I’m a fitness writer, so Monday through Friday I sit in an office surrounded by the latest gear: a kettlebell with adjustable weights, a padded ab mat, a gadget that keeps wrists from getting sore during push-ups. And then I go out and do the very same cardio workout I’ve been doing for the past 15-plus years.
I’m hardly the only exerciser in a rut—lots of people find their comfort zone and settle in long term. The problem: Never changing the program not only sets you up for being bored out of your mind but also yields fewer and fewer fitness returns. “Many of your physiological systems adapt to a workout program within six to eight weeks, so if you don’t modify your routine, you quickly reach a plateau and stop seeing improvements in strength and cardiovascular conditioning,” says exercise physiologist Jessica Matthews, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. When you mix things up, your muscles adjust to different kinds of stimulation, which makes them grow stronger.
Novelty is one of the best ways to combat boredom, since struggling toacquire a skill demands your attention. Here, I test-drive four great ways to liven up your exercise routine.
TRX Suspension Training
Best if . . . you’re tired of lifting weights but want to get buff.
What it’s like: In a gym class, you grab on to the handles of two yellow nylon straps that are suspended from hooks attached to either the ceiling or metal bars high up on the wall. With one or both feet planted on the ground, you hold on to the foam-covered handlebars for balance and lean back or move forward to squat, lunge or twist to either side. These fluid motions make working out feel less regimented and predictable than simply lifting weights. And, yes, the program—developed by a Navy SEAL—can be pretty hard. But don’t be intimidated. In the class I took at the Personal Fitness gym in Syracuse, New York, the lunchtime crowd was made up of people who, like me, seemed to be at a normal, not an advanced, level of fitness.
An expert weighs in: “Suspension training uses basic principles of physics to provide just the right challenge for every different muscle group,” says Neal Pire, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.The way you position yourself allows you to adjust the difficulty of each exercise: The more upright you are, the less gravity you fight; the farther you move your feet out from under you, the more unstable you are, and the more challenging the exercise becomes.
The verdict: It’s a definite “do.” My favorite part of the workout—and what sets it apart from traditional strength training—is the way every movement cues you to tighten your core. It’s like doing a ton of crunches without actually doing any crunches.
Find a class: Suspension training is popping up at more and more gyms, but if it hasn’t yet come to one near you (check at trxdirectory.trxtraining.com), you can buy a portable set of suspension-training straps with a door anchor and a DVD of basic moves for $200 at trxtraining.com (click on “Shop”).
Challenge rating: 2–3 (out of 4).
Best if . . . you crave the relaxing effects of yoga but are tired of bending yourself into strange positions.
What it’s like: This mix of yoga, Tai Chi, martial arts and meditation aims to stretch and strengthen your body while sharpening your brain. There is an emphasis on helping ki (internal energy, in Korean) circulate through your body via breathing exercises, meditations done while you’re in motion (called moving meditations) and self-massage of the pathways through which energy is believed to flow.
Some of Dahn yoga’s moves resemble actions we perform naturally when we’re trying to energize ourselves or de-stress. During the moving meditations, for instance, you reach your hands overhead for a big stretch, then rub your face with your hands.
An expert weighs in: “The deep breathing that’s central to Dahn yoga expands the diaphragm and the lungs’ air pockets, which helps to invoke the relaxation response,” says Matthews of the American Council on Exercise. “That’s one reason this practice can reduce stress and mental tension and may even help you deal with anxiety and depression.”
The verdict: This workout reminded me of a massage: a little bit of digging deep and a lot of tension-releasing aahs. You walk out after class feeling blissful and energized.
Challenge rating: 1 (out of 4).
Best if . . . you are bored with the same old, same old cardio routine, are motivated by competition and don’t mind having others watch you work out.
What it’s like: Each session of these fast and furious boot camp–style workouts is unlike the previous one: Different exercises, equipment, goals and muscles are emphasized. The class I attended, held at an indoor soccer field, started with a cardio session that included running with knees high, doing laps carrying 14-pound medicine balls on our shoulders and crawling around the field like Spider-Man. Then Colin, a local police officer who moonlights as a CrossFit instructor, hit go on a big red stopwatch, and the “athletes” (as we were called) sprang into action for the workout of the day. As quickly as possible, we did reps of kettlebell swings, overhead presses and pull-ups—all movements that engage a lot of muscles, including those in the core. When we finished the routine, we each yelled “Done” so our time could be recorded on a giant whiteboard. It was a noisy, encouraging crew. The entire group gathered around the athlete who finished last and cheered as she pushed out her final reps.
An expert weighs in: Expect a high--calorie burn. “CrossFit and other hard-core workouts like P90X activate a lot of muscle groups and keep you moving with minimal rest,” says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist and director of continuing education at the National Academy of Sports Medicine. These kinds of sessions can burn as many as 15 calories a minute—about 50 percent more than you can expect from your run-of-the-mill weight-machine routine.
The verdict: As someone who gets a thrill from running in races, I got really pumped up by the competitive, rah-rah atmosphere. Just make sure you don’t let an enthusiastic instructor goad you into doing more than your body can handle.
Find a class: Some CrossFit programs operate in gyms, others in athletic facilities. To find an affiliate in your area, enter your location at map.crossfit.com.
Challenge rating: 4 (out of 4).
Best if . . . you’re burned out on Pilates but still aiming for a dancer’s body.
What it’s like: These low-impact classes use ballet barres to help you maintain your balance as you alternate reps of tiny, controlled toning movements with stretching. The goal is to produce the long, lean musculature of a ballerina as well as a tight, uplifted butt. At the Figure 4 barre class I took at Pure Yoga studio in New York City, an essentially easy exercise—such as a tiny leg lift—was repeated and repeated, with the instructor guiding students into subtle changes of position until they got what’s known as the barre shakes, signaling that the muscles are working in overdrive.
An expert weighs in: “Although these classes are low impact, they tone muscles just as well as the higher-impact activities that many of us can’t do anymore,” says Sadie Lincoln, founder of Barre3, based in Portland, Oregon.
The verdict: I finished the class feeling a little bit wobbly but with a sense of accomplishment. And my sore muscles the next day showed just how tough it is to work out like a ballerina.
Find a class: Look for the word barre (or bar) in the name or description of classes at gyms in your area or search Google with the name of your city. You can also do the workouts at home with DVDs like those from Core Fusion and Pure Barre (go to collagevideo.com to order). You don’t actually need a barre in your living room to do this workout—the back of a chair will do fine.
Challenge rating: 3 (out of 4).
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