The Classic Things You Will Do In The Gym To Shoot Yourself In The Foot
By Charles Staley, B.Sc, MSS
Director, Staley Training Systems
Editor’s Note: Anyone who trains seriously should print this article out and memorize it. Charles Staley has been around the block a few times and he knows what mistakes you are going to make before you make them. Read and learn…
Former World karate champion and popular action star Chuck Norris was once asked if he ever made mistakes, upon which he replied “no.” Seeing the surprised and somewhat incredulous reaction of the interviewer, Norris continued by explaining that sure, he makes mistakes all the time, but only once. Norris’ feeling was that if you learn from your mistakes in order to avoid making the same ones again in the future, they really didn’t count as mistakes.
We all like to take a certain amount of pride in doings things right. However, let me assure you, even the smartest, most dedicated trainees make lots of mistakes on an ongoing basis. That’s why even the best athletes have coaches. In fact, the better you are, the more important it is to have a skillful coach - someone who’s been down the road you’re traveling and who can point out the various obstacles along the way.
Allow me to be your coach for a moment…
If you can intuit the logic in my argument, I’d like you to allow me to be your coach for a moment as we explore the various errors that people make in their quest for physical perfection, and how to either avoid them in the first place, or to learn to substitute more productive habits and behaviors in the future.
What follows are the ten most common and also most significant mistakes that well-meaning gym rats make day in and day out. Odds are, you’re guilty of at least three of them, no matter how disciplined and careful you are.
So please read on, because the information in this article may save you enormous amounts of time and energy as your pursue your training goals.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER ONE: NO GOAL
All good plans start with a clear, concise picture of the desired objective. In stark contrast to this, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been setting up on a particular station in the gym when I overhear a conversation like this on the machine next to me:
“So, what ya wanna work today?”
“Dunno, maybe chest?”
“Ummm, I guess so. Tryin to remember when I did chest last. How about arms?”
“OK, cool, what exercise ya wanna do first?”
And on it goes as I shake my head in a combination of amusement and pity.
When’s the last time you jumped in the car and drove without knowing where you were going? Never? OK, then when’s the last time you did a workout without having a crystal-clear objective? Always? I thought so.
Escalating Density Training is a better alternative:
Each workout, you’ll pull out your training log and find your most recent workout of the same type. For each PR Zone, you’ll note the weight load you used and the total repetitions you achieved.
You now have a specific objective for your next workout: perform more total reps with the same weight in the same period of time. It’s not easy, but it is simple and brief (hey, two out of three ain’t bad huh?).
1. Make sure your training journal is durable and functional, regardless of whether or not you use a spiral-bound notebook, tracking software, or some other form of record-keeping.
2. Challenge yourself by aiming for big numbers each workout - the only difference between successful people and everyone else is the size of their goals. Make sure your goals are worthy of your complete dedication.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER TWO: SACRIFICING QUALITY TO QUANTITY
This is both the most common and most costly mistake that most gym rats make.
More isn’t better. BETTER is better! Here’s a common example of the quantity-mindset at work:
The typical trainee who can do 4-6 chin-ups and who wants to do 10. Typically, he’ll simply try to add another rep every time he does chin-ups (increasing quantity).
Better way: to decrease quantity by dropping down to sets of 1-2 reps. You’ll be less fatigued, and therefore more able to recruit your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which have the best potential for size & strength gains.
Bottom line: Make sure you do something well, before you do it more.
1. If you’re not happy with your technique on a particular workout, shoot for a minimal increase in total reps the next time out, and focus your energies on improving your technique instead.
2. Always strive to move weights as fast as possible on the concentric or positive phase of each lift, particularly at the beginning of the stroke. More speed means more tension, which means better results.
3. More intense efforts require even more attention to active recovery.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER THREE: FATIGUE SEEKING
The way to assess the effectiveness of a workout (or training system) is by the degree to which it improves the qualities and/or abilities you’re trying to develop, not by how much pain it produces.
If your primary goal is to be sore, why not consider taking a job as Lennox Lewis’ sparring partner? Muscle grows when you gradually force it to perform more and more work in a given time frame from workout to workout. This requires managing fatigue, not seeking it.
Escalating Density Training features built-in mechanisms to ensure optimal fatigue management, including both innovative loading parameters to active recovery measures such as post-workout cryotherapy. EDT also recognizes that each individual has unique recovery capacities and allows for individualization within the overall EDT training structure.
1. Focus on achievement, not the after-effects of your efforts.
2. If you’re sore, it is in fact a sign that your muscles are in a repair state — do not train on sore muscles. Instead, wait until you have one full day of no soreness before training the same muscles again.
