Cardio machines are always packed. Yoga classes are usually crowded. But a recent nationwide survey shows they're not the most popular gym activities.
8. Low-impact aerobics
7. Stationary cycling
6. Ab machines
4. Elliptical trainers
3. Resistance machines
1. Free weights
Free weights claimed the top honor for 2011. Surprised? Free weights – think dumbbells, bars and benches – tend to appeal to young men and powerlifters, but they're not the only ones at the gym. The typical health club member is equally likely to be male or female and most are approaching middle age. That's according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, the group that released the survey.
The findings suggest women and older adults are invading a new corner of the gym. And that's good. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. That's equally true when it comes to fitness.
In time, repeating an exercise – whether it's crunches, running or Zumba class – makes it less effective. Our bodies learn a movement and, with repetition, master it. Free weights are an effective way to vary your gym routine, and the report indicates people are taking notice.
Another plus: Free weights' growing popularity shows more people are prioritizing strength training. Strength training increases muscle mass. Muscle mass of course makes you stronger. It also burns more calories than fat tissue; protects your bones and joints; and makes you feel and look fit.
So don't stick to resistance machines or go home after your cardio session. Go lift. Your body will thank you. Here are a few tips to get you started in the free weights section:
Use the mirror
It's not there so you can fix your hair or check out your abs. Gym mirrors are there so you can check your form, which in turn prevents injury. You may think there's nothing to a lunge, but if you check your reflection, you might notice your knee extends too far past your toes or you're not sinking deep enough into the move. It never hurts to double-check your technique - but it could hurt not to.
Ask for a spot
Free weights are more challenging than resistance machines because your body does all the work. That's good, but it can cause problems if you try to lift too much weight. While it's important to push yourself, it's more important to not drop the bench-press bar on your chest or that dumbbell on someone else's foot. The compromise? Ask for a spot. A gym attendant – or even the person next to you – will shadow your movement so they can take the load off if you start to struggle. And remember, asking for a spot doesn't make you weak; it makes you smart.
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