The Top 10 Mistakes People Make in the Gym

Pete Ross
Photo by Jonathan Borba at Pexels.

I’ve been training for almost 15 years at the gym now, and I’ve seen it all. I’ve trained at powerlifting gyms, strongman gyms, 24 hour gyms, beautiful people gyms (where I felt incredibly out of place) and military gyms. Different gyms, same mistakes. Some of these are pertinent for beginners, others you’ll find seasoned vets doing. Here we go.

Focusing on numbers rather than technique

From the beginner just trying to get buff, to the powerlifter trying to hit bigger numbers and everything in between, this is a cardinal sin committed by many. It’s a human thing to do, chasing the next number, and in the gym the next number is a bigger weight for you to lift. Bigger numbers equals stronger equals greater feelings of accomplishment.

Then injury strikes.

Technique is the number one thing you should be focusing on in the gym, because making that your priority means you’ll more likely than not stay injury free. On top of that, mobility is super important. If you can’t get to full squat depth, then there’s no reason for you to be adding weight to the bar. In fact, if you can’t even make the full range of motion for an exercise, you should make that your first priority before you attempt to add any weight to it.

Relying on someone they know for coaching or advice

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you first hit the gym is taking the advice of a buddy who has no damn idea what they’re doing. I get it — people feel insecure and overwhelmed when they first start at a gym. There’s all these different machines and weights, and there’s always at least one guy who’s throwing around weights you couldn’t even lift just as a warm up. So wanting to feel safe, you just do whatever your buddy tells you. 

Guess what? Just because they’ve been going to the gym for a while, it doesn’t mean they’re in any kind of position to be giving advice.

I remember once seeing a guy show his girlfriend how to do box squats — not a beginner movement and probably best left to powerlifters who are doing it for a very specific reason. The way he slammed his butt down onto that box made me wince. He’s probably in traction now, hopefully his girlfriend isn’t. Bottom line, learn from someone who knows what they’re doing, not just someone who’s been there longer than you.

Not getting in the right mental place

If you want to get the most out of your time in the gym, you need to have the right mindset while you’re there. Don’t be one of those people who wears old, crappy clothes and listens to an audiobook on that reclining bike while barely breaking a sweat. You might as well not even be there if that’s the extent of your effort.

See, the gym isn’t just about what you get out of it physically, it’s a mental break as well. When you go to the gym in the right mindset and really give your best, you walk out feeling great. If you just go there because you have to and don’t put in a decent effort you won’t feel anywhere near as good, and it won’t last.

So instead of just turning up and going through the motions, get your head in the game ahead of time. Wear clothes that make you feel good and listen to music that’s going to give you some good psych. Treat it like an event, not a chore, and your experience will be vastly different.

Not keeping your head in the game

If you spend half your time in the gym sitting on social media, letting yourself cool down to the point that it’s hard to get back up again, you’re doing it wrong. The gym should be focused time, with all your attention being on what you’re doing with your body so you take a mental break from everything else in your life.

So before you even walk into the gym, have your playlist ready, have your social media fix out of the way and have your focus 100% on the workout. The gym is a temple or church for the body, where you leave the outside world behind while you give your body what it needs. Everything else can wait until you’re done.

Assuming everyone actually cares what you’re doing

This seems to be a big thing for people new to the gym or considering signing up. Trust me when I tell you, apart from a couple of creeps (which you’ll unfortunately find everywhere, not just the gym), no one at the gym is watching or judging you. They’re all doing their own training, why would they care about you? Forget about them and focus on yourself, because that’s exactly what they’re doing.

While we’re on this subject, let’s talk about intimidation. A lot of people — and businesses like Planet Fitness, want to act like guys doing heavy weights is somehow intimidating and not part of civilised society. Here’s a counter to that: if you’re really feeling intimidated, why don’t you stop being childish, push through it and instead, get curious? 

Go talk to them rather than being intimidated. They don’t bite. Ask them questions. The intimidation is in your mind, nowhere else. You’ll find that they’ll be more than happy to give you a pointer on technique or even spot you even when you’re just bench pressing the bar. 

Going into any new field can be intimidating, and the only way to get past it is to get over yourself and get stuck in.

Getting involved in fitness fads

We’ve all seen it: the pretty girl in the itsy bitsy gym outfit trying to squat on a Bosu ball with a mini weight bar on her back. Such an exercise is every bit as stupid and pointless as it looks. But there are plenty of other exercises out there that, while being beneficial, shouldn’t be bothered with by the average gym goer. Here’s just a few examples:

  • Pistol squats (or unilateral training in general)
  • CrossFit style kipping pull ups
  • Snatch squats
  • Burpees

Now, you might be thinking I’m insane because these are actually beneficial. But let’s consider one of the most important principles of exercise: SAID. That stands for Specific Adaptation to an Imposed Demand. If you’re a rock climber or gymnast, then pistol squats are going to be very useful to you, because unilateral leg power is vital. If you’re an Olympic weightlifter, so will snatch squats.

For everyone else though? Just do the basic movements that hit big muscle groups. A lot of these exercises are for very specific endeavours with highly skilled athletes, not for an average person looking to get a workout. You’re only going to get injured because you lack the mobility or skill to do the exercise safely.

The Bosu ball example is so ridiculous because it’s some made up “functional fitness” garbage that’s entirely theory based. The reality is, if you want to train balance, then train balance. If you want to train squats, train squats. Don’t try and combine them into some Frankenstein’s monster of an exercise that achieves neither of those things.

Being haphazard

Do you know why so many people quit the gym so quickly? They come in all guns blazing and because they’re new, their body isn’t used to it. They find themselves sore as hell very quickly and wonder how people actually do this, let alone enjoy it. By the time the soreness fades, so does their enthusiasm and their gym membership becomes wasted money. Either that, or they continually repeat the process, never getting anywhere. 

Here’s a better idea: get a beginner program either off a trainer or somewhere like TNation or and most importantly, stick to it. Everyone wants to be the expert when they haven’t even done the basics and the result is that they either fail to progress or break themselves. Make the smart decision — get a program, and be consistent.

Honestly, for the beginner there’s nothing worse than walking into a gym and thinking “what do I feel like doing today?” That’s a road that goes nowhere fast. A program ensures you aren’t training the same movements too often and it takes decision making out of your hands, so you can’t just wuss out because you’re not feeling enthusiastic. 

Working too hard

While there are those who will sit on those ridiculous reclining exercise bikes and read a book while pedalling away, barely breaking a sweat, you have the opposite extreme of the guy who goes to failure on every exercise. This is also well known in CrossFit circles, where taking yourself to breaking point every session is some kind of badge of honour.

Progress — whether it be strength, cardiovascular or whatever, comes from incremental gains. Going all out isn’t going to make you improve any faster than training hard but leaving something in the tank. In fact, going all out is going to make you sore and exhausted. You won’t recover properly and that will continue to build until you get sick because your immunity has become compromised.

That will mean you now have to take time off to recover, while the person who plays it smart and doesn’t train so damn hard keeps hitting the gym, meaning that you have equal results over time anyway. Odds are, the smart person will be ahead, because they won’t be getting injured either.

Bottom line is, you should walk out of your workout — whatever it is, feeling stimulated, not annihilated. In practical terms, that means when you go to the gym you have a choice to make: you can train hard, or you can train long. You can’t do both. 

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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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