Sometimes, simply getting yourself to the gym feels like a serious accomplishment. The bad news is that it’s probably not the accomplishment you might think. While getting some kind of exercise is better than sitting on the couch for the umpteenth night in a row, achieving fitness results is not as simple as just showing up. So what do you do when it’s workout-o’clock? There are a lot of options at a typical commercial gym. You’ve got your cardio machines, your assisted weight machines, and even that intimidating free-weight area. But not all of these devices give you equal return on your hard-won sweat deposit. You see, the terrible truth is that it’s not enough to work out. You have to work out the right way. Add to that the fact that toning the body can be counterintuitive. (For instance, you’ll never get that coveted six-pack with nothing but an ab machine, even if you put in hours every day.) Too many people give up their fitness goals in despair, when the real problem isn’t that they aren’t working hard—it’s that they’re not working smart. While changing your body can feel difficult, even impossible, don’t sweat it (er—poor choice of words). We’re here to shed some light on what the workouts that actually help you transform your body—and the workout machines that won’t. (Plus, we’ll even throw in a few helpful tips to get you on the path to being fit and healthy. You’re welcome.)
1. “Assisted” anything won’t really help.
For a breakdown on fitness goals and which machines will (or won’t) help you achieve them, we spoke with James Harris, a physical therapist and the owner of Brentwood Barbell, a strength gym in St. Louis, Missouri. Harris has worked with athletes and clients of all abilities for more than a decade in the fields of physical therapy and fitness and now focuses on getting clients stronger with basic barbell strength training. Perhaps the biggest factor in gaining strength, building muscle, and losing fat, Harris proposes, is your own personal effort. Since assisted weight machines often take less exertion than free weights, the amount of personal effort necessary decreases. “If you spend your time sitting on a machine, pushing on a lever, and adjusting a pin, you’re putting in the minimum amount of effort,” Harris tells us. “If you want more from your program, you have to put more into it.” Assisted weight machines can give people a false sense of accomplishment, Harris explains, and that’s the last thing you want. It’s also important to treat fitness as learning process—and for that, you need a gym that offers support, not a machine without instructions. Harris emphasizes the importance of finding “a gym or coach that teaches the skill of lifting barbells.” Do this, he says, and “you will find your program much more enjoyable.” The key, Harris says, is to “focus on the process of learning a skill that results in better health rather than focusing on trying to improve your health in the absence of learning.” If you surround yourself with a positive, informative, and helpful support system, you’ll be more likely to succeed. All the time and effort you put into building a solid, positive foundation will pay off later. What we’re really saying here is that the most effective fitness facilitator at the gym may be the community of people who work out alongside you.
2. Walking in place will keep you there.
In addition to creating a support system, you have to learn how to manage your time at the gym. When many people begin their fitness journey, they fall into an easy routine, using machines that they are familiar with. That usually means spending hours at a time on the treadmill or elliptic. Those are bound to be beneficial, right? Well, not in terms of really sculpting your physique, no. If you want to see changes, your body needs to be challenged, and while a nice long stroll on the treadmill may help improve your health, it won’t get you the abs you want, for instance. For serious sculpting results, you’ll need to start weight training, keep a strict eye on your diet, and use a serious, detailed plan. Harris explains the basic outline of a successful workout regimen: “Assuming an hour to train each day, a better use of time [than machines] would be to strength-train three times per week, focusing on large compound movements like squats, presses, chin ups, and deadlifts done for two to three sets each,” he says. “After eight to weeks the trainee could then begin making dietary changes that support their goals,” he continues. “Finally, after resistance training and nutrition are reasonably dialed in, the trainee would then add moderate intensity interval training once per week. This schedule is very effective, time efficient, and sustainable.” Reaching your goals is completely doable—if you put the work into building a smart plan and have the discipline to stick with it. You can’t get everything done just by walking in place.
3. Deduct abduction and adduction.
If you’re serious about getting in shape, it’s time to skip hip abduction/adduction machines. “If you can read a magazine while ‘exercising,’ I propose that you’re not really making any lasting measurable change,” says Harris. Sitting on your butt while doing focused movements actually shuts down large muscle groups in your body. If you want to get stronger, start thinking bigger. These hip abduction and adduction machines are popular because they supposedly workout your inner and outer thigh—spots lots of people wish were more toned. Harris isn’t a fan of this machine, though, because they “utilize a poor range of motion,” he tells us. “They are simply unnecessary. A trainee can work the entire hip/leg musculature with short list of deadlifts, squats, lunges, and step ups.” Motions and workouts that use the whole body will get better results faster than using machines that focus on micro-movements.
