What's standing between you and a hot body? Boredom? Lack of motivation? Too little time? Chances are, you're in an exercise rut. We had readers list top fitness frustrations, then went to experts for ideas to revive any routine. Try their techniques and see amazing results. You'll be saying, "I can't wait to work out!"
Lose the muffin top:
Sprint to bust your belly. Only fat-dissolving cardio (and cutting calories) can get rid of ab flab. The workout that targets the overhang: interval training. Women who alternated cycling as fast as possible for 8 seconds with 12-second rest periods repeated for 20 minutes dropped 9.5 percent of their mushy middles, whereas those who cycled steadily for 40 minutes gained, a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity reveals. Add speed bursts to any exercise — horseback riding, belly dancing or downhill skiing — and beat the bulge!
Don't rest between reps. When doing crunches, never let your back and shoulders hit the floor, which allows them to relax. "Abs are used to constant tension when we sit or stand. Deliver tension when exercising, too, or else moves are too easy," says Scott Mazzetti, Ph.D., research advisor at the Applied Health Physiology Laboratory at Salisbury University in Maryland. Set a stability ball at the small of your back. The ball's curve won't allow your back or shoulders to cheat. Do three or four sets of up to 15 reps, with a 30-second rest between sets.
Try pilates. Devotees are known for sculpted stomachs because many moves engage the core. But it's the ab-specific Teaser that tones the rectus abdominis 38 percent more and obliques 245 percent more than crunches on the floor, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. Try the Teaser: Lie faceup, legs lifted, bent 90 degrees; raise hands to ceiling. Lift torso and extend legs to a V with arms parallel to legs. Pause, then roll back down, keeping legs raised. Return to start position. Do 6 to 10 reps.
Mix it up. If you only run or bike each session, you have likely become so good at the motions that you're using fewer calories. Switch it up twice a week �(swap spinning for squash) for a fat-melting jolt to your system, says Kara Mohr, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist in Louisville, Kentucky.
Learn to burn. Do seven sessions of intervals — fast bursts — in a two-week period (complete at least three in one week) and you'll shed 36 percent more fat during an hour of steady cardio time, research from the University of Guelph in Ontario shows. (Sessions included 10 four-minute sprints with two minutes of rest in between.) But don't stop after two weeks. Add one to three days of intervals to your weekly cardio (or four to six speedy sets per workout) and you may keep increasing your fat burn indefinitely, says Jason Talanian, Ph.D., a co-author of the study.
Muscle your way fit. Most people stress less about their weight if their body looks toned, Mohr says. Strength training does that; it shapes and redefines. Torch more calories by doing the contraction part of moves — like the lift — fast, with as much effort as possible, then lower on two counts.
Tone below the belt:
Trick your muscles. Do a plyometric exercise, an explosive leaping move such as a jump squat, followed immediately by a free-weight exercise, a la a leg press on the same side. Plyometrics burns serious calories, plus fatigues muscles, which is essential for toning, without extra reps or weight. By maxing your effort like this, you use more energy in less time, shaving minutes off your workout and sculpting lean curves, Mazzetti says.
Focus on the bottom line. Add hip extensions and step-ups to your regular routine. The moves tap hamstrings 55 percent more and glutes 79 percent and 59 percent more, respectively, than squats, a study by the American Council on Exercise in San Diego shows. For hip extensions: Get on hands and knees, press one bent leg toward ceiling, keeping knee bent. Do 12 reps. Switch sides. For step-up: Holding a 5- to 8-pound dumbbell in each hand, step left leg onto a bench. Step down on right leg. Do 12 reps. Switch legs; repeat.
Work the angles. "Your glutes create an external rotation when contracted [like the side-pushing motion in skating], so doing moves in that same range of motion makes the exercises more effective," says Kurt Murray, a certifying trainer in Philadelphia for the American College of Sports Medicine. One example: Stand holding a chair in front of you. Extend your right leg straight behind you, foot flexed. Point your toe, then sweep leg counterclockwise until toe reaches a 4 o'clock position. Do 12 reps, switch sides. Or take it outside and mimic this movement as you ice skate or Rollerblade — but be sure to contract glutes at the end of each skate stroke to work the muscles to full potential, Murray says.
Shrink the bra-strap bulge:
Choose smooth moves. The wide-grip lat pull-down and the seated row are excellent exercises for firming the tricky back area, a study in Dynamic Medicine finds. No gym? No problem. For the pull-down, hang center of exercise band over corner of door; grab an end in each hand, arms overhead, and sit on the floor and pull down until arms are shoulder height. For the row, sit with legs extended, band under feet, an end in each hand. Pull straight back, elbows bent. Do two sets of 12 reps each.
