Working out seems easy enough. Go to the gym, try out a few weight machines, add in some cardio, and call it a day. But that kind of attitude can get you injured, and if you somehow make it out unscathed, chances are you overwork parts of your body while completely missing others.
If you can recognize the seven common workout mistakes outlined below—and learn how to avoid them—you’ll be able to reach pretty much any fitness goal.
Common Workout Mistakes
1. You don’t follow a workout program.
If you’re not exactly sure what you’re doing at the gym, it seems like a good idea to copy what one of the super-fit regulars is doing. The thinking: One day you’ll look like them—or at least not look silly while working out. Most people who follow this school of thought end up doing a bunch of random exercises with poor form.
The Fix: Find a workout program that works for you or create a personalized plan with the help of a trainer. Don’t worry about finding the best program out there. The best one is the one that’s sustainable, fun, safe, and effective at reaching your goals. Make sure your workout plan has you following this format:
- Start with an effective warm-up (more on that under No. 6).
- Perform power exercises (like weight lifting) or explosive moves (like plyometrics) first. They usually take the most focus and coordination, so do them when you’re fresh.
- Follow up with compound exercises, the kind that use more than one joint. That includes squats, deadlifts, rows, bench presses, and pull-ups. Use a machine if you need to, but work up to performing these with free weights—they work more muscles and give you more bang for your buck.
- Add in isolation exercises, such as bicep curls, tricep extensions, back raises, and hip thrusts. Each exercise focuses on moving a joint in one direction.
- Finish with core-specific exercises, which trainers often call “a finisher.” Opt for a high-rep or a multi-exercise circuit designed to raise your heart rate and, as the nickname suggests, finish you. A common finishers is a bodyweight circuit of pull-ups, push-ups, and squats.
2. You change things up too often.
Doing the same workout day after day gets boring, but drastic changes can slow your gains and make your workouts less effective. A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. Rhea MR, Ball SD, Phillips WT. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 2002, Jul.;16(2):1064-8011.
The Fix: Find a program that varies its workouts in a planned manner, and stick to it for three months. Make slight alterations if you need to, but keep the bulk of the program the same and give the program a chance.
3. You’re only in it for the six-pack.
It’s totally reasonable to exercise because you want to look good, but you need to work out more than just the body parts you see in the mirror. There are plenty of men guilty of spending all their time at the gym doing a combination of chest exercises and bicep curls. For women, it’s all about the inner and outer thighs, abs, and triceps.
The Fix: Incorporate more pulling movements into workouts. These exercises target muscles in the mid- and upper back, glutes, and hamstrings, all areas that need to be strong for everyday tasks (like lifting grocery bags). Rows, pull-ups, deadlifts, and hip thrusts are all great options to strengthen your legs and core. It’s also worth adding mobility exercises (like hip or shoulder stretches) to your routine. After all, we get pretty tight from sitting all day.
4. You expect changes to happen overnight.
We live in a world full of instant gratification, where summoning pretty much anything to your door—food, booze, dates—takes a few taps of your smartphone. But progress at the gym, whether your goal is losing weight or training for a 5K, isn’t instantaneous.
The Fix: Set small, incremental goals. Instead of going from sitting on the couch to running a 5K, make it your goal to run for 10 minutes without stopping the first week, then add another 10 minutes the next week, and soon enough you’ll hit your overall goal. Chart your workouts, so when you look back, you’ll be able to see how much you’ve accomplished.
5. You think working out is a chore.
Setting foot in the gym and moving some weights around is only half the battle. Having the right mental attitude and determination are crucial to reaching your goals. Always strive to be better, resist the temptation to get frustrated, and keep at it.
The Fix: Find a workout partner (ideally someone who is stronger and fitter). You’ll push each other to work harder and reach levels you didn’t think possible. Create a social network with people that have similar goals and lifestyles. Share recipes and workout ideas. It’s always more difficult when you’re going it alone.
6. You don’t really warm-up.
Warming up is just as important as the rest of your workout. It prevents injury and prepares your body for the training session. A proper warm-up should get your heart rate up, improve mobility, and charge the nervous system for the work to come.
The Fix: Take an extra 10 minutes at the start of every workout to do a proper warm-up. Start with a brisk walk for 4 minutes, followed up by dynamic movements (jumping jacks, glute bridges, skipping in place), and foam rolling.
7. You do cardio first—and strength training second.
If your goal is getting stronger and adding muscle, don’t do cardio before strength training. There’s nothing wrong with starting your workout on the treadmill or StairMaster, but cardiovascular training is taxing on your energy reserves. And that limits the amount of effort you can exert while lifting weights.
The Fix: Instead of doing a full-on cardio session before your strength training, move it to another day (or do it after lifting).
Wrapping It All Up
Time is the most precious commodity we have—don’t waste it on ineffective workouts. As Olympic weight lifting champion Bill Starr said, “Patience plus persistence equals progress.” Fix these common workout mistakes and get the most out of your training.
Originally published November 2012. Updated March 2017.