19 Things That Will Make Your Workouts So Much More Effective

Make every workout count with these game-changing tips.
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If your New Year’s resolution has you planning to lift more, run more, sweat more, chances are, you’re looking to do it in the most efficient and effective way possible. Sure, showing up may be half the battle, but the other half of the battle is made up of hard work, consistency, and training smart.

Whether you’re a seasoned gym-goer or you’re new to fitness, here are 19 workout tips to take your fitness to the next level in 2017. From your weekly workout plan down to the types of exercises you do at the gym, get ready for your best year of working out yet.

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1. Wake up with a cup of coffee before your morning workout.

The caffeine in a pre-workout cup of joe helps stimulate your central nervous system, so you’ll have a little extra oomph in your indoor cycling or boot camp class. Plus, in addition to a performance boost, it can actually make exercise feel more enjoyable, so you’re more likely to push harder, better, faster, stronger.

Drink up a half hour before you start sweating to give it time to kick in, Jessica Cording, R.D., suggested to SELF. And while one cup of coffee can help you feel superhuman during a tough workout, you might want to skip the refill—more than 200 mg of caffeine (about eight ounces) might make you jittery.

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2. Walk into the gym with a plan.

Having a plan of action before you step foot in the gym can help you avoid wandering aimlessly around while you decide what to do next, which adds time to your workout and makes it less efficient, since you’re letting your heart rate drop. “A clear plan is your secret weapon—knowing what you’re doing and why is half the battle,” Jared Kaplan, founder of Studio 26, previously told SELF. Know what exercises you’re going to do, where you’re going to do them, and in what order.

It’s also a good idea to have a plan B, just in case the machine or floor space you were planning on using is taken. Move on to other parts of your workout and come back, or be armed with a backup exercise in mind that utilizes different equipment.

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3. Get motivated with a solid workout playlist.

Get pumped up on your way to the gym and during your workout with songs that make you feel strong, powerful, and like you can do anything. Getting tired of your go-tos? Here are the most popular workout playlists on Spotify.

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4. Put your phone on airplane mode.

Resist the urge to chime in on your group text or respond to that email. Your workout is the time you get to invest in yourself, so turn your phone on airplane mode to avoid unnecessary distraction. Even better? If you don’t need your phone for your music or any workout apps, leave it in the locker room. The workout ‘grams can wait.

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5. Start your workout with a dynamic warm-up.

Dynamic stretching is the name of the game when it comes to warm-ups. This means you’ll be constantly moving through different stretches, rather than holding them in place. This type of stretching gradually raises your body temperature and heart rate and starts to warm up your muscles, which helps prevent injury by easing your body into the real work. A dynamic warm-up also helps improve your range of motion, so you can get deeper into each exercise–this ensures you’re using proper form and recruiting the right muscle fibers, so you’re getting the full strengthening benefits of each move. Here’s a five-minute dynamic warm-up to try.

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6. Master foam rolling, and do it on the reg.

Foam rolling is another excellent way to improve your range of motion, so you can get more out of every squat, lunge, and push-up. It helps “smooth out” your fascia, which is the thin sheath of tissue that surrounds your muscles. “Inactivity, repetitive motion, and injuries can cause the fascia and the underlying muscle tissue to bind together. This causes ‘knots’ or ‘trigger points,’ that lead to tightness,” celebrity trainer Ashley Borden told SELF. This tightness gets in the way of your ability to “get deep” into exercises with a full range of motion, which limits the benefits, too. For example, you want to be able to get low in a squat to make sure the right muscle fibers are putting in the work. Foam rolling before a workout (and when you have spare time) is a good habit to get into to make every gym session more effective. Here’s some helpful info to get you, well, rolling.

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7. Embrace strength training.

If you’ve steered clear of the weight room in the past, now’s the time to get familiar with strength training. Having strong muscles can help prevent injury and help you perform better in day-to-day life, whether you’re lifting a moving box or going for a run.

