Choosing the best exercise for your body, personality and lifestyle is no sweat if you know the best and worst parts of popular workouts. We've interviewed a dozen fitness experts about everything from anti-gravity yoga to "exergaming"—and here are their biggest likes and dislikes.
Based on military-style training, boot camps combine the instructor's expertise with the support (and/or peer pressure) of other participants. The drills range from power skipping to reverse flies, all to increase cardio, strength and core fitness.
Pros: "Because the exercises are infinitely combinable, each workout is new," says Karen Rooff, a certified personal trainer in Austin, Texas. "Novelty is great for keeping both muscles and minds engaged. Plus, classes with small numbers offer a trainer's personal attention at a fraction of the usual cost."
Cons: "Participants may overestimate their fitness level, overdo it, and stop working out," says New York City–based certified personal trainer Ariane Hundt. "And, high- intensity workouts can cause injuries if the instruction isn't personalized." To avoid injury, listen to your body and inform your instructor of any pre-existing injuries or conditions, and don't be afraid to modify any moves if they're too difficult for you.
This well-researched exercise technique alternates bouts of high- and low-intensity exercise, such as intervals of sprinting and jogging.
Pros: "Intervals increase calorie expenditure and afterburn, so calories are burned [even] after the exercise is over," says Brad Schoenfeld, certified strength and conditioning specialist and author of the book 28-Day Body Shapeover (Human Kinetics, 2005). Research from the University of Guelph shows that interval workouts burn more fat and improve fitness faster than moderate constant exercise.
Cons: Schoenfeld says that high- intensity intervals can be difficult or even harmful for people with certain injuries and disorders (always check with your doctor first). "Interval training requires focus, intensity and determination," adds Chicago-based certified trainer Cathy Lang. "There's no social aspect to motivate you; you have to tap into the competitor inside."
Zumba and other dance workouts
"Ditch the workout and join the party!" is the slogan of Zumba's sexy fitness program. Colombia native Beto Perez started this sizzling trend in 1999; it combines Latin rhythms with intervals and resistance training. Dance-based workouts in general are trendy, and range from ballet boot camp to cardio salsa.
Pros: "[With] Zumba, you'll burn calories, feel energized, and do moves that—trust me—your body has not done before," says Kim Pace, a performance enhancement specialist in Boca Raton, Fla.
Cons: "Zumba doesn't improve strength, and it's hard for uncoordinated people to keep up with the choreography," says exercise physiologist Becky Williamson, of San Jose, Calif. Schoenfeld agrees that Zumba does little for muscle development. "If you perform the same activity repeatedly, your body won't change."
Originally used by dancers and called "contrology" by Joseph Pilates, this discipline focuses on core stabilization. Breathing and spine alignment are emphasized.
Pros: "Pilates is slow and controlled, so you're getting a workout without too much sweat," says certified trainer Christi Masi of Seattle. "It's low impact [and appropriate for] for those with bad knees and previous injuries." Fawn Gill, a Pilates instructor in Bowen Island, B.C., adds, "Pilates focuses on posture, core strength, joint mobility and muscle strength. People at all fitness levels can do it." Bonus: you don't need special equipment for an effective workout, though many studios offer specialized classes on a metal spring-based "Reformer," which can be modified for each user's fitness level.
Cons: "Pilates is anaerobic exercise, so you don't burn as many calories as you would running," says Pilates instructor Alana Reed, from New York City. "But you do build muscle—and the more muscle your body has, the more efficiently it burns calories." Reed adds that half of her Pilates clients are men.
Individual and group personal training
In one-on-one time with a personal trainer, you'll create a fitness plan that suits your body and lifestyle. The group training trend offers the same benefits, but in a small group.
Pros: "Accountability, personalization, and great workouts make personal training effective," says certified fitness instructor Lindsay Bogdasarian of Ann Arbor, Mich. Los Angeles–based certified trainer Angela Parker adds, "Group personal training is cheaper than private training and can offer better results. When people exercise in a group they work 10 times harder than alone. They feed off the collective energy."
Cons: "Personal trainers are still not regulated in any way," says Walt Thompson, Ph.D., Regents Professor of Exercise Science at Georgia State University. "No state has adopted any legislation to control who can and cannot become a personal trainer." He adds that the fitness industry is moving toward becoming regulated.
