Fitness Articles

Are You Cheating Yourself at the Gym? Part 1

Make the Most of Your Cardio Workouts

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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?
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About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is a certified personal trainer, certified health coach and advanced health & fitness specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

Member Comments

  • So I see this is mainly treadmill to which I must add. I hold on as I'm legally blind and if I don't I fall off every 10 seconds. So, although I agree that it's probably more productive to fall, get back up and get back on to fall get back up get back on, it's really annoying to the other patrons who are trying to work out. Until you have a solution for this particular problem (which Bob Harper has never responded and all they gyms I asked look at my silly) I'll hang on. :p - 7/31/2013 1:12:07 PM
  • LUV2SURFCHIC
    Don't like to "hear" these rules, but after reading these for not the first time I have to admit I do all these things and I need to change up some things to get out of this plateau. - 1/20/2013 11:05:40 AM
  • I hate all the "rules" for working out! The most important thing to do when you're working out is listen to your body. If you need to hold on, HOLD ON! Whatever resistance feels best for you is what you'll LIKE and if you like it, you'll do it. If you want a "good" workout, make sure your heart rate is suffiently raised and you so it for a reasonable duration.

    And keep your judgements to yourself. Unless somebody is doing something that affects you (like making a machine squeak), you don't need to worry about them. I've got LOTS of joint issues and I'm sure there are people who think my squats are not deep enough or my range of motion isn't efficient or whatever - but what they don't know is how I FEEL. - 1/20/2013 8:51:27 AM
  • PROPNUT
    If you want a serious workout do 3 x 3 minute continuous rounds on a punch bag if your gym has one. Ever wondered why boxers are so incredibly lean? Try this out and you will find out. You must wear proper bag gloves and don't hit the bag hard. It is not about the force you hit the bag it is about speed and duration. Boxercise is NOT the same thing and anyone you says it is has never been a boxer. Was I was boxer for 10 years but then stopped for a career in IT. My weight went up to 19 stone. Three months ago determined to lose weight before I hit 50 I went back to my roots and have since lost 3 stone. This was by following a strict calorie controlled diet thanks to the nutrition tracker at SparkPeople AND by reintroducing my boxing training. Initially just the bag work but now have also reintroduced skipping but on a soft mat to soften the impact on my joints. As my weight approaches my old norm I will also start running. The nice this about the bag workout is that it is high intensity BUT gentle on the joints. When you are severely overweight you have to consider your joints (knees, hips, ankles) which were not designed to cope with obesity. As said this has worked well for me but I wish you all good luck in your personal endeavours. - 1/20/2013 5:16:57 AM
  • CANUCKSFAN2
    When I used the treadmill in my parents place, I always put the treadmill on a bit of an incline and always increased the speed a little bit each time I used it, as I sometimes found that I really needed a faster speed. But I always did this gradually so that my body would get used to the new speed. And I would always use a few minutes on a slower speed to warm up before I got to my faster speed and would usually go to the slower speed for about 5 min to cool down. - 5/5/2012 4:52:08 PM
  • Oh my goodness, this is a laundry list of the most obnoxious people at the gym, ever!

    We have the guy who used to be a marathoner, but busted his hips and now does the elliptical for hours on end at hyper speed and looks like he's anorexic... not a good thing when you're wearing those super-short 70's running shorts... Ick.

    We had THREE women get together side-by-side on the treadmills, put them on the steepest incline, and then hold on over the front of the machine for their dear lives... and the machines all go "squeaka-squeaka" because they can barely keep up.

    I love the guy who gets on the recumbent bike in a sweatsuit and pedals for an hour at the same pace while talking on the cell phone; or the girls who do it on the elliptical...

    It makes me want to SCREAM! Do a REAL workout, people, quit wasting your time!

    Note: sometimes I will hop on the recumbent bike and stick at a low pace and resistance for a while, but I know why I'm doing that. It's usually because weather didn't permit me to ride my bike to work, or I just need to burn some energy after a bodyweight interval workout. Steady cardio has its place, but not as your only workout. - 5/5/2012 1:29:52 PM
  • The part about the resistance is interesting, I always varied the intensity- especially during HIIT. However, I came across this http://www.diet.c
    om/dietblogs/
    read_blog.php
    ?title=Is+Car
    dio+Making+Yo
    ur+Butt+Bigger%3F&blid=16151 recently and I'm a little confused. It says for various reasons that are listed in the post that cardio with high resistance actually counteracts your goal. I'm a little confused, what are your thoughts? - 5/5/2012 1:23:40 PM
  • i use the elliptical [i feel like im getting the best bang for my buck] pretty often and i never pick a plan for resistance. the first time i used i had to push myself just to do 10 minutes. now i've been working on gradually increasing my time to an hour and im at 40 minutes. i spend the first 10 minutes at a very slow pace to warm up the next 20 minutes at a good steady pace and the last 10 minutes I push myself to see how fast I can do a mile and dont quit until i've done the mile. if its under 10 minutes i use the rest of whatever time is left going slowly to cool down a bit. I still end up breathing hard and drenched in sweat so I dont feel like not using resistance is hurting me too bady right now. One step at a time. - 5/5/2012 9:06:47 AM
  • So I ran across an article of top workout myths and one of them was the cool down warm up and stretch. Studdies have been done to disprove that you need to stretch before or after a workout and your body will recover from a workout whether you cool down or not at the same pace. - 5/5/2012 8:46:37 AM
  • ELISAAVIGAYIL
    I always hold on lightly to cadio machines when doing high-intensity exercise to avoid accidentally falling off of the machine. This is especially true when running on the treadmill on a steep incline. I feel this is safer than not holding on at all. I would rather burn fewer calories than run the risk of a twisted ankle. However, I feel that aerobics classes are safer, easier to control, and far more fun, so prefer to join classes than use machines. - 5/5/2012 2:09:35 AM
  • there is this one gal at my gym who puts the treadmill on the steepest incline, and sets the speed at a very high rate, then is leaning back, holding onto the handlebars and RUNS for a very long time, almost every day... It drives me nuts seeing her do this... - 8/9/2011 10:16:41 AM
  • Funny I always used to think of warmups ( and cool downs) as a waste of time. This is the first time I have actually seen (or paid attention?) for the WHY they are important. - 11/21/2010 7:15:36 PM
  • Excellent article! Wakes one up a bit! - 8/31/2010 8:45:06 AM
  • My chiropractor flat out hates INCLINE on treadmills and has made me swear to never run on the treadmill at an incline. According to him it is much different than running outside and does terrible things to hips. I'll vary my speed but I'll never use the incline. - 4/30/2010 3:40:03 PM
  • Hmm... so in reading this article, I am now curious. Even though I've been working at this for awhile now, my fitness level is still not to the point where I could do a longer (30 min.) duration at a higher incline or resistance level. So is it better to do a longer workout (30 min.) at a lower resistance/inclin
    e or up the resistance/inclin
    e a bit and work for a shorter period of time?

    Obviously I would like to get to the point where I can work at an incline / resistance level for a longer duration, but what about in the meantime? - 2/18/2010 7:51:40 PM
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