Zero in on your zone

To get in great shape, you can work out harder - or, sometimes, just smarter.

A few clever techniques can help people get more out of their workouts and see better results more quickly, fitness experts say. Those methods can also reduce the risk of injuries and make the sometimes grueling process of getting, or staying, in shape more enjoyable. Whether the workout is cardiovascular, strength-based, mind-body or team-related, researchers and fitness professionals are increasingly identifying ways to ensure maximum return on physical effort. Sometimes adding focus and concentration to a workout can kick it into high gear; other times what's needed is nothing more than mixing up the routine and adding a few new activities. Some people love a crowd, especially if it's on a playing field. For them, exercising solo takes a back seat to team sports, where competition and camaraderie join up for an intense experience. A vigorous basketball game can send the heart thumping for a couple of hours - and enhance real-life fitness through moves that build balance and core strength. But choose a league or team that fits, one that makes you want to play. "Make sure it's the right crowd - age, ability and fitness-wise," says Dr. Stephen Rice, director of sports medicine at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in New Jersey. The result will mean more people get a turn with the ball and fewer get hurt. To make the most of team experience, players also should maintain a good fitness level all year long, not just during the playing season. "It will help you tolerate the loads you'll encounter in sports," says Michael Bergeron, a physiologist and assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia. And, offers Rice, "You'll have more fun." Both experts say off-season workouts should consist of a basic regimen of cardio, strength-training and stretching. Add sports-specific routines closer to the season - sprints for football, for example, or plyometrics for basketball. Those regular workouts should be kept up during the season, too. Depending on the sport, a one or even two-day-a-week game may not provide much exercise. Just before a game, Bergeron suggests warm-ups such as light jogging, and adding some stretches. Going in cold takes longer to reach peak performance levels and may lead to injury. Hydration is essential, especially on hot days, and healthy snacks to boost energy. Even bench warmers can stay in a game-ready state, says Bergeron, by walking around, jogging, doing some mild calisthenics and stretching. The light activity will keep them in a state of readiness - and burn more calories, too. The boredom that creeps in from doing the same exercise at the same intensity can be mind-numbing - gyms stick a bank of televisions in front of their cardio machines for a reason. But it can be body-numbing as well. A routine that feels like smooth sailing may not be doing enough to challenge the cardiovascular system. The best cardio workouts, research suggests, are not one-speed-fits-all. Interval training, in which intensity is increased periodically, "is a great way to enhance cardiovascular efficiency," says Scott Lucett, director of education for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. By changing the levels, "you're placing more demands on the cardiovascular system," he says, eventually helping you run farther or shoot more baskets. Studies done with elite cyclists show that high-intensity interval training improved their time trial performance, as well as their peak sustained power output and fatigue resistance. Such training is also more efficient time-wise. "Rather than staying on a machine longer," Lucett recommends, "focus on increasing the intensity. That way you'll burn more calories without spending more time in the gym." Just make sure the intensity isn't too extreme, says Dino Costanzo, chairman of the committee on certification and registry boards for the American College of Sports Medicine. "When people try to tease the upper limits, they can get hurt and discouraged," he cautions. Nor do cardio workouts have to be monotonous, thereby sapping enthusiasm and willpower. The ideal cardio workout includes various routines. Within the gym, use a variety of machines. This won't just stave off the tedium, it'll utilize different muscle groups. Outside the gym, where Lucett recommends going from time to time, try cycling, running - even playing on a jungle gym. Navigating the abundance of information on building and maintaining muscle tone can be daunting. Should you go body part by body part? Concentrate on higher weights and lower repetitions? Weight train every day? The typical exerciser (not those training for Mr. Olympia) looking for the most benefits from a strength workout should try circuit training, says Lucett. "If you're trying to get the most out of your routine," he said, "go from one exercise to the next without any breaks." Not only will the approach ensure that all muscles receive a workout, it will increase overall muscle strength, endurance and cardio fitness (from the elevated heart rate). If time is at a premium and you can only work out two to three days a week, Lucett suggests "training each muscle group and getting enough stimulus to each group" to see progress.The general rule is to choose a weight that can be done with some effort for one to three sets of 12 to 20 repetitions. Those with the luxury of more time can concentrate on specific muscle groups, such as the back and chest. It's important to incorporate rest days to let the muscles recover. Because control is so important, Lucett advises working at a measured pace so that the weights - especially free weights - are stable, with no swinging or wobbling. As people improve, he adds, they can pick up the tempo a bit. "Make sure," he adds, "that you're able to perform the exercise without compensating on form." At least one study has concluded that traditional resistance training burns more calories than ultra-slow training, and may be more helpful for losing weight. Yoga and Pilates require mental presence as well as physical - so making that mind-body connection is crucial. "You have to look at the human instrument and ask, is it ready for action?" says Elizabeth Larkam, director of Pilates and Beyond for Western Athletic Clubs and a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. It might not be, she adds, if it's sleep deprived, malnourished and under-hydrated. Because Pilates requires precise movements to achieve core strength, muscle tone and better posture, Larkam says, concentration is imperative. "The ability to focus in order to achieve this precision is going to pay off in feeling, looking and moving better." Achieving that focus isn't always easy, especially after a grueling day at work and getting stuck in snarled traffic, so many yoga experts tout breathing exercises. They can relax the body and help you begin to concentrate on the work ahead. "This will focus the mind and get you ready," says Ralph La Forge, a physiologist at Duke University and a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine. "Just make sure the cellphone is off," he says. It's not enough to strike a pose in yoga - striking that pose correctly is crucial. Rather than going into a class cold and hoping the teacher will help you (doubtful in those ultra-packed classes), take the time to bone up a bit on the basic asanas such as downward-facing dog and the cobra pose. Videos or one-on-one instruction can help. But how does one achieve the perfect mind-body balance during class? "The mind should be on the muscle sense - how those muscles are feeling," says La Forge. Striving for a perfect pose or coveting someone else's amazing flexibility is simply a distraction. - Los Angeles Times