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5 Key Practices to Remember When You Exercise

Jan 27 2021
6 min read
woman using chest press machine in gym

If you’ve been working out for a while, there are probably some fitness “rules” that you’ve either learned from a trainer or in an exercise class...

...or maybe just from a friend, that have stuck with you: maintaining good form when you’re strength training; aiming for 30 minutes of aerobic activity; or keeping your abdominals engaged when you’re doing any kind of movement.

But there may be other aspects of your workout that you aren’t considering—simple practices that could take your fitness to a new level (or set you on a successful path if you’re a beginner) by helping you get the most out of your routine. These must-dos can also factor into how much you enjoy exercise, because they help you feel your best while you move.

The next time you work out, remember how important it is to…

Drink Water While You're Exercising

Even if you hydrate before and after exercise, you should still be taking in fluids during your workout. Aim to drink three to eight ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes; heavy sweaters should drink more. If you’re worried you may be dehydrated, the easiest way to tell is to check the color of your urine. The darker the color, the more dehydrated you are.

It only takes a body water deficit of two percent of your body weight to hurt your performance, making it harder to exercise and see desired results. (Read more on proper hydration during exercise in our article, Nutrition for Your Best Workout.)

Tire Out Your Muscles

Exercise experts call this “going to failure”—doing as many repetitions of a strength training move as you can, until your muscles simply can’t do one more. If you exhaust your muscles, 70 percent of the improvements in strength can happen in the first set, which means

Exercise experts call this “going to failure”—doing as many repetitions of a strength training move as you can, until your muscles simply can’t do one more. If you exhaust your muscles, 70 percent of the improvements in strength can happen in the first set, which means choosing a weight that’s challenging enough for your muscles to reach “failure” in about eight to 12 reps (the typical amount for a set of one exercise, like bicep curls or an overhead presses). As you become stronger over time, you’ll need to increase the amount of weight to continue to challenge your muscles.

Rest Between Weight Training Sets

If strength training isn’t your favorite kind of workout, or your schedule’s tight, it’s tempting to want to cut out or reduce the time you take to recover between sets. Try not to: Research shows that when lifting heavy weights, resting for several minutes between sets helps you do more reps over multiple sets, ultimately leading to increases in overall strength, primarily because it allows you to train longer. Keep in mind that a super-short break, like 15 or 30 seconds, isn’t enough, though optimal rest times can vary depending on how heavy your weights are.

We recommend following these recovery guidelines from The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM): Rest for one to two minutes between sets with lighter weights (five pounds or less); two to three minutes for moderate weight (six to 10 pounds); and more than three minutes for heavier weights (more than 10 pounds).

Or, you can think about it in terms of reps: 12 to 20 reps with lighter weights/rest 30 to 60 seconds; eight to 12 reps with moderate weights/rest 60 to 90 seconds; four to eight reps with heavy weights/rest two to three minutes.

Keep Good Form on Cardio Machines, Too

If you’ve ever had a personal trainer or coach instruct you on strength training, whether with free weights or machines, they’ve most likely emphasized how important it is to maintain proper form, both to get a good workout and to avoid injury. But too often, we don’t apply that same logic to the treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike or other cardio machines. The most common mistake? Leaning on the machine and letting it do too much of the work for you.

It’s better to choose a slower speed or a lower intensity or resistance if it means you’ll get the most out of your session. Swinging your arms while walking or running makes a difference: One study found that the natural motion of arm-swinging allows runners to perform better and also minimizes torso rotation (a common movement that can lead to back pain). Try to avoid holding onto the machine or answering emails on your phone to hold your form.

Breathe When You Stretch

It’s common to hold your breath (usually without even realizing it) when you’re in a stretch. Instead, try to use this time—pre- or post-exercise—to inhale and exhale mindfully. This will help you move deeper into the stretch, allowing your muscles to relax more fully.

And when stretching as part of your cool-down, mindful breath work will help bring your heart rate back to normal. These few minutes you spend extending and breathing intentionally can also serve as a mental transition into or out of a workout, preparing you for the session ahead or allowing you to reflect on your efforts.