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5 Principles That Will Improve Your Workouts

People workout for all different reasons and there are many different types of workouts to address them.  However no matter what your goals are, if you want to be smart, successful, and get results from your workouts, here are five things everyone should do:


It sounds simple enough, but surprisingly many people don't do it while they are lifting or they don't do it very well. If you hold your breath when you workout you will raise your blood pressure, waste energy, and you won't be as strong as you can be. If you don't breathe at the right time, you can run out of air in the middle of an exercise, fatigue quickly, and generally get less from your workout.

There are many different types of breathing for many different purposes, from energizing you to calming you down. You can write a book on the details of breathing and how it can change your life.  The short of it is, you need to exhale during tension to release the pressure in your body. This tension occurs during the lifting phase, so when you lift up, accelerate, push, or pull you should exhale throughout the entire movement.  Exhaling will also keep the veins in your head from pushing through your face while you exercise so you'll look better too. You breathe in during the release of a movement or a lowering phase.  So instead of letting the weights slam to the floor, you should allow yourself enough time to breathe in before you lift the weights back up.  Breathe in during deceleration, lowering a weight, or coming back to rest. If you are breathing in and out too fast you are probably moving too fast.  Keep your movements slow and controlled for the most part, and allow yourself time to inhale and exhale throughout the motion.


If your body slouches like a wet noodle when you train or your butt sticks out when you lift you're not engaging. If your feet come off the floor while sitting or you're about to snap the buckle on the belt that's keeping you in the machine, you guessed it, you're not engaging. Engaging your "core" as it is often referred to is actually very useful, but probably even more than you may think. First off, to engage properly there are two important techniques that are performed.  The first is known as a drawing-in maneuver, which involves you pulling your abdomen in as if you were tightening a belt around your waist.  The muscle involved is the transverse abdominus (TA) and it basically functions as an internal weight belt that supports your spine.  A disengaged TA will put the pressure on your spine, so whatever weight you are lifting or moving will shift primarily to your lower back.  You'll also know the TA if you've ever walked down the beach holding your belly in. You just need to be able to do it while still breathing. The second technique is known as "bracing," which is tightening your waist.  So once you draw your belly in, you then need to tighten the abs around it.  Performing the drawing-in maneuver and bracing together ensures the best possible engagement.  There are other things you can do to engage but this is the most important. 

Engaging properly will allow you to lift weight much more safely and significantly reduce the risk of having you strain or throw out your back when you exercise or lift anything in general.  If safety isn't enough for you, when you engage you also improve your economy of motion.  That means you don't waste your energy on excess movement, all of your energy can be used for the task at hand.  Besides the quickest way to spot someone who doesn't look like they know what their doing in the gym is to see the person who is bending, wobbling, wiggling, leaning, or slouching.  If it doesn't look right, it probably isn't.


By feel I don't mean your emotional feelings but rather feeling the muscle you intend to work.  Many times people sit at a machine and see a picture of the muscle they are supposed to work but they don't actually feel that area working.  Your trainer might also tell you what you're working but if you can't feel the muscle working while you work it, you're not getting the most out of your workout.  To know more about what it means to feel a muscle work, sit down on a chair and lift your leg, then extend your knee as much as you can.  That burn or tightness in your quadricep (top of the thigh) is what you should feel when isolating other muscles in your body too.

There are a few things you can do to help you feel what muscle you are working a little better.  First, you need to focus on that area whether you feel it or not.  Disregard what the rest of the people are doing around you, the choreography, even what people are saying to you while you lift sometimes.  If you are doing an exercise and you know what muscle it works, put your thoughts on that area alone.  Second, if the exercise you are doing doesn't seem to target the muscle without you having to think about it, before you ditch it, flex that area yourself (make your abs hard, squeeze your butt, tighten your arms, pull your shoulder blades together, etc.).  Lastly, some exercises are easier to feel than others, but all isometric exercises allow you more time to feel, because they are exercises that you “hold.”  To get a feeling in a particular muscle, hold it tight for about 30 seconds without releasing.  For example, hold your arm up and flex your elbow without letting the muscles in your bicep relax. Before long you will feel a sensation in that area. Isometric training is a great way to train you to feel what you're doing and it is a welcome addition to most workouts in general.


I think everyone lost weight on a treadmill at one point or another, but that doesn't mean it's the only thing you should ever do.  Besides, if you're not bored of an exercise you've done for a long period of time your muscles probably are.  Everything we do, we eventually adapt to, and thank goodness or life would be impossible.  Muscles also adapt, but people usually don't recognize it soon enough. Adaptation allows us to do things more proficiently and efficiently.  The more you do something the better you get at it and the less energy you expend doing it.  In exercise, that means you might look good doing it but it does less for you.  If you want to keep progressing you need to keep things fresh.  Redundancy is boring and you'll get less out of every workout you do.

Change doesn't mean going from a treadmill to climbing Mt. Everest but it does mean that you need to switch it up.  For example, if you always do the treadmill try an elliptical.  If you loathe all other forms of cardio, then you better make that treadmill incline some days or go faster on others.  You may love that preacher curl machine but if you don't do standing dumbbell curls every now and then, your biceps may never get bigger or look symmetrical.  Also the type of workout you do matters; changing from circuit training to heart rate training or multiple-set to pyramid system routines. There are literally thousands of things you can do to change up a routine.  You need to pick one, try it for a couple of weeks, and then pick something new.  Small changes will go a long way.  It also doesn't mean giving up favorite exercises, just do them in different orders sometimes or switching them out for a while and then back in again.


If the Stairmaster is on full power but you are reading a magazine you are probably not challenging yourself enough.  Also, you just may not be doing enough if you are on your cell phone between sets or possibly even while exercising.  Challenging yourself in a workout is probably the single most important thing you can do to get what you want from your workout.  People that experience slow results or none at all are not challenging themselves enough.  The more output you have in a workout the more calories you burn and the more your muscles change.  Remember that the body adapts, so what challenged you one day may not in a few weeks.

Enjoyment and exercises that inherently require focus are good ways to start challenging yourself.  Doing things that you like doing tend to allow you to work harder.  If you dread doing something you will most likely spend more time thinking about it being over. Find things that are good for your body but are fun to do.  Then supercharge it by pushing yourself and doing the best you can. Also some exercises, such as ones done on a stability ball require more focus, so it will be harder for your mind to wander.  The more challenging the exercise is to do the more your body has to adapt to accomplish it.  High enjoyment and focus will allow you to more naturally challenge yourself.

Breathe easy and allow air to flow in your workouts.  Engage the deep abdominal muscles and the ones close to your spine for safe and efficient movements.  Feel the muscles you are supposed to be working and have present moment awareness when you train.  Change your exercises and training systems to avoid plateaus and boredom.  Challenge yourself so you get to the results you seek as fast as possible.

There are many things outside of our control but choosing to train smart is not one of them. Empower yourself with knowledge and use it to the max.  Your workouts are a major vehicle that drives you toward personal success and the ability to enjoy life to its fullest potential.

By Erik Fredrickson, NASM-CPT, CES, PES. Erik is the founder of Prana Fit, Inc. and freelance writer dedicated to expanding fitness knowledge and inspiring people to get fit.

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