Get Real Results
Q. Should you do cardio and weights on different days or not?
A. If you're going all out, keep workouts separate, because whichever comes second will certainly suffer. But if you can work out only a few days a week and want to max your calorie burn, pair them up and do cardio first. A study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that running before lifting weights resulted in a slightly higher afterburn effect on your metabolism than lifting weights and then running does. Or do a mash-up circuit alternating strength exercises with cardio in one big sweatfest.
Q. What's smarter? Working out in the a.m. or p.m.?
A. Studies disagree. Some show that early birds lose more pounds, others that you perform better if you wait until muscles are warmer. But science isn't needed to explain the "stuff happens" principle: The later you plan your session, the higher the odds that something — work, fatigue, margaritas — will get in the way.
Q. How can I firm flab around my bra line?
A. Readers, we cannot emphasize our answer enough, and this time we'll let Brett Klika, the 2013 IDEA personal trainer of the year, say it: "Bra bulge is simply too much fat; if you have excess fat anywhere on your body, nothing will deliver results faster than proper nutrition." In other words, lay off the cronuts. Next, Klika suggests you firm the muscles underneath; do push-ups, bench presses and flyes to tone your front half, and rows, lat pull-downs and pull-ups to tighten the flip side.
Q. I work out regularly, so why can't I get rid of my belly pooch?
A. Bad news first: Toning alone won't do the trick. Good news: The tweaks below are proven to de-pudge.
- Turn up the intensity. Sometimes all that fat needs is a kick in the pants. Interval training, in which you intersperse intense periods with easier "rest" breaks, spikes your metabolism and keeps you burning fat even after you stop, says trainer Sara Haley, creator of the Sweat Unlimited DVD.
- Cut out sugar and fill up on fiber. Research in the Journal of Nutrition showed that consuming fructose, which is found in many snack foods, was positively associated with having more visceral (aka deep belly) fat. According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who chose whole grains over refined ones had less belly fat than those who favored the refined grains.
- Engage your core. When those stabilizing muscles around your torso are weak, your back overarches and your hips and belly go forward. "Pull your belly button in, squeeze your glutes, and pull your shoulders back," Haley suggests. (For more ab strengtheners, see fitnessmagazine.com/core.)
- Take a mental break. Too much stress causes your body to release cortisol, a hormone that fast-tracks fat deposits deep in the abdomen. Luckily exercise can act like a chill pill, "by tamping down the fight-or-flight response," explains Geralyn Coopersmith, the senior director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute.
Q. What is the max number of days a week that I can do cardio?
A. Seven. Just vary the intensity. Do no more than three intense sessions a week.
Q. Is the paleo diet beneficial for exercise or just a gimmick?
A. A 2012 research review of 17 studies showed that low-carb diets are effective for losing weight, but there haven't been any studies evaluating the paleo diet's impact on performance. There are good and bad aspects to the paleo plan as it relates to exercise, says Debra Wein, RD, a dietitian in Hingham, Massachusetts. "You could take a page from the paleo diet and eliminate processed foods; focus on whole foods, especially fruits and veggies; and choose lean meats like poultry and fish," Wein says. Still, the diet is low in carbs, which your body needs to make glucose for your muscles. "If you add to that some low-fat or nonfat dairy and whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, you've got a pretty healthy diet that will fuel all your workouts."
Q. How do I get past the dreaded plateau?
A. There are two opposite tactics here that can both work.
- Plan 1: Rev your intensity — add intervals to your cardio or intense strength circuits two or three times a week. This shoves your brain and muscles out of cruise control, and your body will start burning stored calories to do the activity.
- Plan 2: Take a day off. If you're exercising too hard or too often, you may be overtraining, causing your body, which thinks it's under attack, to shift into preservation mode and stockpile resources, especially fat.
Dietwise, you may need to cinch your calorie belt: Simply by being lighter, you need fewer calories to maintain and therefore reduce your weight than you did before. Find a 1,500-calorie-a-day plan at fitnessmagazine.com/betterdiet.