It’s also key if weight loss is a goal of yours. Because muscle mass takes more energy for your body to maintain, the more you have, the higher your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This refers to how many calories your body burns at rest, when you’re doing nada. Since expending more calories than you take in is key for weight loss, having more muscle mass is one of the best ways to get you closer to a calorie deficit. (Important note: Weight loss takes a lot more than lifting at the gym. Healthy eating, quality sleep, stress management, and more all play into the equation.) Here are 10 beginner-friendly tips to get you started with strength training.

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8. Maximize your gym time by minimizing rest between exercises.

Whether you’re trying to build lean muscle, lose weight, or train for a race, avoiding taking too much rest in between strength exercises or intervals is key to meeting your fitness goals. By taking minimal rest, you’re automatically upping the intensity of your workout and keeping your heart rate high, which means a bigger calorie burn. This cardio challenge also trains your body (and mind) to work efficiently and persevere through fatigue, Rob Sulaver, C.S.C.S., founder of Bandana Training, explained to SELF. Your body gets better at delivering fresh oxygen to your muscles, so you’ll actually get better at pushing through your workouts even when you’re tired, which is a big measure of physical fitness. (Of course, if you’re experiencing pain, stop and check in with a doctor.)

The right amount of rest varies depending on the workout and the person, but as a rule of thumb, you should aim to take just enough that you can go hard during your next sprint or set of squats, but not so much that you’re totally recovered. Here are some guidelines on how much rest to take depending on your workout.

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9. Pair exercises in sets.

One of the best ways to help you minimize rest and work efficiently toward a specific goal is to pair exercises in sets. This means you choose two exercises, do them back to back to complete one set, take a quick rest, then repeat for two more sets (resting in between each set).

In a superset (the term commonly gets tossed around, but there are different types of sets depending on the muscle groups you work), you’ll choose exercises that work opposing muscle groups (like a chest press and a back row), and this type of pairing is ideal for building strength, or how much actual force your muscles can produce. A compound set pairs two exercises that work the same muscle group (like a triceps kickback and an overhead triceps extension), and helps with muscle definition. If you’re working two completely different muscle groups (like push-ups and squats), that’s considered a circuit, which is great for burning fat because your body has to work harder to pump blood to different muscle areas. For more on how to pair exercises in a set that’s right for your goals, head on over here.

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10. Incorporate compound movements to hit more muscles at once.

Not to be confused with compound sets, compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups and two or more joints at once. That’s opposed to isolation exercises, which target one muscle group (like bicep curls). Because they help you get more done in less time, they’re great for increasing overall muscle mass, and they also burn more calories because they require more energy output. Compound exercises can be single moves that put multiple groups to work at the same time (like lunges and squats), or they can be two moves strung together (like bicep curls to shoulder presses).

To make the most of the time you put into the gym, you should aim for compound moves to take up 70 to 80 percent of your workout (and target specific muscles you want to work with isolation exercises the rest of the time), Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness, told SELF. Check out seven of his favorites here.

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11. Amp up exercises by adding weights.

While you can get a heart-pumping workout using only bodyweight exercises, adding in weights gives your muscles an extra challenge. If you feel like you’ve mastered moves like basic squats and lunges, try holding a set of dumbbells or a medicine ball to make these types of bodyweight moves more challenging and effective. Not sure where to start? Here’s how to choose the right weight to use.

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12. Make a mental connection to your workout by thinking about the muscles you’re targeting during each exercise.

One way to make each and every exercise more effective is to think about the muscles you’re trying to engage, rather than mindlessly going through the motion. “Movement in the body originates in the brain,” Adam Rosante, C.S.C.S., told SELF. “Your brain sends a signal to your muscles telling them to contract. A strong mind-muscle connection can help to recruit more muscle fibers during a lift.” For example, if you’re doing a squat, actually think about your glutes powering you through each rep to make sure you’re using good form and the muscles you’re trying to engage are actually doing the work (rather than letting other muscle groups take over).

