Chances are, you have a pretty good idea of what you want to achieve before you ever set foot in a gym: You want to shed flab. You want to get more muscular. You want to look good for an upcoming event. You want to improve your cardiovascular health (per doctor’s orders). But once you step into the gym, all these goals fall from your mind as you stare at hundreds of pieces of equipment—some of them completely foreign. There are too many options and no clear path to success.
The gym can work wonders for you—so long as you go in armed with a plan to make your goals a reality. “Having a goal is essential if you want to make forward progress,” says Holly Waters, a personal trainer and co-owner of Fitness Alive in Philadelphia. “If you don’t have a goal and a plan to reach it, you’ll end up spinning your wheels. You risk wandering around the gym aimlessly or doing exercises that won’t give you the results you want. Either way, you’ll eventually lose motivation.”
To help you get—and stay—on track, we asked Waters and Dawn Stilwell, a trainer at Retro Fitness in Holmes, Pa., to create an action plan for achieving five popular fitness goals. Each goal comes with its own specific exercise combination you should do for best results. Mixing things up keeps your body guessing, changing, and improving. It’s also less boring than a daily elliptical slog. However, if there is an activity you love that’s not listed here, work it in. “The best exercise is the one that you enjoy,” Waters says. “It’s important to make any exercise routine work for you.”
If you’re looking for an extra edge, it’s worth considering springing for a one-on-one session with a trainer, especially if you are new to the gym. Working directly with a trainer will ensure you get an individualized routine specifically designed for you. Your trainer can also help ensure you’re doing exercises with proper form so you stay injury-free.
Use these time-tested trainer prescriptions to get the results you want.
If you want to: Get back in the game
Then you need to: Do low-impact cardio, group exercise classes, and foam rolling
If you’re coming off the sidelines and haven’t exercised in a while, this combination of activities can help you get back into a routine—safely. Low-impact cardio is a no-brainer if you’re dipping your toe back into the water. There are a variety of ways you can do this—elliptical, stairclimber, rowing machine, swimming, spinning. The choice is yours. Whatever you choose, the most important factor is to avoid overtraining and doing too much too soon, Waters says. Start slowly and only increase either duration or pace—that is, either decide to progress by going longer or by going faster. But don’t try to go both longer and faster at the same time.
Another great place to start is in group exercise classes since the instructors overseeing the classes are often eager to help people working to rebuild their fitness. Of course, working one-on-one with a personal trainer is the ideal scenario, but in a class setting, an instructor can at least keep an eye on you and help you modify a move or a pose accordingly based on your tight hamstring or achy knee.
Many gyms have foam rollers in their designated stretching areas. If you aren’t currently using one, Waters highly recommends you start incorporating it into your routine. Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release—essentially, a self-massage—which gets rid of adhesions in your muscles and connective tissue and increases blood flow. You can do it before a workout to help loosen up your muscles and prepare them for the effort ahead, as well as after a workout to knead out tight spots and start the recovery process.
If you want to: Finish your workout quickly
Then you need to: Combine high-intensity Interval training (HIIT) with rowing and group exercise classes
As lovely as your gym may be, you have a dozen things on your daily to-do list. These three exercises will give you a quick hit of endorphins.
HIIT enables you to get your heart rate up quickly and can give you an effective workout in less than 30 minutes, Waters says. If you are really in a time crunch, you can reduce the rest periods you take between interval sets so that you are moving more and resting less, and then call it a day in 15 or 20 minutes (see “Quick Moves” for Waters’s fast workouts). Research has shown that 15 minutes of high-intensity interval training can burn more calories than an hour of slow treadmill jogging.
Rowing pairs nicely with HIIT because it’s low impact, which gives your joints a break, and because it builds functional strength through its pull-and-push motion. Along with being one of the most underutilized pieces of cardio equipment at the gym, Stilwell says, the rowing machine works your whole body—upper, lower, abs, and back. For a challenging workout, row 300-meter intervals with a minute of rest in between and repeat until you have to hit the shower.
Group exercise classes are the way to go when you don’t have time to waste in your workout. The classes have a dictated start and finish time, and you’ll be kept on task by the instructor. “You’re likely to push yourself harder when you’re working out with others,” Waters explains. While Waters recommends boot-camp-style classes since they tend to combine strength and cardio, giving you a full-body workout, she says that the best class to take is the one you enjoy the most and will be committed to—be it spinning or Zumba or aqua-Pilates.
If you need to: Slim down
Then you need to: Combine HIIT with weight training
For a long time, cardio workouts were thought to be the golden ticket to weight loss. But cardio sessions—especially long, steady-state ones during which you’re going the same pace for an extended period of time—don’t build metabolism-boosting muscle and usually leave you feeling ravenous. Which is not a recipe for success since the ultimate key to weight loss is creating a calorie deficit, says Stilwell. Instead, she recommends that in addition to maintaining a healthy diet, your weekly gym routine should focus on strength training and HIIT sessions.
