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Are You Cheating Yourself at the Gym? Part 1

Make the Most of Your Cardio Workouts
  -- By Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer
With the hectic pace of our society today, most people don't have hours to spend in the gym. That's why it's so important to make the most of the workout time you have available. Are you cheating yourself out of the best cardio workout possible?  Here are five of the most common mistakes that exercisers make—without even knowing it—that end up short-changing their efforts.  Find out what you can do to use your time more effectively.

1. You use cardio machines with little or no resistance. We've all seen that woman on the elliptical machine who's pedaling like she's sprinting to a finish line. Looks like she's getting a great workout, right? Not necessarily.

Why it's cheating: If you can pedal extremely fast, the machine is probably on such a low resistance level that momentum is helping you move (instead of your muscles). Therefore, you're not burning as many calories or gaining the strength and endurance that comes with added resistance.

The quick fix: Pump up the resistance on the bike, elliptical or stair climber to a challenging level for a much more effective workout.

2. You hold on to the sides or console of the cardio machine. You're working out and feeling a little tired, so you lean your weight into the side bars of the treadmill, or onto the console of the stair climber. No harm done, right?

Why it's cheating: Holding onto the machine for balance feels easier for a reason! It's because you are shifting your weight to your upper body and your legs are no longer doing the work to hold and propel your body weight. In this form, you're burning fewer calories and decreasing your intensity level. Holding on can also increase your risk for injury because you're not in proper alignment or using the machine the way it is intended.

The quick fix: Stand up straight. Your weight should be balanced over your lower body at all times. If you need to hold on for balance, lightly touch the handles with your fingertips, making sure you're not placing your weight into your arms. If you're so tired that you are leaning over, then decrease your speed and intensity and take time to recover—then get back to your workout.

3. You use the treadmill (or elliptical) with zero incline. As long as the monitor shows that you're working at a good speed and burning calories, isn't the treadmill just as good as walking or running outside?

Why it's cheating: Treadmills help propel your body. You don't have to do as much work when the belt is doing some of that movement for you. Walking on a flat road outside is more challenging and burns more calories than walking on a flat (0% incline) treadmill at the same speed.

The quick fix: Increase the incline. If you like to get outside when the weather is nice, varying the incline is more likely to mimic an outdoor route. Plus, you'll burn about twice the calories at a five percent incline in the same amount of time.

4. You exercise at one constant speed. Pacing yourself is important if you're training for a long-distance race, but should you pace yourself during a workout?

Why it's cheating: Doing the same workout over and over can result in a plateau since your body quickly gets used to doing the same thing all the time. Changing your speed and intensity level can help prevent plateau and offer greater challenge.

The quick fix: Try interval training. Most treadmills offer programs you can follow, so take advantage of them. Changing speed is also a great way to improve your fitness level and increase your calorie burn. Read SparkPeople's Interval Training Guide to learn more.

5. You skip the warm up, cool down or stretches. All of these components are important for a reason. Do you think they're a waste of time since they don't burn a lot of calories or build muscle?

Why it's cheating: You body can't go from a resting level to an aerobic level (or vice versa) in a matter of seconds. It takes a few minutes to prepare for exercise and recover from it. Without warming up, cooling down, and stretching, you're not making the most of your workouts and you could be increasing your chances of injury or other complications.

The quick fix: Designate a few minutes per session for these tasks. If you're short on time, jog from the parking lot to the gym as part of your warm up, and walk slowly to your car as you continue to cool down, for example. Warming up helps lower your risk of injuries and prevent aches and pains. A proper cool-down slowly decreases the heart rate to prevent dizziness, fainting and that post-workout muscle soreness. Stretching can help prevent injury by promoting recovery, decreasing soreness, and ensuring that your muscles and tendons are in good working order.


Your time is valuable, so it's important to make the most of it when you head to the gym. By making some small changes to your cardio routine, you can maximize your results and get on the fast track towards reaching your goals!