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13. Log the details of each workout so you can track your progress.

Tracking your workouts is a great way to make sure you’re always challenging yourself, Rosante told SELF. Using a physical notebook or an app, “when you go to the gym to perform that day’s workout, note how many reps and sets you completed for each move, as well as the weight you used for each,” says Rosante. “The following week, you’ll perform the same workout, but increase the difficulty by tweaking one or more of the elements: reps, sets, weight, or another variable.” Plus, over time, you’ll get to look back at your progress and see how much you’ve improved.

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14. Give high-intensity interval training a try.

High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, refers to short bursts of very hard work followed by periods of active recovery—they don’t call it high intensity for nothing. The work periods are typically 20 to 90 seconds, during which you should be giving it your all, whether that’s a sprint on a treadmill or nonstop burpees.

It’s an excellent tool for fat loss (if that’s your goal)—because you’re skyrocketing your heart rate and bringing it back down, your body needs to work harder to return to a resting state, burning more calories in the process. This is known as the afterburn effect, or EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). HIIT is also great for improving your endurance. Here’s exactly how to do a HIIT workout.

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15. If you’re driven by data, invest in a heart-rate monitor.

Wearing a heart-rate monitor can give you an idea of your intensity level by measuring how fast your heart is beating. This can help you make sure you’re not overdoing it on the intensity every day (since not every day should be insanely tough), and show you where you can push a little harder. Heart-rate monitors can also give you a pretty good estimate of the calories you burn during a workout, if that’s of interest to you. Here’s how to figure out your heart rate zones using data from a monitor, and use this information to train more efficiently.

dumbbell pushup row in gym

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16. Try following a specific fitness program tailored to your goals.

While any type of physical activity has awesome physical and mental benefits, if you’re working toward a specific fitness goal (like getting stronger or losing weight), randomly programmed workouts aren’t always the most efficient way to get there. This is because if you’re always trying a new workout, you’re not giving yourself a chance to get better at one or two, and it’s hard to track your progress and results from a workout or class when you’re not doing it very often. So, while variety is important to keep your body from adapting to one specific workout, you shouldn’t be doing so many different ones that you never have the chance to build on your progress.

Here’s how to create a weekly plan that you can stay consistent with. And if you need some guidance, here’s what a well-rounded week of working out looks like, and here’s an example week of working out for weight loss.

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17. Do workouts you actually enjoy.

Finding a workout you actually like is key to staying consistent with your fitness routine. Plain and simple, “if you don’t love [your workout] and look forward to it, you won’t do it,” Jenn Seracuse, director of Pilates at FLEX studios, told SELF. Hate running? Try a cardio dance class instead. Not a yoga person? Maybe barre is for you. At the end of the day, the best workout is the one you’ll actually do.

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18. Commit to getting your z’s.

Sleep is hugely important for many reasons, your fitness game included. “Exercise is a physical stress applied to the body, and muscles get stronger in the period after the workout when the body is repairing the damage,” Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness podcast, explained to SELF. Allowing your body to recover properly makes it easier to crush a workout the next day. Plus, when you’re sleep deprived, you won’t have as much energy to work your hardest, and you also increase your risk for injury. Commit to these 10 commandments for better sleep and notice the difference in your gym sessions.

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19. Build in active recovery days—they’re important.

When it comes to building muscle, it’s the time you spend outside the gym when the magic really happens. When you work out, you create micro-tears in your muscle fibers. Later, post-sweat session, your body rebuilds those damaged muscle fibers stronger than before. Your body needs days off to repair, recover, and rest—without them, you miss out on the muscle making magic and risk overtraining if you work out frequently). This is where active recovery days, along with good sleep, come in. We’re not talking about lying still on your couch all day, though. On active recovery days, go for a walk, do some gentle stretching, or hit up a restorative yoga class. Getting a move on helps with circulation, which can ease soreness.

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