The 2 Biggest Exercise Mistakes
My job can be boiled down to accomplishing 2 basic things:
1. Get people who don’t exercise to exercise, and
2. Get people who do exercise to achieve optimal results.
My team and I specialize on the most difficult cases. In the past I addressed the big reasons why people don’t exercise. Today, I’ll address a bigger concern…
The 2 biggest mistakes people who are exercising make.
1. They are doing the wrong program for them.
The types of exercises, the frequency, and the dosage (sets, reps, intensity, etc) are just not suited for their body and needs. There are several reasons why folks are doing the wrong program:
- They are copying someone else’s program. The girl at the gym might have the body you like, but that doesn’t mean the routine they have now is how they built the body they have now. This is a common trick of the female fitness magazines. They show a scantily clad girl doing kickbacks with a band, yielding the impression that having your hips push a measly 3 pound rubber band is how she developed those fabulous glutes.
- They like it. Liking a routine is great, but if it’s contributing to a lack of progress or injury, than it’s not worth it. This is often related to the next issue
- They are afraid. Being afraid to lift heavy weights, to use free weights, to push your heart rate, to do an exercise that challenges your balance, etc are barriers to progress. Being afraid of challenges is natural, but not addressing them will often hold you back from progress, forcing you to confine your routine to things that are not appropriate for you. A common example is older adults performing seated exercises, “nice and slow” with machines, even though research suggest that dynamic exercises performed fast with near maximum weight are most beneficial for older adults. The irony in this case is that the “safer” seated machines actually perpetuate their fall risks!
- It’s different. Some think that if it’s different, it’s better. They believe in the “muscle confusion” myth (like muscles can think). But changing things up too much can keep people from spending enough time improving the foundations that allow them to benefit from diverse routines. People what to graduate to college before they can get through elementary school.
- They think more is better. Most will talk about their exercise programs in term of the number of exercises, or the time they spend in the gym. Research clearly shows that quality, usually measured by intensity, is more important than the time spend exercising. So adding miles and minutes is not usually the most effective, or efficient, way to progress.
- They think exercise is all about the muscles…and I don’t blame them. Even researchers in this field seem to be narrowly focused on the effects of exercise on just the muscles. Obviously muscles are critically, but when we lift, push or pull something, stresses are placed on structures other than muscles as well. For example, many exercises designed to challenge “the core” are justified because of their documented high recruitment of abdominal muscles. However, what is the stress upon the ligaments, discs, and joints as a consequence of the high muscle recruitment? Those who have scoured the research know what exercises produce high stresses on the tissues that respond well to such forces (like muscle) but low stress on tissues less tolerant of such force (like ligaments, disc, and joints). Accordingly, they know how to get the best of both worlds.
- They feel the burn and see the sweat. Yes, sometimes muscles get sore and we sweat a lot when we get a good workout. But we also get sore muscles from carrying a purse all day or sitting on the beach all afternoon, none of which are going to make you fit and healthy. Conversely, you can get great workouts without being sore. Sweating is merely a means by which your body cools itself, not a direct indicator of the quality of your workout (nor a means of detoxification, but that a whole other blog post)
- They are told it’s best for them. This is the worst scenario. A well- intended “expert” they trust and like leads them down the wrong road.
Assess, Don’t Guess!
Fortunately, the solution to this issue is simple, although not easy. To get the proper program, you must take a history and assess. This basically amount to the art and science of using your eyes and ears to identify risks, goals, and needs. A client that reports multiple episodes of back pain radiating down the leg, made worse by prolonged sitting or repeated bending should NOT be performing seated machine based exercises, crunches and cable twists, or should be very careful about doing hamstring stretching if at all. This is one simple example of when knowing someone’s history can have a big impact on program design.
Other times, tests and measures are needed. For example, restricted ankle mobility, decreased shoulder external rotation and a stiff thoracic spine are going to make barbell squats a bad fit, no matter how well coached, or how strong they are. A history and assessment, done by someone who knows what they are doing, will solve the first biggest mistake people who exercise make.
2 .They aren’t executing the program properly.
Many clients first come to me with what looks like a perfect program on paper. Then I see them execute it, and often poor technique is observed. The result is suboptimal results at best and at worst, injury. There are several reasons why they aren’t executing their program properly:
- They have poor fundamental motor control: You can make a room brighter by installing higher wattage light bulbs, but it would not work if you didn’t know where to locate and how to use the dimmer switch. Similarly, strength training can work by making bigger or stronger muscles, but not if you don’t know how to recruit them at the right time, direction and force. Motor control is a necessary prerequisite for many exercises. You can give somewhat the right exercise and right instruction, but if they lack sufficient motor control they will struggle to execute properly
- They were taught incorrectly. This happens all the time, unfortunately because exercises are usually passed down from person to person more out of tradition that out of a scientific rational. Pushups with the head up, planks with a lordotic spine, and lunges with the spine straight (which people mistakenly assume is the same as vertical) and equal weight between the front and back legs are some of the most common examples of people being taught less effective and sometimes harmful exercises.
- They don’t have any feedback cues or markers. How can you tell if you are doing the exercises correctly if you don’t have constant feedback? A good coach will tell you indicators that you can use to evaluate whether you are executing exercises properly even when the coach is not around. Foam rolls, benches, dowels, mirrors, and blood pressure cuffs are some tools just about anyone can use to tell if they are doing exercises properly.
How can you tell if you are making these mistakes?
Do you fail to make consistent progress towards your specific goals? Are you often in pain? I’m amazed how many people constantly are stretching tight hamstrings…for years…yet not achieving more flexibility! Plodding on treadmills without shedding weight. Using the same weights and not getting stronger. Nursing sore shoulders and knees month after month without relief. Spending hours a week in the gym, not looking like you spend hours a week in the gym. If this is you, clearly you are making these common mistakes.
But sometimes you don’t even realize you are making these mistakes until it’s too late …after a herniated disc or jacked up shoulder.