While resistance training is a great way to increase lean muscle mass, research has shown that aerobic exercise is king when it comes to dropping pounds. In one Duke University study, people who worked out with cardio burned 67 percent more calories than those who worked out with weights—and also shed more bad belly fat (that is, visceral and liver fat), to boot.
“Common sense says that the harder you exercise, the healthier you’ll be overall,” says Cris Slentz, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Duke University Medical Center, “but common sense can get you in trouble—as there simply haven’t been enough studies to prove it.” While high-intensity workouts may do wonders for increasing your VO2 max, research has shown that for other measures of health—such as decreasing your levels of triglycerides or improving insulin response—bouts of moderate-intensity are actually more effective than vigorous work. Which is not to say that you should slack off—but instead remember that “the most important thing is simply to move.”
Earlier this year, two studies (one, a comprehensive study of studies) emerged to finally put the stretching debate to rest. The results? Static stretching before exercise can actually decrease your muscles’ strength (by as much as 8.3 percent) and result in a loss of explosive power—the kind that’s necessary for quick bursts of force. The longer you stretch, the weaker your muscles become. As one study author says, “A warm up should improve performance, not worsen it.” The new mantra: Warm up and engage your muscles with dynamic movements, such as jumps and kicks.
You may think that foam rollers look goofy—but according to research, there are plenty of reasons for exercisers of all levels to pick up the habit. One study found that rolling before a workout increased range of motion without decreasing muscle strength (the way that static stretching does), and others have shown that a post-exercise roll can significantly decrease soreness, increase blood flow and speed muscle recovery. And you don’t have to be an Ironman to see the benefits of that.
Advice such as, “dance while you clean,” “walk around your office on a conference call,” and “do more yard work!” has been lauded by magazines and websites as a time-efficient way to lose. The truth: “If you went from couch potato to active housekeeper, you may experience some weight loss,” says John Boyd, group fitness director at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center. “But to actually improve your fitness level, this isn’t enough.” Of course, any movement is healthier than none, but these types of tips should be considered add-ons—not your total fitness plan.
It’s tempting—but don’t do it. “NSAIDs such as ibuprofen actually inhibit muscular growth after a workout by counteracting your body’s natural healing process,” says Landen Jones, ACE-certified personal trainer at Mark Fisher Fitness. In fact, one study found that ibuprofen stopped growth in rats by a whopping 50 percent. “Soreness occurs because your muscles have done something new,” he says. “Your muscles will adapt—try to power through.” Still need relief? Natural alternatives such as cherry juice can help. And if the pain is intolerable? See a doc.
While some models claim to be “joint-friendly,” or “low-impact,” the reality is that there are very few—if any—treadmills that function differently from a sidewalk. To truly take pressure off of your knees, opt for grass or sand outdoors and the elliptical or a stationary bike indoors, suggests Rachel Reddish, fitness manager at Crunch gym in NYC.
If you’ve already had a meal and you don’t have another workout planned for the day, there’s no rush to replenish, according to Ben Greenfield, personal trainer, coach, and author of Fueling Myths Exposed. Most studies that explore post-exercise nutrition replacement use subjects who have fasted, he explains, so results aren’t applicable to the general population. But, if you’re sweating it out first thing in the morning, sans breakfast, or have another training session later in the day, refueling promptly should be a priority—a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein is just right.
It does—and the order you choose should depend on your fitness goals. “A cardio-first routine may increase your weight loss because your heart rate will continue to stay elevated during weight training,” says Sharon Huey, exercise physiologist and wellness coordinator at Chelsea Piers. “You’ll also have a higher core temperature, which can decrease your risk of injury.” What’s more, one study found that after a moderate-intensity cardio bout, men who lifted weights produced more testosterone, a key hormone for muscle growth and recovery, than those who began with resistance. If your goal is simply to increase muscle size, though, Huey suggests lifting first to avoid starting with fatigued muscles.
“There’s a difference between pain and discomfort,” Reddish says, “but sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference.” Pain is your body’s way of telling you that you’re overusing (and potentially injuring) some joint, muscle, or tendon, whereas discomfort is more akin to fatigue, which is necessary in pushing your body to the next level. Sharp, acute pain, perpetually hurting post-workout and swelling are all signs that you’re at risk of being derailed by injury, and it’s time to ease off. “If you’re not sure how to read your body cues, start out by exercising with a fitness professional,” she adds.
“Remember, weight machines aren’t built just for you,” Boyd says. So while it’s easy to believe that they’ll guide you toward safe resistance, the truth is that you’re just as likely to make mistakes on a machine as you would with free weights or bodyweight exercises. “To avoid injury and master your form with any new resistance routine, work with a trainer or fitness professional.”
In fact, several studies have tested the cool down—and they’ve found that there’s almost no significant difference in muscle soreness or next-day ability in athletes who’d cooled down vs. those who hadn’t. But, as the New York Times points out, a cool down, physiologically, “feels nice,” and there’s been no research to say that some light jogging after a strenuous session has any negative effect on the body. The bottom line: if you like cooling down, then cool down; if you don’t, then don’t.