While hitting the gym is generally awesome, it’s not always the best experience—like when you are dragging after a long day, are stuck in a workout rut, or have to deal with fellow patrons who are selfish/sweaty/insert-poor-behavior-here.
In order to better your routine every time, we asked some of our favorite trainers to tell us when to hit the gym, how to behave while there, and how to work those machines for better results. After reading this, you’ll know how to maximize your gym-going experience every time. (And check out more fitness tips with these 9 of the Hardest and Best Exercises from Real Trainers.)
It’s great to have a workout buddy, but make sure you’re there to motivate each other rather than get distracted by catching up. “Too much chatting between sets can take the momentum out of your workout,” says Minardi. “It’s good to rest enough between a high-intensity set to allow your muscles a chance to recover, but anything beyond a few minutes might make you lose your focus.”
If you have a bad habit of tilting your body forward on the elliptical or stair-climber, stand up straighter next time around, says Joan Pagano, a certified trainer in New York City and author of Strength Training Exercises for Women. “Leaning on the handlebars reduces the effectiveness of your work by removing the emphasis from your lower body muscles,” she says. “You’re also stressing your shoulders, back and arms—so if you can’t avoid leaning, then ease up on the intensity.”
Weight-bearing exercise has gotten a bad rap, but Minardi says you shouldn’t be afraid to step off that elliptical sometimes. “People spend too much energy on non-weight-bearing exercises like elliptical training, spinning and flat treadmill running,” he says. “This is good for people who may be recovering from injury, but not for those looking to improve overall health.” (It’s one of the 10 Things You’re Not Doing at the Gym (But Should Be).)
Weight-bearing exercises (like yoga, dancing, or agility moves) strengthen bones and muscles, improving balance, coordination, and flexibility, says Minardi, so don’t fear a little pounding. “Any exercise where you bear your weight—even a brisk walk—has a greater overall payoff than a seated exercise.”
Pagano says you should always vary intensities during your workout, and add in more movement whenever possible. “Instead of just working your lower body, choose cardio equipment that has arm involvement whenever possible, like the bike, elliptical, or x-c ski, for a full-body workout,” she says. “And when using any cardio machine, add intervals of higher intensity to burn more calories in shorter time and to train your heart to work at higher levels of your aerobic capacity.” They’re simple additions, but your body will thank you.
Next time you’re about to grab the straight bar, try using the triceps rope instead. “This changes the position of the hands during the pushdown,” Minardi says. “The knuckles face out instead of up, which directs more of the work towards the lateral head of the tricep at the outside of the arm.” Using a pliable rope also allows for a greater range of motion than your standard straight bar—which usually stops when the bar hits the legs. “Nothing’s better for achieving overall tricep definition than the rope,” Minardi explains.
You don’t necessarily have to use every machine in the gym exactly as intended, or for just one exercise, says Pagano. “Use creatively,” she suggests. “With the leg press, for example, do a set using both legs, then lighten the weight and do it with one leg at a time. Keeping your feet on the platform with your legs fully extended, work your ankles by first pushing the platform away with the balls of your feet and then pushing it away with the heels of your feet, lifting your forefoot.” Pagano says this move will work your calves and lower legs better than ever. (Try the gym machines used in Kristin Cavallari’s Favorite Total-Body Gym Routine, too.)
Pagano says one of the biggest gym secrets is etiquette-related. “I see all kinds of poor behavior going on in the gym,” she says. What should guests be more mindful about? A few things: “Return equipment to its proper place after using it; don’t leave it lying around,” Pagano says. “Do not monopolize equipment you’re not using, by keeping it near you or parking your gear on it. If someone is doing floor work on a mat, don’t crowd them. And wipe down equipment after using it—don’t forget the mats!” Just consider this a friendly PSA.