Thirty-six-year-old Laura Metcalf has been doing ab work for 15 years. “I do countless crunches at the gym,” says the active mom, who lives in Indianapolis. “But when a trainer recommended I try a full sit-up, I couldn’t believe how hard it was to do just one,” says Metcalf, who now vows to do a few sit-ups instead of dozens of crunches.
Believe it or not, she’ll see better, faster results if she does. In fact, a lot of the moves you see-and maybe do-every day in the gym aren’t the best way to strengthen your muscles, says former Olympic coach and Ormond Beach, FL, strength-training consultant Harvey Newton. “There’s a lot of ‘bodybuilding pollution’ out there,” he says. Bodybuilders devise moves to hit every muscle fiber from every angle. Now many of those exercises have become mainstream.
Not only does it take hours, but “the average woman will never get the shape she wants by isolating each and every muscle,” says Patrick Hagerman, EdD, a professor of exercise science at the University of Tulsa. The better bet: Hit a broad range of muscles at once.
With that in mind, we asked experts to name their eight top strength-training time wasters. Look familiar? We thought so. Swap them for our choices, and you’ll save time while you get firm faster.
Ditch: Ab Crunch
That’s right. “This quintessential abdominal move might as well be dubbed ‘the great time waster,’” says Hagerman. Originally designed to isolate the abdominal muscles, the crunch is best for beginners or people recovering from back pain. Because the range of motion in a crunch is so limited-and abs get strong fast-people can end up doing dozens of crunches without seeing any real progress, he says.
Lie on back with feet resting flat on floor, knees bent about 90 degrees, and arms crossed over chest. Tuck chin toward chest, contract abdominals, and roll all the way up, bringing chest as close to knees as possible. Roll back down. Start with 10 to 15 sit-ups.
Why It Works
“Sit-ups involve a greater range of motion, so your abs work longer under tension,” says Hagerman. Sit-ups also work your hip flexors (the muscles at the front of your hips), which help maintain proper posture and are often weak from disuse.
Ditch: Dumbbell Fly
Hailed as a cleavage creator, this popular chest exercise isolates just a small part of the pectoral muscle, says Hagerman. “It’s not functional for anything but giving a better bear hug,” he says. And less-than-perfect form can strain the shoulder joints.
Do: Stair Push-Up
Place hands, under shoulders, on a step with arms extended. Walk feet back until body forms straight line from head to heels. Bend elbows and slowly lower chest to step until shoulders are in line with elbows. Press back to starting position and repeat for 8 to 10 reps. (If this is too challenging, start at a higher step or use an aerobic bench.)
Why It Works
“Push-ups are one of the best upper-body toners because they recruit muscles in your chest, triceps, and shoulders,” says Hagerman. But many women avoid them because they’re too difficult. By performing them on an incline, you lessen the force of gravity slightly, so you can complete more reps and give your torso a total workout.
Ditch: Seated Leg Extension
Whether done on a machine or with ankle weights, this move will help shape your quadriceps. But leg extensions can place dangerous loads on the ligaments and tendons in your knees, says Hagerman. Women’s knees are notoriously fragile: The NCAA tracked knee injuries in college athletes and found women suffered two to four times as many ligament tears as men.
Do: Planted Step-Up
Hold an 8- to 10-pound dumbbell in each hand and stand facing a step. Step up with left leg. Straighten left leg; at the top of the move, contract glutes and extend right leg behind you. Bring right leg back down, and lower your body until tip of right toe just touches floor, keeping left foot on step. Immediately repeat, completing a full set (10 to 15 reps) with one leg. Then switch sides. (For added challenge, make the step higher or step onto a bench.)
Why It Works
It’s safer, plus your quads get a great workout as you lift your body weight against gravity. It also tones your butt, hamstrings, and calves. If you prefer machines, try the One-Legged Press.
Ditch: Side Knee Crunch
For years, love-handle loathers have been trying to isolate their obliques (side torso muscles) by dropping their knees to the side during ab crunches. In reality, this move puts excess pressure on the fluid-filled disks in your spine while leaving your obliques largely untouched, says Hagerman. “The risks far outweigh the benefits on this one.”
Do: Straight-Arm Crisscross
Lie faceup on floor with knees bent and aligned over hips, and calves raised and parallel to floor. Hold ends of a towel in each hand, arms extended so towel is stretched over knees. Roll head and shoulder blades up off floor while extending left leg to about 45 degrees from floor and moving towel to outside of right knee. Then extend right leg and bend left knee, moving towel to outside of left knee, keeping shoulders lifted. Continue alternating without dropping torso. Do 10 to 15 reps.
