Mix Your Methods
"Changing exercises and the tools you use — bands, kettlebells, medicine balls, cables — helps you target different muscle fibers since you use a different range of motion and have to stabilize differently," Brooks says. "Because they offer variable resistance, bands and cables don’t feel the same as dumbbells or a bar, so they’ll work the muscle differently. Change exercises every three weeks or so to avoid a plateau." Consider hiring a trainer for a monthly routine update.
Stretch Yourself Stronger
"In three different studies, we’ve found that if you combine strength training with flexibility training, you get 19 percent better strength gains," says Westcott, whose book Specialized Strength Training has stretches for every muscle group. Adding in stretching doesn’t mean you’ll have a longer workout: "If you stretch the muscle for about 30 seconds right after you train it, it gives you something to do while you rest between exercises."
Take a Day Off — Really
Strength training causes microtrauma in the muscle and the connective tissue, stimulating the cells to start rebuilding, which is what increases muscle mass. "The old advice was to rest for 48 hours," Westcott says. "New research says that it takes 72 hours to accomplish repair and rebuilding, so instead of strength training every two days, switch to every three and you’ll actually see better results." If you want to work out more often, train different muscle groups at each session.
"If you’re not doing cardio three times a week, you need to start," Peeke says. "And if you’re up to three weekly workouts, try to add more sessions. After 40, you have to try to do it every day to keep your metabolism humming: Deliberately knock out 300 to 400 calories on an elliptical trainer, a treadmill, a Spinning bike, whatever. Walking also counts." Cardio workouts, unlike strength training, can be done every day. "It’s a lower-intensity stimulus on your muscles for a longer period of time," Westcott notes. "But if you want to take your cardio training to the next level, you have to alternate hard-training days with easier walking days so your muscles have time to recover."
Break Out of Your Rut
Try a new activity, class, or machine to shake your muscles out of complacency. The more you repeat a certain activity, the more efficient your muscles become, so you burn fewer calories. Can’t sever your attachment to the treadmill? Change the incline to increase intensity and vary the movement: "You get the same results from a three-mile-per-hour walk on a treadmill at a six percent incline — and get the same calorie burn — as from running on a flat surface at a quicker pace," Brooks says.
Focus for Results
Reality check: Do you bring stacks of stuff to read while you’re on the bike? "If you can focus on something else while you’re working out, you’re not doing it hard enough," Kaehler says. Listening to music is fine, however; the tunes you pick can actually help you kick up your effort.
Do a Condensed Cardio Session
"Get it out of your mind that cardio has to be 30 to 50 minutes every time to be meaningful," Kaehler says. Alternate two vigorous 20-minute workouts with three or four longer workouts every week. On the two days a week you strength train, do a 20-minute interval workout after you finish the weights. Increase the speed, incline, or resistance every five minutes to keep yourself working. On cardio-only days, break those longer sessions into three or four 15-minute bouts on different machines.
Push Your Comfort Zone
"I see women who walk at the same pace every day," Smith says. "To really see results, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone at least 10 to 20 percent of the time. I explain it in terms of expressions: You’ve got your happy face on when you’re walking with your girlfriends. Every once in a while, you need that determined face, where you’re almost breathless and thinking, ‘I can do this for only 90 seconds.’ It’s those 90-second spurts that really improve your fitness level."