Some are understandable, some inevitable and some just downright dangerous. Chances are you’ve committed at least one of these common gym mistakes before and will again now gyms have reopened. Even experienced personal trainers can be repeat offenders – as you’ll find out below. So to prevent you falling into the same traps, we’ve highlighted the most common pitfalls awaiting unwary gym-goers and the best ways to overcome them.
1. You Never Learn Your Lesson
“The biggest mistake I used to make was always after injury lay-offs,” admits London-based personal trainer Dave Budge. “I was eager to get back in the gym, pushed too hard too soon and injured myself all over again.” The solution, Budge says, is simple. “Don’t let your ego dictate your workout. Focus on flawless technique, moving well and ample recovery.” The weights will fly up soon enough.
2. You Only Train The Mirror Muscles
Biceps curls and bench presses have their place in a well-balanced training plan but should be used sparingly. Instead, says Harvey Lawton, founder of The Movement Blueprint, you should prioritise functional, full-body movement patterns that will better prepare you for the physical demands of real life. “Cut back on chasing the pump and focus on patterns that will better serve the rest of your body, like the squat, deadlift and clean.”
3. You Go Every Day
Working out every day is unsustainable – both physically and mentally. “If you go every day you won’t be able to maintain a useful intensity,” says Lee Archer, PT and director at ProTom Fitness in Bristol. “Exercise will become a chore and you’ll start missing sessions, beating yourself up about it and losing motivation.” Incorporate proper rest days into your schedule and mix up your types of activity. “Take the dog for a walk or go for a swim instead,” he suggests.
4. You Lift What You Used To Lift
Just because you once squatted 100kg, that shouldn’t set the benchmark for all future lifts. Especially if you’ve just spent months away from the squat rack because of lockdown. “The most common mistake I see is people lifting what they used to lift, rather than what their body is capable of lifting now,” says Lawton. It’s guaranteed to put you back on the sidelines in record time. Lawton suggests focusing on rebuilding the prime movement patterns of the hinge, pull, push and squat in your first few sessions back. “Whatever you do, start light.”
5. You Don’t Warm Up Specifically
Running on a treadmill for ten minutes won’t warm you up for a set of chin-ups. “Try matching the warm-up to the muscle group. Rowing is good for the upper body, for example, then do two light sets of 12-15 reps before you do your work sets,” says Archer. “The same applies to cardio workouts. Warm up at 30-60% of race pace.”
6. You Always Stick To The Same Workout
We all tend to repeat the things we like doing, so it’s no wonder that once we find a workout that suits us we stick to it. Archer advises against this. “Change your programme after four to six weeks, otherwise you get into a pattern and you stop producing results because your body has hit a plateau,” he says. As well as changing your workout, you can mix it up by cross-training – try a circuit or kickboxing class once a week.
7. You Don’t Have A Plan
Hit a plateau with your training? Chances are it’s because you’re not following a plan. “A lack of structure and consistency is a surefire way to undermine your progress,” says Budge. “As is following a random plan you downloaded off the internet.” Instead, Budge says you should always seek good-quality programming from someone who knows you and your body, and has the experience and savvy to rein you in if necessary.
8. You Go From Zero To 100
Think tortoise, not hare. Exercising regularly, getting stronger week on week, and allowing plenty of time for recovery will always beat the flat-out approach. “Progress relies on fine-tuning your ‘triangle’ – the three sides representing output, recovery and nutrition,” says Lawton. “You want your triangle to be as equilateral as possible. When you stretch too far one way, such as by overreaching in your workouts, you can upset the proportions and undermine any chance of progress.”
9. You Only Train On Your Own
Single-minded focus is commendable, but all top athletes use training partners to keep them going and push them to the next level of performance. “Ideally you want someone who has the same goals as you and whose strength and fitness levels are just a bit better than yours,” says Archer. “It will push you to work harder every session and the added accountability means you’re less likely to miss a workout when motivation is flagging.”
10. You Never Take A Break
Slavishly following a workout plan for a whole year is likely to lead to burn-out. “If your training is getting stale and you’re not getting anywhere, take a break – but do it properly and have a full week off,” says Archer. “It gives you what you need for a total recovery of your body and your mind, because boredom is the biggest killer. If you go on holiday, treat it as a way to recharge, refocus and ultimately reach your goals quicker.”
11. You Think Every Workout Needs To Last An Hour
Unless you’re training for an ultra, marathon sessions will do more harm than good. And jumping straight into a monster session after months away from the gym creates a time bomb that will soon blow. “As you build your fitness back up, keep sessions moderately short,” says Budge. “Give your body time to adapt to challenging exercises and focus on the biggest bang-for-your-buck movements, such as the squat, hinge, lunge, push and pull.” Little and often always beats all or nothing.
12. You Beat Yourself Up When You Have A Bad Session
Even the most motivated and energetic gym-goer can have a crap training session. There’s often no real reason: your body just isn’t up for it. Don’t imagine that you’re going backwards. “Sometimes you don’t feel great, but just being there is enough,” says Archer. “People who are hard on themselves and start to feel negative about it tend to eventually stop going to the gym altogether.”
13. You Only Ever Lift Heavy Weights To Build Muscle
Going heavy every time you lift can limit your gains. This might sound counterintuitive but to grow you need to go slow and control the tempo of the move. “Now and then, go light and do extra reps with a greater range of motion. People don’t always lock out on biceps curls, for instance, and you can end up with short biceps. If you go heavy you have to make sure that your technique is spot-on first,” says Archer.
14. You Confuse A Tired Brain With A Tired Body
A tough day at work leaves you shattered and in no mood for the gym, so you go (or stay at) home and try to get an early night, but end up with a bout of insomnia. If that sounds familiar, you may need to separate mental and physical fatigue. “People think they’re tired when all they’ve done is sit at their computers. Their brain is knackered but their body is keyed up and ready for exercise,” says Archer. “By going to the gym, you’ll get your energy levels surging and de-stress yourself in the process.”
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Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.