Everyone wants to believe they know what they’re doing in the gym. You just turn up, casually lift some weights, get on the treadmill for 10 minutes, and then go home. Right?
Wrong. I’ve been studying exercise science and nutrition for over 10 years, and I feel I’m only just beginning to grasp the basics. I’ve spent the last year using my phone to record my squat and deadlift technique, and I learn something new every time I watch my latest attempt.
As someone who’s trained in countless gyms in several different countries, I’ve seen gym members make a lot of mistakes. While I honestly admire their hard work and dedication, I sometimes wish they’d take a step back and reassess their training methods.
Avoiding the 17 gym mistakes below will help you achieve your goals faster while minimising your injury risk.
17 Gym Mistakes You Need to Avoid
1. You show up without a plan
You can always tell who turned up without a plan. They wander around until they notice another member doing something that looks cool. They then attempt to do the same exercise until they get bored, stop, wander off, and repeat the process.
Unfortunately, this describes a significant portion of gym members all over the world, and it’s one of the most common gym mistakes. While it’s probably better than spending that time on the couch watching TV, you’re wasting your time in the long-term.
Why? Well, there’s a theory in exercise science called “progressive overload”. Essentially, it means you do something extra every time you train in order to most effectively and efficiently hit your fitness goal. Adding an extra rep, a few more pounds, or another minute, are all examples of progressive overload.
If you turn up to the gym without a plan and just do random exercises, progressive overload won’t be possible.
2. You tour the machines
People who do this actually have a plan: for the next hour, they’re going to use every machine in the gym.
This is probably better than turning up without a plan, although it’s a bad plan.
Why? Because machines allow you to train only within a fixed path and a fixed range of motion. You’ll get stronger within those specific paths and ranges of motion (assuming you’re following the principle of “progressive overload”), but only within those specific paths and ranges of motion.
You won’t get the benefit that free weights give you: training those stabiliser muscles and the core, therefore reducing your injury risk. Free weights are a lot more functional.
Think about our evolution as hunter-gatherers. Did we regularly move in fixed ranges of motion, or was our environment more chaotic? I’d go for the latter. Free weights better reflect the dynamic nature of our evolutionary environment. Therefore, free weights give you better results.
Imagine the difference between a leg press and a barbell squat. The leg press doesn’t need to use the core or any stabiliser muscles. I’ve seen people who can leg press over 500 lb, but can’t even squat their own body weight.
A big leg press doesn’t translate to a big squat. But achieving a big squat will absolutely translate to a beastly leg press.
Am I saying that you should never use machines? No. Machines have their place in a workout program. I’d argue that machines are actually pretty good for beginners, people going through physical rehab, and bodybuilding.
But most of your training should be with free weights.
3. You don’t train every human movement pattern
There are five basic human movement patterns:
– Hip hinge (deadlift patterns)
– Knee dominant (squats and lunges)
– Upper body push (presses)
– Upper body pull (rows)
– Core (abs)
Emphasis on the word basic, as you can break down those movement patterns into sub-patterns.
For example, let’s look at three different upper body pulling exercises: a bent over row,a lat pulldown, and a seated row. With the bent over row, you’re pulling the weight up. With the lat pulldown, you’re pulling the weight down. And with a seated row, you’re pulling horizontally.
If you don’t perform every basic human movement pattern, your fitness program is unbalanced. And if your program is unbalanced, you will become unbalanced. How? With poor posture that will eventually lead to tightness, pain and probable injury.
Most people follow an unbalanced fitness program. For example, there should be a 1:1 ratio of upper body pulling to pushing. Actually, most people would benefit from a 2:1 ratio, doing twice as much pulling as pushing. Why? Because most people have desk jobs, and they probably have terrible posture when they’re sitting and typing, hunched forward over their keyboard. They literally need to pull everything back into position.
But most people do way more upper body pushing exercises than pulling. Probably because it’s easier to check out your pecs than your lats in the mirror.
This is one of those gym mistakes that, in the long-term, can lead to pretty serious injury. Ignore it at your peril.
4. You don’t record your workouts
This goes back to the idea of progressive overload. Do you want to efficiently and effectively achieve your fitness goals? Then you have to a little more next workout. An extra rep, a couple more pounds etc. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up long-term.
How are you going to know how to do this if you aren’t recording your workouts? I guarantee you won’t remember the exact number of sets, reps, and weight lifted. Use Google Sheets or a good old pen and paper, and start recording.
5. You don’t switch up your exercises
If there are two exercises I see every bloody day, it’s bench press and lat pulldown.
Now, don’t get me wrong. They’re great exercises. But no exercise is so good that it needs to be performed every week.
