Don’t Waste Your Workout

So you’re ready to get in shape. You’ve got the motivation, snazzy new workout gear and a gym membership. This is it. This is the year you turn your health around and really get “healthy.” Maybe you’ll even get so healthy that you become an inspiration to everyone around you. People will look on in admiration as you walk down the street and say “look at that incredible, gorgeous, healthy person.”

You’re feeling excited to crack open a new, healthy chapter in your life as you cruise over to the gym, water bottle and mp3 player in tow. You bust through the doors, swipe your key card and take a deep breath of gym air. Except… Suddenly as you take a moment to look around, you realize you’re not exactly sure where to begin. There are a lot of people, machines and equipment around. Everyone seems to be working and knows what they’re doing. Everyone that is, except you.

Sound familiar? Most of us to have ever boarded the “get in shape” wagon can relate.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched a fellow gym-goer accomplish little to nothing beneficial in their attempt to work out because they didn’t know what they were doing. Or they were so intimidated by a gym atmosphere that they shyly piddled around, randomly doing this or that,  before giving up and leaving. Good intentions aside, it’s possible to unwittingly waste your time in a gym. But fear not -that is the exact dilemma we are going to look at today.

It’s important to have a plan of action before taking action. Walking into a gym without one is like beginning a recipe without a list of ingredients: bad things can happen. We’re going examine a basic, effective, three-step process for a typical exercise session.

1. The Warm Up 

An essential component in any exercise session, this sets the tone for the effectiveness of a workout. A proper warm up should accomplish two things: increase full range of motion in joints by loosening muscles and tendons and raise body temperature by increasing heart rate and blood flow.

Tight muscles are like cold taffy –when you strain it, it’s uncooperative or it breaks. You want to warm up your taffy so that it’s pliable and can sustain greater strain and impact. By elevating heart rate and blood flow, you’re also getting more oxygen to those muscles to fuel their energy longer and allow them to bear greater loads. Cheating on a warm up greatly increases chances for injury or rendering a workout ineffective.

Raising the body temperature begins with aerobic activity. In a gym, one simple approach is utilizing cardio machines, like a treadmill or elliptical. A warm up should minimally last 15-30 minutes, resulting in a slight sweat and followed by some light stretching. Warm up time can vary depending on the weather or how you feel that day. My staple gym warm up is 15-30 minutes of cardio -longer on colder days or when I’m feeling sluggish, shorter sometimes on warmer days or when I’m feeling energetic.

2. The Conditioning Bout

This is the main portion of a workout –the activity or activities that will fill the majority of your exercise time.

It should last approximately 20-40 minutes and is counted separately from the time you spent warming up, not in combination with it (I see you, cheaters -you’re not fooling anyone). While warms ups tend toward repetitiousness, here you can enjoy more variety –anything from building cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, toning or flexibility. The fitness world is your oyster!

You can incorporate different types of activities such as running, cycling, core work, calisthenics, weight lifting and strength training. Try creating a weekly exercise routine to have a plan heading into the gym -writing it down can help keep you on track. Some people like to focus on certain muscle groups certain days  -upper body, lower body, back, chest, core and cardio on different days. Alternating the time, intensity and frequency of exercises every couple weeks will help find what challenges you as your muscles grow.

Disclaimer: challenging your muscles does not mean murdering them in one session then lying on the floor for the next week because it hurts to move, breathe and blink. You’re exercising to improve and grow your body, not push it to the brink of exhaustion or injury. Your muscles will experience some soreness as they tear and grow, but overworking until you can’t move the rest of the week doesn’t mean you got a great workout -it might just mean setting your goals behind schedule because you have to take time off to recover.

3. The Cool Down

The final segment in a complete exercise session, cooling down allows your body to ease back into its resting state. Skipping it can cause muscles to tighten further, leaving them stiff, achy and more prone to cramp. It may also lead to venous blood pooling in your lower extremities, which can leave you feeling faint or dizzy.

A cool down only takes 5-15 minutes, so there’s no excuse to nix it. Transition whatever activity you selected for your conditioning bout to a cool down by gradually decreasing the intensity. When I go for a jog, I end my session by slowing to a walk for 5-10 minutes so that my heart rate can begin to wind down until it’s between 100-110 BPM.

This is also a great time to incorporate a few minutes of stretching while muscles are warm and elastic. It increases blood circulation to your muscles, which helps prevent excessive soreness later. It’s also a great time to work increasing flexibility. After lowering my heart rate, I finish my workout session with some basic standing or sitting flexibility exercises; paying attention to the major muscle groups I focused on during my conditioning bout.

There you have it –the basic ingredients for an effective workout. You don’t have to be a health-nut or fitness guru to feel competent walking into a gym and knowing how purposefully utilize your time. You can meet your goals with confidence, success, and strategy, one workout at a time.


This information is provided as an educational tool and is not intended to serve as medical advice, so consult with your doctor before engaging in any type of exercise program.

All writing copyright © 20013 Rachel Elise Weems Woods

Images copyright © Bigstockphoto.com

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