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Gym Mistakes to Avoid: I’ve Made All of These!

Gym Mistakes to Avoid: I’ve Made All of These!

gym mistakes featured image

Following on from the last post, “Every Nutrition Mistake I Ever Made”, I thought it would be worth also doing one looking at all of the lifting and exercise mistakes I ever made.

Once again it’s worth stating that everyone’s journey is about learning lessons as you go. Don’t try to be perfect straight away. Just build a habit of exercising. You’ll do far better if you just start, rather than trying to gather all of the information to start out doing everything perfectly. That just isn’t going to happen. Keep these mistakes in mind and try to avoid them, but don’t let analysis paralyse you and prevent you from starting!

Here’s every mistake I ever made in the gym:

  • Not tracking my lifts
  • Lifting with bad form
  • Lifting too heavy
  • Ignoring higher rep ranges
  • Trying to progress too quickly and sacrificing form
  • Ignoring injuries
  • Not following a proper program
  • Doing cardio before lifting
  • Not warming up
  • Not deloading
  • Refusing to listen to my body and take time off when needed
  • Not focusing on a mind-muscle connection
  • Following an unbalanced routine
  • Working the same muscle groups on consecutive days
  • Completely shunning certain equipment
  • Cheating reps

I’ll dive a bit deeper into some of the key themes from the above list:

Not tracking my lifts

To make progress in the gym, you need to lift progressively more weight over time.

At the start, this is easy. You can pick up heavier weights on almost every lift every time you step back in the gym.

At some point, maybe after 3-6 months, this stops. Most people are not tracking their lifts at this point. What ends up happening is that they can’t lift the next weight up for their usual sets and reps, so they just stay stuck at the same weight. They lift these weights forever.

workout tracking

I use an app on my phone to track my lifts – but you can use pen and paper or a spreadsheet

What you need to understand is that it is the total VOLUME of weight lifted that matters. If you are stuck on 5 sets of 5 with 50kg, you don’t have to do 5 sets of 5 with 55kg. You can do 3 sets of 10 with 42.5kg. Even though the weight is lighter and you’re lifting for fewer sets, the total volume is higher (1,275kg vs. 1,250kg). OR you can do 4 sets of 5 with 50kg, plus a set of 6. Just make sure the total volume is going up over time. This is how you progressively overload.

Not following a proper program

I followed programs I built myself for a few years before I ever switched to a proper program.

My programs started out bad. I would work one body part per day. E.g. I’d have a chest day, a back day, a legs day, an abs and arms day etc. This means that body part has to wait a whole week before it is worked again. There are a lot of benefits to training muscle groups with higher frequency (at least twice per week.)

Another problem was that my programs were not balanced. At various times I had too much pushing, too many pull-ups, working the same muscle groups on consecutive days or too many times per week, and trying to do too many things. This led to muscular imbalances, injuries and burnout.

Even when I fixed my programs to make them perfectly balanced, I still didn’t make great progress. That’s because a workout program is much more than a list of exercises you must do on certain days.

A good workout program is actually less about the specific exercises you must do, and more about how you will progress. My programs didn’t have progressive overload baked into their core. I just upped the weight when I wanted to and did whatever sets and reps I wanted to. A good workout program will take this control away from you and get you progressing at a solid rate. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at the numbers on my plan before a workout and thought “there’s no way I’m doing that!” before going on to surprise myself and actually having a bit more in the tank.

Jim Wendler

Jim Wendler: Creator of the 531 program – the first proper program I ever followed

Lifting with bad form

There were many exercises where I lifted with bad form.

Lifting with bad form means you don’t work the muscles properly and you increase your risk of injury.

I had bad form on squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups, lat pull-downs, seated rows, one arm rows, leg press, pushups and probably some other exercises too.

I kept getting injuries and I never really built any serious muscle on those exercises.

What I had to do in the end was drop the weights down so I could actually do the exercises properly, and then work back up.

It’s humbling at first, but you’ll catch up to where you were! You’ll also actually get the proper benefit of the exercise and build muscle too!

Lifting too heavy and ignoring higher reps

I was so fixated on deadlifting a certain weight, that I attempted it all the time, even though I hadn’t really earned the right to.

I would always lift my one rep max on deadlifts, and I tried to progress by just adding weight to this number.

What I needed to do, was drop the weight back down and build volume with higher reps in the lower weights. But that just didn’t sound exciting to me and I thought I could keep lifting new 1 rep maxes!

This led to a lot of frustration, failure and pointless workouts that didn’t add anything except injuries.

What eventually got me stronger was building strength with lower weights and higher reps.

Trying to progress too quickly and sacrificing form

Even when I was aware of the concept of progressive overload and was tracking my lifts, I still made mistakes. I knew what sets, reps and weight I needed to lift to do more volume than the last workout, but I would often sacrifice form to get there. There’s no point in lifting more weight with worse form. If your form isn’t the same as before, then you haven’t gotten stronger. Another way to progress is to lift the same weight with better form.

Don’t ever cheat reps. It’s completely pointless to swing the weights around when doing biceps curls and think that is going to grow your arms. Another one that you see all the time is people using their bodyweight to lift the weight on lat pull-downs by jumping up and down in the seat.