Q. Are there any cheater ways to flatten abs?
A. Hate to burst your bubble: Sitting on a stability ball at your desk won't do the trick. A study at the University of Waterloo just debunked that popular idea. What will help? Better posture.
Q. Do I need to stretch?
A. You've hit on one of the biggest controversies in fitness. Will stretching help you get a better workout? Probably. Does it matter how you do it? For the average person, probably not, says physiologist David Behm, PhD, at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Research shows that long static stretches, in which you hold the area still for 60 to 90 seconds, can cause a decrease in force and power "but by only about 3 to 6 percent," he says. "And if you hold the stretch for a shorter duration, there's not much difference at all." Regardless, according to a majority of studies, dynamic stretching — moving while you stretch — doesn't negatively affect performance, Behm says. He suggests doing dynamic stretches after a warm-up.
Q. I just killed it at the gym two days ago, and now I'm so sore. Is it OK to exercise anyway?
A. If you're really sore, take a break. If it's more mild to moderate pain, get back at it, but go easy — walk, do some light biking or swim laps in the pool.
Source: American College of Sports Medicine
No More Myths
Q. The buzz is that you can get fit in four to seven minutes a day. But will that really help me lose a lot of pounds?
A. No. Losing weight is still a numbers game. Shorter high-intensity workouts can spark your metabolism, but that's just a drop in the bucket in terms of calorie burn. The more calories you melt, the faster you lose.
Q. What does "skinny fat" mean? How can I tell if that's me?
A. Skinny fat is shorthand for "when someone who is not overweight by BMI standards has low amounts of lean body mass and disproportionately high amounts of body fat," Wein says. If you're slim but lack muscle definition and have a little bit of a belly or flabby arms (even though they're thin), you may be skinny fat. Another tip-off: Your body-fat percentage is greater than 33 percent (get it tested with calipers at the gym for a ballpark estimate). A person who is skinny fat can have a greater risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease than someone who is obese. The solution: Hit the weights, do cardio, and eat a healthy diet.
Q. Is there high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for us sissies?
A. The great thing about HIIT is that it's subjective. High intensity for you may be a six-mile-per-hour sprint, while your BFF coasts at that pace. To start, make your recovery period at least twice as long as your work period. So if you sprint for 30 seconds, walk it off for a minute. As you get fitter, trim your recovery time and increase the intensity.
Q. Can you be fit without typical workouts, just by living an active life?
A. Shhh, don't tell the gym police, but yes! In fact, these non-workout activities, referred to as NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, play a large role in weight control. A research review from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Colorado found that NEAT can account for a significant part of your daily calorie burn, as many as 1,000 to 2,000 calories. You can hike, play with your kids, garden, ballroom dance, walk your dog — the list goes on. If you can get an hour or more of activity every day, you're on the right track. One note: Adding some vigorous activity will help improve your fitness level.
Q. Can I use exercise to spot-reduce?
A. No. Although you can firm specific areas with strength training, you can't target where you burn fat; it tends to come off all over. "However, the jiggly stuff around your midsection is more metabolically active," Coopersmith says, which means it's often the first to go when you exercise. Good news for your abs! Not so much for your butt.
