The first step in breaking a bad habit - or not developing one in the first place - is to identify the problem. Here are seven common workout mistakes I see all the time and suggestions on how to fix them.
1. Stretching before your workout.
Static stretching (holding a stretch to the point of feeling tension) has been commonly used in warm ups for decades. It was thought that increasing flexibility by holding a stretch would prevent injury. But new research suggests the opposite -- that warm-ups involving static stretching may actually impair performance and increase the risk for pulling or tearing a muscle.
A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that static stretching before weight-lifting made athletes feel weaker.
Similar results were found in a meta-analysis published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports . The researchers discovered that static stretching before exercise had a negative impact on athletic performance. It's still good to do static stretching for maintaining and improving flexibility, but save it for the cool down.
The Fix: Warm up dynamically. Dynamic stretches prime muscles by moving them in ways they are going to be used in the activity, helping to reduce injuries. Try walking before jogging, then jogging before running. For a cross training workout, try squatting with no weights before using a load, performing planks and standing lunges before mountain climbers, jumping jacks and step ups onto a bench before plyometric jumps, for example.
2. Doing the same workout every day.
Your body is pretty smart. The more you do the same routine, the more your body builds up tolerance to it. This is called "adaptation," and it's is a double-edged sword. As your workout routine starts getting easier, your body won't need to spend as much energy doing it. When you're not spending as much energy, you're not burning as many calories as you used to and you may no longer be improving your fitness. When you stop seeing improvements, you've hit the proverbial "plateau," and there's only two ways off a plateau. You either step it up to the next level or you step down, which means possibly losing some of your fitness over time.
The Fixes: Add intervals to your cardio routine. For example, do 30 seconds to a minute or more at a high intensity, followed by the same amount of time at an easier pace. Keep this cycle going for five to 10 intervals, then continue at your normal pace for the remainder of your workout time. For strength training, do each exercise in your routine for time rather than reps. For example, instead of doing 25 push ups or 25 squats, see how many you can do in a minute. As you get stronger, aim to do more in the same amount of time.
Switch up the order of exercises, or better yet, add new ones. Also try moving from exercise to exercise with minimal to no rest time in between. This will create a "circuit" workout, and it can be more effective than resting between each set if your trying to improve your endurance and burn extra calories.
3. Focusing on quantity rather than quality.
Following a program that tells you how many sets and reps to do? If the program calls for more reps than you are able to do with good form, you're setting yourself up for trip to the doctor.
The Fixes: Ask a trainer at your gym to "spot" you by assisting you on the last few reps so you can maintain proper form. After a few times, you probably won't need help anymore.
If you're alone, start with the heavier weight, then when your form starts to falter, go down a level to a lighter weight and complete the rest of the reps or more. This is called a "descending set," and it's no joke. It can improver your muscles' endurance and give you an awesome pump with less risk of injury.
4. Sloppy form.
Heels coming up and knees falling inward during your squats? Sagging between shoulder blades and drooping the head during push ups or planks? Nodding your head during crunches? These are just a few of the common form mistakes people make and are likely to cause problems down the road if left uncorrected.
The Fix: Take a primer session with a personal trainer or take classes with a knowledgeable instructor who cues form. Ask them to keep an eye on you and show you how to correct what you're doing wrong. For home workouts, get some DVDs that demonstrate proper techniques and watch yourself in the mirror.
5. Taking on too much too soon.
Exercise scientist Len Kravitz, Ph.D. warns a "classic problem is trying to do too much, too hard and not being ready for it." Although extreme workouts look really fun on commercials for DVDs, YouTube and even at your local gym, workouts that are pre-programmed and not specifically designed for your current capabilities can really set you up for some serious hurt. This can send you right back to square one and not only is that frustrating, but it's also demoralizing.
The Fix: If you're ready for a more aggressive program, have a qualified trainer or coach do an assessment on you first, then start on a progressive program that begins at your current fitness level. If you want to join a group workout, tell the instructor that you are new and have them offer you modifications for any exercises you may have trouble with. Most instructors actually appreciate this and enjoy offering the extra help.
6. Not being properly hydrated.
Muscles need water to contract properly. Just losing 2 percent of your body weight in fluid can noticeably reduce your athletic performance and energy levels. Dehydration also causes your heart to work harder. On the flip side, being well hydrated will help you feel stronger, workout longer and be more effective.
Exercise aside, adults lose as much as 1.5 liters of water a day from urination and close to another liter from other bodily functions.
The general recommendation from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) are approximately 2.7 liters (91 ounces) of total water - from all beverages and foods - each day for women, and an average of approximately 3.7 liters (125 ounces daily) of total water each day for men. Exercisers may need a little more.
Here's a good general guide if you're an avid exerciser:
- 15 to 20 ounces of water one to two hours before your workout. (Most bottled water comes in a 16.9 or 500 ml serving size).
- Drink another 8 to 10 ounces of water 15 minutes or so before you start.
- Continue to drink another 8 ounces every 15 minutes during your workout.
7. Not allowing for muscle recovery/overtraining.
If seeing improvements in your muscular strength, body composition and physical performance are important to you, you must have down time. Muscle cells need time to regenerate. Taxing the same muscles day in and day out, without giving them time to repair, can be doing your body a disservice. Keep in mind that you break down your muscles when you train and if you're pushing your body hard most days of the week, you can be preventing your body from making progress, and can even begin to lose the strength and fitness you worked so hard to build.
According to Dr. Kravitz in his article "Recovery in Training: The Missing Ingredient," he says the harder the workout, the more muscle damage and soreness there will be and therefore more recovery time you need. Improvements can only be made during this rest period.
There are many symptoms of overtraining such as insomnia, irritability, elevated resting heart rate, persistent muscle soreness, increased cortisol levels and risk of infection to name just a few.
The Fix: Depending on how heavy duty your workouts are, full recovery can take one to three days, according to Dr. Kravitz. If you suspect you've been overtraining, take a few days off, maybe get a massage too. When you go back to your routine, you should notice a difference in your strength and energy levels. If not, it may be a good idea to see your health care provider.
If you've made any of these mistakes or have more points to add please share in the comments below!