Why It Works
Your obliques are responsible for twisting your torso, so they’re challenged throughout the move. Your abs get a full workout, too-without any risky spinal compression.
Ditch: Upright Row
This is another move that was designed to build vanity muscles but ultimately may create more strain than shape. “Standing straight up and pulling weights along your body is awkward and unnatural,” says Newton. Lifting too high can also painfully impinge the shoulder and cause wrist pain.
Do: Forward-Leaning Lateral Raise
Sit on bench with feet together, a 3- to 5-pound weight in each hand. Lean forward at waist and, keeping elbows slightly bent, let arms hang down next to calves, palms facing each other. Squeeze shoulder blades together. Raise arms to sides in an arcing motion until they’re parallel to floor. Pause and then slowly return to starting position. Do 10 to 15 reps.
Why It Works
This move targets the rear shoulder muscles more effectively than the upright row, says Newton. It also targets the often-overlooked rhomboid muscles, which hold the shoulders back to help you easily maintain good posture.
Ditch: Heel Raise
Though this move may be useful for walkers prone to shin splints, if you’re doing it for aesthetics, “it’s useless,” says Newton. “The shape of your calves may be largely genetic.”
Do: Walk on an Incline
Find a hill or set the treadmill on an incline and walk for 30 minutes, suggests Newton. (Your calves also get a good workout during squats, lunges, and step-ups.)
Why It Works
Your calves help propel you forward up hills. Incline walking will not only work your calves much better but will also strengthen your heart and burn many more calories than just doing heel raises would.
Ditch: Side Bend
Another supposed love-handle eliminator, this old-school move can actually make your waist look bigger as it unnaturally builds the obliques. “I’m shocked how many people still do these,” says Prevention advisor Kara Gallagher, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Louisville. “The obliques aren’t designed to lift in that up-and-down motion.”
Assume full push-up position, with arms extended, hands directly below shoulders, and legs extended so body forms straight line from head to heels. Tighten abs and roll body to right side, supporting torso with right arm. Extend left arm straight up, so body forms a sideways T. Hold 5 seconds, then switch sides. If balance is a problem, perform the move on your forearm instead of with your arm extended. Repeat 5 to 8 times.
Why It Works
Your obliques are fully engaged to brace your entire torso during this popular core-strengthening move. The result: Those abdominal muscles tighten up without bulking out. “This move targets your whole upper body and prevents back pain,” says Gallagher.
Ditch: Seated Adduction
This machine was specially designed to fight inner-thigh flab. Although it does work the adductors (inner-thigh muscles), it’s not the most effective way to target them, says Hagerman. “When you sit on that machine and squeeze in your legs, you’re mostly targeting deep hip rotators you never see,” he says.
Do: One-Legged Press
Sit in leg press machine. Position feet hip- to shoulder-width apart, with legs at 90-degree angles (adjust seat if necessary). Remove left foot from platform and place it on floor, leaving right foot where it is. Hold side handlebars and press lower back to pad. Slowly push platform away and extend right leg without locking knee, then slowly lower the weight. Complete a full set (10 to 15 reps), then switch legs.
Why It Works
“During a single-leg press, your inner thighs work to keep the leg from moving out to the side,” says Hagerman. This move also shapes your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, so you get more total toning for your time.
Cardio Time Wasters
The weight room isn’t the only place you might be wasting precious exercise time. Sloppy form and other common mistakes can dramatically lessen the effectiveness of your aerobic workouts as well, says Prevention advisor Wayne Westcott, PhD. He recommends avoiding these three errors.
The Machine Lean
If you support yourself on the handles while working out on the StairMaster or elliptical trainer, you can cut your calorie burn by 20%. Our quick fix: Ditch the magazine and jam to music instead. “When you’re trying to read a magazine on the console, you almost need to lean forward and hold your torso steady,” says Westcott.
The Single-Speed Wonder
Too many people churn out their entire workout on the same setting. After just a few months, your body adapts and starts burning fewer calories. “For one or two workouts a week, add intervals,” says Westcott. Whether you’re on the treadmill or at the pool, “doing 30-second bursts of speed will boost your fitness.”
The One-Trick Pony
Even if you’re addicted to the treadmill, give it a day off and try something different-at least once a week, he says. “Cross-training challenges different muscles in a variety of ways, which keeps your body adapting and burning fuel even when you’re not working out.”
Source: Selene Yeager, Prevention