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How to Choose the Right Workout for You

Is your workout really working? Here's how to choose the right routine to help you reach your fitness goals.

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Better Body Fitness Plan
James Michelfelder
Fuse/Getty Images
Jason Todd
Amy Postle
Chris Fanning
Karen Pearson
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So, What's Your Fitness Goal?

If you want to squeeze everything you can out of your jaunt to the gym, you'll first need to establish your long-term objective. We're all motivated by different factors, but trainer and Equinox fitness expert Keli Roberts says there's one pretty common one -- and we bet you can already guess what that is. "The number one reason women come to me is for weight management, or to lose that extra 10 pounds," she says.

But it's not always so black and white -- there's a lot of overlap when it comes to intentions. Some people want to build muscle, but also improve their endurance or flexibility. Either way, it's important to narrow down your intentions as much as possible. So sit down and think about it: Are you interested in weight loss, building and toning muscle, or an overall improved sense of wellbeing? Once you decide, read on to find the best routine to help you get there.

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Goal: Lose Weight

Level: Beginner to Advanced

Try: Zumba

High-intensity training is essential for weight management; it blasts calories and keeps you in your maximum safe heart rate zone. While typically referred to as an easy-to-follow fitness party, Zumba is a proven total-body workout. A research study at the University of Wisconsin found that people burned an average of 369 calories per Zumba class, and when they compared the data to other exercises, the Latin-infused dance program beat out cardio kickboxing and step aerobics. Additionally, they found that participants reached 80 percent of their maximum heart rate (the average heart rate was 154 beats per minute).

*One hour of Zumba burns roughly 500 calories based on a 140-pound woman.

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Goal: Lose Weight

Level: Intermediate to Advanced

Try: Spinning

Whereas the fun and instructional approaches often found in Zumba make sense for newbie gym goers hoping to burn calories, some experts believe that spinning requires people to be in solid cardiovascular condition before hopping on the bike. A study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) using perceived exertion as a measure of effectiveness found that exercisers in one class reported an exertion level in the high teens, based on a scale from 0 to 20.

More concretely, a 1997 study conducted by the exercise physiology laboratory at California State University, Northridge, found that after entering five participants of various fitness levels into a 30-minute spin class the heart rates of each of the subjects was between 75 percent and 96 percent their max. Their conclusion was that spinning was intense and not conducive for beginners. But current exercise pros like Jade Alexis, NASM trainer for Reebok Sports Club/NY and FITNESS advisory board member, feels otherwise. "Everyone adjusts the resistance in a spin class according to their own ability, so any level can take it," she says.

*One hour of spinning burns roughly 700 calories based on a 140-pound woman.

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Goal: Build and Tone Muscle

Level: Intermediate to Advanced

Try: CrossFit

Earlier this year, the Journal of Applied Psychology published a study emphasizing resistance training -- not aerobic -- as they key to building muscle, which makes workouts like CrossFit even that much more useful. "If you want to jump higher, run faster, and improve your overall sport performance, CrossFit is a very good class for that," says Ashley Borden, personal trainer and FITNESS advisory board member. Based on the practice of functional movements performed at mega-high intensities, CrossFit has a very high caloric expenditure while building lean muscle mass simultaneously. In 2010, the U.S. Army set out to test the efficacy of the program and found that following a 6-week routine, participants upped their fitness level by 20 percent and experienced comparable increases in power output.

Curious? Though you should have a base level of experience with equipment like kettlebells and free weights, you don't have to be an Olympic weight lifter to try it. And if you like a competitive environment, even better! "A lot of people are intimidated by CrossFit, but when you're there it's actually very warm and inviting for new people," says Borden.

*Calorie burned varies greatly based on pace and intensity.

Burn and Firm: A 20-Minute CrossFit Circuit to Try First

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Goal: Build and Tone Muscle

Level: Beginner to Advanced

Try: Kettlebells

Total-body movement classes involving kettlebells have been used for years to build muscle and endurance. And did we mention they're extremely time-saving? Pick up a kettlebell and you'll get in a cardiovascular workout that can be done in half the time of your standard gym session. "Kettlebells can help in weight management and, if you lift a good-sized bell, can gain lean muscle mass which will raise your resting metabolic rate," says Roberts. And similar to CrossFit, kettlebells raise your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).

Intrigued by the claims, the research experts at the University of Wisconsin studied 10 athletes who frequently use kettlebells and determined that after a 20-minute workout, they burned an average 12.6 calories a minute. While this sounds great, Alexis says to make sure you listen to your body before hopping into a class. "Anyone can use kettlebells, but a weak core and bad mechanics can lead to injury," she says. "It's important to build a solid foundation and proper technique first."

*30 minutes of kettlebells burns roughly 600 calories for a 140-pound woman.

The 15-Minute Kettlebell Blasters Workout

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Goal: Performance and Endurance

Level: Intermediate to Advanced

Try: Boxing Boot Camp

To get a hardcore burn for every muscle in your body, grab a buddy and hit a boxing class. They typically fuse together quick-moving punches with lots of fast-paced plyometric drills and jumping rope to add some variation. Even though you burn far more calories sparring in a ring than you do hitting a punching bag, a full cardio-style class of strength and stamina punching drills will shred your arms, tighten your core, and, over time, improve your coordination and speed. "There is a learning curve in boxing, so the more advanced you are the better the workout and calorie burn," says Alexis. "Boot camp class works for all levels and is a great way to improve your overall fitness."

*One hour of punching bag–style boxing burns roughly 400 calories for a 140-pound woman.

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Goal: Flexibility

Level: Intermediate to Advanced

Try: Bar Method

Combining principles of isometrics with dance conditioning (the class uses a stationary, ballet-like handrail for many exercises) Bar Method is typically low intensity and isolates small muscles with short ranges of motion. You'll get limber and tone hard-to-reach muscles without bulking up. "Lifting a 3-pound dumbbell in a class like Bar Method isn't going to cause someone to bulk up; women are often misinformed about what their body will look like if they lift weights," says Roberts. "Females have low testosterone levels so it takes a lot of hard work to gain big, bulky muscles." But nice sleek, toned arms and legs are definitely achievable with a barre class, Roberts notes.

*One hour of Bar Method burns roughly 300 calories for a 140-pound woman.

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Goal: Improve Overall Health

Level: Beginner to Advanced

Try: Yoga

Before you head to a class, first consider which method suits your goals since Power, Bikram, and Vinyasa differ in pace and intensity. Yoga is not designed to burn fat -- even the more fast-paced Ashtanga only burns around 300 calories per hour, and Bikram classes, which typically hover around 105F also fall short in the weight-loss department. A lot of people associate the amount of water lost via sweat with a legitimate calorie burn, but a study at the Human Performance Lab found that yoga wasn't aerobically effective and didn't lift the heart rate or VO2 max (the amount of oxygen your body converts into energy). Moving through the poses at lightning speed or in extreme heat won't necessarily raise your metabolic rate (the number of calories you're able to burn at rest).

In terms of balance, flexibility, posture, and mental health -- yoga is key. If you're one of the many people who spend the day hunched over at your desk (guilty!), training the posterior chain -- your back, shoulders, glutes, and hamstrings is vital. "You need to focus on the back of the body as well as strengthening the pelvic floor muscles to keep your body strong and upright," says Borden. Yoga does all that, while calming frazzled nerves at the same time.

*One hour of moderate yoga burns around 166 calories for a 140-pound woman.

Originally published on, March 2013.

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