You’re committed, you’re motivated, and yet, when it comes to seeing the fruits of your fitness labor, it seems that the perfect exercises and workouts you thought you were taking on are adequate at best. The pounds aren’t really sliding off the way they do for your fellow gym rats and your biceps bear little resemblance to those Instagram photos Chris Hemsworth likes to post.
Don’t work harder, work smarter. There are some fairly common workout mistakes guys make that can do serious damage to their fitness progress, says Shaun Jenkins, senior trainer manager at Tone House in New York City — starting with a warped sense that what you see on social media is real. “Instagram does a horrible job of providing a truthful analysis of what it takes for someone to look the way they do,” he says. “Do not base your workouts on social media.”
Here’s what else can get you in trouble when you’re trying to reach your fitness goals.
Mistake #1: You Can’t Stop Comparing
Look, you’re you. You’re not Arnold, you’re not Brady, you’re not even close. “When you look at The Rock and say I want to look like that so I’m going to work out like that, you’re not taking into account where you are with your fitness,” says Jenkins. The Rock, a.k.a. pro wrestler and actor Dwayne Johnson, has a lifetime of workouts on you. Sure, you might be able to squeeze out one rep of his set of 10. But you’re also likely to pull a muscle and sit the next three weeks out. “Don’t allow your ego to supersede your capabilities,” says Jenkins.
Mistake #2: You’re Lifting Too Heavy
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. When it comes to how much iron to pump, the rule of thumb is to underestimate your strength by 20 percent and go from there. “It’s hard to find an exact reference point for what you should lift,” acknowledges Jenkins. “So if you’ve never done any weightlifting before or you’re starting back after a break, pick the easiest weight as a base to build on.” Once you do seven to 10 reps and get your form set, add another five to 10 pounds. Do another set. Still too easy? Add a few more pounds. You’ll find the sweet spot when you struggle with the final rep in a set of 10 without breaking form.
Mistake #3: You Don’t Really Care About Form
A close cousin to lifting too heavy is lifting with bad form. “Rule number one is to consult with a trainer for one or two sessions so you know you’re doing things right,” says Jenkins. You don’t have to go all-in on a 10-pack, but getting yourself set up with a pro who can coach you on the proper form will ensure you’re working the right muscles and maxing out on the benefits of your efforts.
Mistake #4: You’re Not Stretching Enough
Good, quality stretching — before and after you exercise — goes a long way to keeping your body limber and injury-free. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I can increase my strength and muscle gains through stretching,” says Jenkins, who notes that tight muscles restrict blood flow in the body and limit your range of motion so you don’t get the full benefit of your workout moves. “I see guys do the elbow-behind-ear stretch or side lunge — those ‘game day’ stretches you see on the football field. That doesn’t really cover it.” Allow yourself 10 minutes before your sweat session to limber up with gentle stretches, then finish your workout with the same.
Mistake #5: Too Much Strength, Not Enough Cardio
Here, it’s all about what you’re aiming for. If bodybuilding is your thing, skip the cardio: No need to burn extra calories that could help you bulk up. Meanwhile, if you’re aiming to run an ultra, lay off the weights: Extra muscle mass will only slow you down. But let’s say you’re after neither of those things, and really, you just want to be fit and feel strong. Consider dropping one of your weight sessions for a cardio day, says Jenkins: “I run every Wednesday — it keeps my heart going and blood flowing, which is important for nutrient uptake.”
Mistake #6: You Exercised, Therefore Cheeseburgers Don’t Count
Blame social media here, too. “You’ll see photos of The Rock with 30 pancakes and he’s saying this is my cheat meal,” says Jenkins. “But what you don’t see is everything smart he eats the rest of the time.” When you’re trying to get in shape, good nutrition is everything. Even if you burn off the calories from a huge meal, if that meal is full of sugar and processed carbs, those calories are going to waste. “With empty calories, you’re not replacing the nutrients your body needs to build muscle — and you’ll end up storing a lot of that energy as fat,” he adds.
Mistake #7: You’re an All-or-Nothing Type
You never half-ass anything, a fact you’re darn proud of. But when it comes to fitness, maybe you should learn to slack a little. Because that go-hard-or-go-home mentality almost always ends up in burnout. “It’s the main reason trainers stay in business!” says Jenkins. “Self-motivating is a very difficult task — even pros struggle with it.” The key, he says, is to keep moderate goals in place, something that’s a bit of a stretch but not totally out of reach. Maybe it’s doing 10 pull-ups unassisted. Maybe it’s running a 5k race. Give yourself ample time to meet your goals, enough that you can take a few days off a week and still hit the mark. “Remember, it takes the human body 16 weeks for muscles to adapt, so you’re looking at long-term growth,” Jenkins adds.
Mistake #8: You’re Not Adjusting for Skipped Workouts
OK, so we just told you to take it easy. But not that easy. If you are regularly missing workouts, you need to recalibrate your exercise routine so that you stay within the right range for muscle growth. “If you haven’t trained for a month, you’re dropping down to 60 percent of your max capacity,” says Jenkins. “You’ll eventually get to ground zero.” What to do? Start by accepting that you are not who you were a month ago. You’ve lost some ground. You can gain it back, but not by trying to pick up exactly where you left off: That’s code for injury. Instead, “scale back to a week in your program that would have been 60 to 65 percent max,” he says. “If you got up to 100 pounds on a certain machine, swipe back to where you were doing at 60 pounds and use that as your benchmark to restart.” (Not sure which week you were lifting what? That’s where a fitness journal comes in handy, Jenkins says.)
Mistake #9: You’re Still Doing Legs Day
Back in college, Monday/Wednesday/Friday was for upper body; Tuesdays and Thursdays were for legs. But things have changed. In 2021, functional fitness rules, and that means you’ve got to mix it up. “To max out your session, you want to work a multitude of muscles at once,” says Jenkins. “ Do back extensions plus deadlifts, and squats plus the shoulder press.” It’s a pull-ups-plus-leg-press world out there, and your body will be stronger and tougher for it. “There’s nothing wrong with isolating a particular area of the body,” adds Jenkins. “But these days, it’s really only done for aesthetic value.”
Mistake #10: You’re Making Too Much Noise
If you’re letting the bar bang onto the floor, or chains snap against the machine after every rep, you don’t just look like an a-hole to your fellow gym-goers, you’re missing out on a key part of the exercise. Eccentric contractions — when your muscles are forced to work against gravity to slow the release — are an important element in strength building. Dropping the weight on the floor means you’re missing out. Plus, if you have to make noise to feel seen, that’s crappy gym etiquette. Says Jenkins, “If it’s too heavy for you, don’t lift it.”
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