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One Small Change

Are You Wasting Your Workout?

"No, no, I'm not busy. I'm just working out."

A while back Men’s Health magazine asked its readers to name the one thing that was either keeping them from getting in shape or from exercising more. The overwhelming answer: not enough time. Given most people’s packed schedules this excuse seems plausible until you spend some time hanging out at a gym. There you’ll see those same people who were complaining about being too busy chatting, flirting, reading, waiting and flexing. In other words, wasting time—and wasting their workouts.

Kevin Elsey and Anthony Slater, both performance specialists for Athletes’ Performance, estimate that most people are only about 60 percent efficient in their workouts, which means that 20 minutes of every hour in the gym is being frittered away.

So this week, as part of my month-long quest to de-clutter and refocus my exercise life by throwing out one fitness-related item each day, I’m turning my attention to my gym behavior. With the help of Elsey, Slater and other experts, I’ve identified an assortment of habits, exercises and training routines that I (and maybe you) don’t need:

1. Winging it

Usually when I go to the gym it’s because “I feel like it.” I have less of a plan than the lame-duck Bush administration. And that's inefficient and just plain boneheaded. “Always head to the gym knowing exactly which exercises you’re going to do,” says Elsey, who is headquartered at the Athletes’ Performance Institute in Tempe, Arizona. “And by that I mean how many sets, reps and rest periods.”

2. Yakking with everyone

As a freelance writer, I don’t get out much, so when I do I like to socialize and see if I can still speak coherently. Slater, who manages the Core Performance Center in Santa Monica, California, says that’s fine as long as all that chitchat doesn’t interrupt the workout. “Reserve your first 15 minutes at the gym for socializing,” he suggests. Actually write it on your training schedule, if that’s what it takes to get it out of your system. “Then concentrate on the task at hand, with maybe another 15 minutes at the end for more socializing.”

3. Watching the scenery

Okay, I admit it. I get distracted when there’s a Brazilian Thrust-and-Combust class going on in the next room. To remedy this problem, I think I have an ingenious solution. From now on, I’m going to leave my glasses in my locker. I can still get by without them, but my world will be a lot narrower.

4. Wasting time warming up

I typically pedal the stationary bike, jog on the treadmill, or do some lazy calisthenics or yoga for a few minutes. While this raises my heart rate and generally conditions my muscles, it’s not specific to anything, which means that again I don’t have a plan. Try “movement prep,” suggests Elsey. This fast series of dynamic movements prepares your nervous system for activity and actually builds strength, stability and flexibility. And it takes about 7 minutes. Click here for a sample routine.

5. Resting after every set

Instead of walking around the gym pretending that I’m huge and that the women in the Thrust-and-Combust class are watching me, I’m banishing most of these brief respites from my workout. Instead, I’m going to do more “supersetting.” That is, performing one movement after another without rest. So after a set of bench presses, for instance, I’ll move directly to a set of dumbbell rows. Then rest briefly and repeat the superset. Since each exercise works opposing muscles or movements (pushing versus pulling in this example), I won’t tire as fast and I won't spend as much time resting between sets, Elsey says.

6. Waiting for equipment to open up

This is a big time-waster for me. But I’ll be able to stop twiddling my chalked thumbs if I can grasp the concept of “complementary movements,” says Elsey. For instance, if you just finished doing your bench presses and are waiting for some big, hairy, sweating hulk to surrender the lat pulldown machine (wait, is that Doris from accounts receivable?), “do a movement that focuses on either scapular stability or pec mobility,” he suggests. “Complementary movements like these help you bust through plateaus, prevent injuries and recover faster.” That’s because you’re improving your all-important stabilizer muscles as well as your mobility, which gives you a solid platform to develop strength and muscle. Click her for some specific examples of circuits using complementary exercises.

7. Dawdling on the cardio machine

Since I like to eat, I like to burn fat. And I’d always heard that the best way to do that is with steady-state, low-intensity aerobic workouts. Throw out that thinking, says Paul Robbins, a metabolic specialist at Athletes’ Performance in Tempe, Arizona. While there are certainly days when I should do that kind of workout, most of the time he recommends using interval training to duck in and out of different energy zones, for more complete cardiovascular conditioning. “Change up your workload every minute or 30 seconds,” he recommends. “Just by raising your intensity by 15 to 20 percent, you’ll double the calories burned and cut a 40-minute workout down to 20 or less. Plus, you’ll be getting true cardio benefit.”

8. Doing isolation exercises

Biceps curls, press-downs, crunches…these types of exercises work only a single muscle or muscle group. But they’re some of the first moves I learned, so that’s what I instinctively fall back on. But with the help of Slater I’m replacing them with “compound movements” that are more time efficient and physiologically beneficial because they work different parts of the body simultaneously. For instance, instead of doing leg extensions and arm curls, I’ll do lunges and a curl to overhead press. Or combine all three moves into a lunge to curl to press. This doesn’t mean just throwing a bunch of moves together, which can be a mistake. The most basic compound movements—squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups and rows, for instance—are often the most effective.

Well, that’s enough gym-cleaning for one spring week. Now where the hell are my glasses?

Michael Boyle is one of the world’s leading experts in the area of performance enhancement and the owner of StrengthCoach.com. He is also the author of Functional Training for Sports.

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Tags: Focus, Attitude, Training, Resistance Training, Planning

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