You work out most days, but your clothes fit the same and your performance has plateaued. What gives? You’re in a rut—and one of these five tweaks to your routine can help you break out of it. Toned muscles, the last 5 pounds, a new race PR: Reach your goal … and keep on going.
1. WARM UP, NO EXCUSES
If you skip your warm-up (we know, it’s tempting), you cheat yourself out of maximum results. Prime your body the right way and you can train harder, burn more calories and prevent injury. Here’s how:
Take Five. Spend five minutes doing moves that gently work as many muscle groups as possible (jumping jacks, butt kicks, windmills). “This increases circulation and activates muscles so you get more out of your workout,” says exercise physiologist Tom Holland, author of Beat the Gym. On an exertion scale of 1 to 10, go no higher than 4.
Roll, Don’t Stretch. Just one minute of loosening muscles with a foam roller increases their range of motion (ROM) without sapping your strength the way static stretching does, a study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research finds. And the greater your ROM, the more effective your exercises.
2. TRICK YOUR MUSCLES
When your body gets used to a routine, it becomes more efficient—and you stop seeing results. Your muscles aren’t that smart, though. Keep them guessing with simple switch-ups.
Swap Equipment. Do the moves you love, just change the tools. Trade dumbbells for a cable machine or TRX. Do ab exercises on a stability ball instead of the floor. “Your body has to work harder to adapt when faced with unfamiliar grips and movement patterns,” Holland explains.
Change the Order. If you have a go-to strength routine, work through it backward. Or mix up the moves entirely. “Fatiguing your muscles in a different way than you normally do can feel like a whole new routine,” Holland says.
3. GO HARDER
Not seeing results? You may not be sweating enough. (Working out means you have to work.) To up your game:
Progress Your Moves. One shortcut to toned muscles is to increase the amount you’re lifting, but it’s not the only way. Experiment with using your body weight differently. “Once you’ve mastered a basic squat or push-up, try it with one leg lifted,” suggests Equinox instructor Stephanie Vitorino, creator of the club’s Best Body Breakthru class. This will shift the weight so each side (and your core) has to work harder to hold the weight and balance.
Take Baby Steps. “A painless way to step up your cardio is to increase intensity or time by up to 10 percent each week,” says Dorette Franks, a San Francisco–based USA Triathlon and USA Track & Field coach. So if you run at 6 mph on the treadmill, bump it up to somewhere between 6.1 and 6.6 for your next session. Small, incremental changes aren’t overwhelming, and they keep you moving forward.
Tone Up. If 5-pound weights don’t tap your strength, move to 8-pounders. You won’t bulk up, but you will notice definition.
4. CHANGE FREQUENCY
Assuming you’re already sweating three or more days a week, manipulate your schedule to boost results.
Break Up Sessions. If you run 4 miles twice a week, try doing 2 miles four times a week (or vice versa). “You’ll fatigue more often or more intensely, which can trigger change,” Holland says.
Be Flexible. Mixing up the time of day you sweat can give you an edge, depending on your goal. To melt fat, work out before breakfast, when you haven’t eaten for several hours—it helps you burn stored fat instead of dietary carbs (muscles’ usual energy source), a study in the Journal of Physiology shows. To boost strength and calorie burn, go in the evening: Cyclists who sprinted between 4 and 8 p.m. had more power than those who rode in the morning, a study in the Journal of Biology of Exercise shows.
5. MAKE TIME TO RECOVER
Permission to relax. You actually get fitter between workouts—it’s when your body repairs (aka builds) muscle. Ways to add R&R to your plan:
Try Active Recovery. Do an easy activity (light cardio, a restorative yoga class) on days between tough workouts. “The idea is to rest while you gently move, to keep your muscles from getting stiff, to get the blood flowing and to ensure healing,” Holland says.
Take a Day or Two Off. You need at least one no-exercise day each week, Holland suggests. If you don’t take a break, you’re at a risk for injury because you’re not giving your body enough time to repair. Plus, you won’t perform as well on days you’re going all out.
Occasionally, Take a Week Off. If you’ve been hitting it hard five to seven days a week for months, take seven days of downtime. “Plateaus can be a sign that your body is tired and needs extra time to recover,” says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., a women’s-strength specialist in Los Angeles. It will prepare you to return to the gym refreshed and ready to kill it once again.