What NOT to do at the Gym: 7 Mistakes You Should Avoid

As a personal trainer and passionate exerciser, I spend many hours observing people at the gym, so I am well versed in the biggest mistakes people make when they are trying to get their sweat on. Here are seven of the worst things I’ve seen people do again and again, how to avoid them, optimize your workout, and stay pain and injury-free.

Gym Mistake #1: Doing exercises with improper form, especially squats and lunges. Squats and lunges are one of the biggest calorie burners, and they are portable, so you can do them anywhere! The common mistake is to hold your weight in the front toes with the heel coming up off of the ground, and/or allowing the front knee to go beyond the front toe at the bottom of the exercise. This can cause knee pain and injury. Instead, put your weight in the heel of your foot, allowing your toes to freely wiggle inside your shoe. This will also actively engage the gluteus muscles, and so you will feel it in your hamstrings and glutes–just where you want it.

Gym Mistake #2: Doing the same old thing. Varying your routine will keep you mentally engaged and will also continue to challenge the body. You can change your routine by doing any of the following: changing the intensity or effort (increasing the weight, incline, or level), adding or subtracting minutes, choosing a different type of activity, doing the same activities in a different order, or working different muscle groups on different days, allowing overused muscles to rest.

Gym Mistake #3: Using the machines most of the time. While machines can be used occasionally develop strength in certain muscles, they don’t challenge the body the way balanced or core exercises do because they are providing a stable base of support for the body to lean on. Instead, make your body work like a machine by doing exercises that use your own body for resistance, such as push-ups, squats, lunges, and planks. Common gym equipment such as free weights, resistance bands and balls, barbells, and kettle bells also allow the body to use its core muscles for stability. You may even find a TRX suspension system in your gym, which also allows for free-flowing movement.

Gym Mistake #4: Going too heavy or too light. While too much weight can cause injury due to improper form, too little weight is a waste of time. Choose a weight that will allow you to complete between 12 and 15 repetitions, while still maintaining correct form. The last few repetitions should be difficult to complete so that you “fatigue” the muscle. If you are just warming up, or if you are a beginner, using a light weight for one set is a good way to check your form and to get comfortable with the movement.

Gym Mistake #5: Hunching over. Sitting at a desk all day or spending hours in the car can cause the shoulders to round and the back to hunch; often this improper posture is carried into the gym. Trying to do any exercise from this position is a recipe for injury and ineffective movement. To improve your alignment, visualize a long string reaching from the ceiling all the way down your spine to your tail bone. If you roll your shoulders back and down, it can reset your body into correct alignment. This should be your base or set position for starting any exercise.

Gym Mistake #6: The “all or nothing” mentality. The busiest times of year at the gym tend to be January (New Year’s Resolutions), May (prep for swimsuits), and September (end of summer vacation, and back to the daily grind). People will hit the gym hard after months of inactivity; too much stress on a detrained body can cause injury and pain. Don’t bite off more than you can chew! Ease back into your workout routine to gradually train your body into top shape, and keep yourself coming back to the gym by staying free of injury and pain.

Gym Mistake #7: Being a “chest and bi’s” guy or an “abs”  girl. If you are only working the muscles that you can actually see, you are missing out on the results you’ll get from getting a full body workout. Strengthening your back muscles doing rows and pull-ups, and your hamstrings by doing squats and lunges can help balance your body out. And, you’ll look good from behind, too!

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