When you want to develop your fitness, exercise is the only way to do it, but how you do it is up to you. Ask around, though, and what's the top advice you're likely to hear from everyone? "Go to the gym!" It's the default place people think of when the topic of personal fitness comes up in conversation. It's true, too, that the gym provides many exceptional opportunities, plus access to expensive equipment you aren't likely to have space or funds to bring home with you. So, you've signed up for a gym membership, and perhaps you've even paid the weight room a few visits already. You're all set, right? Pump the brakes — you could be in the middle of committing some common beginner's errors.
From forgetting to respect your fellow gym-goers to using the incorrect form on an exercise machine, these mistakes range from a simple faux pas to a severe problem that could cause you an injury. For that reason, you should take the time to familiarise yourself with conventional gym norms, alongside some of the other things you'll need to know. While knowing what to watch for isn't a guarantee that you'll avoid making mistakes, it can help you to recognise errors and work to make corrections. So, what are some of these mistakes that gym rookies often make?
Trying to start off with weights beyond your level
If you want to focus primarily on strength training in the gym, as opposed to working on cardiovascular endurance, then barbells and dumbbells will likely become your best friends. Don't try to act like you're stronger than you really are when you're starting out, though. Many beginners think that they should try to lift the heaviest weights possible right from the start. Think about it, though: if you're maxing out your abilities on the first few reps, how can you encourage your body to develop? You're more likely to cause an injury or tear a muscle than to develop a stronger body. Start with something that is heavy enough for a challenge but light enough to allow you to structure your sets with an appropriate number of repetitions.
Packing too many reps into every set
Speaking of reps, how many should go into each "set" of exercises? It can be tough to tell, but more is not always better. Such as with trying to lift too heavy a set of weights when you begin, don't assume that you should just do reps until you can't any more. Not only is this a recipe for injury as well, but it won't be a very efficient way to work out. Instead, consider what your goals are when building up your sets. If you want to build endurance, use lighter weights with more reps, but no more than 20 per set. If you're trying to build strength and power, use much heavier weights but never exceed 12. You should be able to do at least eight reps in a heavier setup. When in doubt, ask another gym member how they structure their sets.
Using poor form while lifting weights
All there is to lifting weights is moving them up and down, right? That's not exactly true. In fact, good form has much to do with weightlifting as it does with other fitness activities, such as swimming. It depends on the type of weights that you use, too. For example, small hand weights require a different movement than bigger barbells, and the proper way to lift weights in a bench press or squat setting is altogether different as well. Beginners often think they can merely launch right into lifting weights without taking the time to learn how to lift them. Before you accidentally hurt yourself, spend some time reading up on the various ways to handle the weights found in the gym.
Misunderstanding the correct ways to use exercise machines
Similar mistakes aren't uncommon when it comes to using the many exercise machines found in the gym as well. From spin machines and treadmills to all manner of different weight-based machines, the equipment is one of the primary draws for gym users. However, you must be careful to both use them correctly and to observe the proper etiquette. For example, if a group of people is queueing to use your machine, finish your sets, wipe down the machine, and vacate the space as quickly as possible. Don't act as though you're working out in your living room. Likewise, observe others and ask questions as they use machines. The right body position on a spin machine can make your workout more effective, while the correct form on a weight machine can help to maximise your gains.
Dropping weights, ogling, and other social mistakes
Everyone in a gym is there to work on their fitness, and that means it should be a place of respect for one another. Beginners often miss some of the most essential and unspoken rules of the gym, misbehaving and drawing the ire of their fellow gym goers. Often, what one interprets as a hostile atmosphere is only that way because of one's own behaviour. When you finish a difficult set of heavy reps, don't throw your weights down onto the floor. Likewise, keep grunting and other effort noises to a minimum, as it’s distracting and rude to your neighbours. Don't stare, and be kind to others. In other words — treat others in the gym the way you hope to be treated.
Showing up every day to do exactly same thing
Rookies can fall into the trap of believing that any time spent in the gym is good for your body. In reality, that's not necessarily true. If you only do the same series of exercises each time you're in the gym, down to the weight levels and number of reps, you'll quickly reach a level where you aren't improving at all. Going into "maintenance mode" is okay if you don't have time to work out the next steps, or if your life outside the gym is hectic. Beginners must be careful, though, not to lose sight of the fact that you must slowly ramp up the difficulty if you want to keep making gains.
Failing to keep track of your progress and efforts
An essential part of improving yourself in the gym is understanding how your body changes in response to your efforts. That means you shouldn't hit the gym, head home, and forget everything you did that day. Instead, beginners especially should think about keeping a "gym journal" that records stats and the types of workouts they performed. A journal or diary will allow you to keep an eye on your progress and adjust in either direction as needed. If you skip out on this step, you will come to a stage where you have no idea how to proceed with your fitness improvements effectively.
Cramming in too many sessions without enough recovery
The body needs time to heal, and especially when you're pushing your muscles to the brink, the right nutrients and amount of rest to become stronger. Pounding out session after session without a break only puts you at risk of a serious injury that could sideline your efforts in the gym. Be aware that it is okay to take a day off, or even two, especially if you are very sore. Learn to balance recovery with renewed effort, and you will find that your gym sessions become much more productive. Don't try to be a superhero — even Batman would understand there's a time to give your body a break.
Practice makes perfect, so add another set of reps
While just working up the nerve to make it into the gym the first time can be tough, going back over and over is even harder. However, remember one important thing: no one else really cares that you're there unless you're breaking the rules of the gym. In fact, you may find that strangers in the gym are some of the most supportive people around in your journey towards fitness. Look for the chance to learn from the more experienced gym rats, and put their advice into practice. Combined with this understanding of how to navigate some of the numerous pitfalls rookies experience, you'll be well on your way to better fitness in no time. Now get out there and pump some iron!
This article was written exclusively for Sports Fitness, take a look at our online store where you can order exercise clothing and accessories for use in the gym, running, swimming and so much more.