25 great fitness tips
Top sports stars and MF experts bring you all the advice you could ever need to help you get fit
1 Get kitted out
It’s easy to start making excuses not to exercise if you’re missing any of the essentials – home equipment, gym membership, kit bag, even a towel. Make sure you have everything you need before you start. This will also help you assume an ‘exercise identity’, so that if you look and feel the part you’re more likely to play the part. But avoid Spandex – unless you’re Justin Hawkins.
2 Aim for progressive overload
The basis of increasing any measure of fitness – strength, size or endurance – is making your muscles work harder than they’re used to. You must progressively overload your muscles to advance. To gain strength, you must constantly try to handle greater amounts of weight. To increase size you can increase the number of sets or reps, and to build endurance you can increase sets or reps and decrease rest time between sets. The key word is progressive. You should build-up gradually, rather than attempt too much too soon, but the concept of overloading underpins all physical training.
3 Build pyramids
Muscle fibres grow and gain strength by contracting against heavy resistance. In an ideal world you would lift the maximum weight you could handle eight times for a number of sets, without warm-up, to build size and strength. But in the real world all this would do is injure you. That’s where pyramiding comes in. Start with about 60 per cent of the maximum amount you could lift for one rep, and do 15 reps. Then increase the weight and decrease the reps to 10-12. Finally, add weight to about 80 per cent of your max and do 5-6 reps. This allows you to handle heavy weights after warming up, maximising the benefits and minimising the risks of injury.
4 Pre-exhaust yourself
This can help if you have imbalances within a muscle group. Pre-exhaustion involves using a single-joint (isolation) movement before following up with a multi-joint exercise. Let’s say your quads are strong but your glutes and hamstrings give out on squats before your glutes get pumped. With pre-exhaustion you do leg extensions first, then move on to squats with your quads already a bit fatigued. This way you work all your muscles as close to their maximum potential as possible. Other examples are lateral raises before military presses, and flyes before bench presses.
5 Focus on core training
Your core – the back and stomach – is your body’s engine. A strong core will stabilise and maintain posture and prevent injury, so don’t neglect your stomach and back exercises. Do them at the start of a session, before you get tired, for maximum benefit.
6 Avoid stitches
A stitch is caused when the blood flow to your internal organs is reduced and diverted to the working muscles. To beat it, run slower than normal for the first third of your run, and then speed up. Slowly increasing your activity level allows the blood flow more time to change.
7 Keep a balance
If you play a sport that works one side of your upper body more than the other, tennis for example, your chest muscles may become imbalanced. Perform dumb-bell presses (on both sides) to isolate individual muscles and stretch to lengthen the muscles equally.
8 Add gradient to the treadmill
A flat treadmill isn’t the same as running in the park. A gradient, even as low as two per cent, will introduce a forward propulsive component, forcing you to work harder and coming closer to simulating ‘real’ running.
9 Start in spring
New Year’s resolutions often fail by mid-January because it’s dark when you get up, dark when you get home, sub-zero outside and if it isn’t muddy it’s icy. Start in spring, so when winter comes around again you’ve established your routine.
10 Plan ahead
Don’t leave it until you’re pulling on your shorts in the changing room to start planning your workout. Have a clear idea of what you’re going to do before you arrive. It builds anticipation and helps you work harder and more efficiently.
11 Power up
‘When most people work on their fitness they only really do one part – the endurance part,’ says former Olympic champion Daley Thompson. ‘They spend maybe 30-40 minutes on a running machine but would get much more benefit if they mixed it with some really high-intensity work. The crucial bits in sport come down to how you perform in short bursts – those half-seconds and milliseconds. But few of us actually work on those.’
12 Shoot like Thierry Henry
‘Strikers rarely get more than one touch to find the back of the net. Practise with a friend, and get him to knock balls to you at different heights and speed,’ says the Arsenal star. ‘Try attacking the ball and hitting the target first time without the extra touch.’ As well as honing your skills, it’s a great cardio workout that also helps to boost explosive power and flexibility.
13 Improve your breaststroke
‘The straight-arm pull comes from your fingertips,’ says Olympic gold medallist Duncan Goodhew. ‘Recreational swimmers often allow their pull to continue too long, rather than quitting while ahead. With a long pull it’s difficult to get the hands back to their starting position. Practise very short strokes, keeping the pull completely in front of the body.’
14 Breathe properly
‘Most people don’t think about breathing and consequently end up inhaling and exhaling rapidly,’ says former Olympic cyclist John Howard. ‘This stimulates the flight-fight mechanism and is very inefficient. If you can elongate and control each exhalation, you can improve your cardiovascular conditioning.’
15 Score like Ronaldo
‘Sex a couple of hours before the match is the key to success,’ according to Brazilian footie ace and World Cup winner Ronaldo. Who are we to argue?
16 Stick with it
For most men, what starts off as a new and exciting hobby can seem more like hard work after only a couple of weeks, especially if you don’t see instant results. Rest assured, this is normal. You’ve come this far, so persevere. It usually takes around three months for training to become a habit, and by that time you will start to look and feel better. In the meantime, remind yourself why you’re doing it and reward yourself for sticking with it. A top-quality massage is an example, but even a treat like a takeaway is better than quitting.
17 Think positive
Exercise releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins, so you’ll feel happier and less stressed after a workout. Never use stress as a reason not to exercise.
18 Be SMARTER
People who set Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-framed, Exciting and Recorded goals are more likely to succeed than those who simply ‘do their best’. You wouldn’t go to work and say, ‘I’ll do as much of my job as I can over the next few months and see what happens.’ Don’t do it in the gym either.
19 Go for quick fixes
Short-term goals can be useful. Setting two every week can help you become fitter and healthier, whether it’s cycling to work or eating five portions of fruit and veg a day. Small changes can have a big impact.
20 Work as a team
Exercise can be social, and it’s easier to stay motivated if you have a partner or friend to join you. Even saying hello to the regulars at your gym can make it a friendlier place.
It’s fine to ask to do a quick set on a machine if someone’s resting between theirs, but don’t demand it. And don’t be possessive either.
22 Press-ups before bedtime
Too busy to exercise? That’s no excuse. Do press-ups (with hands shoulder-width apart and your back straight) for five minutes, or until you fail, before bed every day and you’ll feel stronger within a month.
23 Get in the sauna
‘Saunas are a great way to unwind after a workout as the dry heat relaxes tired muscles and helps to flush out toxins and impurities, such as lactic acid, that have built up during exercise,’ says Ella Winter, Cannons Retreat manager.
A lack of focus when exercising can lead to injury. Try the following exercise: sit in a comfortable position, relax and empty your mind. Slowly count to ten, thinking of the figures alone. If your mind wanders, start again. Repeat several times. Done once a day, this will relax you and improve your focus.
25 Visualise success
‘Use all five senses,’ says sports psychologist Michael Sachs. ‘Don’t only see things, but hear what’s going on, smell, taste the sweat in your mouth and feel the steel bar and what’s it’s like to go through the movements. This benefits ordinary people lifting weights as much as it helps elite sportsmen.’