7 Best Tips from Experts on How to Make Your Workout Count

New York Times columnist and author of the new e-book, The First 20 Minutes Personal Trainer, Gretchen Reynolds gives us the final world on how to make your exercise count once and for all. By Ava Feuer, REDBOOK

Don't focus on strengthening your core
Well, it looks like that hundredth sit-up was probably a waste. When scientists tested athletes, such as football players, who would seemingly need super-strong cores to stay upright on the field, they found no correlation between core strength and performance. That's because the real hallmark of success is actually core stability. "An unstable core throws off all the muscles that circle your back," says Reynolds. "The primary purpose of the core muscles should be to hold your spine in place." To raise core stability, don't do sit-ups, which are usually performed incorrectly, and can lead to serious lower-back injuries. Instead, try three exercises: 10 proper crunches, which require laying flat on the ground with your knees up and your hands under your lower-back, lifting your head and neck until they're only a few inches off the ground; a series of side planks; and 10 bird-dogs, for which you get on all fours, and lift and extend your opposite arm and leg, hold it for a few moments, and switch sides.

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People respond to exercise differently
Ever wondered how your weightlifting buddy has gotten stronger so quickly? "What's becoming clear is different people with different genetic make-ups will respond differently to the exact same workout routines in terms of how fit they get, how much weight they lose, and how much they enjoy it," says Reynolds. The only way to determine the best program for you is through trial and error, and even variations of cardio - like swimming, running, and cycling - can make a difference. "The human body is designed for movement, but there are lots of genetic variations in terms of what movement would be good for you," Reynolds adds.

Don't bother icing sore muscles
When you return from a tough Zumba class, you may be inclined to ice your quads for fear of waking up tomorrow unable to walk. If that makes you feel better - and the temporary numbness may very well do so - great, but don't expect the practice to shorten recovery time. "There's no evidence that icing muscles makes them less sore the next day, makes them perform better, or makes it easier to return to exercise," says Reynolds. What could actually hurt you is taking Ibuprofen, as the painkiller makes muscles heel more slowly by delaying the process by which muscles make more collagen. "If you worked out hard, the best thing you can do is walk around," adds Reynolds. "There's some evidence that moving sore muscles can help them become a little less sore a little more quickly."

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You can exercise too much
Those moms that somehow find time to hit the gym each and every day of the week aren't any better off than the rest of us moderately active folk. "There's a steep curve to the health benefits from exercise," says Reynolds. "You get most of the them - lower disease risk, weight reduction, longer life - from exercising three or four times a week for half an hour." Yes, there are advantages to moving more, but they decrease dramatically, and almost completely level off once you exercise for more than an hour on most days. In fact, doing so could potentially shorten your lifespan. So if you're heading out for a three mile jog three times each week, you're in excellent shape so far as reducing your risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and dementia. Now, onto those other items your to-do list.

Drink pickle juice to prevent cramps
Put the banana back on the counter, and walk away. It's not potassium that prevents exercise-induced muscle cramps, although it may help the ones that occur when you are sick or pregnant. The cramps that creep up during a bout on the elliptical are due to fatigue, not dehydration - it's simply a matter of overuse. Although scientists are unsure why, the fail-safe remedy is actually a few ounces of pickle juice. "The brain recognizes the various chemicals - and probably some of the acidity - and sends messages to the muscles to stop cramping," says Reynolds. "It's a neurological response." So drink up - and save the extra for your next round of pickle-backs.

Running won't bust your knees
The warning goes something like this: Keep running, and you're bound to wear your knees down to nothing. While that may be true if you have bad ones to start, those with healthy knees are actually likely to strengthen, not weaken them by heavily loading, as one does when running. A 20-year Stanford University study of age-matched runners and non-runners found that over time, less than two percent of runners developed severe arthritis in their knees compared to 10 percent of non-runners. "If you don't have a history of knee injuries or knee problems in your 20s, you can keep running," says Reynolds. "For people with any history of knee injuries or problems, running exacerbates that. Then you have an unstable knee, and bones rub against the cartilage, which seems to wear away at it. If your knees hurt when you run, see a doctor. If they don't, keep running."

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Don't stretch before your exercise
Ever since elementary school PE class, you've likely kicked off every workout with toe-touching, and other so-called "static" stretches. But, you're not doing yourself any favors, says Reynolds. "Static stretching to warm up before you do something more taxing appears to be counterproductive. It makes muscles less strong and less powerful. And there's no evidence it reduces injury." While static stretching is unlikely to hurt you, what will help you is "dynamic" or "ballistic" stretching. These fast, short movements - like burpees, jumping jacks and knee lifts - actually warm up tendons and muscles, increase range of motion, and power up the mind-body connection.


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