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Originally published Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 7:04 PM

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Five powerful fitness tips

Focus your workout on breaking through plateaus.

McClatchy-Tribune

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Working out without seeing any results? Focus on these five areas in order to get you over a plateau and give you real improvements you can see and feel.

1. Stay off your butt in the gym. Most Americans have desk jobs (or driving jobs) where you just sit down all day long. Nobody in their right mind believes that more sitting will help you get in shape. Yet, we've evolved gyms where people expect to go and sit on some machine to get into better shape. This makes no sense.

Seated exercise machines (like seated leg extensions) are popular with gyms because they eliminate the need to maintain an expert staff, or give members real guidance — all you have to do is sit down and look at the picture on the machine. Machines are not safer, nor do they deliver better results.

Think about the difference between a "seated chest press" machine and a push-up. The "seated chest press" will work your chest, front of your shoulders, and the back of your arms (it's right on the little picture on the machine), but since you're sitting down you give your core a chance to relax, and your legs can just chill.

Contrast that with a push-up: hands on the floor (or on an incline if you can't do them on the floor), and toes on the ground — it works everything between your hands and toes versus just a little bit of your upper body as with the machine. In a good push up, you have to move your arms and shoulders while the rest of your body stays perfectly still and tight, so your core and legs have to work right along with your upper body. More muscles working leads to more results, and forcing your core to engage leads to more safety.

2. Keep track. The people who get the best results from their workouts keep the best records of them. The single most fundamental principle in exercise is progressive overload: that is you progressively and systematically progress, and overload (not kill) your body. This overload stimulates your body to adapt. These adaptations are your results. Without progressive overload you get no adaptation over a long time period, and no sustained results.

You need written records of what you did, when you did it, how many times you did it, how intensely you did it, and how much rest you took.

The records tell you everything: if you're not getting better, then that tells you something is not right — too much exercise, too little sleep, poor nutrition, too much intensity, or too little intensity. And you'd only really know if you were getting better or not if you wrote things down. Your emotional and overloaded memory cannot be relied on to keep this all straight over the course of many months. If you are getting better, then you want to know so you can keep that up, and then adjust things when whatever you are doing stops working.

3. Hit the pillow. By the end of a workout you are actually weaker than when you started. Your results happen between workouts, not during them. Training + recovery

results. Training + training + no recovery

no (or poor) results.

The most important factor in your recovery is sleep. Both the quantity and quality of sleep is important. Six to nine hours of high-quality sleep nearly every day will allow you to get the most out of your workouts regardless of your goals — fat loss (sleep is especially important for fat loss), strength or muscle growth.

4. Do resistance training first. It doesn't matter what kind of "cardio" you're doing — interval training, or boring old steady state aerobics, you should always do your resistance training first. Why? Because you want to do the exercise that matters the most when you have the most energy. The more energy you can invest in your resistance training, the better your body will look, feel and perform.

If you run out of time for your "cardio" after your resistance training, that's fine, unless you're training for a marathon, you do not need much for heart health. Try this as a "finisher" after your resistance training: for 30 seconds, sprint as fast as you can on a bike, then go slowly for 30 seconds. Repeat for five rounds. If you really went fast, your heart and lungs will get all the work they need.

5. Consistency is king: Consistently doing less (but doing it regularly) will absolutely outperform doing more total exercise sporadically.

For example, let's say Jane exercises six days per week for two weeks, and then does nothing for two weeks. That's an average of three workouts per week. But Paula sticks to two consistent workouts week in and week out. If Jane and Paula are on the same program, Paula will get better results than Jane even though Jane actually works out more on average. Pick a schedule you can stick with, and stick.

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Josef Brandenburg is a Washington, D.C.-area certified fitness expert.

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