Yoga and AntiGravity Yoga
Traditional yoga, such as Hatha, Kundalini or Ashtanga, improves flexibility, muscle tone and the mind-body connection. Many of these forms have been practiced for thousands of years; it's an exercise that's here to stay. While Bikram, or hot, yoga was a big fad developed a few years ago, AntiGravity Yoga is the newest rage: Yogis practice their poses in hammocks suspended from the ceiling. The airborne Downward Dogs and Flying Pigeons relieve spinal tension and allow for deep stretches with less chance of muscle strain.
Pros: "Being suspended in the air offers greater flexibility, and it feels like you're flying," says Hundt. "Hanging upside down is enormously relaxing, releases tension in the body, and makes you feel weightless."
Originally developed for physical-rehabilitation patients, stability balls challenge the stabilizing muscles of the spine and work core muscles. Typical exercises include back extensions, butt lifts, and abdominal rotations.
Pros: "Anyone can use the ball to increase strength and stability and decrease back pain," says Sara Hauber, M.A., a healthy lifestyle specialist in Chicago. "People who use stability balls correctly build great-looking, strong core muscles and have fun doing it."
Cons: It's difficult to learn proper form and get a good workout without the guidance of a fitness professional, but a couple of sessions should be sufficient to teach you some fundamental moves. Hauber says, "Because stability exercises are meant to work your stabilizers—which for many people have been dormant for years—most people can't trigger them without cuing from a pro."
CrossFit and cross-training
This "bare bones" exercise focuses on short, high-intensity workouts. The functional moves are simple but hard: pullups, squats, gymnastics drills, and kettle-ball exercises—and are often done using just your own body weight as resistance. CrossFit's Web site offers a new workout every day and displays hundreds of comments from fellow fanatics.
Pros: "This exercise requires little or no equipment, and you really feel like you're getting a workout," says Gill. "Plus, there's a … feeling of belonging to a special group —almost a cult." The online workouts are free, and it's a well-rounded approach to fitness that exercises your whole body.
Cons: "CrossFit can be challenging for the unfit or beginner crowd," says Gill. "Thus, there's a greater chance of injury due to the intensity of the workouts." Without professional instruction, participants may do the exercises wrong—and strain muscles or pull ligaments.
"Exergaming" is video game technology that gets participants leaping, swinging and sweating—and they're moving beyond Wii or Dance Dance Revolution. Video game–enabled bikes, boards, pads and other equipment are popping up in schools, health clubs and even doctors' offices.
Pros: "Active gaming makes exercise fun," says Lisa Hansen, M.S., co-director of XRKade Research Labs at the University of South Florida. "Participants enjoy themselves, which motivates them to go to the gym more and work out longer."
Cons: Research from the University of Michigan Health System shows that actual sports burn three to four times more calories than virtual exercise—so exergaming shouldn't replace "real" activities. And, Hundt says, "Nobody is checking your form or correcting poor posture, so the chance of injury is increased for inexperienced gamers."
Fusion classes mix two or more types of exercise in one workout. Think Pilates and yoga (Yogilates), cycling and stretching, or boxing and running.
Pros: "Mixing up your exercise routine is a great way to lose weight and increase your fitness level," says Parker. "Change surprises your body, makes it work harder, and burns more calories." Your body adapts to regular patterns of movement—and fusion keeps you on your toes!
Cons: Some workouts don't mix well because they're too different. Yoga, for example, has a meditative quality that doesn't fuse well with kickboxing. Parker adds, "Instructors may not be properly trained in the different types of exercise, which could cause injury."
This upper-body cycling exercise debuted in just a few health clubs in 2007, but will be offered at increasing numbers of fitness centers in 2009.
Pros: "One of the best core and cardio-training exercises is upper-body rotation while standing," says certified personal trainer Jim Karanas, who works in San Francisco. "Kranking is a great alternative for people who may struggle with traditional workouts, such as the lower-limb challenged, pregnant women, obese people or the elderly."
Cons: "When cycling, participants don't always monitor their heart [rate], and they [can] train at too high of an intensity," says Pace. "Additionally, participants sometimes forget to vary their workouts. When this happens, they could reach a plateau."