You see, your body is very good at adapting to its environment. If you bench press a couple of times a week for 3-5 weeks, you’ll get stronger.
But then those strength gains stop. Your body has adapted, and you’ve reached a plateau.
What most people do at this point is to keep on trying. They lift the same weight for the same number of reps for months on end, trying to force their way through the plateau.
I admire the determination, but it’s a bad idea. Instead, once you’ve hit a plateau, change the exercise a little. Do some dumbbell bench presses for a few weeks. Or an incline barbell bench press.
You have to go around sticking points like this. Don’t use brute force, because it won’t work.
6. You’re not working hard enough
David Goggins, a former Navy SEAL, talks about the 40% rule: when most people think they’re wiped out from a training session, they’re really only 40% done.
I’ve seen this a lot. People stop as soon as it starts hurting a little. Every now and then I’ll show clients what they’re really capable of, with a safe exercise like a cable bicep curl. Once I can see they’re ready to stop, say after 8-10 reps, I’ll make them immediately do another 8-10 reps.
I do this very infrequently, and always toward the end of the training session. And the client will often thank me for pushing them.
I’m not even going to start on the people who sit on the bike and read a magazine or take calls on the elliptical. Look, it’s fine to do this every now and then if you’re super sore and you just want a low-intensity session. But if this is how you train every time you come to the gym, you won’t get anywhere.
7. You’re working too hard
I work at a gym in Toronto’s financial district. The members are some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met, putting in 60-hour workweeks without breaking a sweat. They’re very much Type A personalities.
As a consequence, there’s an above-average level of hard work in the gym. You see, those guys and gals who are willing to put in crazy hours at work are usually willing to put in a crazy level of work at the gym too.
And this can be a problem. These people don’t stop a set until they’re totally out of breath, they’re covered in sweat, and they’re incapable of performing any more reps. And the workout isn’t over until they can no longer stand.
But if you go do this every single set of every single training session multiple times a week, you’re at a big risk of overtraining and burnout, especially if you’re not taking care of your recovery from exercise.
Now, I’m a big fan of tough workouts. But you need to find that balance where you train hard enough to get results, but still actually coming away from a session feeling good. Vomiting not required.
8. You do sit-ups and crunches
When people ask me if they should do sit-ups and crunches, my usual response is “sure, if you enjoy back surgery.”
These exercises involve repeated flexion and compression of the spine. Long-term, this is not good for your spinal discs.
Instead of sit-ups and crunches, do these core exercises:
– dead bug
– bird dog
– side plank
– bear crawl
– Pallof press
– loaded kettlebell carries
At some point, I’ll write a blog post about how to safely and effectively train the core. For now, just Google the exercises above.
9. You’re doing exercises you don’t have the mobility for
A lot of guys want to improve their deadlift. In fact, “deadlift 315 lb” is something I hear a lot when I’m goal-setting with new clients.
But when we go through the movement screen I use to assess new clients, I usually find their hips or hamstrings are too tight to allow them to deadlift. In other words, they don’t yet have the mobility to perform a deadlift safely.
I’ll even let them show me their deadlift technique with light weight, and it’s often ugly.
Here’s a basic rule of thumb: if you can’t touch your toes with straight legs, you have no business deadlifting.
Back to new clients: if the movement screen tells me their shoulders are too tight, we also have to remove any overhead exercises from their program. Why? Because performing overhead exercises with load (weight) seriously increases their injury risk.
You need to improve your mobility. Find someone who can take you through the functional movement screen and teach you how to fix the tightness you almost certainly have in one or more parts of your body.
10. You don’t know what your goals are
One of the questions I ask new clients is “what are your current fitness goals?” I love the clients who have specific goals; we have a good discussion about the best ways to achieve those goals and make sure we’re both on the same page about how to proceed.
But some new clients, well, they’re not really sure why they’re training in the first place. No matter how hard I dig, the most I can get out of them is “I want to be healthy”.
The unsure clients are usually “average” physically. Not overweight, but not super ripped. Not weak, but not crazy strong.
I can’t write a program for them if I don’t know what they want to get out of it. I’ll give them plenty of options for their goals, and after they’ve chosen we can proceed.
But if you’re not a fitness professional and you don’t know what your goal is, you’re going to find it hard to make any progress. Because what the hell does progress even mean if you don’t have something to aim at?
Pick a goal, and train specifically for that goal.
11. Your goals are contradictory
Every twenty-something guy I meet wants to do two things: burn fat and build muscle. At the same time. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do because those goals are almost contradictory. Fat burning is a catabolic process, while muscle building is anabolic. The science says being in a catabolic state and an anabolic state simultaneously is pretty much impossible.
