Five mistakes people make at the fitness center

Start with a fitness plan

Five mistakes people make at the fitness center
Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels

When you’re working out at the fitness center – pressing out that max rep on the bench press or hinging your hips for that last deadlift or just pedaling furiously to nowhere on a stationary bike – you are supposed to be “in the zone.” The exclusive focus of your conscious mind is simply on performing an exercise with the right form and intensity.

With that zen-like focus in mind, have you ever glanced at other people working out in the fitness center and found yourself thinking, “What are they doing and why are they doing it like that?”

“When you join a gym,” begins fitness trainer Hayley Payne-Carter, “you are really left to figure out how to get in shape.”

“The problem there, “she continues,”is that many people don’t know what kind of shape they want to be in. Do you want to lose a few pounds and just trim up a bit? Do you want to build muscle and consequently reduce your body fat percentage? Do you want to improve flexibility and balance? Should you take classes? Should you hire a fitness trainer to help you?”

Organizations like the AFPA (American Fitness Professionals Association) use their extensive network of fitness and health professionals to constantly evaluate fitness training concepts. For the average person whose budget doesn’t allow for personalized fitness training, developing a sound and successful strategy at the fitness center is too often an elusive goal. Even for those dedicated people who reliably show up at the fitness center every day or three days a week, any gains in fitness level or weight loss may prove frustratingly illusory.

With some research and feedback from fitness trainer Hayley Payne-Carter, here are the five biggest mistakes people make at the gym.

# 1 Lack of a personal fitness strategy

Sure, developing a plan to increase muscle and reduce your waistline does not require quadratic equations, but deciding what you’re trying to accomplish before you start at a gym is crucial for success.

“If, for example, you want to lose a little weight and give your body some muscle tone,” explains Payne-Carter, “then you focus on yoga, Pilates, floor exercises and maybe a stationary bike class for tone and aerobic conditioning.”

If “getting jacked” is your goal like those body builders in Muscle and Fitness magazine, perhaps starting a routine of squats, deadlifts and bench press will activate the largest muscles in your body and provide you with the most impressive gains.

“Half the battle in fitness and health is just knowing what you’re trying to accomplish,” insists Payne-Carter. “I worked with a 30ish woman who was 20 pounds over her goal weight but really wanted to get fitter, which to her meant stronger, walking longer distances, being able to lift heavier things and play some sports like tennis. After six months, her weight was the same but her body fat percentage had dropped significantly and she could now hike, bike and competitively engage in many strenuous activities.”

# 2 Not having an established routinely

Did you ever watch someone just wander around the gym and randomly starting using a machine or trying the exercise bands on the floor? Many fitness center members don’t have a set routine to follow.

Bodybuilders commonly have a routine composed of days dedicated to body parts. has a routine listed as:

Day 1: Legs/Abs

Day 2: Chest

Day 3: Back/Abs*

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: Shoulder/Abs*

Day 6: Arms

Day 7: Rest

The key here is to develop a routine, which could be a full-body workout with varying degrees of intensity based on the day. For example, circuit training is defined as a form of body conditioning or resistance training using high-intensity aerobics. It targets strength building and muscular endurance. An exercise "circuit" is one completion of all prescribed exercises in the program.

“Once you establish a routine,” fitness trainer Hayley Payne-Carter says, “you then have to vary that routine so that your body doesn’t adapt to the same exercises at the same intensity in the same order. If you lift or work on machines, you can go heavy for a few weeks and then switch to high repetitions and lower weight.”

# 3 Not doing enough of an exercise or movements

Have you ever seen a person sit at a machine – say a leg press – set the weight and do 8 reps, then head off to another machine and do a single rep?

“Unless you’re doing circuit training,” explains Payne-Carter, “where you are moving quickly from exercise to exercise to keep your heart rate elevated and your muscles pumped, a few reps on any weights, machine or floor exercise just isn’t enough to pressure your muscles.”

Muscles grow when they are challenged to deal with greater levels of resistance or weight, a person will see their muscles increase in size in a process known as muscle hypertrophy.

Depending on the exercise, your fitness level and your goals, a reasonable goal is four sets of one exercise before moving on to the next exercise or muscle group. For example, you can plan four sets of 10 reps for the bench press or on heavier days four sets of five reps with much heavier weight.

# 4 Poor form

Poor form doesn’t just negate the benefits of the exercise but can cause injury. Payne-Carter points to the squat where poor form is evident in the gym.

“A lot of people don’t go low enough in the squat and that deepness can actually improve your lower back strength,” notes Payne-Carter. “Getting low in a controlled way can increase muscle strength in your quads, hamstrings and glutes.”

On a rowing machine, she recommends that people keep their arms in close to their body, and their back arched and eyes straight ahead.

“With pull-ups, don’t let your shoulders round forward that your chest to sink in and your head and chin shoot forward. Not only are you missing the benefits of the pull-up—a powerful back, stable shoulders and strong lower traps—but also you’re also aggravating bad posture,” Payne-Carter details.

# 5 Focusing too much on a few muscles and ignoring other key ones

You’ve definitely seen these guys in the gym. Their biceps are massive and bulging out of their Under Armor shirt but their legs are twigs. But biceps and chest size aren’t everything.

“The three muscle groups people often neglect,” instructs Payne-Carter, “are the calves, the upper back and the hamstrings. That's largely because these muscles are not in the front of your body so they don’t show up in the mirror.”

Further, forearms and wrists – as long with grip strength – are also neglected and grip strength is actually a strong indicator of longevity and overall fitness.

Some exercises are downright dangerous for you. For instance, behind-the-head lat pull-downs can damage your shoulder and upright rows puts your rotator cuff into a compromising position and increases the chances of causing shoulder impingement.

Follow the commandments

Achieving, maintaining and enhancing fitness offers anyone a thousand different routes to success. Unlike GPS, where there is typically one fastest route to a destination, there are hundreds of ways to get fit.

“Lifting free weights, fitness classes, stationary bike, exercise machines, Yoga and are all legitimate ways to get fit,“ Hayley Carter-Payne explains.

“The key is to develop a plan and a routine and then use the right motions and exercises done in proper form to see your fitness gains.”


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Frank Racioppi
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