There is a lot of conflicting information out there about fitness. Whether it’s fad fitness programs, a revolutionary “fat-burning” exercise, or how to perform a certain movement, there are normally at least five answers you can find to the same question. At the end of the day, the overall goal at the gym for most is to improve our overall performance/ health and well-being without putting ourselves at risk for injury…but how do we sift through all the nonsense and find out what is true?
It would be tough to breakdown every false claim out there, but below are five general rules of thumb that can be applied to several situations you may run into at the gym.
1.) Mistake #1: Not warming up. In my opinion, this is one of the top contributors to injuring oneself at the gym - especially if you are exercising first thing in the morning or after being sedentary all day. I cannot stress enough how important it is to prepare your body for the stress you will be placing on it. A proper warm up will increase blood flow and body temperature, increase muscle elasticity, turn on your nervous system, and will mentally prepare you to exercise. The universal rule is general to specific. Begin with a 5 minute general warm (treadmill, bike, etc.), move into more dynamic stretches (actively bringing your body through the ranges of motion you will be going through under load), and then perform any mobility drills that are specific to the lifts you will be doing/individual-specific mobility drills. Ten to fifteen minutes goes a long way!
2.) Mistake #2: Not cooling down. Even more common than skipping a warm up is skipping a cool down. Too often we rush out of the gym without giving our bodies time to return to its resting physiological state. After exercising, your blood pressure and heart rate are elevated and need to find their way back down slowly and gradually. Post-workout is also the perfect time to take advantage of your muscles’ pliability and perform static stretching to improve flexibility.
3.) Mistake #3: Sacrificing form for weight (aka getting caught up in the numbers). What’s the point of benching 200 pounds if you are losing form, cheating the exercise, and it is putting you at risk for injury? Take a step back and think about the purpose of the exercises you are doing. Most likely, it is to get stronger, healthier, and more fit. However, when load exceeds physical capacity, injury occurs. So why are you loading past the point of keeping proper form and/or performing the exercise in its full range of motion? At the end of the day (unless you are competing), these numbers are arbitrary. The goal should be to get stronger and healthier, not bragging rights.
4.) Mistake #4: Not loading enough. With that being said, once you establish proper form, you need to gradually load weight in order to produce any sort of training effect. Your body is beautiful in that it will adapt to the stress you place on it (i.e. will get stronger so that the next time it is exposed to the same stimulus, it can handle it). However, if you keep placing the same load onto it in the same way once it has already adapted, it will not adapt any further. This is why it is imperative to continuously progress in terms of both variation and load in order to prevent complacency.
5.) Mistake #5: Not allowing recovery in muscle groups. Strength training 4-5 times per week is absolutely fine, but not if you are constantly training the same muscle groups day after day. Too many times I see people neglecting certain movements and therefore muscle groups (most commonly the hamstrings and back) and overloading others. This will not only create muscular imbalances, but can also put you at a higher risk of injury and overtraining. Each muscle group should have at least 48 hours of recovery between training sessions. So, if you want to lift 4-5 times per week, make sure you are on some sort of split program so that you give yourself proper recovery. Your muscles need time to break down and build back up stronger (to adapt to the load placed on it), but if they keep being broken down they will eventually not function properly. You are only as good as your recovery!
Stephanie Spoto, CSCS