When you're working out at the gym, it's easy to assume that "more" and "harder" are always better. And to a certain point, it's true that effort equals results. But consistency is more valuable than effort in any one workout. The trick is finding a balanced routine you'll stick with.
The best gym routine is a strategic blend of cardio, strength training and flexibility, while also giving you some time to rest and recover between workouts.
How Much Exercise Do You Need Each Week?
Even short bouts of exercise are better than none at all. But if you're working out for better health or taking the first steps toward getting fit, there are some concrete goals you can aim for.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2015 to 2020 outline the minimum amount of exercise you need to stay healthy: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio, plus at least two days of full-body strength training.
Not sure if your workout qualifies as "moderate" or "intense"? Try rating it on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is lying in bed and 10 is the fastest sprint you can handle. Moderate exercise usually ranks around a 5 or 6, while vigorous exercise comes in as a 7 or 8.
4 Things Every Good Gym Routine Needs
Did you notice that the above fitness guidelines are spelled out week by week instead of day by day? That means you get some flexibility in how you space your cardio and strength training throughout the week, as long as you mind a few basic principles.
1. Get Your Heart Pumping With Cardio
Cardiovascular exercise is, in essence, anything that gets your large muscle groups moving, thereby raising your heart rate, for an extended period. Some examples of cardio workouts you'll find in the gym include:
- Aerobics classes
- Dance classes
- Calisthenics (such as push-ups and jumping jacks)
- Walking or running on the treadmills
- Using the ellipticals
- Climbing stairs on a step mill
- Cycling on a stationary bike
Why do you need cardio? It provides a wide range of health benefits, from strengthening your immune system to boosting your mood and reducing your risk of chronic diseases, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can even help you lose weight, if that's your goal.
Each session, make sure you include a five- to 10-minute warm-up before your workout, then give yourself the same amount of cooldown time at the end. The warm-up gives your body a chance to adapt to the demands you're about to put on it, and the cooldown gives it a chance to adapt back to a state of rest.
Depending on which types of cardio you enjoy the most, you might choose to spend 30 minutes each day (not counting warm-up and cooldown time) on a treadmill or exercise bike, or you might choose to take three Zumba classes a week.
Experts agree: Even a little bit of cardio is better than none at all. So if all you have time for is a five-minute walk, get out and take that walk.
2. Flex Your Muscles With Strength Training
Resistance training is an important part of any workout, because it strengthens not just your muscles but your bones too, according to the Mayo Clinic. It also gives you the strength and endurance to carry out everyday chores like carrying groceries around or moving furniture, and as you age, those qualities help you continue living a healthy, independent lifestyle.
You may need to do a little bit of trial and error to find the right weight to lift, but start on the lighter side (just just use your own body weight!). A good goal for beginners is to use a weight that lets you complete 12 to 15 reps with good form. Once you can do more than that, it's time to either increase the weight or choose a more difficult exercise.
A good workout routine in the weight room targets every major muscle group, so choose at least one exercise from each list below. Many of these exercises work more than one muscle at a time. The term for this is a "compound exercise." They not only help you get through your workout faster, but they also allow you to train in a way that more closely mimics real-world movements.
- Chest press
- Bench press
- Chest flys
- Lat pulldowns
- Dumbbell or barbell rows
- Back extensions
- Leg presses
- Side lunges
- Leg extension machine
- Leg curl machine
- Calf raises
- Glute bridges
For most people living a typical sedentary lifestyle, the hamstrings are weaker than they should be. You can focus on them, if you like, with "bonus" exercises like stability ball hamstring curls and straight-leg deadlifts.
- Biceps curls
- Triceps pushdowns
- Overhead presses
- Hammer curls
- Triceps kickbacks
- Bicycle crunches
3. Show Your Body Some Love With Stretching
Although it may be tempting to focus on the most sweat-inducing components of your workout — the cardio and the strength training — stretching is also very important because it can help improve your posture, reduce the risk of injuries and may even help you manage stress, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
In a perfect world, you would spend at least 30 minutes, three times a week, stretching to increase mobility and reduce your risk of injury, according to ACE. But a lot of people simply don't have that much time to focus exclusively on flexibility, but as with cardio, every little bit helps. Try some of these stretches after your workout:
- Standing quad stretch
- Forward fold
- Butterfly stretch
- Calf stretch
- Arm-across-chest stretch
- Overhead triceps stretch
- Hands-behind-back chest stretch
- Torso rotations
- Side bends
- Upward-Facing Dog pose
You can also sneak more stretching into your lifestyle by doing workouts that emphasize flexibility, like yoga, dance, martial arts or Pilates.
Read more: Get Flexibility Fast With These 9 Stretches
4. Don't Forget to Take Rest Days
The other important thing to remember is that no matter how you space your workouts, you should have at least one rest day a week. Go ahead and luxuriate: Your body gets stronger in the recovery time between workouts, not the workouts themselves, and making that rest day a habit helps you avoid overtraining, which can cause some unpleasant side effects, like increased fatigue, agitation and chronic, nagging injuries, according to ACE.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020
- Mayo Clinic: How Much Should the Average Adult Exercise Every Day?
- Mayo Clinic: Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical
- American Council on Exercise: Benefits of Flexibility
- American Council on Exercise: 9 Signs of Overtraining
- Mayo Clinic: Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier