The 10 Biggest Mistakes You're Making at the Gym

Personal trainers spend all day watching people work out, so they are well versed in the biggest mistakes we make when we're sweating it out at the gym. We asked trainers from Crunch, Equinox, and Sports Club/LA to tell us the worst things they see people doing over and over when exercising in the gym. Here are the 10 biggest mistakes people make at the gym — and how to avoid them!

  1. Doing squats and lunges incorrectly. These fitness mainstays are easy to do anywhere, but they are often done incorrectly, says Caitlin Ritt, a private trainer at Sports Club/LA. "The biggest mistake I see people do over and over in the gym is squats and lunges with the weight in their toes and their heels coming up off the ground," she says. "I have clients come to me all the time complaining about knee pain, and as soon as I get them to keep the weight through their heels, almost always the knee pain goes away." Correctly doing squats and lunges will not only help prevent injuries, but will also engage your glute muscles. And that, as Caitlin reminds us, "is the way to a firmer and tighter butt!"
  2. Doing the same routine all the time. Don't just go to the gym on autopilot. "You need to mix it up in order to avoid boredom and plateauing," says Lauren Fairbanks, a personal trainer at Equinox. Dedicate different days to focusing on a different aspect of your fitness routine, and don't be shy about trying new exercises; it helps rest overused muscles.
  3. Relying on the machines. Gyms are filled with rows of machines, and often people think that's all they should be using at the gym. "Machines are horrible," says Tim Rich, a personal training manager at Crunch. "They push you through a guided plane of motion, which could cause pain and injury." Instead, "make your body a machine" by doing strengthening exercises that use your own body weight (like push-ups and lunges) or taking advantage of free weights, or, if your gym has it, a TRX suspension system.

More mistakes after the break!

  1. Lifting too much or too little weight. Lift too much weight and you risk injuring your body. Lift too little and you're not going to see results. "By putting more weight on than you can control, you end up breaking form to complete the reps. This can lead to countless compensations and injuries within the body," Caitlin says. "On the other end of the spectrum, I often see women sit on machines with too little weight. You want to maintain good form first and foremost, but it should also be a challenge to the body." So go ahead, channel your inner Goldilocks in the weight room and find a range that's just right. "Challenge yourself with a weight where the last couple reps are difficult to complete, while still maintaining correct form," says Caitlin, who recommends choosing a weight that allows you to do 12-15 reps before fatigue. If, however, you're worried about doing an exercise correctly, then "start at a lower weight on your first set in order to focus on your form and correct movement," advises Lauren.
  2. Rushing through exercises. You've already committed to spending time at the gym, so now isn't the time to slack with a hurried routine. "People rush through exercises and don't go through a full range of motion; therefore, they don't fully benefit from the exercise they are doing," Lauren says. Instead of trying to get to the next part in your circuit, focus on the exercise you are doing to make sure you have proper form and are making it effective.
  3. Rounding your shoulders and back. "I often see shrugged shoulders and rounded backs," Lauren says. Since it may be hard to remember to keep your shoulders down and back while you're moving from exercise to exercise, trainers often use this tip explained by Caitlin: "Imagine a yardstick behind your back and at the base of your tailbone. If you maintain correct form, your tailbone, between your shoulder blades, and the back of your head should be touching the yardstick at all times. Roll your shoulders back, open your chest, think about growing tall and drawing your belly button toward your spine." Or try Tim's trick: visualize keeping your shoulders "tucked in your back pocket," he says.
  4. Only doing one set. Used to doing only an exercise for one set of reps? You may be wasting your time. "I often see people do one set of a bunch of different random exercises," Lauren says. But to make the most of your workout, repeat, repeat, repeat. "It is important to do at least two to four sets [of each exercise] to fatigue the muscles to get better overall results," she says.
  5. Hitting the gym too hard. New Year's resolutions, Summer bikini season, and sunny vacations — there's always a new reason for wanting to get in shape. While committing to fitness is great, don't be overzealous about how much your body can handle. "The all-or-nothing attitude when getting back into shape" can be dangerous, Tim says. "Hitting the gym so hard and obsessively that your body can't cope with the added stresses can lead to injury." Start slowly and safely if you're new to working out, and ramp up any workouts only when you're confident that you're ready.
  6. Only focusing on the muscles you can see. Strength training isn't just about having six-pack abs. It's important to work on the muscles you don't see, especially if they are little-used in real life. "Our society is very much about the "show me" muscles [like abs, chest muscles, and biceps] because you can see them in the mirror," Tim says. "You need to provide your body with balance by hitting the "Go Me" muscles [like hamstrings, upper back, and inner glute muscles] equally" to develop power and to make sure you aren't creating imbalances.
  7. Not knowing your body. Not everyone has the time or the resources to hire a personal trainer to watch them exercise, but trainers see many people performing exercises incorrectly because they don't know any better. "Books, magazines, and video [exercise] programs are great, but most people have very poor joint awareness and coordination," Tim says. Add to that the fact that most people sit at their desks all day, and it makes for "deviations and imbalances that make it nearly impossible to safely execute the movement." Even if you don't want to hire a personal trainer, ask one for help if you've never used a machine or don't know if your form is correct. "Trainers are there to help and will passionately do so," Tim says.