Whether you want to lose weight or add muscle, strength training is a proven way to help reach those goals. As with any workout, though, your results will depend not just on how hard you work, but how smart. Here are three ways to maximize return on your time and energy investment at the gym.
Hit More Muscle Groups
If you change one thing about your current weight routine, says exercise physiologist and American College of Sports Medicine Fellow Mike Bracko, make it this: Do more multi-joint exercises. These types of moves (as their name implies) utilize multiple joints and work multiple muscle groups, getting you more bang for your buck than those that isolate a single area at a time.
An example of a multi-joint exercise is a seated cable row—which works the biceps, lats, and back of the shoulders, plus lots of other stabilizing and secondary muscles in the back and legs. Dips, pull-ups, bent-over rows, push-ups, and front and side planks are also great exercises. (Avoid single-joint moves like arm curls, heel raises, and weight machines that isolate just one major muscle, like the seated leg extension.)
The first benefit of these exercises is obvious: You're working two or more joints or muscles when you could only be working one. But there are other reasons these moves are more effective than their single-focus counterparts.
"The more muscles you use in one exercise or during a complete workout, the more your cardiovascular system benefits and the more calories you burn—which is important if weight loss is your desired effect," says Bracko. Your body will also produce more testosterone and human growth hormone, he adds, which will help build muscle mass.
Get Out of Your Seat
Another way to upgrade your current routine: Do more exercises standing, rather than seated or lying down.
Standing compound exercises—such as the dead lift, lunge, squat, standing cable row, and battle rope waves and slams—engage the core, leg, and foot muscles for stability and balance, in addition to whatever their primary focus is, says Bracko.
Just like with multi-joint exercises, more muscle activation means more calories burned and more testosterone produced. Plus, he adds, standing during exercise is more functional, and can improve performance in sports such as stand-up paddleboarding, snowboarding, surfing, hiking, and cycling—as well as in daily activities like gardening, lifting kids, and carrying groceries.
"Doing a standing cable chest press is better than doing a bench press," says Bracko. "When in real life do we lay down and push something up? Compare that to standing and pushing something away, which we do in almost every sport."
Work in Complexes
Finally, if you're looking to increase your training volume by adding more sets and reps, try structuring your routine around complexes. These are series of exercises done back-to-back that utilize the same equipment but don't all target the same muscles, explains Scott Caulfield, head strength coach for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
A barbell complex, for example, might include five reps of each of dead lifts, high pulls, overhead press, and back squats. "If you can do three or four exercises with the barbell before putting it down, that's going to improve your volume and efficiency within the time frame you have," says Caulfield. "It's ideal for your workout to have a nice flow—to take that weight from the floor to your chest to overhead and then behind the back, for example—so you're not switching your body back and forth too much."
Bottom line: Do more multi-joint exercises, standing compound exercises, and complexes that combine several moves with one piece of equipment. Your workouts won't take you any longer, and you'll see better, more consistent results in no time.