3. When in doubt, aggressive personality types should err on the side of doing less, whereas more tentative individuals should err on the side of doing more.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER FOUR: TRAINING IN PAIN
In my opinion, the timeworn expression “no pain, no gain” is at the root of a lot of bad training decisions. Pain is your body’s signal to you that something is wrong. Pay attention! Adjust your workout accordingly, and, most importantly, if you have pain that lasts more than a few days, seek medical attention!
It’s amazing to see how many people, upon experiencing an injury, simply think “Well, I guess I can’t bench anymore, but maybe I can do incline presses.” Before long, you’ll find that you’ve “painted yourself into a corner” like a lot of the older guys you see who can now do only 2-3 exercises without pain!
Please take note of the following suggestions:
1. Pain that diminishes or disappears after the warm-up should still be taken seriously. The reason is that your body releases histamines during your early sets, which are a natural painkiller. You may be doing yourself harm without knowing it.
2. If you experience sudden, sharp pain in a joint during a workout, stop immediately and apply ice to the area. If you do not experience considerable improvement within a few days, seek medical attention.
3. A feeling of tingling, numbness, or “pins and needles” in one or more extremities should not be ignored- seek medical attention promptly.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER FIVE: EXCESSIVE FOCUS ON LOAD
I’ll never forget the day when, minding my own business at a place called Iron Gym in Goleta, California, a young guy, weighing maybe 165 pounds, asked me if I could spot him on incline dumbbell presses. Although my general premise is that if you need a spotter, you’re moving the weights too slowly and should lighten up, I agreed to lend my services anyway.
As I follow the guy over to his station, I noticed a pair of 110-pound dumbbells laying on the floor next the bench. “Hmmm” I thought. “Wonder what this guy is up to?”
I soon found out. To make a long story short, he asked me to hand him the dumbbells one at a time, and after that, I got the unexpected workout of my life as I helped him through 4 forced reps, where I estimate that I lifted about 75 percent of the weight on the first rep, and about 95 percent by the fourth rep! Not all was lost however - that was one of the best trap workouts of my life.
Look, my point in all this is, the amount of weight you can lift does matter, but it isn’t the only consideration by any means. A lot of guys for example, will do almost anything to lift more weight, including using powerlifting support gear, significantly reducing the range of motion, and/or using a training partner to help them complete the lift. In each of these examples, you really didn’t lift more weight at all - you just appeared to have lifted more!
When you train EDT style, your target weights are clearly defined: choose a weight load that equals or approximates your 10RM for each exercise - in other words, a weight you can lift for 10 reps but not 11. Then, at the beginning of each PR Zone, you’ll lift that weight for sets of 5, and over the course of the PR Zone, you’ll gradually shift to 4 reps, then 3, 2, and finally, singles, as your fatigue levels elevate.
You may rightly question the logic of performing only 5 or less reps with a 10RM weight, so let me explain the reasoning behind this: the training effect you’ll gain from lifting any given weight is a factor of not only the load, but also the speed with which the load is lifted.
Think of it this way: if I place a 10-pound weight on your foot, no problem. But, if I drop that weight on your foot, big problem! In both cases, the weight is the same, but the speed is different. When you lift a weight as fast as possible on the concentric (or “positive”) phase of the lift, you put more tension on the muscles than if you lift it slowly. This allows you to get more done with less weight. It makes your efforts far more efficient, which is the whole point of EDT.
Tips to Consider:
1. Your chosen weightloads should enable “brisk” sets of 5 at the beginning of each PR Zone.
2. The difficulty of loads selected in antagonistic exercises pairings should be as similar as possible.
3. The selected weightloads should allow between (approximately) 60 and 75 repetitions for each exercise within a 15-minute PR Zone
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER SIX: TOO MUCH FOCUS ON STRENGTHS
Just because you’ve heard it a gazillion times doesn’t make it any less true: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
And from my experience, a strength overused becomes a weakness.
Consider the following tips:
1. Determine if your weak link is correctable or not (short arms, for example, may be undesirable for a deadlift, but nothing can be done about it). Focus on correctable weaknesses.
2. Make a list of all the major muscle groups, and then rank them from 1-10 in terms of your own development. Next, take the two lowest-scoring muscle groups and allot one training day a week where you work only on these muscles.
3. List your five least productive habits. Consider how you might substitute more productive habits in their place.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER SEVEN: INSUFFICIENT DIVERSITY
I’m never asked, “What’s the best food,” but I’m always asked, “What’s the best (exercise, workout, time of day to train, etc.).” There’s no such thing as one best food because no single food has all the nutrients you need. Similarly, no single exercise or program can be all things to all bodies. The best program is the one you’re not doing, and here’s why:
1. The effectiveness of any program depends on the degree to which it challenges your body. The problem is that familiar stressors are less challenging, because the body habituates (habituation is the gradual reduction of a response when an initially new stimulus is repeated over and over) to them. Every time you repeat a training program, it becomes less effective.
