When done properly, lifting weights is one of the best ways to burn fat, build muscle and lose pounds. When done incorrectly, however, lifting weights is a great way to injure yourself — or at least to minimize effectiveness.
If you’re new to lifting, and even if you’re not, mistakes happen. Don’t feel bad, but do ask for help. A trainer, a savvy friend or even online videos are all good places to start.
With that in mind, we asked a group of accomplished trainers to share some common mistakes they see at the gym and how to fix them. So before you pick up your next barbell or walk toward that squat rack, consult the list below, and you’ll be lifting better and smarter than ever before.
“Isolation exercises like leg extension and machine biceps curl won’t help you get stronger functionally,” said Michael Piercy, MS, owner of the LAB Performance Facility in Fairfield, New Jersey.
Fix: To get more bang for your buck, he recommends workouts that translate to your daily life. “Exercises that utilize multiple muscle groups will allow you to get stronger functionally and athletically.”
While the goal here is to lift actual weights, there’s a more effective way to learn a particular movement than just diving right in with weights that are too heavy.
Fix: Kari Woodall, a former US National Team swimmer and TRX master trainer suggests first learning the movement unloaded or with a light load. “We call this grooving the movement pattern so your body knows what it should feel like under more difficult (heavier) load conditions.”
Once you’ve mastered the movement without weight — or with really light weight, like an unloaded barbell or a small dumbbell — then you can begin adding weight. This ensures proper form along the way.
Now that you’ve mastered the technique, it’s time to add some weight. Plenty of new weightlifters are scared to go too heavy. As long as you are using proper form and safety measures, like a spotter when needed, go ahead and challenge yourself.
Fix: “Muscles, ligaments and bones need a significant force in order for them to get stronger,” said Shana Verstegen, a TRX and ACE Master Instructor and Under Armour Training Team Member. “For most resistance exercises, if you are able to complete more than 12 repetitions, you are not being challenged.”
No one ever got better at something by only focusing on what they’re already good at. Instead, complement your favorite exercises with areas that need improvement, and you’ll enjoy a more holistic fitness regimen. “If you’re bad at squatting or pressing, you won’t improve by avoiding those exercises,” said Piercy. “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.”
Fix: Instead of ignoring those difficult exercises, he suggests putting them at the top of your list. “As you see improvement and more self-efficacy doing these exercises, you’ll have visible representation of your progress.”
“When lifting weights, too many people break their body parts down into pieces and days, like legs on one day, chest and back day on another and biceps and triceps on another,” said Marc Coronel, senior master course instructor for TRX, Triggerpoint, LIFEFITNESS and Activ Motion Bar. “It’s like starting a band and then never rehearsing with all the instruments at once.” (That’s probably the best body-as-a-band analogy we’ve heard yet.)
Fix: If you want your body to move like one cohesive unit, employ dynamic lifts encompassing multiple muscle groups.
It’s difficult to lift weights or even perform bodyweight exercises like planks without a solid foundation. Your core is that foundation. “I tell clients their spine is more important than anything else they physically want to work on,” said Coronel. “So they need to make sure their core — from collarbone to mid-thigh — is actively engaged” throughout an entire movement.
“When you brace your core and maintain stiff musculature surrounding the spine, you will create a safer and more efficient environment to lift in,” said Coronel. That translates to everyday activities, too, like picking up a suitcase or lifting your child in the air.
Fix: Woodall suggests firing up your core before you even touch a weight. So try engaging in a few core exercises during your warmup. It’ll help you stave off injury, and all that core work means you’ll be able to lift heavier in the future.
READ MORE > THE MOST UNDERRATED CORE STRENGTHENER REVEALED
“Put down the phone, stop watching the TV in the corner and focus on thoughtful, high-quality movement,” says Matt Pudvah, head strength coach for the Sports Performance Institute at MAC.
Fix: Actively thinking about what’s happening during your lifts can improve the actual lift. “There is something powerful about connecting your mind to your body while exercising,” says Pudvah. “While doing a hamstring-dominant exercise like the Romanian Deadlift, be aware of feeling your feet on the floor, your hips moving back and your hamstrings firing throughout the movement.”
When done correctly, Pudvah thinks the kettlebell swing is one of the best exercises for developing power and strength. Which is great, because kettlebells are easy to come by, whether at the gym or for home use. “More times than not, I see a swing with generous amounts of knee bend, positive shin angles and a long, arcing motion with the kettlebell close to the ground,” he says. “This is what I would refer to as ‘squatting the swing.’”
Fix: To fix this, and achieve better glute and hamstring activation, Pudvah suggests: “Keep your shins vertical, and move almost exclusively at the hips, keeping the kettlebell high and tight, as far away from the floor as possible.”
“Too often we get stuck in a rut of training like robots (squats, forward lunges, biceps curls, etc.), yet life and sports require us to move side to side and rotate,” says Verstegen.
Fix: To ensure your body can move efficiently in all plains of motion, she suggests evaluating your current workout program and finding areas to improve. “See where you can add some rotation and lateral movement to make the workout more functional.”