Ann Heisenfelt  /  AP file
It's best to mix things up at the gym for optimal results, experts say. On the treadmill, for example, aim to use varying speeds and inclines.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 5/4/2006 5:51:47 PM ET 2006-05-04T21:51:47

We recently asked readers about their biggest exercise mistakes . By far, the most common fitness faux pas was not varying the workout routine enough. Translation: a lot of people are stuck in an exercise rut.

Many readers wrote in to elaborate. So we went to the experts for advice:

Q: When I work out, I spend 20 minutes on the elliptical trainer and 15 minutes on the treadmill, and then lift on weight machines. But I cannot seem to reduce my stomach size. What should I be doing differently?

A: To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume — many more. Here's the math: To shed just a pound of fat, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories. So take a close look at how much you eat and how much you exercise.

You don't say how frequently you work out, but 35 minutes of cardio should help with weight loss if you do it at least three times a week and watch what you eat.

But your efforts to slim down could be stalled because your body is in a fitness rut. In other words, the exercise isn't as challenging as it used to be, and your body has adapted to it.

"Change the exercise and you get a whole different stimulus," says Neal Pire, a personal trainer in Allendale, N.J., and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine. "If you don't change what you do, your body doesn't have to adapt and you don't get better."

To kick-start your weight-loss plan, consider adding new forms of aerobic activity to challenge your body in new and different ways, he says.

Try incorporating a couple of additional cardiovascular activities into your weekly workouts. Some suggestions: dance aerobics, swimming, the stair climber or a game of squash.

You should also consider varying the intensity and duration of your workouts. It's fine to keep using the elliptical trainer and treadmill, but aim to mix things up rather than always working at the same pace.

Keep in mind there is no such thing as spot reduction, so no single exercise will help you lose weight just in your stomach. But abdominal exercises such as sit-ups will help tone and tighten your midsection.

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Q: I do two days of cardio (40 minutes on the elliptical trainer each time) with some weights, and two days of aerobic classes with a little weight training. But I'm not getting as toned as I'd like. Any ideas why?

A: You say you're doing "some weights" and "a little weight training." But to get toned, you need to have a consistent strength-training program that isn't just an afterthought to your cardio.

"It's like a balanced diet, you want to have a balanced fitness routine," says Dr. Max Testa, director of the sports performance lab at the University of California, Davis.

Aim to strength-train all major muscle groups two to three times a week. You could start by doing one set of 10 to 12 repetitions of each exercise (biceps, triceps, quads, etc.) Once you get the hang of this routine and the exercises become easier, try using incrementally heavier weights and experimenting with different repetitions.

Over time, it's a good idea to keep refreshing your strength routine, as it is your cardio routine, says Testa, who notes that three to four weeks is the maximum time that should pass without changing the workout.

Strive for a combination of sets and reps, and consider doing both machines and free weights. The latter offers a bigger challenge, just be sure you're using good form to avoid injury.

Q: I walk two miles a day, five days a week, and strength-train about two to three times a week. Still, I cannot lose those extra pounds. Would taking a step class help me? I heard doing more cardio might help.

A: Walking is a terrific exercise, and you're on the right track for keeping your heart healthy.

But when it comes to losing weight, you probably need to work harder — and differently.

Have those two miles become easier with time? Most likely. When exercise gets comfortable, it's time to  shake things up, says John Ivy, chair of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Varying the routine keeps you from getting stale and also getting bored with the routine," he says.

So, yes, taking a step class every week might help. So might playing basketball or tennis, or engaging in some other form of cardio activity.

Also consider varying your walking routine. Instead of the same pace and distance every time, try interval training, in which you walk at different speeds, or experiment with another terrain, such as hills.

Ivy says your goal should be a range of activity. "Over a period of a week or two, you want to work out all aspects of your body," he says.

Q: I do 100 to 150 crunches three times a day, and I don't see any results. What gives?

A: That's certainly a lot of crunches, so you figure you should have abs of steel.

Well, maybe you do — but likely they're covered in fat. It's entirely possible that your muscles form a sweet six-pack, but you just can't see it.

You don't say whether you're doing cardio activity, but it sounds like you're putting all your eggs in one basket.

Hundreds of crunches won't help you shed weight. Along with sit-ups, weight loss is the other key factor in getting tight abs, experts say.

As mentioned above, there's no spot reduction. So make sure you're watching what you eat and burning enough calories through cardio to shed weight.

And keep in mind that not everyone has the genetics to have perfect, swimsuit-model abs. But the right diet and exercise plan can help you whittle your middle.

Q: I work out at home on a treadmill six days a week for about 50 minutes each time at a level 5 incline. I've lost 50 pounds and I want to keep it off. I'm trying to tone up but not seeing the results I would like. What else should I be doing?

A: Your ongoing commitment to exercise will go a long way in helping you keep the weight off. And having a treadmill in your home probably helps you keep that commitment because it's convenient.

So keep walking. But consider working at different inclines and paces to keep your workout challenging, says Testa. Experiment with some of the settings on the machine, which will give you different programs to follow.

For added results, you may want to add some other activities to the mix. If you prefer to work out at home, you could try exercise videos, for example.

As for toning up, don't forget about resistance training to build shapely muscle. You could go to a gym and use the weights and machines there, buy some weights for your home, or work with exercise bands and tubing.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.

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