2. All programs and methods have both negative and positive aspects, no matter how well designed or specific. Too much time on one program, and you’ll demonstrate a tendency to habituate to the positive aspects and accumulate the negative ones. For example, if you perform barbell bench presses every week, you may develop an imbalance between the front and rear deltoid muscles, despite the fact that you are not getting stronger on the exercise.
3. Unchanging training routines lead to overuse injuries. Athletes are particularly vulnerable, since their training tends to become more and more specific over time.
People tend to be creatures of habit, but even good habits have a downside as we’ve just seen. Be sure to provide for enough variety so that your workouts remain challenging and therefore, productive.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER EIGHT: LACK OF CONTINUITY
While variation is important, so is continuity. Getting stronger is largely a matter of “motor learning.” And this requires repetition, just like any other kind of learning.
If you change exercises every single workout for example, you never get enough practice on any single exercise to get better at it. Similarly, if you misinterpret the classic texts on periodization, you might make the mistake of training for muscle hypertrophy for 6 weeks, and then maximal strength for 6 weeks, reasoning that maximal strength training is potentiated by a prior phase devoted to hypertrophy development.
The only problem is, by the time you’re 4 weeks into the strength phase, you’re 4 weeks away from the last hypertrophy workout, which means the quality you worked so hard to develop for 6 weeks is now rapidly fading away as you focus on another objective.
Consider these tips:
1. One way to strike a good balance between diversity and continuity is to change half of your exercises every 4 weeks.
2. Generally, exercises which utilize (relatively) large loads and multiple joints (such as squats and deadlifts, for example), are more difficult than “isolation” exercises, and therefore, should be practiced on a more continuous basis in order to maintain your expertise.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER NINE: POOR BIOMECHANICS
You can learn a lot from observing others, sometimes by looking at what they’re doing right, but just as often, by noticing what they do wrong. And if you use the latter category of learning experience, you’ll find most gyms and health clubs to be a wealth of educational opportunity!
Allow me to relate one such example from my own experiences in order to make a point about proper lifting technique: This one goes way back, probably about 1984, in a small gym called (I believe) Northern Dutchess Health & Fitness in Red Hook, New York.
Two young guys were (for some reason) spotting each other on standing barbell curls. They were both using loads that were far beyond what they were capable of lifting, and every single rep required intense partner-assistance and the most horrendous physical contortions you can imagine in order to complete each rep.
Over a series of weeks, I witnessed these two guys perform that same workout over and over, and I began to joke to myself that they must have been Russian sport scientists who had devised a stealthy way of protecting their secret techniques — each rep required equal contribution from each partner, making it impossible to determine who was the lifter and who was the spotter!
OK, all humor aside, here are some insights and suggestions on good lifting technique:
1. Generally speaking, if you’re lifting a weight correctly, you’ll feel tension through the target muscle but no pain or discomfort in the associated joint.
2. Your movement should be precise and consistent from rep to rep, almost like you are a machine. If you find yourself “shaking and quaking” under the weight, it’s probably too heavy relative to your current abilities.
3. If it looks wrong, it probably is. For example, if the bar isn’t parallel to the floor when you squat, deadlift, or bench press, it means you’re applying more force with one limb than the other.
4. Lift light weights as if they were heavy, and heavy weights as if they were light. For example, if you can’t lift a 300-pound bar over your head to put it on your shoulders in preparation to squat, don’t do it with an empty bar either. Every rep you do should be viewed as an opportunity to perfect your technique.
CLASSIC MISTAKE NUMBER TEN: TOO MUCH AEROBIC EXERCISE
Regular small doses of steady-state exercise can actually improve recovery, but too much can sap your strength and lead to muscle wasting.
If you compare the physiques of 100-meter sprinters against long distance runners, such as marathoners, you’ll see that sprinters are just as lean (if not leaner) than their aerobic counterparts, even though they do little to no aerobic exercise.
Extensive and frequent forays into the aerobic zone can cause your body to lose muscle (since muscle weighs more than fat, it is the body’s preferred tissue to cannibalize in the interest in lightening the load).
If you’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to lose 10 to 20 pounds of unwanted fat, think of resistance training as the core of your program, and aerobic exercise as the supplementary activity - not the other way around.
1. If you feel deprived if you can’t ride your bike or go out for a run once in a while, consider doing anaerobic intervals instead of aerobic workouts performed at the so-called “target heart rate“ - research shows that interval training burns far more calories than aerobic exercise.
In fact, if you want to jump on your bike or rowing ergometer (for example), I’d suggest you exercise either below the target heart rate (which will facilitate faster recoveries) or above it (which will facilitate greater body fat oxidation).
2. Don’t jog or run when your legs are fatigued from resistance exercise.
3. Vary the content of aerobic exercise rather than doing the same activity every time. Your cardiovascular system doesn’t know which muscles are creating the demand.