Q. Are headstands in yoga dangerous? What's their purpose?
A. We asked two different experts to weigh in on this one.
- The yogi says: "The point of headstands is to alter the circulation in your body, which can make you more awake and alert. Of course, you want to do them correctly, so always learn from a teacher who has experience doing and teaching them and start against a wall. In a headstand, there should be very little pressure on your head and neck; it should be on your forearms. Your goal is to align your hips over your shoulders so your spine is straight. You should never turn your head to look around in this position, and people with neck injuries or chronically tight upper backs and neck muscles need to work up to doing a headstand slowly." -Tamal Dodge, the owner of the Tamal Yoga School in Los Angeles
- The orthopedic surgeon says: "Yoga is a great activity, but you have to be clear about who you are and what you can and can't do. I've seen cervical injuries from poses like headstand, when the student has done them without proper instruction. In general, I don't recommend them; it just puts too much stress on the cervical spine. The shoulder stand is a better option, but if you have any upper-body weakness or instability, you can strain your neck and back. If you've had a neck or back injury, always check with your doctor before doing exercises like these. If you're determined to try a headstand, you have to do it with a well-trained instructor who can communicate how to do it safely and properly." -Levi Harrison, MD, the star of The Art of Fitness Cardio Core Workout DVD
Q. I have bad knees. What exercises can I do without being on my feet?
A. Bet you thought we were going to tell you to go jump into a pool. True, swimming is the gold standard for going easy on joints, but if you don't have anywhere to take the plunge, biking is the way to go. "It strengthens the hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps, which is key to keeping your knees strong," Dr. Harrison says. Also, one part of the quad muscle to focus on in the weight room is the vastus medialis oblique, or VMO, which is along the inner part of each thigh. It helps control the alignment of the patella, or kneecap, a frequent problem area. "You can strengthen the VMO with side lunges," Dr. Harrison suggests.
Q. Can you build your butt without getting bigger legs?
A. Yes — and let's assume you already know that women don't naturally have the testosterone levels that make it likely they'll get "big" from doing reps. "That said, women's leg muscles do respond more quickly than other body parts," trainer Brett Klika adds. What can trip you up is that the quads are like a bad dinner-party guest. They tend to dominate during exercises, so when you do all those squats and lunges to firm your butt, your quads may be stealing the show and the sculpting. Klika offers these tips to keep your backside tight and your legs sleek.
- Do butt-focused moves — dead lifts and hip bridges — that don't emphasize your quads. (Go to fitnessmagazine.com/defygravity for more.)
- Squeeze your butt tight at the top of whatever rep you're doing.
- Avoid high-rep quadriceps moves like squats and lunges. Ideally, keep sets to 10 to 12 reps and focus your weight on the midfoot or heels to better target your booty.
Q. What's up with foam rollers? Should I use one before or after my workout?
A. Both. "I have my clients do a 10-minute pre-workout rollout in which they quickly hit all the muscles they'll be using," says Ashley Borden, a celebrity trainer who has worked with Natasha Bedingfield and Christina Aguilera. "Rolling helps lengthen muscle fibers and loosen knots that would otherwise restrict range of motion and keep the muscles from working at their full potential." Borden recommends spending five to 10 minutes post-session on areas that are more tender than others. You can also do this at home in front of the television (she calls it "romantic time with the roller"). Try two of her faves:
- Lat roll: Lie on your left side with knees slightly bent and head supported by left hand, left elbow bent. Place the roller beneath you (perpendicular to your spine), just below your armpit. With abs tight, rock forward and back five times at each of three points between your armpit and the bottom of your lats.
- Quad roll: Lie facedown with the roller under the top part of your thighs and balance on your forearms. Walk your arms forward until the roller is just above your knees, then return to the starting position. If you hit a tender spot, hold there and slowly bend and straighten your leg; continue for up to five minutes a leg.
Q. How can I motivate myself off the couch after a workout dry spell?
A. First, win the mind game. "The prefrontal cortex of your brain loves being on autopilot because it saves energy," says psychologist Michael Mantell, PhD, a consultant for the American Council on Exercise. "Setting small, achievable goals can trick the brain to snap out of it." So resist the urge to go full tilt right away, and use this plan from Sam Berry, a trainer for the Pacific Sports Resort in San Diego.
- Set no more than one exercise goal a week. "Having too many reduces by half the likelihood of achieving any of your goals," he explains.
- Make it easy. "Aim for at least an eight on a 10-point scale, 10 being no question you can do it," Berry says. Running three miles every day is probably a two; doing a few squats every time you get out of your chair at work is closer to a 10.