Don't Make This Mistake in the Gym

Pete Ross

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You’ve been in the gym for an hour, and so far you’ve had a great workout. You’ve pushed it really hard and the fatigue is starting to set in, but you only have a little bit more to do and then you get to cool down and go home. You crank your music volume up to maximum while you try to psych up, throw some chalk on and then walk over to the squat cage. You unrack the bar for the last time today and start on that last set of 5 squats. You count down each rep, telling yourself that you’re almost there.

On the very last one, you relax just a little towards the bottom and you feel a twinge right where your lower back meets your butt in the sacrum area. You think "uh oh, that wasn't good," but it was just a twinge and you can still walk around fine, so you pack up, cool down and go home without thinking much of it.

Then you wake up the next day, unable to even get out of bed on your own because pain roars through the area when you move.

That’s not a made up story, it happened to me a few years back when I was making a comeback in powerlifting. It’s not the only time either. Just a couple of months ago, I injured a tendon in my finger (which is a major injury for a climber) because I spent an entire session projecting one climb, and then kept going after I normally would have finished. That finger had taken so much more strain than it should have in the session, but because it was a new grade and I really wanted to send it, I pushed past the point of sensibility.

You can make this mistake whether you’re a powerlifter or strongman throwing around huge weights, or just an average gym goer who’s trying to get stronger. The mistake I’m referring to, of course, is pushing too hard in your training sessions, just because it’s what your program says you’re supposed to do.  

The problem is, sports like CrossFit and even movies give the impression that training sessions should be all out, that you should be wrecked at the end and that only the guy who is willing to risk injury is going to be the one that takes home 1st place when everything is over. That you should not only push your limit, but push past it.

It’s a lie, and a dangerous one, because it causes people to make stupid decisions that don’t seem stupid in the moment. 

Pushing past your limit is all well and good if it’s an important competition. That’s where it actually counts and it’s the entire reason you’ve been training. You’re at your most rested and focused. Funnily enough, I’ve never injured myself in competition and I’ve never known anyone in my circle who’s done it.

Nope, it’s always at the end of a training session or doing something stupid, where you push too hard or relax too much.

What you should replace it with

Rather than trying to squeeze out that last rep when you’re doubtful your body can take it, or pushing that bit further when you already feel exhausted, there is a much better guideline to finish your workout with. It will ensure you keep your form, you don’t get injured and you don’t introduce sloppy habits.

Finish every session on a repetition or exercise with perfect form.

As any athlete knows, the problem with form when it comes to any activity is that it starts breaking down with fatigue. The better you are and the longer you’ve been doing it, the more you can keep your form correct as you start to get tired. The flipside of that is the more experienced you are, the more you’re likely to try and push that last rep, because you think you can handle it.

Don’t make that mistake.

Having made the mistake myself a number of times, I can tell you there are some very obvious factors that increase the risk of injury at the end of your session:

  • You’re coming back from time off (and usually pushing too hard, too fast)
  • You’re already very sore and tired from the previous session
  • The weight was feeling heavy and difficult even when you were fresh
  • You haven’t been able to focus 100%, with other life matters creeping into your head
  • You’re on the last session of the week or your cycle, and looking forward to time off

The solution

So you’re up to your last set and not feeling confident. How do you actually finish the session? Do you just cut it right then and there? Not necessarily, there are a number of things you can do:

  • Lower the weight a bit
  • Stop as soon as you hit the rep where you manage to squeeze it out decently, but know you’re going to have to go all out to hit the next one
  • Give yourself that little bit extra rest (without cooling down too much)
  • Get someone to watch who can give you cues to keep your form on point — not just someone who will yell “come on!”
  • Be prepared to bail (if this is a bench press, you’re clearly going to need a spotter) early if it feels like it isn’t going to happen. If you feel like you need to bail, you probably shouldn’t try it anyway.

Final thoughts

It’s important to remember that no one training session is going to define your entire athletic career or fitness level. It’s nothing more than another step to where you want to be. You’re far better off cutting it short with good form and being able to train the next day than pushing it every session, because when it does catch up to you in the form of an injury, you’ll likely be out for months. Now you’ve killed all the marginal gains you’ve made.

Keep it sensible and cerebral. Going all out is for competition day and competition specific practice. Not for a regular training cycle.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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