4. Forget the abdominal obsession.
Another gym standard many people flock to with the hopes and dreams of gaining an iron stomach is the abdominal machine. Many exhaust themselves doing rep after rep and then walk away from their workout sore, feeling that they’ve done something beneficial. But “being sore does not equate to progress,” Harris cautions. “Unfortunately, you can’t take fat off a muscle by working that muscle locally,” he says. “Rather, fat is lost over time through consistent training and a caloric deficit.” Harris suggests that, instead of using an ab machine, “a better alternative would be a strength program that consists of compound movements such as deadlifts, chin ups, and presses along with a structured nutrition plan, and possibly some interval training.”
5. Don’t keep up with the Joneses by going after the Smiths.
The Smith machine, which locks a barbell into a strict range of vertical motion, is another piece of equipment that looks tempting but it isn’t the best to base your workouts around, Harris tells us. “The only real use for items like the Smith machine is to overwork an already exhausted area of the body,” he says. So if you’re lifting heavy and have already completed a full workout of squats and lunges, the Smith Machine is fine to use to finish off the workout. It’s not, however, a great machine to use for the entire time you’re at the gym.
6. You’re cycling to nowhere.
You are probably wondering about how cardio fits in with all of this, too. Stationary bikes take up a lot of space in many commercial gyms, and they are very tempting to use. But unless you’re specifically working on endurance training, you should limit the amount of time you spend pedaling in place. At Harris’ gym, they “use cardiovascular exercise as an adjunct,” he says. “It’s part of the plan, just not the centerpiece. We find that a barbell-based strength program with some accessory cardio is what works best for most people.” And if you really want to work the cardio angle, there’s a better way to do it than mindlessly pumping away at the stationary bicycle. “If I had to do cardio work in a commercial gym I would use a treadmill and perform walking intervals,” Harris says. “I would walk at a moderate pace and incline (say 3 mph at 5 percent) for three minutes and then increase the incline to an uncomfortable level (say 15 percent) for two minutes. I would repeat this simple five-minute cycle, working up to 30 minutes two times per week.”
But wait… There’s a twist.
Creating a solid workout plan, setting goals for yourself, and using your gym time efficiently are all major factors in setting yourself up for fitness success. But even the most well-managed workout routine will only take you so far. If you’re serious about reaching your fitness destination, you’ve got to prepare your mind. Nick Woolery is a personal trainer also based in St. Louis. Woolery works with athletes, diabetics, weight-loss clients, and those with chronic pain and injuries to dramatically improve quality of life by focusing on quality movement, strength, and a holistic approach to nutrition and preventative healthcare—and he wants you to get your brain in the game. “Here’s a little secret: whether you use the Smith machine or not, or an ab machine or not, has almost nothing to do with whether you will reach your goals or not!” Woolery tells HealthyWay. “What’s going to dictate your success in the gym is your consistency with regards to attendance, your compliance to a nutrition plan, and your intensity while you are using your favorite machines or dumbbells.” If you aren’t ready to focus and challenge yourself, it will be easy to abandon any goals that you’ve set. “People don’t fail in the gym because they are using machines instead of free weights or vice versa; they fail because they are not forcing their bodies to adapt to progressively more challenging stimuli,” Woolery explains. “The most useless machine in the gym, if you are not seeing results, is your brain.”
The key to success? Exercise mindfully.
How do you get into the proper mindset at the gym? While there’s tons of workout programs and apps you can use on your phone, you probably find yourself checking emails or scrolling through Twitter in the middle of your workout. The first step to getting focused is ditching your phone. “Your brain and your phone are your two worst enemies in the gym,” Woolery says. “Turn the former on and the latter off.” How can you ever get through a workout without your digital device, you ask? Simple—buy a stopwatch. It’s a small investment that will lead to big results. Woolery suggests using the stopwatch during workouts: “For one week, time every single rest period and force yourself to start after 45 seconds of rest; reduce the weight five pounds if you need to. Do your muscles burn after three or four sets of eight to 12 repetitions? Good!” If you don’t want your planning and effort to be in vain, set proper goals for yourself. Woolery outlines a quality goal as something “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time sensitive.” Your goal should be exact, but not impossible. You need to be ready and whole-heartedly want to make changes in your life to reach it. What it comes down to is how badly you want to see your fitness goals come to fruition. “Stop blaming machines even if most of them are a waste of time,” Woolery says. “Lift heavier than you think you should. Focus on your biggest muscle groups. Find movements that make you stabilize your torso. Spend one hour of your day completely out of breath and learn to love the 45 or 60 seconds of rest that your stopwatch grants you.” The key is to push yourself; that’s how all those hard bodies on TV got that way themselves, after all. Woolery concludes, “If you want to look more like an athlete, train more like one.”