Are you making sense in the Gym?

Avoid these mistakes, get stronger quicker, and leave in one piece.

There are many wonders to be observed from day to day in a public health and performance centre, yet for every beautiful act of calisthenics and perfectly executed movement pattern performed, there are a hundred more strange and hazardous attempts at weightlifting going on.  Of course, every gym should be equipped with vigilant instructors ready to intervene during these oblivious efforts of self-harm, but when you leave a lot of people into a big room with lots of heavy objects, strange things invariably happen.  They say that the brain is the most complex object in the known universe containing around 100 billion neurons with Internet-like capacity, which makes the capacity of humans today to do stupid things in gyms all around the world all the more compelling.

The motto of Hippocrates, ‘First do no harm’, is widely regarded as the number one principle for strength coaches when training athletes and so it should be with anybody training themselves.  The second principle, logically enough, should be to do something useful that is helping to reach your goals.

Check out these common mistakes of your average gym-goer, and if you can just set that giant ego aside for a while we can make amends and really start making the most out of your time in the gym.


Mistake Number 1: Doing Random Stuff

One of the more bewildering sights in a gym is watching someone arm themselves with a couple of tiny dumbbells and moving them around in some random fashion with no rhyme or reason.  I often play a game in my mind where I give these movements a name (Dumbbell Arm-Swing Sprints is a classic). But apart from providing some mental stimulus for a confused trainer, these random acts of dumbbell waving-around serve no purpose.  It is akin to going into the music room at school a few days per week, and indiscriminately whacking notes on the piano for half an hour, and telling yourself that you are definitely improving as a musician.

A more sinister version of doing random stuff are the circus act exercises. We’ve all seen or heard of the ‘functional’ guy doing barbell back squats while standing on a Swiss Ball, and not only does acrobatting with weights not make sense it is pretty hazardous to all in the surrounding area. Step forward again wise Hippocrates.

Random gym guy

Lesson number one is: Figure out why you are in the gym in the first place, and don’t just make stuff up as you go along, it won’t work. This leads us nicely to mistake number 2.


Mistake Number 2: Not having well-defined Goals

We need to go back to the start before getting caught up in the details of what to do in the gym.  First, you must decide what your goals are. The first question I ask every prospective client is, what are your objectives? What do you want to achieve?  Successful athletes have been using goal setting to guide and motivate their training for ever, while the casual gym-goer who carries out the same routines over and over again for years without getting anywhere does not.  In my opinion, getting stronger should underpin all goals at first.  If you want to get stronger, train for strength. If you want to get leaner and shredded, train for strength. If you want to get bigger, train for strength. Fat loss? Get stronger.  Girls, you won’t get toned waving two kilo dumbbells around and spending all day doing cardio, and fellas even if your sole aim is to get massive, shifting some heavy weights to stimulate functional hypertrophy is better than being big, slow, and weak.

Lesson number two is: Write down your goals, be clear, and use the ‘SMART’ method of goal setting.  Then the process of figuring out what you should be doing becomes much easier.


Mistake Number 3: Not Having a Structured Plan

This is one of the most obvious faults that can be observed in a gym, where the concern is on the short-term effects of the workout rather than the long-term adaptations of training. The typical college student might know he wants to get big and strong, so he’ll invariably start with a few sets of the bench press, then look around for the next thing that might catch his fancy. This usually ends up in doing a little bit of everything, and hopefully leaving with a pump and feeling good. Again it comes back to your goals. If your goal is to just get some endorphins flowing and feeling mentally refreshed, fair enough, but if you intend on making real gains, training without a program or a plan is not terribly effective.

This is where the Progressive Overload comes in, the most important law in strength training.  Progressive overload means that over time, you are challenging the body by doing more, either in the form of volume, load, intensity of training, or density of work.  Having a plan will keep you on the right track towards achieving your goals, it will motivate you to go to the gym to tick off your planned session, and it will save you tons of time and brain energy in knowing exactly what you are going to do from the moment you enter the gym to the moment you leave.

Of course sometimes it’s a good idea to go to the gym and do what you enjoy in an unstructured fashion, maybe to practice new movements or variations and have fun. But this is the exception to the rule.

Lesson number three is: Acquire the services of a competent coach who will help you develop a programme that is right for you.  There are also tons of fantastic free resources online that can help you build your own programme. At the very least, find someone who can lead you through all the rubbish flying around the webosphere to some useful websites.

Mistake Number 4: Crappy Technique

Free weights are generally more effective than fixed machine weights, but carried out with poor form it can also be the quickest way to breaking your own body.  Not only is it ineffective, promoting poor posture, and hurting your body, it is often excruciatingly painful to watch by those who must endure the sight of it.  As a general rule of thumb, if it looks like crap it usually is crap. The rounded-back deadlift, the bench press-come-hip raise, the hyperextended-spine shoulder press, and the heels-up-in-the-air squat are common examples of good movements executed poorly.  You might get away with these initially, but over time you are guaranteed an injury so don’t take the chance.

The concept of technical failure is an important one when progressively overloading the body in strength training.  When you deviate from perfect form during a set after increasing the load or repetitions of a particular movement, this is technical failure, signalling the end of that set. Any sloppy reps after this point do not count, so rest and adjust the load for the next set if needs be.


Lesson number four is: Practice perfect technique in all the basic movement patterns including a squat, hip hinge, push-up, row, lunge, and make sure to brace the trunk and glutes during these movements.  Make sure you are always in a good position and strive for full range of motion.  If you have mobility or stability restrictions that restrict your range of motion, address these as a priority. Again, the use of a coach or friend who can check out your form is always a good idea.


Mistake Number 5: Bringing your Giant Ego into the gym

Forgetting to leave your Giant Ego at the door is usually the catalyst for lifting beyond ones means of technical failure. And eventually, it will be to blame when you load up a bar too heavy and damage yourself.  If you max out on load every time you lift weights, your body will find it increasingly difficult to adapt and recover and you won’t get stronger.

The Giant Ego infiltrates your gym training in other way as well as tempting you to go too heavy. There are the fellas wearing skimpy tank tops who spend longer fawning over themselves in the mirror than actual training.  Or those who forget that there are two little legs underneath that nurtured upper body crying out for some much needed stimulus. The Bicep Brigade. The

Lesson number 5: Overcome the obstacles of the ego, don’t allow yourself to lift with bad form just so you can go heavier or do more reps. More importantly, don’t be a know-it-all who balks at the thought of taking advice on board from someone who has knowledge and experience to share.

Getting the basics right is essential for beginner and experienced trainers alike who use the gym to feel, look, and perform their best.  So take a step back, assess your training, and if you identify with any of the five common mistakes above, take the lessons on board to banish them for good and to guarantee greater success in the gym.

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Cairbre, I play GAA and I was just wondering what you recommend to help expedite body recovery. Legs are feeling heavy and tired after a tough session yesterday but I want to be at my best for a match tomorrow?


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