When you’re just getting started with fitness, there’s a lot to learn — and it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll commit a few fitness faux pas along the way. When I was a newbie, I made many workout mistakes, because I was too embarrassed and self-conscious to ask for help.
But the truth is, trainers see these same fitness mistakes all the time — and they want to help you prevent and correct them so you can make the most of your workout. Follow these tips from some of the top trainers in the U.S. to avoid seven of the most common fitness pitfalls.
Workout Mistake #1: Your Weights Are too Heavy
Even if you can lift a weight from the rack, it may be too heavy to allow you to execute an exercise with good form. “When doing an exercise properly, you should be able to stand up straight and maintain good posture throughout the entire movement,” says Laura Brown, M.S., R.D., L.D., an ACSM-certified personal trainer in Chicago. If you can’t, you’re putting yourself at risk for injury.
How to correct it: Choose a weight that allows you to perform your goal number of reps with perfect form, and never go beyond “technical failure” (i.e., the point at which you cannot perform another rep without compromising safety and technique). If you have to use body English to complete your reps (e.g., by using your legs and hips to swing the dumbbell up during a biceps curl), you need to grab a lighter weight.
Workout Mistake #2: You’re Stuck on Repeat
If you do the same handful of exercises over and over, you’ll not only get bored, but your workouts will get less effective over time. “The problem with never altering your workouts is that eventually your body will stop adapting to that unchanging ‘training stimulus,’ causing your strength, endurance, athleticism, and overall fitness level to plateau,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit senior fitness and nutrition content manager.
How to correct it: Regularly vary your routine. Beginners should switch things up about every two months; if you’ve been at it for awhile, you should make adjustments every three to five weeks. And even small tweaks can make a difference. “You don’t always need to change the exercises you do; altering things like lifting pace, grip, stance, and rest periods can often be enough to trigger fresh gains,” Thieme says. “Of course, the best option is to have a professional do it for you — following a program designed by a personal trainer or a streaming online workout program will provide the variation you need to avoid performance and fitness plateaus.”
Workout Mistake #3: You’re Not Focusing on Form
During a workout, do you ever catch yourself in the mirror and realize that your plank looks more like an upward dog, your knees cave inward when you squat, or your elbows flare outward when you bench? (Guilty!) Form mistakes are common, and they can make your workout less effective, says Greg Pignataro, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer with Grindset Fitness in Arizona.
How to correct it: “Use lighter weights or no weights at all while you master the movement pattern for a particular exercise,” says Thieme. “Once you’ve mastered it, turn away from the mirror so you can focus on feeling the targeted muscles engage. Only after you have a sense for how the exercise look and feels when done with proper form should you load it with heavier weights.”
Workout Mistake #4: You’re Running on Empty
You might assume that slashing calories will speed up weight loss, but to perform at your best, your body needs to be properly fueled. It’s really important to eat the right quantities of the right foods at the right times if you want to crush your workouts and optimize your recovery, says Callie Exas, M.P.H., M.S., R.D.N., an NASM-certified personal trainer and certified dietitian-nutritionist based in New York City.
How to correct it: Use an online calorie calculator to determine your ideal daily intake for your specific goal (e.g., weight loss, muscle growth, etc.). You can also eat a small meal or pre-workout snack an hour or two before exercising. Exas recommends complex carbs with a bit of protein or fat, such as a banana with peanut butter or nuts and a piece of fruit. “That usually provides the right amount of nutrients for optimal exercise performance,” she says.
Workout Mistake #5: You’re Winging It
It’s a common rookie mistake to go in with a vague goal (“get in shape!”) and string together a bunch of exercises remembered from high school PE. Here’s the problem with that: Unless you’re a certified personal trainer or studied kinesiology in college, your self-designed workouts likely aren’t optimizing your time or results. “Most gym-goers are unaware of what their bodies need,” says Openfit fitness expert Cody Braun.
How to correct it: Hire a personal trainer or join a streaming online workout service. In both cases, your workouts will be designed by a knowledgeable expert to match your goals, fitness level, and workout preferences. “You’ll also be coached in the key points of proper form for the exercises you do, optimizing your gains and minimizing your risk of injury,” says Thieme.
Workout Mistake #6: You Spend All Day at the Gym
When it comes to working out, less can be more. Katie Arnold, an NASM-certified personal trainer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says that workout newbies often “think they need to spend multiple hours a day at the gym in order to get an effective workout. That’s just not the case.”
How to correct it: “Workout density is much more important than workout duration,” says Thieme. In fact, you can get an effective workout in just 10 minutes, as long as you stay focused and push yourself the whole time. Shortening rest periods and optimizing workout selection (e.g., by working with a personal trainer or following an online workout program) can also help reduce workout time. “Or you can shift your focus from traditional strength-training workouts to shorter, HIIT routines,” says Thieme.
Workout Mistake #7: You Use Instagram as Your Trainer
Yes, many fitness experts are also social media influencers. But just because someone has hundreds of thousands of followers, don’t assume they’re a qualified expert. It’s a common misconception: “If they have great abs, they must know what they’re doing in the gym, right?” says Alexandra Allred, an ACE-certified personal trainer and adjunct professor of kinesiology at Tarleton State University and Navarro College. But Allred teaches about the dangerous workout mistakes she sees on social media — like using the assisted pull-up machine as a leg press (an effective way to end up with a broken arm).
How to correct it: Use Instagram for exercise accountability, workout selfies, and inspirational training quotes — not expert advice. “Unless you find a bio that indicates a degree in kinesiology and/or accredited certifications, walk away,” says Allred. “There are many reputable training sites [like the one you’re currently on!] where a person can find [credible and effective] information about fitness training and nutrition.”