As a Personal Trainer, I get asked regularly by fellow gym-goers and clients alike as to what they should and should not be doing when working out. I found myself thinking about this the other day (probably because this is typically the time of year when fitness magazines and websites publish articles about what not to do at the gym) and thought I would add my own contributions in blog form to this debate!
Over the years, I have been asked hundreds of questions concerning best practices where working out is concerned, with a focus on how to safely and effectively exercise. A number of themes usually dominate these kinds of enquiries, which can be summarised as follows.
What people should not do on the gym floor (particularly if they are easing back into fitness):
Avoid adding too much weight to the bar, or incrementally adding weight too quickly. This is, in my experience, one of the quickest paths to painful injury and the reasons for this happening (i.e. competitive training, particularly amongst men) are pretty obvious. There is nothing wrong with finding a comfortable level where weight training is concerned and, if the motivation is to go up the scale, then doing so in a moderated and very incremental way is fine. But protect your body, and particularly your spine, as you only have one of either.
Have no strategy behind your training (or a focus on what you want to achieve). You would be surprised how often I encounter this scenario when people sign-up for a gym or with a personal trainer, not really knowing what their medium and long-term strategy is. It’s fine to have broad objectives (lose weight or put on muscle, for example), but such objectives are not, in themselves, a strategy. Rather, they are desired outcomes. Before training, give time, whilst raising your level of fitness, to develop a strategy to reach an objective as to what you are going to do over a period of time. Personal trainers, gym staff and the internet are all available for consultation on this issue, and I would advise everyone to make use of these resources when deciding on how to get fit.
Rely too much on the internet for guidance (it contains too much, often conflicting, information). Now, having advised the internet above as a source of information, I would not advocate relying on it entirely for direction. The reason for this is because the internet, as anyone who uses it regularly will be aware, is a bottomless pit of information and opinion, not all of which is helpful or reliable. Approach the internet critically and in a balanced fashion, particularly where fitness advice is concerned!
Spend too much time at the gym (keep your workout down to 45/60 minutes tops). On the one hand, you want to exercise regularly at the gym so as to challenge your fitness. Your body will adapt to such demands (or indeed lack of demands) being made on it and will respond accordingly. It will experience exhaustion and come back stronger to respond to the next demand. It will learn and adapt. Unfortunately, there is also a limit within reasonable time periods when it can do this before tipping over into total failure from which it cannot respond within reasonable time periods. At this point, fitness will turn into rehabilitating exhaustion and ill health can set in. To avoid this happening, exercise efficiently to reasonable time periods and allow time for rest and recuperation in-between workouts. Your body will thank you for doing so.
Rely on protein shakes or similar supplements (if you want to get bigger use heavier weights and eat more). I am not a fan of supplements generally and particularly of protein supplements. Taking such regular supplements can appear to be a tempting easy option if adding muscle is a core objective. The problem is that such protein shakes come with unhelpful downsides (digestive discomfort, for example). So, ditch the shakes and instead invest time and skill-building in preparing and eating healthy, natural meals (though if you do want to add muscle, you will need to have a very regular eating pattern to give fuel to the muscle-building process).
What people should do to exercise safely and effectively:
Have a strong training mindset (be focused, have an overall strategy and be determined). This relates to the training strategy point above but is broader. To be a success in sport, training independently or on the gym floor requires having a competitive, focused, almost selfish approach to training, where at every stage your thoughts are on making a success of your training and giving total dedication (“smashing it” in popular parlance) to it. Without this competitive, sporting mindset training will become a drag.
Win the mental effort battle and then the physical effort. This relates directly to the above point and means starting the training process mentally before reaching the gym floor. Successful sportsmen and women understand this and that to succeed in their sport they have to win mentally before they actually compete. One of the reasons for this is because everything we do is related directly to our cerebral, mental selves. Without the mental and physical working in harmony, we struggle to achieve because our physical self is out of sync’ with our ego. Growing the strength of that ego and connecting it to physical activity will reward you.
Leave your phone in the locker (it will just distract you and waste your time). This is both topical and controversial. Sometimes, when I suggest this to people they look at me in horror. We have now become so attached to our smartphones that the thought of being physically distant from them, regardless of the reason, can induce emotional discomfort in many. This is partly, I think, because of the fiscal value of such devices and how dependant we now are on them, both for personal and professional reasons. They are just so useful! But, they are also a distraction and a time sponge, both of which can undermine a fitness training programme. So, leave the phone in the locker, if you can (and can do without a musical soundtrack when training). Your workout will be more efficient as a result.
Train to energise yourself, not to get overtired or injured. This relates to the time point above. One of the measures I encourage people to focus on when, and particularly after they train, is how they feel once they finish training. Do they feel like they can do anything and have lots of energy or do they feel like they want to lay down to sleep or they are dragging themselves through the rest of the day or evening? If it is the former, great, you’re succeeding with your training. If it’s the latter, look at what you are doing and make the changes required to move the needle.
Do not get obsessed with your training (be committed, but recognise where the line is at which point this commitment becomes an unhealthy obsession). This can happen to all of us and why this happens is complex and only partly to do with the physical training itself. When it does happen, however, you will notice it even if you do not want to. At these times you can find yourself pushing everything else aside to train, to only think or talk about training, to consume exercise media all the time and to look down on those who are not such total gym-goers. When any of these, or similar indicators, start to appear, suggesting you are investing too much physically and mentally in your training, step back and get your life into balance. Successful physical training and getting results from training are both wonderful things to achieve, but they are not life, love or death. Moderate and control the process, don’t let it own you.
So there you have it, my five things to do and not to do when you workout if you want to succeed when you train.
Have your own advice or questions? Let me know!