Lifting weights is certainly a learning process.
I made tons of mistakes (and still do) when I first started but have learned better ways to do things since then.
Maybe you’ve seen someone doing a weird exercise in the gym and seriously questioned what they were doing. Or maybe you’ve seen a great exercise being performed incorrectly.
The bottom line is, make sure you aren’t committing these 5 common gym mistakes and you’ll see faster results.
Butchering The Lat Pulldown
I love doing lat pulldowns. I’m a big fan of incorporating them in my upper body workouts, as well as lifting days dedicated to training the back.
Usually performed after pullups/chin-ups, lat pulldowns can help to build size and improve your overall back development.
The biggest mistake I see people making when performing them is…
They’re pulling the bar way too far down, like this:
The problem doing it this way is that you aren’t using your back as effectively as you could be. You also risk irritating your shoulders if you let them roll forward as you pull down.
Instead of pulling the bar down with the arms, try to squeeze your shoulder blades down and back, and then let your elbows drive down towards your sides. This will ensure you are pulling with your lats.
When we do lat pulldowns, regardless of grip, we want to bring the bar to the top of the sternum as shown here:
This effectively engages the muscles we’re trying to work and keeps the shoulders in a good position. You should be able to maintain a pretty upright torso position, with your chest up.
None of that swinging back and rowing the bar down. Unless you’re trying to make it a horizontal pull. Which I hope you’re not.
I wouldn’t recommend going lower than 6 or so reps on these, as they’re generally better served for hypertrophy purposes rather than strength. (Note–don’t test your 1RM on the lat pulldown. Please)
Wasting Your Time With Unstable Surface Training
I’ll tell you right here, if your goal has anything to do with looking better, losing body fat, or putting on muscle, unstable surface training isn’t cuttin’ it.
If you’ve ever tried to squat on top of a Bosu ball then you know how incredibly hard it is to balance while squatting down. Then, imagine adding an external load to that instability and now you’ve got a potential disaster.
As ridiculous as this picture is, it’s mind boggling how he even got on top of that thing with a bar on his back???
At the last commercial gym I trained at, I actually saw someone back squatting while standing on an upside down Bosu ball. Pretty crazy stuff if you ask me.
My online coaching clients never do any of these gimmicky exercises. Instead, they hammer the basics and follow a logical approach to training that I set up for them.
Here’s one of my online coaching clients, Andy (also known as Big Dog and Beast), crushing some back squats with 225 pounds at the young age of 50!
Aside from looking absolutely ridiculous, there’s an actual reason why I dislike gimmicks like the Bosu ball.
You can’t add any amount of appreciable load great enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Some people say it’s beneficial for coordination.
I don’t know, maybe. But who cares.
Are we trying to win a spot in the circus, or get into great shape?
Exercises like walking lunges and split squats challenge your coordination just fine, AND you can load them up to build muscle and lose fat.
The sooner you put more emphasis on improving the big compound lifts and leave the Bosu balls and toys for the uneducated gym goers, the quicker you can expect to make progress.
Pointing Your Toes In or Out
Ever seen someone performing leg extensions and calf raises and emphasize pointing their toes in or out?
Because I used to do it.
But then I learned more about how the muscles involved during leg extensions and calf raises really work.
Many, including myself, thought that different parts of the muscles would be hit differently by changing the direction of the toes.
Toes out, toes in, you name it.
Take the leg extension for example. The knee only extends one way, and that’s straight. So pointing your toes any way but straight is only asking for injury.
If you try to change the direction of the extension of your knee you risk tearing a ligament such as an MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament) or LCL (Lateral Collateral Ligament).
So, if you happen to be performing knee extensions, keep your toes pointed straight. Otherwise stick to mostly squatting, leg presses, lunges etc for working the quads. You’ll lessen the risk of injury to your knees by doing so.
The same goes for calves.
“Angle out just a bit and you’ll hit the outer part of your calf!”
I wish I could tell you that I haven’t done that before, but I’m guilty of this one too. Whoops.
Sometimes you just have to learn the hard way.
But, like the quads, turning your toes in/out doesn’t change which parts of your calves get worked. Instead of pointing your toes in all sorts of weird directions, focus more on contracting hard as high up onto your tippy toes as you can. Try to hold the top and bottom position of the calf raises for at least 2 seconds.
Increasing the weight on a given exercise can be a very good thing.
But, it can also be pretty costly if you aren’t able to perform the exercise properly.
I often see people doing unintentional partial reps on things like lunges, split squats, bench presses etc.
Just the other day at the gym I saw a guy holding 25lb dumbbells in each hand while doing split squats. He was maybe going down all of 3 inches from his starting position.
The point isn’t to knock on some guy at the gym but to show you that using a full range of motion is way more important than adding weight.
This is especially important for the older population who could really benefit from using a full range of motion on all their exercises to promote increases in bone density.
For example, if you’re doing split squats, start from the ground and work up from there. You’ll start in the half kneeling position shown below:
From there, work on standing up by pushing through your front heel. To lower back down, try to let your knees and hips hinge naturally while maintaining a pretty vertical front shin.
Performing this and other exercises with a full range of motion will stress your joints less, stimulate more muscle fibers, and generally be a lot safer than performing half reps.
Make sure you can execute an exercise or movement properly unweighted before you just start adding on the weight. Master this and you’ll be farther ahead than most of your fellow gym goers.
Skipping Your Warmup
I see too many people roll into the gym and fail to do a warmup of some kind.
A warmup doesn’t have to be anything super crazy or fancy.
Heck, for a lot of people, simply getting a sweat going would be a great start. Going a bit more in depth than that, though, it’s a great idea to prime the areas you’ll be working.
HERE’S an article I wrote a while back that covers my favorite warm up exercises to help prepare you for your workout.
I’m also a big fan of doing extra warmup sets on whatever exercise you’re doing. Taking the empty bar on squats, for example, is something I always do to help loosen up and prime the movement pattern.
Keep Learning, Keep Growing
Learning to focus on the right things is one of the best ways to ensure you make progress. Next time you head to the gym, try to avoid these mistakes in this article. You never know, you just may end up helping someone else along the way.