“Strength training is essential because it builds lean muscle, which burns more calories throughout the day—even while you’re sleeping,” Stilwell says. She recommends using a variety of different training tools, including free weights, kettlebells, and TRX suspension training. For longer, leaner-looking muscles, Stilwell recommends lighter weights and higher repetitions. If you are looking to put on more muscle mass, she recommends heavier weights with fewer repetitions.
The term HIIT may not be new to you—it’s been a popular buzzword in the fitness industry for the past few years. And for good reason: Studies have shown that HIIT, which entails doing short bursts of high-intensity exercises (think jump squats, lunge jumps, etc.) in a circuit-training fashion, reduces body weight while maintaining muscle mass. Dynamic and explosive workouts are also more challenging—in a good way. “HIIT workouts are empowering,” Waters says.“They make you feel like you’re really accomplishing something and kicking butt, which is exciting and energizing for your body and your mind.”
If you want to: Sculpt defined arms
Then you need to: Do static holds, burpees, and water workouts with paddles
Waters, who has built a reputation for helping brides-to-be build “wedding arms,” recommends three exercises—whether you have a strapless dress in your future or you simply want Gal Gadot’s arms.
Waters first has her clients do static holds, like planks, pull-up holds (in which you jump up to get your chin above a pull-up bar and hold yourself there), and push-up holds (lower down in a push-up so that your chest is close to the ground and hold). “Static holds are effective because they recruit more muscle fibers,” she says. “They may look easy, but your muscles start shaking pretty quickly as you do them.” Begin with just 10 seconds, then build up to 30 and then 60. “Working to failure and then eking another set out is when you’ll really see results,” she says.
Burpees are the next move in Waters’s killer-arm toolkit. This dynamic and explosive move incorporates a push-up, which targets all of your upper-body muscles. But the high-intensity cardio element of the exercise gets your heart rate up and burns calories, lowering body fat so your muscles can pop.
Finally, Waters prescribes her clients pool workouts and outfits them with a pair of hand paddles. “Plastic paddles create resistance in the water,” she says. “It’s like an invisible resistance band.” You don’t have to be a swimmer to reap the benefits. Simply wear the paddles in the pool and do a series of classic arm moves—bicep curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises—in interval sets.
If you want to: Build head-to-toe strength
Then you need to: Mix yoga and Pilates with TRX training and compound strength moves
Fitness isn’t just about aesthetics, thank goodness. It’s also about being able to get your luggage in and out of the overhead compartment without a hassle, or soldiering on when a blister strikes during a 10K. That’s why Stilwell’s strength-building to-do list starts with a weekly session of yoga or Pilates. These two disciplines not only build strength, flexibility, and balance, they also have a meditative aspect that improves mental focus.
Stilwell is also a huge fan of TRX, a low-impact training suspension system that leverages gravity and your bodyweight to enable dozens of full-body exercises from arm rows to squats. “TRX training incorporates the core into each and every exercise,” Stilwell says. “It’s an unstable piece of equipment so it forces all of your stabilizer and assistor muscles to activate, which really gives you a full body workout. I can’t recommend it enough.”
The last piece of Stilwell’s strength puzzle comes from doing compound exercises that engage multiple muscle groups at once. For example, instead of doing squats and overhead presses separately, you could hold two dumbbells, lower into a squat, and then curl and raise the weights overhead as you return to a standing position. You can also do lunges with arm curls, deadlifts with upright rows, and sit-ups with a shoulder press while holding a dumbbell or medicine ball. The strength you develop doing a squat with a press is more applicable to real-life situations than that which you’d gain by sitting in a leg-extension machine.
Longer workouts aren’t necessarily better workouts. These are Holly Waters’s go-to routines when she’s short on time. Move through each exercise as quickly as possible. You can rest between rounds. The shorter the rest, the more intense the workout.
- 2 jumping jacks + 1 burpee continuously for 1 minute
- 30 seconds of lunges
- 30 seconds of mountain climbers
- 5 push-ups
- 20 air squats
- Alternate 10 seconds holding a tall plank (arms straight) and 10 seconds holding elbow plank (elbows on the mat) for 1 minute
**Do 5 rounds total
- 15 kettlebell swings
- 50 high knees, running in place
- 2 burpees
- 20 butt-ups (Begin in a plank position with your elbows on the ground. Arch your back slightly and raise your glutes toward the ceiling, squeezing your abs. Lower back down and repeat.)
**Do as many rounds as possible in 15 minutes.