I see a lot of mistakes made in the gym, and the thing is, many of them are the same mistakes, made over and over and over again. Of course, the reason I notice is probably because I’ve made all the same mistakes myself — over, and over, and over again!
So hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes, be aware of these common missteps, and avoid making them yourself. It’s not easy, but it’ll save you a lot of time and frustration. On the other hand, if you’ve made these errors in the past, don’t beat yourself up too much. There’s a reason they’re so common: they’re easy mistakes to make.
Mistake #1: You’re looking for answers in the wrong places.
When you look at the list of powerlifting records, and how they’ve changed over time, one thing is clear: they’ve starting going way, way up. Part of that reason, of course, is that powerlifting is growing. It’s becoming a more popular sport (thanks in large part to social media), so more people are participating, so there’s more talent, and more broken records.
But I think another reason for the increase in numbers as of late can be attributed to how easy it is to learn about powerlifting. Shoot, here on BarBend alone you could spend days, maybe even weeks, reading just about powerlifting (not to mention all the other strength sports we cover). And that’s just one site. All this information means that all that new talent is spending less time on unproductive bodybuilding programs and more time doing what works.
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Unfortunately, there’s a flip side, too: all that information means that it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. You can go to three different websites and read three different opinions about the same subject in the blink of an eye. The wide variety of viewpoints and the sheer number of easily-available programs and tutorial videos leads many lifters to “analysis paralysis,” where, instead of choosing a plan and sticking to it, they’re constantly trying to change things up, based on who or what they read or heard last.
Obviously, you’re not going to progress that way. You’re just going to end up spinning your wheels.
The solution: Make small changes.
I’ve written about this in detail before, but it’s pretty simple: instead of jumping from one idea to the next, whenever you change anything about your training, you must give it a chance to work (or not work) before trying anything else.
It’s all about continuous improvement. Let’s say you try a new technique cue, like “pulling the bar apart” to keep your upper back tight on the bench press. If you try it once, you probably won’t like it, simply because it’s new and different. If you immediately move on to a different cue, you don’t know whether the first was useful for you — all you know is that it felt different. Maybe, had you given it a couple weeks, you would have adjusted and seen a lot of improvement in your bench. And if not, you still improved, because you know for sure what doesn’t work. The same applies for new programming strategies, diet plans — pretty much anything you can think of.
Mistake #2: You’re wasting recovery resources.
No matter how genetically gifted you might be, your ability to recover from training is limited. Think of it like a gas gauge in your car. When you drive, you use gas, the gauge goes down – just like you deplete recovery resources when you train. The faster and longer you drive, the more gas you burn, the more the gauge decreases. The harder and longer you train, the more you burn recovery resources.
It’s easy to refill your gas tank, but it’s not so easy to replenish recovery resources. Things like good sleep or a good diet can help, but for the most part, you just have to give your body time to recover. On the other hand, the more frequently you train, the more you’ll gain (to an extent). So we don’t want to rest too much, either.
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Unfortunately, it’s not just training that drains your recovery resources. All physical activity does, and so does stress outside of the gym. In fact, things that should help your recovery can even work against it. Trying to run on 4 hours of sleep per night or a steady diet of Taco Bell is only going to wear your body down further.
The solution: recover as hard as you train.
You have to prioritize recovery equally with your training. So many guys think they can go into the gym, smash some weights, and magically get bigger and stronger. Yeah, that’ll work for a while, but once you’re past the beginner level, you have to do better.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Am I getting enough quality sleep?
- Am I following a sound diet – really following it?
- Am I using my off days productively?
- Do I make sure to schedule downtime outside the gym?
If you can’t honestly answer “yes” to all of those questions, you’ve got some work to do.
Mistake #3: You’re working hard the wrong way.
I’m sure you know all about the guy who goes into the gym and insists on grunting and moaning like he’s actually in labor. That’s not working hard, it’s just looking for attention. But as annoying as the imaginary pregnant man might be, there’s a different kind of “wrong hard work” that can be far, far worse.
I’m referring to the type of hard work that involves grinding on hard, heavy reps to the point where technique becomes significantly impaired. You probably know what this looks like, too: it’s the guy whose squat reps start out beautiful and turn into partial good mornings by the end of a set; or the guy who pulls a max-effort set of deadlifts, then adds weight and tries to hitch up every more (only to fail at lockout). Now, I’ve been both those guys, and I know that this type of training is damned hard — so hard, in fact, that it’s going to decrease strength rather than increase it.
It goes back to recovery resources. That type of grinding on heavy weights fries your body and zaps your mind — you’re so worn out afterward that you need several days to recover, and by then, you’re so stale that you feel “off” and out of the groove when you finally can return to the gym. And you’ve lost confidence, because deep down, you know your reps weren’t quality ones. Finally, to add insult to injury, you’ve actually reinforced a bad movement pattern, making it even more likely that you will allow your technique to break down next time you’re pushing close to your physical limits.
The solution: Don’t train to failure.
Now, research shows that training to failure is just as effective, or more effective, than not. That might be true in theory, but in practice, it’s just too easy to run into the type of situations I described above. You think you can squeeze out one more rep, but you can’t — and instead of just putting the bar back down, you take shortcuts to avoid the disappointment that accompanies failed lifts.
By deciding up front that you’re going to train at least one or two reps in the tank on every set, you can keep yourself out of trouble. It’s like your mom said in middle school: avoid hanging out with the bad crowd, and you won’t be tempted to make mistakes in the first place. Now, this isn’t a perfect solution, and sometimes you’ll misjudge your abilities and end up missing anyway. But by giving yourself a bit of a buffer, that will happen far less often.
What are the most common training mistakes you see in the gym? Share them in the comments below!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.