Weight loss, in theory, should be a pretty straightforward equation: Log extra minutes on the treadmill, add a few more helpings of veggies, ease up on the afternoon chocolate scarfing, and curb the evening wine intake. Easy, right?
But there's a critical part of this formula that many women forget to factor in: "When you're trying to slim down, your workouts should be tailored to the number of pounds you need to lose," says exercise physiologist Tom Holland, author of Beat the Gym. For example, cardio at a steady, consistent pace can help a woman who is 20 pounds overweight kick off her fitness program and see early results. But try that approach when you're single digits away from your goal, and your weight-loss efforts will stall. What's more, research shows that 97 percent of dieters regain the weight they lost, and experts suspect that the likely cause is their workout method. To make sure your efforts lead to lasting results, we've crunched the numbers and figured out the customized formulas that will bring you success no matter how much you want to drop. Each program includes strength training (to sculpt strong, sleek muscles and rev your metabolism) and cardio (to burn off fat). The result: the sexy, toned physique you've been working so hard for.
Fitness Face-Off: Cardio vs Strength Training
Slow and steady isn't just for high school sweethearts; it's the key to developing endurance, a crucial building block at this weight-loss stage.
"Sustained, moderate-intensity cardio helps teach your body to utilize fat as fuel so that over time you begin to burn more of it," says Holland. "Such activity also slowly introduces your joints to impact, reducing your risk of getting injured." (Search: How to avoid exercise injuries)
Two days a week, do 30 to 45 minutes of easy to moderate-intensity cardio (you can walk, use an elliptical machine, hike, bike, or swim—anything that keeps you going for at least 30 minutes). Mix up your routine—bike one day, hike the next—to train different muscles and beat boredom.
Now that your body is prepped to hang tough, amp up your cardio. "Tempos are longer intervals done at a moderately difficult intensity," says Holland. "You should be able to talk—but not easily." The result? You'll burn even more calories and fat per sweat session.
Two times a week, do this tempo workout: Using your cardio of choice, warm up for eight minutes. Then, speed up to your comfortably hard pace and hold it steady for 10 to 15 minutes. Then slow back down and recover at a conversational pace for five minutes. Repeat one or two more times. Breezing through? Up your tempo time to 20-minute segments, and repeat two or three times.
Video: Getting fit doesn't just trim off the pounds, it can help you live longer too. Find out how.
To beat plateaus and kick your fat-burning potential into overdrive, make your cardio as explosive as your strength training. High-intensity interval training involves quick, sprintlike bursts combined with periods of rest or easy recovery to help maximize your calorie burn. In other words, go as close to all-out as you can.
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Twice a week, complete the following intervals using the cardio of your choice: After a five-to 10-minute warm-up, speed up until you're at 90 percent of your max heart rate (estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220) and hold that for 30 seconds. Recover at an easy pace for one minute. Repeat for a total of five to eight intervals. To boost your weekly calorie burn, add an extra day of cardio—30 to 45 minutes at moderate intensity (65 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, for comparison)—to your schedule.