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Friday, July 17, 2009

What NOT to do in the gym

There are a few things I've learned NOT to do over the past year. These are common fitness mistakes that either waste your time, or cause your workout to be less efficient. Some of these are mistakes I made, others I was fortunate enough to learn not do before I made them. But they are all thing I see other people doing in the gym, just about every time I'm there. So here's a quick list of things I've learned to avoid -- and now you can too.

1. Holding onto the treadmill

I'll be the first to admit, this was a major vice of mine. I would be running at 8.5 mph at a 5% incline, but hanging onto the handle at the front as if my life depended on it! Why is this a no-no? Holding onto the treadmill lightens your body weight and changes your gait. You're no longer walking or running in the traditional sense. Furthermore, holding on will cause you to compromise your posture, putting your lower back at risk. For some of you, the most important point might be that if you hold on, the calorie burn the treadmill estimates for you will be far greater than your true calorie burn.

How do you fix it? Lower the incline to 2-3% (the amount of incline needed to make treadmill walking/running equivalent to outdoor walking/running) and SLOW DOWN, for goodness sakes! Once I decided I needed to go hands-off, I found I needed to lower my sprinting speed to around 7 mph. Although this was much slower than I had been doing before, it was a genuine run for me, and I got a great workout. Now that I've progressed, I can actually run at 8.5 mph, hands off. I would have never gotten there if I kept cheating my workouts with my death grip on the front bar.

2. Wasting hours on sit-ups and other ab exercises

I'm a little bit guilty here. I didn't spend hours on sit-ups, but at the beginning of my fitness journey, I was overly focused on stability ball crunches. Why is this a problem? Well, most people spend time on sit-ups and ab exercises because they want a trimmer midsection or six-pack abs. But unless their body fat is very low, meaning they're already quite trim, an ab-specific workout is essentially a waste of time. It may strengthen your abdominals, but will not whittle your waist. As I've said before, the secret to great abs is tied more to what and how you eat than when and how you exercise. And all of those sit-ups and crunches put too much strain on your back!

So instead of spending all that time doing an ab workout, eat at a calorie deficit. Then, when you're at the gym, focus at least some of your time on full body exercises like squats, overhead squats, or deadlifts, as well as high intensity interval training (HIIT). The full body exercises will engage your abs when you stabilize your body as part of the exercises. Plus, they'll burn many more calories than would have been burned working the abs alone. The HIIT will help you bust out some fat loss, turning your body into a fat burning machine long after your workout, thanks to the magic of EPOC (excess postexercise oxygen consumption). And, if you have some extra time and want to throw in 5-10 minute of targeted ab work at the end of your workout, feel free. Craig Ballantyne's 6-minute abs workout (find it here, under abdominal workouts) is one great way to do a quick, targeted ab workout that doesn't strain your back, and doesn't waste your time - it's only 6 minutes!

3. Shortening your range of motion because the weights are too heavy

I think even the most seasoned fitness buff can occasionally get trapped by this one. We end up thinking we can handle more weight than we truly can, and the form suffers as a result. I admit I'm a people watcher, and I've seen people do this who should know better! For instance, there's a guy at my gym who is a fitness competitor. He likes to throw lots of 45-pound plates on when he's doing squats, but then he barely even goes down far enough to get his thighs parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, there's another guy who squats about 100 pounds less, but goes completely down to the ground and back up. Now THAT's impressive!

Thanks to some good advice from a friend who is an Olympic powerlifter, I got to a point in my squats where I stopped increasing my weight, and instead increased my range of motion. This small tweak helped engage not just my quadriceps, but also ensured I was engaging my hamstrings and glutes as well.

That's my list, but before I close I have to share one from my dear husband's (DH) list:

4. Spend more time chatting or using your cellphone than you spend working out

You've seen them, and so have I. There's the girl texting while on the stairmaster. The guy talking on his cellphone with one arm while doing lateral raises with the other. And then, there's the group of three guys who spent so much time chatting, that by the time they finished their three sets (each) of split squats, I was done with my entire workout!

I'm not saying you shouldn't ever take a call, text, or talk to other people in the gym. But just be aware that when you spend time doing these things, you are lowering the effectiveness of your workout. Why? Well, there are two possible reasons:
  • If you're talking or texting WHILE you work out, chances are that you're not paying as much attention to good form, or you are not pushing yourself very hard.

  • If you're talking in between sets, you are likely taking longer rests than you had originally planned. If you're trying to have a workout that gives you a fat-burning effect, you should target 30-60 seconds of rest between sets. That's about enough time to say hello to your fellow gymrats and catch your breath. If you're trying to have a workout that builds muscle, you should target 2-5 minutes of rest between sets (women generally need less, men generally need more). If you get into a conversation with someone, it's really easy for 3 minutes to stretch to 8 or even 10.
So yes, DH is right. This is yet another common gym mistake that reduces workout efficiency and/or wastes your time.

What mistakes do you see people making in the gym, or what mistakes have you corrected in your own workouts? I'd love to hear your perspective!


  1. Your husband's tip fits right in with my complaint about the retirees at the gym I go to. They spend 10-15 minutes between sets, tying up the equipment I want to use. If I can get to all of the equipment, I can complete my weight workout in 30-40 minutes.

  2. A sub set of your husband's comment is people reading magazines on a cardio machine or engaged in a significant conversation with their friend beside them. If you want a good cardio work out (even if you don't do intervals) you need to work hard and focus on the job not split your attention.
    The one that pisses me off is people not putting their dumb bells away in the proper places after they have finished using them. Eventually it hurts their work out when they waste time looking for a DB or trip on a stray one lying on the floor.

  3. Ann and Andrew - I absolutely agree with both of your comments!

    People reading books or magazines on cardio machines aren't working as hard as they could be if they focused more on their workout. Maybe that's okay for a warmup, but if they're trying to get a decent workout, better to put the book away and focus on the motion!

    And the other things are just bad manners - leaving weights on machines, dumbbells on the floor, tying up weights. I hate when someone leaves 4 45# plates on the squat bar. I can take them all off, but it's not easy for me, so it takes time and it's a workout in and of itself! I've also tripped over an 80lb dumbbell on the floor that I don't feel comfortable picking up to put away...so I have to leave it there too!

    We could fill up a "pet peeves" post pretty quickly, right?

  4. oooh, great post! pet peeves at the gym, yes the hanging onto the treadmill really gets me and i'm surprised how many people do it.

    not putting the dumbbells away or even back into the right place gets me a lot. evey morning i get to the gym to find a mess. i make sure i get my weights and when i put them back (in the right place) i take the ones in the wrong place and put them right too. by the time i've finished my workout most weights are back where they go. why can't other people to this, it's not that i mind just that it's easy and good manners.

    after a comment Liz made on my blog i looked into the eliptical machines. one post from CB mentioned that if you ask 100 fat people to workout then this is the item 90 will choose. i haven't used it since but laugh each morning at the fat people on those machines - yes there are some skinny ones but it was not the eliptical that got them that way, it's just that they see it as an easy option (workouts are not meant to be easy)

    Finally, people that watch TV between sets. why can't they just stay home. it doesn't affect me so much anymore as i don't use machines - but pleeaase get a grip.