Gym Mistakes: 11 Ways To Botch a Workout

From poor form to baggy clothes, many people make big mistakes at the gym.

ByABC News
February 20, 2009, 1:44 PM

Feb. 23, 2009 — -- It's a new year and you're finally at the gym or outside, exercising, moving around and, generally, feeling good about what you are doing.

Days, weeks, months go by and ... nothing happens. Or you are in pain. Or you hate your routine so much you break out in hives at the sight of a rowing machine.

As it turns out, there are lots of little -- or big -- mistakes that you can make at the gym that can lead to an ineffective workout, or even injury.

Many of the problems come from being distracted and not paying attention to what is going on.

"On a gym floor, you could get in the way of someone if they're not paying attention," said Miki Carey, assistant director of U-Move Fitness at the University of Michigan. "I've seen people who have fallen over [fitness] balls."

And people may not be making the best use of the time they set aside to exercise, although that time doesn't add up to very much. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that only three out of 10 adults get the recommended amount of physical activity, which is 30 minutes five times per week.

If a person does not know how to program an effective regime, the few hours they have spent in the gym are not as beneficial as they could be.

"Exercise is analogous to medications in medicine. You can overdose on exercise," said Barry Franklin, director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Exercise Labs at William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan. "Beyond 85 percent of one's capacity, the aerobic benefits level off." And the risks of injury or cardiac problems can increase.

No matter what is taking away from your workout, experts are unanimous in their recommendation to ask for help -- to use a machine, to check for poor form, or to set up an entire fitness routine -- in order to get back on track.

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"Given suboptimal conditions, the goal is to get them moving," Franklin said. "Then they move on their own."

Sometimes, making it to the gym is bearable only because you get to catch up with your gym buddies, take a class or jog together, and grab a smoothie afterwards. And working up the courage to finally talk to your gym crush can be good motivation to work out in the first place.

But too much time socializing can shift focus from what you are trying to accomplish when you exercise.

"It's nice to have the social aspect. It's kind of like your getaway," Carey said. "But it can be distracting."

What should be a brisk jog can turn into a fast walk and 60-second rests between weightlifting sets can turn into two minute mini-chats. Too much socializing can lead to poor gym etiquette as well, with people lingering on machines or having a conversation while an instructor is conducting a class.

Dr. Lisa R. Callahan, medical director of the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery, New York, said that if you do go to the gym to be social, acknowledge to yourself what you're doing. But do not assume that others are there for the same reason.

"Don't interrupt people who want to get a workout," Callahan said. "It's not good to mismatch your desire for socialization with the other people around you."

Similar to conversation, other distractions, such as reading or watching television, which can slow you down, literally, may lead to a less intense, less effective workouts.

A complicated weight machine with weights and pulleys arranged in a precarious tangle or a high-tech cardio machine with a vast keyboard of lights and buttons can be intimidating to someone who simply wants to get their heart rate up for an hour or so.

"People don't know what they're doing and they've never been shown properly," Carey said. "Then they attempt it, being uncertain what they're doing."

But this dilemma can cause a variety of problems, particularly when misusing equipment leads to poor form during exercise. Beyond decreasing the efficacy of an exercise, poor form can lead to a serious injury, which will not contribute to a successful exercise program.

Certainly, some people might be embarrassed to get a public demo on an unfamiliar machine in front of a room full of people who look like they grew up on a Bowflex instead of a jungle gym. Still, Carey recommended asking a staff member to demonstrate how to use an unfamiliar piece of equipment.

"Get over the fact that you're nervous to use something and try something new," Carey said.

A dedicated gym-goer might be trying to achieve the physique of a Greek god, but many may be acting out a famous Grecian myth already.

The legend of Narcissus tells the story of a young man who was so beautiful that he fell in love with his own reflection and wasted away while gazing at himself in the waters of a stream.

While no one is going to waste away at the gym, those walls of mirrors may let some get lost in their own reflections.

"Lots of people are involved with themselves in front of mirrors," Care said.

