You're ready to work out. Maybe you're an experienced athlete, or perhaps you just recently gave up the recliner and set aside the bowl of chips to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Either way, your goal is to take the one body you've been given and make it look and work its best.
There are countless reasons to chase this goal. Staying active can help you avoid major illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, give you more energy and make you feel happier. Endorphins anyone? Looking buff certainly doesn't hurt when it comes to impressing the ladies, either. But in order to optimize your body, you need to optimize your workout plan.
Read on for pointers on becoming a lean, mean, healthy machine.
Take It Slow
Motivation is a wonderful thing. Keep in mind, however, that unbridled enthusiasm has led many would-be athletes to write checks their bodies can't cash.
Sports injuries are second only to the common cold among reasons why people pay a visit to their doctor. A large number of the injured are so-called "weekend warriors" who try to trade their sedentary existence for the life of an elite athlete. Here's the thing -- it's not a trade, it's a progression. The people who push too hard, too soon, end up right back on the sofa with painful injuries and unwanted medical bills [source: Hobson].
It's great to have a passion for working out, but the fire can quickly get out of control. A better bet is to maintain a slow, controlled burn.
When is the best time to work out? Read on to learn about fitness schedules.
Make a Schedule That Works For You
You've probably heard that it's best to exercise in the morning to kick-start your metabolism for the day and help you sleep at night. You may have also read that your workout will be more productive if it's done between 4 and 6 p.m. when your body temperature is highest. What are you to make of the mixed messages?
The most important thing about your workout schedule is that it fits you. If you're not a morning person, a workout plan that requires you to get up two hours early every day may not last. The same goes if you're consistently "running on empty" after work -- force yourself into an evening workout regimen and you'll likely throw in the towel before long.
Find a time that works for you, whether in the morning, during your lunch break or in the evening, and stick with it [source: Men's Health].
Does sports equipment matter? Next, we consider the right tools for the job.
Get the Right Equipment
Any workout you choose requires some sort of equipment, whether it's the right shoes for a 5K run or the right racket for a game of tennis. And while you don't have to spend a fortune on the latest gadgets and the spiffiest outfits, you do need to make sure the equipment is in reasonable condition, fits properly and is right for your sport.
Experts recommend that runners replace their shoes every 300 to 500 miles (483 to 805 kilometers). Keep the same tattered pair of shoes too long, and you could wind up with a painful problem like plantar fasciitis. The wrong biking saddle or shorts can lead to "saddle sores," and poorly fitting skates can take you out of your hockey game and land you on the bench with a sprained ankle.
Get your gear at a sports store with knowledgeable staff members who can help you pick the right equipment. Your job is to remember to replace it regularly.
Next, is it better to work out alone or in a group?
Seek Out Accountability
True, Mom always warned you about the dangers of peer pressure, but working out is one part of life in which peer pressure can be a real plus.
Even Olympians have days when they just don't feel like exercising. There's nothing wrong with taking a day off here and there, but slacking off whenever you feel like it will seriously hamper your progress. That's where friends step in. Invite some co-workers for regular after-work gym sessions, join a local soccer team or running group, or invite a neighbor along for daily walks through the neighborhood. Knowing that the team will be short a player if you don't show up will motivate you to get out there. You're less likely to cancel a workout if you know your friends will (lovingly) heckle you for it.
What's the one color that shouldn't be associated with your workout style? Click ahead for the answer.
Beware of the Gray Zone
It seems natural to work out at a level that's not too easy and not too hard. This is the infamous "gray zone," and it's infamous for good reason.
Medium-effort workouts will help you keep the fitness level you already have, but they won't stimulate much adaptation. In short, you won't see significant progress.
To escape the gray zone, think of the difficulty of your workouts on a scale of one to 10, with one being easy and 10 being full throttle. Consistent workouts at level five will give you lackluster results but exercising at level eight or above every day will leave you exhausted and prone to injury. The best course of action is to alternate easy workouts (level three or below) with strenuous ones (level eight or above). Your body will be stimulated to improve, and it will have enough downtime to mend and adapt [source: Fitzgerald].
When should you call in an expert? Read on to learn about personal trainers.
Consider a Trainer
When the transmission goes out on your car, you see a mechanic. If you're sick, you see a doctor. Want to get in top shape? You guessed it, you visit a personal trainer. It's not a sign of ignorance or weakness. It's a recognition of who is the most knowledgeable when it comes to reaching fitness goals.
