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What do the world's top fitness authorities know about getting a better body? Plenty, thanks to hundreds of studies, thousands of hours in the lab, and countless real-life success stories. We've asked nine cutting-edge exercise experts for their favorite tips on blasting fat, sculpting muscle, and improving each and every workout. Choose your top fitness goals, then read on for the research-proven strategies that get results.
Goal: Blast fat and firm muscle
Winning Strategy: Full-body cardio
Researcher: John Porcari, PhD, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Adding upper-body movements to activities like walking or running is a surefire way to both blast extra calories and sculpt more muscle. The most effective device, according to Porcari's research, is the power belt, a strength-building apparatus worn around the waist, featuring spring-loaded handles for pumping your arms ($90 at walkerswarehouse.com). When it's set at a high resistance, you'll burn up to 65 percent more calories than by walking alone -- without the same wear and tear on your joints.
Another option is to use walking poles or hand weights, both of which burn up to 25 percent more calories.
No taste for tools? Even pumping your arms while walking (bringing your fists up to chin height) can burn 5 to 10 percent more calories than a typical arm swing. Swimming, cross-country skiing, and rowing and elliptical machines with movable handles also provide good full-body workouts.
Goal: Get stronger, faster
Winning Strategy: Systematically periodize your routine
Researcher: William J. Kraemer, PhD, professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut
Varying the amount of weight and reps from workout to workout -- a training regimen that is known as nonlinear periodization -- can increase your sculpting benefits by up to 40 percent when compared with training at a constant rate, says Kraemer. Include some light training days to give your body time to heal so that you'll be able to work even harder during the more intense workouts. Try this sample plan, alternating strength cycles to keep muscles strong:
Monday: Use heavy weights, 5 to 6 reps, 3 sets, 2 minutes rest between sets.
Wednesday: Use lighter weights, 12 to 15 reps, 2 sets, 1 minute rest between sets.
Friday: Add moderate weights, 8 to 10 reps, 3 sets, 2 minutes rest between sets.
Saturday: Try explosive movements (such as throwing a medicine ball against a wall or doing jump squats) with lighter weights, 2 to 3 reps, 6 sets.
Goal: Firm up your abs
Winning Strategy: Pilates mixed with traditional ab exercises
Researcher: Michele S. Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University, Montgomery, Alabama
You don't need to do hundreds of crunches to get a toned, tight tummy. For best results, you're better off doing fewer reps of a greater variety of moves, says Olson. And your repertoire should definitely include some Pilates-based exercises to fully target all your abs. The multidimensional moves require 25 percent more energy than the standard crunch, according to Olson's research, so you'll spend less time toning. Three key moves to keep in your routine:
Double-Leg Stretch: Lie with knees bent toward chest, hands on shins. Curl your head, neck, and the back of your shoulders off the floor. Inhale as you extend arms up over forehead and lift legs out 45 degrees. Exhale and circle arms down, drawing knees back in toward chest. Repeat 8 times.
Oblique Crunch with Band: Fasten a resistance band to a low, secure object (like a heavy piece of furniture). Lie behind the band with hands behind head, pulling the band taut with your right hand; keep knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift head, neck and shoulders off the mat, bringing your right shoulder toward your left knee. Lower and repeat 20 times; move the band to the left hand and repeat on the other side.
Side Bridge: Lie on right side, legs stacked and feet on a step, elbow bent and aligned under shoulders. Keeping your weight on your right arm and bottom foot, lift your hips off the floor and straighten your body to form one long line. Hold for 2 seconds and lower. Repeat 10 times; switch sides.
Goal: Avoid injury
Winning Strategy: Don't do too much too soon
Researcher: Joe H. Gieck, professor emeritus of sports medicine and clinical orthopedics at the University of Virginia
"Whether you're weight lifting or running, start off doing about half of what you think you can do," says Gieck. "If you're comfortable, maintain that level for a week, then go up each week in 10 percent increments until you reach 80 percent of your maximum exertion."
For more experienced exercisers, poor posture or movement mechanics might be the cause of aches and pains. Check your form in the mirror -- your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should all form one line. Ask a trainer to help you assess your posture and your body mechanics. Finally, says Gieck, don't forget to listen to your body. If you feel more than just mild muscle soreness, take your workouts down a notch, and wait until you feel fully recovered.
