how to test your 1RM — one-rep max — here.
8. Concentrate on increasing your range of motion rather than going up in weight.
One of the biggest things Matheny says people do wrong when they lift is they focus so much on making gains that they sacrifice proper form and moving through the full range of motion.
When you don’t do these two things you’re not increasing your flexibility or stability and you’re not using as much of your muscles as you potentially could. Maintaining form is more important than increasing the amount of weight and reps that you can do. To study up on form, Matheny recommends looking up tutorials online at bodybuilding.com or Men’s Health.
9. But if you are trying to move up in weight, make sure the last two reps of every set you do are nearly impossible.
It doesn’t matter how many reps or sets you’re doing, the last two reps of a set should be nearly impossible in order to develop strength. Perkins says you’ll know you’re lifting the right amount of weight if the first 10 reps in a set are doable and the last two are extremely challenging to push out.
As long as that’s true, Perkins says you stay at the weight you’re doing. But those last two reps are going to eventually get easier, and once you can comfortably do all 12 of them, that’s when you go up to the next weight.
10. But once you increase the weight you’re lifting, that doesn’t mean you can never drop back down.
Upping your weight doesn’t always have to be linear, and it’s OK to drop down to your previous weight if you can’t get through a set or you’re sacrificing form. Maybe you took a little break from your training routine or you recently suffered an injury and now that weight seems nearly impossible after 5 reps. Don’t be a hero, just go back to your previous weight.
“Do not compromise form or your amount of sets and reps,” Perkins says. “If you need to, go down a weight and finish out the amount of sets you normally do. The weight is what’s going to fall into place.”
11. Try working your muscles over longer periods of time.
This is called muscular endurance and it’s important for your overall fitness because it gives your muscles the stamina it needs to sustain you through an entire workout without burning out. So while going up in weight is great because it’ll increase your muscle mass and how heavy you can lift, working on your muscular endurance is important because it will help you lift that heavy weight for a longer period of time and keep your body going long enough to finish all your other exercises.
Perkins says the best way to build muscular endurance is to stay at a challenging weight and increase the amount of reps that you do. The same rule applies that the last two reps of every set should be nearly impossible. Once they aren’t anymore, add two more reps to each set.
12. Figure out what your weak links are and do the exercises that are most awkward/challenging/scary for you.
Yes, you can go in and crush the exercises that you’re good at, because that’s really fun and encouraging. But it’s the exercises that are challenging or awkward — that target your weaker muscles — that you should really focus on, says Perkins (assuming that you’re healthy and injury free.)
“Doing the exercises that you love may feel good, but your fitness will eventually plateau and you’re not going to see the progress you want,” Perkins says, “The most transformative exercises are going to be the ones you like the least, because when a muscle is weak it preserves its weakness until you make it work and push it out of its comfort zone.”
13. Change your warm-up depending on your workout.
That same warm-up you do every single time might not actually be the most efficient for what you’re doing that day. Matheny says all warm-ups should be dynamic — something that’s movement-based to get your blood flowing — but that it can change depending on the type of exercises you’re going to do and how your body feels that day.
14. Pay extra attention to what parts of your body are sore during your warm-up and cool-down.
This will help you figure out what you need to stretch out a little more and what you should give a break during your next workout, says Matheny. For example, if your legs feel tight when you’re warming up, try something like bodyweight lunges or squats to put them through a full range of motion and get them loose and ready to move. If they’re still tight after that, focus on working another muscle group. You want to let that part of your body part rest and recover so you can prevent injury and have more productive workouts.
15. Take your rest days seriously, because recovery is where you’re going to really make your progress.
“People who are constantly going in and killing it end up getting diminished results,” Perkins says. “Go in and kill it, but give yourself ample recovery time. You’re not getting fit during the workout, it’s all in the recovery because that’s when you’re muscles are repairing themselves, making you bigger, stronger, faster.”
So as tempting to get in a run or a light lift sesh even on your days off…just relax. Otherwise you’ll be holding your body back from making the progress that you want.
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