Kick in some cardio. Burn even more fat by sneaking in cardio on days you use weights. Go from one move to another minus rest or jump rope between sets. A 135-pound woman would torch up to 256 calories in 30 minutes versus 97 for lifting alone. Other cardio add-ins? Martial arts or crank up the iPod and dance!
Perk up your pecs. When you work one muscle group, make sure to give the opposing one attention, too (in this case the chest). You'll avoid an imbalance and create a firmer, more flattering shape. Try dumbbell flies: Lie faceup on a bench, a weight in each hand, arms straight up. Open arms until weights are in line with shoulders, then bring arms together. Repeat.
Tone your arms:
Add oomph! To truly firm muscles, make sure your arms feel spent after a single set of 10 reps, says Rodney Corn, former education director of the National Academy of Sports Medicine in Calabasas, California. When reps feel easy, up resistance. Complete those last two reps of a set with 5-pound weights like a cakewalk? Upgrade to 8-pounders.
Alternate weight. For your first strength session of the week, use heavier weights and do fewer reps (about 8); next time, go lighter, but do 12 to 15 reps. Called undulating training, it challenges your muscles in different ways, delivering even better results, Corn says.
Reach for dumbbells. If you use machines with rigid parts, you may be working the same muscle fibers over and over, neglecting others. Swap in free weights and you'll require input from more fibers to keep steady, recruiting more muscles. Try triceps extensions: With feet hip-width apart, knees soft, a 5- to 10-pound dumbbell in each hand, lean forward until torso is parallel to floor. Hold bent elbows near sides, palms in, knuckles down. Press weights up and back, rotating palms down. Hold for one count; lower; repeat. Do three sets of 15 reps.
Build up gradually. Do too much too fast, and you'll burn out, says Diane Klein, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Aim for readily achievable mini-goals; consistent success fuels enthusiasm for the long haul.
Follow your mood. When you can pick an exercise based on how you feel (e.g., hip-hop dance out of a funk) or what fits the day's schedule, exercise becomes part of your life versus feeling like another chore. Do solo workouts (kayaking, biking, swimming) as well as group classes or sports, and you're more likely to stick with your routine, research suggests.
Map out fitness. Plan goals for the month on a calendar. Sign up for a triathlon or schedule weekly bowl-a-thons with your buds. Seeing plans in writing makes you accountable, Mohr says. Keep a log of your workouts and compare them with your goals to see where and when fitness levels dip.
Play games. Assign a distance, intensity or speed value to anything — the number of stoplights you pass, coins, M&M's colors; be creative — then apply it to your routine. Example: Dig in to your wallet, eyes closed. Pull out a $1 bill, do one-minute sprints. A $5: Go for a 5 percent incline every five minutes. A $10: Push your pace for 10 minutes. With goals to focus on, the time will seem more exciting.
BYO Coach. Train with a pal and take turns calling out challenges to each other or deciding on the workout, says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist in Darien, Connecticut. Guessing whether she'll next propose playing volleyball or volleying tennis balls makes fitness minutes fly.
Join a club. Treadmills are great, but a few times a week, turn exercise into a social activity. Check the Road Runners Club of America Web site or Active.com, which has tons of team sports (lacrosse, golf), to find people like you — or totally different. Either way, the change of scenery and new friends will keep things fresh!
Maximize your workout:
Increase intensity. Intervals aren't the only slimming supercharger. Get your blood pumping hard and fast for the entire 20 minutes and the amount of calories you torch afterward will skyrocket, Mohr says. This fast-paced circuit does it, while incorporating strength training and keeping your body guessing — and burning: Three times a week, alternate between three minutes of cardio (a different one for every interval — jumping rope, trampolining, even salsa dancing) and a minute and a half of a continuous multitasking strength move (like lunges with shoulder press or squats with triceps extension), says Jon Giswold, a trainer in New York City.
Aim for variety. Over time, your body will become more efficient with exercises, says Giswold, so two days of the week, do totally new activities. For 20 minutes, try kickboxing (which burns 214 calories), step aerobics (182) and power yoga (144).
Sneak in fitness. Once a day, spend 10 minutes doing something that leaves you winded. Run up stairs or skip to your car. Anything that adds to your day's total calorie output equals a leaner, fitter body!