Goal: Get more limber
Winning Strategy: Stretch the areas that need it most
Researcher: Mike Bracko, director of the Occupational Performance Institute, Calgary, Alberta
Your tightest muscles may not be the ones you use at the gym. In fact, according to Bracko, your best results will come from stretching chronically tight areas like the hamstrings, shoulders and pectorals -- especially for anyone who sits at a desk all day. To help reduce daily aches and pains, fit these four must-do stretches in throughout the day (even at work!). Hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds.
Hamstrings: Put one foot on a step and bend knee slightly, keeping weight on back leg. Keep back straight and bend forward at waist, stretching front hamstring. Repeat on opposite leg.
Hip flexors: Kneel with right leg forward, right knee bent 90 degrees and left knee on floor. Shift your weight forward, keeping your hips and torso vertical. Do 5 times; switch legs.
Goal: Tone your arms and shoulders
Winning Strategy: Think in threes
Researcher: Darin A. Padua, PhD, assistant professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
For a sleeker upper body, do each exercise three different ways, changing the hand or wrist position with each set. These minor adjustments target your muscles from multiple angles for more effective results. For example, do one set of biceps curls with palms up, one with your palms in and a third with hands angled out slightly from your sides. You'll see an increase in strength within a few weeks and a change in your muscle definition by six weeks.
Goal: Fix lower-body trouble zones
Winning Strategy: Double up your training
Researcher: Jeffrey Janot, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Get a one-two punch out of your lower-body routine by doing moves that target the glutes and leg muscles at once. "Contracting the legs and glutes together works more muscles in less time," says Janot. Choose a few of Janot's favorite bottom-boosting moves each workout.
Goal: A Supercharged Metabolism
Winning Strategy: Maximize the afterburn effect
Researcher: Glenn A. Gaesser, PhD, professor and director of the kinesiology program at the University of Virginia
A challenging workout will blast calories, but imagine one that keeps the burn going long after you finish. You can capitalize on this metabolism-boosting phenomenon, known as excess postexercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, through both cardio and resistance training. The more intense the workout, the bigger the boost. "For cardio, the key is to do at least 10 minutes of very high-intensity exercise, preferably through intervals so you don't risk injury," says Gaesser. "For resistance training, keep your reps in each set as close to your max as possible."
Gaesser recommends trying either or both of the following workouts, each of which burns an additional 40 to 60 calories afterward. "It may not sound like much, but over a year it can add up to several thousand extra calories."The Afterburn Cardio Routine
You can do this workout with any type of aerobic activity. Use your rate of perceived exertion, or RPE, to measure intensity on a scale of 1 to 10.
Minutes 0:00-5:00 Warm up (RPE 5 or 6)
Minutes 5:00-6:00 Increase pace to very high intensity (RPE 9 or 10)
Minutes 6:00-7:00 Recover at a lightly moderate pace (RPE 3 or 4)
Minutes 7:00-43:00 Repeat minutes 5:00 to 7:00, alternating 1 minute of high intensity with 1 minute of recovery
Minutes 43:00-50:00 Cool down at a moderate pace (RPE 5 or 6), slowing intensity to RPE 3 or 4The Afterburn Resistance Routine
Create a circuit of 6 to 10 exercises that primarily target large muscle groups, like squats, lunges, leg presses, bench presses, shoulder presses, lat pulldowns and seated rows. Be sure you're lifting weights heavy enough to fatigue your muscles by the final rep. Do one set of each move per circuit.
Warm up for 5 minutes with light cardio.
Do 10 to 15 reps of each exercise at a light to medium weight.
Do 8 to 10 reps of each exercise, this time using a weight that makes the last rep difficult (but not so heavy that you're unable to do one more). Rest for 1 minute between each exercise.
Do 12 to 15 reps of each exercise with a weight that makes the last rep very difficult (very hard to do one more rep). Rest for 60 to 90 seconds between exercises.
Goal: Blast calories
Winning Strategy: Incorporate interval training in your cardio routine
Researcher: Kyle J. McInnis, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston
A 30-minute interval workout (which varies bursts of intensity with moderate recovery periods) can burn approximately 30 percent more calories than a moderate, steady session done for the same amount of time, says McInnis.
Apply this technique to any type of cardio: Divide your workout time into six or eight equal parts (for a 30-minute workout you'd have six 5-minute interval sets). Train for the first half of the 5-minute interval at a high intensity and the second half at a low one (i.e., 2.5 minutes "hard" and the next 2.5 minutes "easy" effort levels). As your endurance increases, keep the workout fresh by spending more time at high-intensity levels, increasing your speed throughout or doing longer intensity bursts with less recovery time.
Originally published in Fitness magazine, April 2006.