For me, I always used to cheat pull-ups. I used to try to squeeze out a couple of extra reps by craning my head back. As soon as one pull-up looks technically different from the last, the set is over. Rest, then try again – but keep all the reps looking the same once again.

Ignoring injuries

Unfortunately, I have a couple of injuries that still annoy me years later because I ignored them at the time.

Because I ignored them and continued doing the things that aggravated them they’re now chronic. I doubt they’ll ever really go away.
I have a dodgy shoulder from doing barbell bench press without retracting my shoulder blades. Added to the incorrect shoulder position, I was also lifting too much weight with bad form and struggling under it. Bad form and too much weight is a recipe for disaster.

My other annoying injury is my left elbow. I’m not entirely sure what the cause was, but pressing movements with a narrower grip, any direct triceps work, and heavy grippy exercises aggravate it. I now have to train around it. For months I ignored it as it steadily got worse, until I had to completely stop doing all pushing exercises until it died down. It’s still there, but I can still train pushing exercises if I have a wide grip. I still can’t do direct triceps work.

Doing cardio before lifting

You don’t want to do this, unless it’s very light cardio just to warm up. If you’re doing anything more than a warmup then you’re going to be fatigued when you come to lift. You won’t lift as much weight as you could have done, so you’ll be hampering your progress, and you’ll be more likely to have sloppy form and get injured.

Not warming up

Don’t just walk into the gym cold and start lifting your work sets!

At the very least start your workouts with some very light warmup sets of your main exercise. Say you’re going to lift 5 sets of 5 with 80kg on bench press. I would start with just the bar and do at least 10 slow and controlled reps with it. I would then continue to warm up by going through 40kg, 55kg and 70kg – all the while keeping the bar slow and controlled. Don’t fly through your warmup sets with less than perfect form thinking they don’t matter.

What you really should be doing though is also doing some warm-up exercises. Some rotator cuff work on upper body days, some band work, stretching the main joints etc.

Not deloading or listening to my body and taking time off

A deload week is a week where you reduce the volume of weight you’re lifting by about half. This can be done by lowering all weights by 50%, or by lifting 50% fewer reps with the same weight.

Deload weeks are important as they allow your body to recover. It feels counter-intuitive and like you’re not making any progress, but you’ll actually progress faster using deload weeks correctly when they’re needed. When you come back at full intensity, you’ll be stronger than before.

How often you need to deload will depend on how heavy the program is and how taxing it is on your body. A routine where you lift lots of lighter weights for sets of 10+ reps, with more focus on isolation work rather than compound exercises, won’t need a deload as often – maybe every 12 weeks.

A program with lots of compound movements where you’re often lifting heavy loads for 5 reps or lower, may need deloads more often, like every 4 weeks.

Listen to your body and deload or take time off when you know you should! I ignored this too often. I could tell when I needed to rest but I would often ignore my own intuition. Sometimes you feel under the weather, all the weights feel a bit heavy, and you struggle to make progress.

Taking time off is hard sometimes. You feel like you are going to go backwards and that if you just keep persevering you’ll get through it. This isn’t true. When you genuinely need a rest, the rest is the best thing for your short and long term progression. Trying to work through it just means you’re going to be forced to take a longer rest in the near future anyway – either through sickness or injury.

Not focusing on a mind-muscle connection

It’s important you focus on making a connection with the right muscles when lifting weights. You could be allowing other muscles to do the work besides the ones you’re supposed to be targeting. This is a classic problem with pulling exercises.

I had this problem on lat pull-downs, one arm rows and barbell rows. These exercises are supposed to work the lats, but I was giving way too much assistance from my biceps. What I needed to do was lower the weight, slow down the movement, and focus on making a connection between my mind and the lats, and actually feel them contracting and lengthening.

At some point, I realised I needed to do this, but my own ego wouldn’t let me. I didn’t want to lower the weight. Lowering the weight felt like going backwards, even though it was what was needed to go forwards. I wasn’t progressing, I was just allowing my biceps to do more and more work instead of my lats. Despite this, it took me a good while to admit it to myself and lower the weight.

The bench press is another one where people could get more benefit by lowering the weight and concentrating on working the muscles they actually want to work. Weights above 80% of your one rep max don’t actually provide any extra stimulus to the chest muscles anyway. With heavier weights you’re actually just using more of your triceps and front delts to lift the weight. You’d get more benefit to your chest by lowering the weight and really focusing on getting a good contraction at the top of the range of motion, and a good stretch at the bottom.

Don’t worry about what weights you’re lifting. Lower the weight and focus on a mind muscle connection.

Completely shunning certain equipment

For a good while I would not touch any machines. I was consuming information that told me machines were bad and free weights were good. This is a fairly moronic view because it is too black and white. Nothing is absolute when it comes to training. I still think most programs for most people should be based around freeweights and bodyweights, with an emphasis on compound movements. However, machines can have their place.

workout machines

Fixed machines are fine to use if used properly although I do prefer free weights.

The problem with some machines is that they force your body to move along their planes of motion. The key thing is to be aware of this, and make sure you adapt accordingly. Make sure you’re using good form (e.g. keeping wrists below elbows and elbows tucked on chest press machines) and use lighter loads and higher reps.

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