Smart Solutions to Your Top Fitness Questions
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Smart Solutions to Your Top Fitness Questions

"Can I really tone up in 30 minutes?" "Seriously, how can I get flat abs?!" and more top fitness questions answered, so you know exactly how to get the body you want.

What's the Best Quick Workout?

"I have only half an hour to exercise. Help me make the most of my time!"

Smart Solution: Cardio/strength circuits are just what you need. "The more vigorously you work, the more calories you'll burn," says fitness expert Neal Pire, president of Inspire Training Systems in Ridgewood, New Jersey. "To save yourself from getting too tired too fast, push yourself aerobically -- you should be able to speak only a few words at a time -- then immediately do a strength segment."

Try: Walking at a brisk pace for one minute, then doing a total-body exercise, such as a lunge with biceps curls, for one minute. "To ramp up your results even more, switch out the walking for plyometrics and other high-intensity moves," Pire says. Do one minute of jumping jacks, high knees, skipping or butt kicks, then follow with another total-body move, like a squat with shoulder press or a lateral crawl in push-up position. "The key is mixing it up each time," he adds. Pick five total-body moves and do the entire cardio/strength circuit three times, or do two minutes of cardio/one minute of strength one day, then one minute of cardio/two minutes of strength the next.

Seriously, How Do I Get Flat Abs?

"I want a flat belly but can't bear to do another crunch. Help!"

Smart Solution: "Do planks, push-ups, and almost anything on a stability ball. These moves activate your transversus abdominis -- the deepest abdominal muscle; its fibers run horizontally across your belly -- to create a strong, flat, muscular girdle of sorts that connects your upper body to your lower body," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.

Try: Making gravity work against you while you work out; this gives you more belly-toning benefits. Lying on your stomach, place your feet on a low step or bench, lift one leg toward the ceiling, and perform a push-up. At your gym, look for fun suspension-training classes, where you exercise with your upper or lower half supported from above by super-durable straps. An at-home version of the TRX Suspension Trainer ($150, simply latches onto the top of a doorjamb. Slip your feet into the stirrups from a full push-up position and do knees-to-chest tucks, or grasp a stirrup in each hand and lean forward to do chest presses with added instability. "Every exercise is total body, so you're really toning all over with each rep," says Todd Durkin, owner of Fitness Quest 10 gym in San Diego.

Finally, don't forget to mix in some heart-healthy cardio. "You can have a perfect six-pack, but no one will ever see it if you've got a layer of fat covering it up," says FITNESS advisory board member Len Kravitz, PhD, coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Run, walk briskly, swim, dance, or bike for at least 30 minutes five times a week.

What Moves Will Boost My Butt?

"How can I trim -- and boost -- my butt for good?"

Smart Solution: Your best lower-body fix is cardio on an incline to burn and firm. "It requires you to extend your hips, which naturally works your glutes," Bryant says. Plus, tackling a killer hill routine sculpts your legs and dejiggles your behind. At a 15 percent incline, you'll burn about 60 percent more calories running and 150 percent more calories walking than you would hoofing it on a flat surface.

Try: Jumping on a stepmill (that revolving staircase at the gym) or hitting the stairs -- they provide steeper climbs, the same as a 62 percent grade on a treadmill, Bryant says. "Even step-ups on a bench or taking a hilly hike will help." To get the most out of your treadmill routine, try FreeMotion's Incline Trainer ($5,499,, with a 30 percent incline (most machines top out at 15 percent). Looking for a class to whip your butt into shape? Take step aerobics with SPRI's new slanted risers ($59.95,, which amp up the step's angle to 17 percent.

What's the Best Stick-to-It Plan?

"I can't seem to stick with any workout program. Why, why, why?"

Smart Solution: "Avoid setting a broad goal of just exercising more, and create a more specific one like 'I will exercise every day for 30 minutes,'" says Diana Lattimore, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise and sports science at the University of San Francisco.

Try: Switching up your surroundings, the type of exercise you're doing, and the people you're doing it with every couple of weeks, suggests Lattimore. Don't always go it alone: Meet one of your friends at the gym, hop on adjacent treadmills, pick the same interval program and level, then "race" each other to see who hits the four-mile point faster. And avoid equipment burnout. Want to try something new? Check out the Expresso Fitness stationary bikes with built-in video screens ($5,145, for info) in Gold's Gyms and other health clubs; you can use them to compete on more than 30 virtual trails. At home, sample a variety of free workouts from, or rent a different type of exercise DVD from Netflix --Pilates, belly dancing, kickboxing, you name it -- each month.

How Can I Get Stronger?

"I lift weights, but I'm not getting stronger all over. What will help?"

Smart Solution: Three-dimensional training. It sounds techy, but it's not, we swear. "Moving in a three-dimensional pattern [aka multiplanar training] is much more functional than using fixed-path weight machines -- you do it every time you lift a bag or open a door," Bryant says. "Because you also engage more muscles working out this way, you burn more calories, reducing body fat and improving tone."

Try: Adding rotations to some of your favorite moves on top of doing regular calorie-blasting cardio, suggests Fred Hoffman, an international fitness consultant and 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year. For example, do "clock" lunges (where you move forward, sideways, then back) instead of basic lunges; try a core twist at the top of a squat; toss a ball to someone behind you by twisting your torso; or do chest flyes using an exercise band -- but mix it up so your arms move diagonally. Or try a cable-based machine. A recent study showed that people who did exercises using cable machines improved their strength more than twice as much as those who used traditional machines. "Cables provide a bigger range of motion, so you work more muscle fibers in more directions -- front to back, side to side, up and down, and everything in between --to boost your core strength and power," Hoffman says. Two machines to check out: Precor's S3.23 Functional Trainer ($2,699, for info) and FreeMotion's Dual Cable Cross ($3,500, for info). They both let you set virtually unlimited angles, whether you're doing rows, leg lifts, or presses.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November/December 2008.