If you're primarily a runner, a personal trainer can teach you resistance training techniques that will help you lift your knees for a more efficient stride. If you mostly pump iron, your trainer can teach you exercises to keep you flexible. He or she can also provide valuable insights on nutrition.
The costs associated with hiring a personal trainer can vary greatly but keep in mind that some gyms provide the services of a trainer in the cost of your membership. If cost is still an obstacle, consider putting some money aside and giving yourself a month's worth of sessions for your birthday. Once you've run out of sessions, you can continue using what you've learned on your own.
Does exercise have to be hard work? Next, how to make your workout fun.
Choose Activities You Love
Remember when you were a little boy enjoying your summer break? You didn't wake up in the morning thinking, I've got to get in a good workout today. Instead, you thought, it's time to go out and play!
If you make exercise just one more chore on your to-do list, something you have to suffer through to keep your love handles under control, staying motivated will always be an uphill battle. Pick activities you enjoy, such as regular games of hoops with the guys, and find ways to make boring activities more fun. Make your workouts less like work and more like play, and you'll be more likely to stick to your fitness plan.
No pain, no gain, right? The limit to that rule, next.
Listen to Your Body
It may sound a bit touchy-feely, but it's true -- to be a successful, healthy athlete, you need to listen to your body.
"Feeling the burn" in your muscles during a tough workout is a perfectly normal sign that you're challenging your body. Sweating and labored breathing can also be quite natural. But throbbing joints or sudden, sharp pains anywhere are signs that you need to stop what you're doing. Failing to heed your body's distress signals can lead to serious injury and setbacks. Also, post-workout pain that doesn't let up after a few days of rest and ice warrants a trip to the doctor [source: Hobson].
Severe swelling or deformity, dislocation of a joint, numbness or bluish color of the skin or nails are signs that you need to head straight to the ER [source: Northwest Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine]. Pain in the chest or left arm, tightness or a crushing feeling in your chest, or unexplained sweating, such as breaking out in a cold sweat after your workout can be indicators of a heart attack. In that case, call 9-1-1 [source: American Heart Association].
Read on to learn when to take your workouts up a notch.
Take it Up a Notch
There comes a time when the workouts that used to feel nearly impossible become altogether easy. That's when you double the mileage, multiply the reps and pack the weight bar with as many iron plates as it will hold, right? Wrong. When we say it's time to take it up a notch we mean just that -- a notch.
If you're a distance runner, remember the 10 percent rule; you shouldn't increase your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent at a time. If your previous max -- the most you can lift one time -- on the weight bench is 225 pounds (102 kilograms), try adding five or 10 pounds only and using a spotter (someone who can grab the bar if you struggle.) Taking it up just a notch may feel frustrating sometimes, but patience pays off.
The biggest payoff, of course, is reaching your goals. That is, if you've set some goals. That's next.
Set Your Own Goals
Most men will tell you that they're most productive when they know what they're working for. A vague goal such as getting in better shape or an unrealistic focus such as putting Michael Phelps to shame in the pool, will only hamper your progress.
Set a reasonable long-term goal. Maybe it's to complete your first half-marathon nine months from now. Then work toward smaller goals along the way, such as completing your first 5K or 10K. Celebrate each small goal as a step on the path to the larger objective. And remember that, you're really competing with yourself. The elite runner in the group who never seems to break a sweat can be an inspiration to you, but don't break a leg trying to keep up when he or she has probably been training for much longer than you have. You're on your own path to fitness and you'll get there at your own pace.
Keep your workouts safe and effective, and you'll reach your full athletic potential.
For lots more information on exercise, visit the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at a study linking time spent with childhood friends with improved outcomes in men's health.
- American Heart Association. "Heart Attack Symptoms and Warning Signs." 2011. (March 6, 2011)http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4595
- Fitzgerald, Matt. "Hit the Accelerator." Men's Health. (March 6, 2011)http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/running-efficiently
- Hobson, Katherine. "The Weekend Warrior's Guide to Eight Common Injuries." U.S. News & World Report. June 8, 2007. (March 4, 2011)http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/articles/070608/8injuries.sportsmed.htm
- Men's Health. "6 Tricks to Get the Most from Your Workout." 2010. (March 3, 2011)http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/workout_tips/printer.php
- Northwest Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine. "When to Go to the Emergency Room." (March 6, 2011)http://www.nwortho.com/help/emergency_room