But watching yourself is not always a bad thing. A mirror can be an excellent tool to make sure you are maintaining proper form while exercising. But focusing on an image to the exclusion of other things can be dangerous in a crowded gym.

"People that are so dazed with what's going on in the mirror ... they're not aware of what's going on around them," Carey said.

Old habits die hard, and letting go of a favorite junk food can be difficult. The solution for some is to eat those foods in such a way that they will get burned up as soon as they are eaten, such as immediately after a hard workout, when the body continues to burn calories for about 30 minutes. That should work, right?

Wrong, according to Carey.

"It's a small window people think they have and they'll cram a Snickers or some pasta," Carey said, adding that nothing overrides the balance between calories in and calories out.

"I think that's silly," Carey said. "Why bother to do it at all when it's not going to do enough for you?"

Indeed, most people do not burn as many calories as they think they are, Callahan said. Eating correctly for exercise is a trial-and-error process that is different for everyone.

The average gym-goer should aim to eat light carbohydrates -- fruit or bread -- about two hours prior to working out in order to have sufficient energy and avoid feeling faint.

Eating soon before exercise can cause sluggishness, nausea and cramps. And a full stomach won't feel good during a jog or while holding a cramped, twisted yoga pose.

But it is important to eat within an hour after exercising. According to the Mayo Clinic, a small meal containing both proteins and carbohydrates can help muscles recover from strain and helps replace lost sugar stores for energy.

And don't mistake thirst for hunger. Drinking a few cups of water before, during, and after working out can help avoid such confusion.

"So many people go to the gym and do the exact same thing all the time," Callahan said. "But the more you do something, the more efficient the body gets at doing it."

The net result is that it takes less work, less exertion to do the same old exercise and the benefit from it decreases slightly.

In addition, a stagnant routine can get boring, making people more likely to stop exercising. Studies have shown that varying exercise routines help people to stay engaged and makes them more likely to continue being active.

And working the same muscle groups all the time while ignoring the rest can cause an overuse injury.

"The benefits of exercise are largely specific to the muscle groups you use," Franklin said.

Incorporating aerobics, stretching, resistance, games and activities like yard work into a routine can increase your physical abilities and bring the most long-term health benefits.

"Do what you think is fun. And do something that's going to hit all of your muscles," Carey said.

There is a multitude of ways to look and feel better, and chances are that those who are exercising want the benefits of all of them. Setting a goal could be the best way to get there, but it is often the step that people skip in favor of jumping right on the treadmill.

"It's important for people to set realistic goals," Franklin said. "If they're 30 pounds overweight ... they're not going to reverse that in two to three weeks."

But setting the right goals can be tricky -- too high can spell failure and deter people from continuing their regime. Too low, and one has no sense of accomplishment.

"It's best to set small goals. Once you reach those goals, set higher small goals," Carey said, such as scoping out a nice gym, signing up for membership and trying to go twice a week. "A sense of accomplishment is encouragement to set more goals. It makes you feel like you really want to work for it more."

Callahan urged people to consider goals that are not related to appearance.

"You want to lose weight, but why?" Callahan said. "There's a million things it will do for you rather than making your thighs thinner," including reducing stress, the risk of high blood pressure or diabetes, and improved sleep and sex life.

"You've got to think, I'm doing this as an investment in me," Callahan said, pointing out that studies show that people who exercise with health goals in mind report more satisfaction with their fitness routine.

Spotting someone is to assist them with an exercise where necessary if that person needs help. People typically spot each other when doing activities that involve a lot of weight, particularly when that weight is being lifted above the body, such as during a chest press.

Having a spotter can be very helpful -- and a good safety measure -- but many people don't know how to spot correctly.

"[People] think they need to spot everything," Carey said. "But it can be a distraction for a lifter, especially if it's not necessary."

Rather than focusing on the person exercising to see when and where they might need help, spotters could get distracted by a conversation or by something else going on in the gym and neglect their friend.

