You put in the time and effort, show up at the gym, and pride yourself in not taking shortcuts. So why is the scale not budging? Chances are, poor exercise form or bad workout habits are costing you precious calories. Fitness experts reveal the most common ways people cheat at their workouts without even realizing it, and offer ways to kick those saboteurs to the curb.
You’re a swinger
Momentum comes in handy when you’re attempting a long jump, but not if you’re lifting weights. Each exercise involves two phases: a concentric (contracting) move and an eccentric (stretch) phase. “Building momentum by swinging your arms when doing a move like a bicep curl or a tricep push-down sacrifices results by not controlling the eccentric phase, and also increases your risk of injury,” says Irv Rubenstein, PhD, exercise physiologist and founder of STEPS Fitness, a science-based fitness facility in Nashville, Tenn. Practice a two-second count on the concentric move and four to five count on the eccentric.
You hold on for dear life
Grasping the sidebars when walking on the treadmill or hanging on tight to the handles of the elliptical trainer cheats you out of the largest possible calorie burn, says Rubenstein. “In addition, if you’re using your arms to make it easier on your legs, you’ll tire faster, because your arms can’t work as hard as your legs,” he says. Instead, use the rails only as a guide, keeping your fingertips lightly on them. If you find it impossible to maintain proper form without clutching the bars, try lowering the incline or slowing down your pace.
You don’t hold stretches long enough
Holding a stretch for only a few seconds does little to increase your flexibility and may also result in injury. The right way to stretch: hold still (no bouncing!) for at least 20 to 30 seconds.
Another common cheat comes during a hamstring stretch, says Rubenstein. If you round your back so you can reach farther down your extended leg, you’re preventing your hamstrings from actually getting stretched. It also puts unnecessary strain on your back.
You play the waiting game
Few things are more frustrating than dealing with a crowded gym, especially when other exercisers occupy the machines and equipment you’d planned on using. But waiting around wastes valuable time, says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym. “Don’t wait for the equipment to be available—instead, fill time with exercises you can do without a machine, such as crunches, planks, or push-ups,” he says. Or you could jump rope or do a set of high-knees, suggests Jessica Matthews, assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College in San Diego, Calif. Anything’s better than waiting around: “Spending five or more minutes between sets negatively impacts the overall quality and effectiveness of your workout,” Matthews says.