Whether you’ve hit a wall or looking to take your workout to the next level, our expert-backed gym hacks will help you maximize your fitness with minimal effort.
Often, getting the most out of a gym session is about working smarter, not harder. We aren’t prescribing a complete fitness overhaul; all you need is a few subtle tweaks to help you elevate your session, and your results.
From simple changes like mixing up your warm-up to shuffling your go-to workout playlist, or even indulging your competitive side, these five cheat codes will help you level up in no time.
Specifically, swap your usual stretch for a more dynamic, heart-thumping warm-up. “We’re told that we need to warm-up before a workout, but there’s no hard and fast rule as to how we should actually do it,” says Steven Dick, director of The Fitness Group.
According to a study from Austin State University, getting your entire body pumping builds better performance than simply running through Downward Dog and Child’s Pose. In fact, in this study, those who warmed up with light leg extensions and bodyweight squats were then able to squat 8.36% more weight during their actual workout, while their lower bodies were an incredible 22.7% more stable.
“This is because dynamic bodyweight moves both increase the blood flow and improve your range of motion, without putting your muscles under stress,” says Dick. “Focus on moves that mimic the exercises in your main workout. If you’re going to hit the bench press, try some banded presses first. If you’re going for a run, try knee raises and leg swings.”
As with any situation, choosing the right gym playlist can really help to set the mood.“If you’re someone who struggles to find the motivation to work out, finding the right music is key,” says Reiss Mogilner, owner of F45 Mill Hill. In fact, a 2021 study review published in the Journal of Functional Morphology Kinesiology found that “Listening to music has been repeatedly shown to have ergogenic [literally ‘work producing’] benefits during various modes of exercise, including endurance, sprint, and resistance-based activities.”
In summary, the paper found that music can modulate our physiological responses during exercises, positively impacting everything from heart rate to muscle activation, as well as psychological vectors such as mood and motivation, and your perceived rate of exertion.
For Mogilner, it’s essential he gets the tunes right from the get-go. “I put a lot of focus on the music I listen to for my warm-up, as this sets the tone of my workout and gets me in the right frame of mind to hit my personal bests,” he says. “Opting for uplifting music and songs that have good memories attached to them are the best way to kickstart your workout. If you feel yourself flagging halfway through, try mixing it up with something more fast-paced, or remixes of your favorite songs, as this will give your brain something new to focus on.”
Keep your earbuds handy, too. A 2020 review found that, in general, a test group moved more when listening to music via headphones than over speakers. And why not keep the party going? Evidence suggests that listening to slower music post-workout can even boost recovery.
Whether you’re counting reps or counting down the clock on a cardio session, you’ll likely spend a good deal of your workout with numbers in mind. Miraculously, a 2015 study found that counting up while performing any task makes it seem more difficult than counting down.
“Suppose your gym instructor asks you to do 25 sit-ups. Does time seem to pass by more quickly and are you more willing to do additional sets of sit-ups if you count down from 25 to 1 or up from 1 to 25?” asks a second study, from New York University. Here, the authors argue that counting down is better as “it draws the counter’s attention to the prospect of goal attainment at an earlier stage.” The maths is just easier; counting down, you know you only have 10 sit-ups left, instead of counting up and trying to workout that 15 reps completed means you’re 3/5ths done.
The authors actually carried out this exact experiment, asking half the participants to count down during sit-ups, and the other half to count up. Counting down resulted in a sense of shorter exercise duration, and faster completion, with those counting down even feeling better at the end, and more willing to continue performing sit-ups after the 25 reps were completed.
“You can apply this to cardio, too,” says physiotherapist Kieran Sheridan. “Try setting your treadmill to count down from 30 minutes. This will give you a boost, motivating you to dig deeper as you know the pain is soon to end.”
According to a 2021 study which looked at the key excuses why people don’t workout, laziness (given as one of the main excuses) was significantly reduced by fitness trackers providing regular notifications – as long as the tracker pointed out the problem (“you’ve been sitting for an hour”), and an achievable objective (“go for a minute walk”). In conclusion, the study found that gamified activity trackers of this type were seen to “explicitly contribute to behavioral repetition.”
“We know that working with a partner can increase workout motivation and commitment, but finding a consistent partner on your schedule can prove challenging,” explains Dick. “However, the recent trend in wearable tech and gamification could be your digital cheat code to unlock success in the gym.” Dick points to a 2022 meta-analysis of 16 studies which found that “gamified interventions are promising for promoting physical activity in various populations” and that this activity continued long-term.
“Gamification makes your workout more fun,” says Dick. “Picture those treadmills where your avatar competes against others in the gym – what a way to unlock that inner motivation! Brands like Myzone offer tech that combines wearables with gamification and fitness prompts, while the likes of Peloton allow you to compete virtually against other riders, with leaderboard stats displayed in real time.”
Often, we think that the key to fitness success is working as hard as we can, for as long as we can. But, while consistency is key to achieving results, overdoing it can lead to burnout or injury – both of which can majorly upset your plans. The ultimate key to maximizing your workout? Do less.
“Research shows that exercising just two days a week may have the same heart benefits as exercising more frequently,” says Mogilner. “If you’re lacking in time and can’t get to the gym as often as you would like, it doesn’t mean all is lost.”
This particular study, published in the JAMA Review in 2021, looked at 89, 573 participants and found the “weekend warriors” among them, had lower risks of a number of heart issues – including those leading to heart failure and stroke – compared with those with more evenly distributed physical activity.
The reasoning is unknown, but Mogliner thinks it could be that the weekend set allows more time for recovery between sessions. “Sometimes, overexerting yourself can do more harm than good,” he says. “As long as you are managing to fit in even a couple of high-intensity workouts per week, that should be enough for your body to reap the benefits."
Words: Tom Ward
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