If you have decided that this is the year that you are going to stick to a safe and effective workout routine, read on to learn how to avoid common training mistakes.
I thought about posting this right at the start of the new year but decided to wait and let all of the buzz around new year’s resolutions die down. This article is not about how to stick to your resolution. This is about how to stay safe and get the results you want out of your workouts.
Here are some of the most common mistakes I see beginners making at the gym, and some ideas for what to do instead. If you’re hitting the gym for the first time in a while and you aren’t following a program specifically designed for you, then you will find the tips below helpful in choosing exercises and generally structuring your training in a way that’s more consistent with your goals. From what I regularly see, many people, though they are certainly exerting themselves and putting in an honest effort, simply aren’t training in a way that will create the adaptation that they seek, whether that’s to get stronger, lose weight, or bulk up. I hope this helps you get where you want to go.
Doing Crunches or Sit-ups
There is no justifiable reason to include crunches or sit-ups in your workout routine. They are ineffective, inefficient, and potentially dangerous. I made a video on this subject last summer. Also, Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics and the world’s leading researcher on spine function and back pain, has conclusively shown that repetitive flexion of the spine, the joint pattern used in crunches and sit-ups, increases the risk of damage to the intervertebral discs.
The first step to effective core training to understand the function of these muscles. In contrast with the muscles of the limbs, the function of the muscles of the core is to stop motion. The easiest and most obvious example of an exercise that trains the core muscles in this way is a plank, or a side plank. If you have already been doing planks and are looking for a new challenge, you can try variations like stir the pot, or a suitcase carry.
This is just the beginning of effective core training, but simply replacing crunches and sit-ups with exercises that promote trunk stability will help you with whatever your training goal is, and save your spine in the process. If you are dealing with back pain, I encourage you to check out the McGill Big 3 exercises, which when done regularly, can help people train pain-free.
Skipping the Warm-Up
A good warm-up is the difference between an OK workout and a great workout. The purpose of the warm-up is not only to increase muscle temperature and heart rate, but more importantly, to effectively prepare the body for the more demanding tasks to come later in the training session.
The notion that a good warm-up prevents injury is well-understood, but if that’s not enough to motivate you, consider the fact that a good warm-up can be the difference between hitting a new personal best and falling short. I see too many people, usually, young men, walk over to the bench, fold their arms across their chest a couple times and then dive into heavy pressing. They’re setting themselves up for failure. Completing a full warm-up that includes mobility, activation, and dynamic components will help you lift the way you want. If you want to learn more about effective warm-ups, check out this post.
Training the Body One Piece at a Time
The modern fitness and strength training world owes a great debt to bodybuilding for driving awareness and participation in exercise and strength training. However, an unfortunate consequence of modern training’s bodybuilding roots is that many people who aren’t actually trying to be bodybuilders are training like bodybuilders. The most common example of this is doing too many single joint exercises, such as a bicep curl, with the working joint being the elbow. Contrast this with a chin-up, which also trains the bicep, but in conjunction with muscles at the shoulder. There is nothing wrong with isolation work, but it should not be the foundation of your strength training program. A great example of this would be a typical recreational lifter’s “shoulders day.”
I know from my own past experience (once upon a time, I had no idea what I was doing in the gym) that shoulders day involves an overhead press, a great multi-joint exercise (although worth mentioning, not always the best for shoulder health), followed by a bunch of isolation exercises like front raises, rear delt flys, shrugs, and lateral raises. There are a few problems with this style of training. For one, it doesn’t have a high metabolic cost, meaning you don’t work that hard to complete a workout that’s mostly isolation exercises. It’s also unnecessary. “Shoulders” as most people refer to them, means the deltoid muscles, which have an anterior (front), middle, and posterior part. Although you can train each segment with various raises and flys, the fibers of the deltoid are recruited through other compound movements. An even split of pressing and pulling, with just a bit of assistance work sprinkled in, is a better strategy, even if your goal is shoulders like boulders.
Training in the “Fat Burning Zone”
I have previously written at length about this, but it’s worth repeating here. The fat burning zone is a myth based on a flawed interpretation of energy metabolism. Yes, we burn a greater percentage of calories from fat at lower work intensities, but this is only true in a relative sense, and also misses the point of how exercise helps maintain a healthy body weight. The human body doesn’t burn fat for fuel during intense exercise, rather, it burns carbs. It is during the 48-72 hour post-exercise window that your metabolic rate goes up, resulting in you burning more fat when at rest. There are ways to structure a workout to help drive fat loss.
Doing circuit training is better than doing one exercise at a time, and doing intervals is better than low-intensity steady state aerobic training. Whether or not you lose weight is a product of your movement routine, what and how much you eat, how much you sleep, hormones, environmental factors, and more. Focus on having a great workout that leaves you feeling invigorated. The benefits of exercise extend so much further than weight loss. Focusing on “burning fat” during a workout will steer you away from the exercises that will help you the most.
I know what people mean when they say it, but I can’t describe it in a way that is consistent with what we know about anatomy and physiology. More importantly, people who say that they want to “tone” tend to avoid the very thing they need to do to achieve their desired aesthetic, which is to lift heavy stuff. If you want toned arms? See if you can learn how to do a chin-up. Want toned legs? Squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups are the way to go, ideally with a weight that makes you tired before you can do 20 repetitions (and one day, maybe so heavy that you can only do 1!). Limiting your training to repeatedly lifting 2 and 3 lb weights does next-to-nothing.
Skipping the Fundamentals
If you are a beginner in the weight room, it can be hard to know where to start. There are new workouts published every day in apps, workouts and blogs. Some movements might feel good to you, others may be confusing or even painful (side note: if something causes you pain, don’t do it. No pain, no gain is the dumbest fitness slogan ever.) Unless you have a mobility restriction or other health concern that makes a certain movement a bad idea, most people will do really well to start with:
- Some sort of pull (say, seated row)
- A core stability exercise (usually a plank)
The thoughts of doing these movements might be intimidating. If it is, I encourage you to hire a trainer who can help you do them appropriately. For example, can’t do push-ups? What if you did them standing against a wall? Are squats really hard? Grab a TRX so that your arms can help your legs while you develop confidence in the movement pattern.
It’s popular these days to say there are no bad movements. Personally, I think there are a few, but more importantly, we should all be able to agree that some are better than others. The above list are all great movements. And if you need help building up your movement skills and confidence, that’s what trainers are for. Effective exercise is a skill, one that has to be learned. No one is born knowing this stuff, and there is zero shame in needing help. Often times, even just a few sessions with a qualified, knowledgeable trainer can get you started. Do you want to make sure you're not making any mistakes with your workouts? Click the button below to book your free strategy sessions with a Renegade Trainer.