"If you need a spotter and are using a spotter, they should be paying attention," Callahan said. "Especially if you're not familiar with the equipment."

Carey suggests asking a gym staffer what machines or exercises might require a spotter.

Pump one, two, three... ten. And rest! But for how long?

Feeling that muscle burn during strength training is an important way to know that you are working, but improperly timing rests between sets can sabotage your exercise session.

Too long and you've lost some of the aerobic benefits. Too short and your muscles haven't fully recovered.

But how much you need to rest also depends on your exercise program, Carey pointed out. For building muscle structure and increasing bone density using lighter weights, the rests between sets should be short. But heavy duty power lifting takes so much energy that the body might need anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes of rest in order to recover.

Still, if a long rest between exercise sets keeps you heading to the gym, Callahan said it can be worth it.

"If the only way you're going to do it is to rest, that's better than not doing it at all."

For some, even a trip to the gym can bring out an inner stylista. While looking nice while working out can be a boost, it's important to keep clothes comfortable and practical, experts say.

"Think simple at the gym," Carey said. "You're there to work out and make yourself healthier."

Shoes can be a problem. Flip flops or other kinds of street shoes are a no-go on machines or on the gym floor as they can cause slipping or pain due to poor support.

Wearing appropriate, comfortable sneakers can aid balance and form. Or, for exercises requiring more functional movements -- yoga or weight lifting, for example -- a flatter, more natural foot is better and no shoes or shoes with a smaller arch are best.

Appropriate clothing can take many forms. The form it should not take is baggy or overly accessorized.

Baggy shirts or pants and belts or other jewelry can get caught on equipment. They may also make it difficult to see what the body is doing.

"People try to get too trendy," Carey said. "But that can distract you ... and risk a movement you might be doing."

Weekend warrior sounds like a glamorous title to be carried with pride but it comes with caveats.

"You kind of get all the pain without the gain," Callahan said.

Weekend warrior refers to anyone who gets the bulk of their physical activity during a few days of the week, usually on the weekends, often because of work or family-related time constraints.

"If you only work out hard two days a week and on consecutive days, the risk of injury goes up," Callahan said. "Your muscles aren't prepared and you're likely to overdo it."

A week's worth of rest between exercising keeps your muscles from adapting to exertion and getting stronger, decreasing the overall effectiveness of the exercise.

And based on past studies he conducted, Franklin said that, particularly among adults in their 50s and older, people who had a poor attendance record at a gym -- averaging twice monthly -- were more likely to have serious health problems and even death due to exertion.

Franklin noted that, while his study was conducted on heart patients, the data is one example of how sporadic exercise can be harmful.

"Avoid sporadic exercise, especially of vigorous, high intensity," Franklin said. "People who run into problems during exercise are oftentimes intensity violators."

Callahan is not a fan of the adage, "no pain, no gain."

"That's a 70s mentality that we can't stamp out," Callahan said. "Your workout should be hard and invigorating enough to feel like you did something, but you don't want to be dragging out the door painfully."

While some soreness and pain is inevitable during exercise, not recognizing or ignoring signs that something is wrong could lead to more serious complications.

Persistent pain, increasing pain, or swollen joints can be signs that something is wrong and that you should stop and rest or seek medical attention.

"[Injuries] can become long term and it's a lot harder to get rid of a problem later," Callahan said.

Franklin said people with cardiac problems should be especially careful to monitor chest pain, pressure, or dizziness during exercise as those could indicate something wrong with the heart.

Appropriate warm ups and cool downs can help prevent a sudden shock to the body when you jump onto the treadmill. A warm-up should bring the heart rate to within 10-15 beats of your exercise rate. And suddenly stopping exercise can cause blood to pool in the lower extremities, causing lightheadedness.

"The best warm up for any activity is that activity, only at a lower intensity," Franklin said. "Don't ignore warning signs and symptoms."

Have more questions on exercise and weight loss? Visit the OnCall+ Wellness Center to get your answers.