Fitness Articles

Are You Cheating Yourself at the Gym? Part 1

Make the Most of Your Cardio Workouts

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!

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Member Comments

  • Good article. Thank you!
  • At lower or 0% incline I can walk without holding on, but when I increase the incline above 5, my balance issues require me to hold on to the machine. I am doing well and up to level 14 on the incline at Planet Fitness so I am pleased with my results. This article puts everyone in the same shoebox and that is not fair. Proper form is important and I used to have to hold on if the inclune was more than 3, now I can go up to 5.5 without holding on. Improvement counts!
    Been guilty of some of the things on treadmills.
  • Great article! I learned a few things on the stairs, Elliptical and treadmill. I see people using them all in so many different ways. I'm not worried how everyone is using the machines it as long as I'm doing it the way I feel I should.

    I see people hanging on to all the machines, and my shoelace got loose on the treadmill and went under my shoe, I almost ended up at the end of the treadmill flat on my face.
    I was walking at a fast pace and not using the rails. So I feel everyone can do what they feel is best for their workout and safety.

  • I was required to hold onto the bars of the treadmill because I have balance problems. I finally read that using that machine is discouraged for those with my illness. I no longer belong to a gym and exercise at home or take long walks outside. It's just safer for me. And--I'm losing more weight!' A gym is not ideal for everyone.
  • 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
    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.
  • 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.
    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.
    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.
  • 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.
  • The part about the resistance is interesting, I always varied the intensity- especially during HIIT. However, I came across this
    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?
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.