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Make Your Workouts Count

Getting and staying in shape is hard work. It's even harder for people who don't know what to do to get results. Here are some tricks and techniques I've used through the years to make sure I'm getting the most benefit from the time I spend in the gym.

Consistency is vital, so start by putting your exercise time on your schedule. When you get hungry, your stomach cries out and you always seem to find time to eat. But when muscles cry out for attention, it's easy to ignore them. You've got to make working out as important as any other appointment of the day. Put it on your calendar and consider it a meeting you can't afford to miss.

If you still need motivation to get in shape, enlist a friend. You can encourage each other to stay on track. When you're in the gym, you can spot each other while weight lifting and help each other with form.

Once you get to the gym, warm up everything. The elliptical, stair stepper, treadmill and other cardio machines are great for warming up your legs, but they don't do much for your upper body. Begin with 10 to 12 repetitions of the exercise you want to start with, using a weight much lighter than you usually lift. Once you've completed a couple of sets, you should be warmed up enough to get down to the real work.

Don't sit around between sets; exercise another body part. It's called supersetting, and done properly; it can cut down on how long you have to workout and build more muscle. Ideally, you should be doing one upper body exercise and alternating (or supersetting) with one lower body exercise. You'll keep your heart rate up and allow the muscles time to recuperate between sets. If you don't want to combine upper and lower body workouts, do abdominal exercises between each set.

Squeeze your muscles and keep them contracted throughout your entire exercise move. You won't be able to move as much weight, but your muscles will work harder and you'll get a more intense workout.

Use the mirrors to check your form. Watch yourself to make sure your lower back isn't arched and your torso isn't swaying.

Don't ego lift. In other words, when you're lifting weights, make sure you're using an amount you can move in a controlled manner. If you can't move the weights properly, through the entire range of motion, you're trying to lift too much. Ego lifting won't help your muscles grow as fast and puts your body at risk for injury.

Use wrist straps, wraps and weight belts appropriately. If you're always using wrist straps to hold onto the bar, you're actually hurting your grip strength. The same holds true for belts and wraps. Your ligaments and tendons are your body's natural support system. Weight belts and wraps are an external way of supporting your body. Go ahead and use them when appropriate, but not for every exercise. If you overuse them, it can impede your body's ability to grow.

Don't rely on momentum to move a weight. If you're swinging your weights through the range of motion, you're not keeping your muscles under tension and risking injury because the weight isn't under control. Perform each exercise while moving the weight carefully through every part of the repetition.

Keep changing your cardio. Sign up for a dance class, take aerobics, kickboxing, Pilates, spinning or yoga. A class typically lasts an hour with the warm-up, cardio and cool down. With an instructor, music and continuously changing routines, you may not notice just how hard you're working. Plus, by changing things around, you'll keep learning new things and burning calories.

Finally, write it all down. Invest in a training log, notebook or clipboard where you can document each of your workouts. The way you build more muscle is by gradually lifting more weight. It's hard to know if you're progressing if you can't compare your workouts.

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