There’s nothing worse than walking out of the gym thinking welp, that was an hour of Netflix time I’ll never get back. Sure, there’s no such thing as a bad workout, but there is such thing as a great one. The good news? Every workout can feel extra satisfying with a few clever tweaks to make your gym session work harder for you.
Of course, when it comes to fat loss and muscle gain, there are no shortcuts for hard work—but you can make that hard work go further by training smarter. This means warming up your body, pushing your limits, and choosing efficient workout methods. Here are 12 tips from top trainers on how to give you and your workout a ~super boost~.
Sipping a cup of joe before a workout can help bring your intensity to new heights. “It stimulates the central nervous system, making an intense workout feel easier, helping you to push harder and longer,” says Michelle Lovitt, C.S.C.S. “It is essentially a performance enhancer,” adds Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S. and author of Operation Bikini Body. In fact, one study found that runners who drank coffee before a 1,500-meter run finished it 4.2 seconds faster than those who were unknowingly given decaf. Another study found that a pre-sweat coffee can actually make exercise feel easier (and more enjoyable), so you may be more likely to push harder.
Start sipping it 30 minutes before your workout for the best effect—this will give the caffeine a chance to get into your system. Eight ounces (about one cup) is the magic number here—any more than 200 mg of caffeine and you might get jittery.
During exercise, as well as normal daily activity, your body’s fascia (the connective tissue encasing your muscles) gets micro-tears, explains Adam Rosante, C.S.C.S., author of The 30-Second Body. “During the healing process the layers may heal improperly, binding together like tiny little knots on a rubberrelease, like foam rolling, is the process of literally working out these trigger points so that you can, literally, move better,” he says.
Improve your training session by giving your muscles some foam rolling love before you start working out. “This will help prep your muscles to work to their fullest potential,” adds Davis. “When your muscles work more efficiently, you can push harder and ultimately that burns more calories during a workout.”Foam rolling can help improve mobility and range of motion—for example, a deeper squat means more muscle recruitment, so you’ll build more strength. In addition to a foam roller, Rosante likes using Yoga Tune Up Balls or lacrosse balls to loosen up.
“Dynamically warming up your body has a similar effect [to foam rolling] in that it helps improve mobility in your joints and pliability in your muscles,” says Rosante. “Better movement allows you to perform exercises correctly and more efficiently, improving the quality of each workout.” Plus, “a really good dynamic warm-up will also gradually raise the heart rate, leading to a greater overall calorie burn.” A dynamic warm-up is one that has you moving, rather than holding your stretches.
“Alternate muscle groups so that [you can take less rest] without sacrificing the form or quality of the movement,” says Davis. This means pairing upper body exercises with lower body exercises in strength sets (for example, alternating between squats and chest presses) so you give one muscle group time to recover while you’re working another. Multitasking, right?
The best way to guarantee results is showing up to do the work in the first place, and then you can push the intensity when you’re ready. One simple way to make your regular routine more challenging is to rest less between reps and sets, explains Davis. “I recommend taking 30 seconds to 60 seconds between exercises. Closer to 30 seconds if you want the workout to be more cardiovascular, and on the longer end if you are focusing on increasing weights.” The shorter the rest time will keep your heart rate elevated, but if you’re using super-heavy weights you may need a little extra time to fully recover before your next set.
“Employ the principle of progressive overload, which is a fancy way of saying just doing a little more or a little better in each workout,” says Rosante. “The best way to make sure you’re doing this is by tracking and logging your workouts. When you go to the gym to perform that day’s workout, note how many reps and sets you completed for each move, as well as the weight you used for each. The following week, you’ll perform the same workout, but increase the difficulty by tweaking one or more of the elements: reps, sets, weight, or another variable.”
Squats are tough. Squats while holding 10-pound weights are even tougher. Adding weights to your favorite bodyweight exercises like sit-ups, squats, and lunges will automatically make your muscles work a little bit harder. Need another reason to pick up the weights? Strength training helps your body burn more calories in the gym and out. That’s because strength training helps build lean muscle and all of that lean muscle is better at burning calories when the body is at rest.
This means thinking about the muscles you’re engaging while you’re performing an exercise. “Movement in the body originates in the brain,” explains Rosante. “Your brain sends a signal to your muscles telling them to contract. A strong mind-muscle connection can help to recruit more muscle fibers during a lift.” It will also help make sure you stay in the ~zone~. “When your mind is not focused on the task, you are more likely to use poor form, which may slow the movement down and risk injury. Our mental focus is key for better movement and to provide positive self-talk to push that extra rep,” says Davis.
To put this into practice, “really visualize the muscle activating and working through the full range of motion as you perform a move,” explains Rosante. “So if you’re doing a squat, for instance, picture your quad and glute muscles firing as you lower and raise.”
There are plenty of benefits to steady-state cardio, especially if you’re training for an endurance race. But when you’re short on time and need a fast fat-burning routine, think high-intensity interval training (HIIT). These types of workouts combine intervals of intense effort (think all the burpees) followed by short bursts of recovery. “HIIT is both time efficient and effective,” says Davis. “You can spend less time working out and get the same (or often better) results [by doing HIIT training instead of] long steady-state workouts.” This is because HIIT training keeps your heart rate up which translates to lots of calories burned. Plus, there’s that whole afterburn effect. “Greater energy expenditure equals greater calorie burn,” explains Rosante.
Talking about effort, it’s important to keep tabs on exactly how hard you’re working. A simple way of doing just that is by wearing a heart-rate monitor. “Heart-rate monitors are super motivating because they provide a visual cue that lets you know if you’re pushing too hard, not hard enough, or if you’re in the right training zone,” says Lovitt.
Go to the gym with a plan, so you know what you’re going to do and when (AKA no more dillydallying). Make a commitment to yourself to stop firing off emails or checking your Instagram likes while you’re in the sacred sweat zone. This will help you stay focused on your workout. If you need to, “leave your phone in the locker,” suggests Davis. Unless, of course, that phone is where you listen to your music—in that case, set it on airplane mode and jam away. “A kick-ass playlist will keep you moving and loving a workout,” says Davis. “I want to squat more when I listen to Destiny Child’s ‘Bootylicious’! There have been studies that show how music can improve performance. A great playlist keeps you motivated and having fun!”
At the end of the day, the best way to get more from your workout is to work a little harder. “When you increase your intensity and step away from the ‘same old, same old,’ your body is placed under greater positive stress which will result in more possible muscle fiber recruitment and engagement,” says Davis. And you don’t have to jump from yoga to CrossFit to see the benefits of an increase in intensity. “There are many ways to go the extra mile,” says Davis. “Used to 10 reps? Use the same weight and try to hit 15 reps. Or increase your weight. Even a small increase will spur a little extra burn.” You can also up the resistance on the elliptical or raise the incline on a treadmill—whatever feels challenging.