The only way I’ve seen this done is through extremely strict attention to diet and crazy difficult workouts. You’d be better off spending 6-12 weeks dropping the body fat, and then 6-12 weeks building muscle.
I once had a client who wanted to build around 5 lb of muscle in the next few months. Cool. That’s a clear and achievable goal. But then he informed me he was going to be training for an Iron Man over the next 12 weeks.
Sorry man, not gonna happen. You can’t build that much muscle in that period of time while doing all that muscle-burning Iron Man training. Pick one.
12. You don’t warm up
So you just spent another day at work sitting in meetings, tightening the hell out of your hips. I know you’re in a rush to get out of the office and hit the gym, but do you think it’s a good idea to squat or deadlift without loosening up your hips first? That’s a surefire way to injure yourself.
And what if you’ve just spent all day at your desk, hunched over your keyboard and mouse? Your shoulders and upper back are probably super tight, and heavy bench pressing is going to make things even worse.
13. Your reps are bad quality
Watching someone perform exercises poorly is like reading an email full of spelling mistakes. Sure, I understand what you’re trying to say, but it’s hard for me to take you seriously.
The most common way someone performs an exercise poorly is not using the full range of motion. In other words, they’re half-repping. Imagine someone squatting with a barbell. Instead of coming all the way down so their quads are parallel with the floor, they stop halfway and return to the top. Why do they do this? Usually, it’s ego. You can lift heavier weights if you’re half-repping, but it’s a waste of time.
You have to perform exercises with full range of motion. Not doing so will lead to joint instability and an imbalanced muscle: it will only be strong in the small range you’re training, and you won’t be able to fully activate all the muscle fibres.
The ego’s desire to lift heavy weight leads to other forms of bad quality reps. Let’s take a simple barbell bicep curl. How many guys out there use their legs and hips to swing the bar up as fast as they can. Their biceps barely get a workout.
And sometimes it’s just plain ignorance about the proper technique for an exercise. I rarely see people properly kettlebell swinging; usually, it looks like a weird squat combined with a front shoulder raise.
Perform exercises with full range of motion. Don’t let your ego get in the way and make you cheat. And if you don’t know how to perform a complex exercise like a kettlebell swing or a deadlift, don’t just guess, because there’s a good chance you’ll be wrong and you’ll probably hurt yourself at some point.
14. You neglect other areas of fitness
To all the bench press bros: take a light yoga class once a week. You haven’t worked enough on your mobility, and it’s going to cause an injury. And why not take part in a group fitness class for a little conditioning?
To the yoga-obsessed: pick up a dumbbell every now and then. Building a couple of pounds of lean muscle is going to help your overall strength and speed up your metabolism. Downward dog ain’t gonna do that.
To the runners: you need to build muscle and work on your mobility.
15. You haven’t changed your diet
I once met a guy who told me he “didn’t believe” in changing his diet to get lean. He was going to get in shape purely from hard work in the gym.
I wanted to ask him what else he “didn’t believe” in. Gravity? Evolution?
If your diet is full of processed junk, you’re not going to get lean.
If you aren’t willing to eat more, you’re not going to build muscle.
It would be awesome if we could eat whatever we wanted and still achieve our aesthetic fitness goals. But you can’t have your cake and eat it.
16. You drink too many calories in that shake
A tough training session will typically burn around 400 calories in an hour. Less if you’re a small person.
So why do you need that pre-workout carbo-load, those BCAAs to power your workout, and the 500-calorie post-workout shake? It’s going to cause you to gain body fat, and I’m guessing you didn’t join the gym to get fatter.
Shakes are great if you’re trying to build muscle, but don’t go overboard. One scoop of protein powder in water is perfect post-workout, and it only contains a hundred or so calories.
17. You’re going full blast on too little sleep
Lack of sleep and intense exercise is a bad combination.
First of all, you’re just asking for an injury. Sleep deprivation results in the same cognitive impairment as being legally drunk. I wouldn’t let you lift heavy weights if you were drunk, so you can be damn sure I’m not going to let you lift heavy weights if you’re running on 4 hours of sleep.
Another reason to not go crazy in the gym if you haven’t slept enough is cortisol, a stress hormone. Lack of sleep will cause your cortisol levels to rise. You also release cortisol during intense exercise. This is normal, and won’t cause any health issues (unless you’re training too frequently), but if we throw sleep deprivation into the mix your cortisol levels might get too high.
This is why I ask clients “how’s your sleep been recently?” as we’re warming up. If they didn’t sleep enough last night, I modify the workout.
These are the 17 most common gym mistakes I see. Leave a comment if you think I missed any.