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Avoid the Top Mistakes in the Gym

Making time to exercise is an important step toward improving your health. Learning how to avoid common workout mistakes is also important.

“Workouts can be challenging, and mistakes in the gym are common,” says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “These mistakes can cause mild strains or significant injuries, but by improving your routine, you’ll work out safer and have better results from your efforts.”

Not progressing wisely—exercising too much, too hard, or too often instead of gradually working out longer and harder—is a common mistake made by many fitness enthusiasts. But it’s not the only one.

Here are common exercise mistakes and suggestions for how to avoid them:

The all-or-nothing approach

It’s a mistake to skip your workout just because you don’t have your usual 45 minutes to an hour to exercise.

“The fact is, any amount of exercise is better than nothing,” says Bryant. “Research shows even 10 minutes of brisk walking, for example, can provide important health benefits.”

So, even if you only have time to walk around the block or to and from your car in the parking lot, take the time to take a break.

Unbalanced strength-training programs

Most people tend to focus on certain muscles, such as the abdominals or biceps, because they have a greater impact on appearance or it’s where they feel strongest. But to achieve a strong, balanced body, you have to train all the major muscle groups.

Your workouts should include exercise to boost not only cardiovascular fitness or muscle strength, but also flexibility.

Stop exercising if you have severe pain or swelling. Talk to your health care provider if the pain or discomfort doesn't ease.

Bad form

The surest way to get injured in a gym is to use bad form. Allowing the knee to extend beyond the toes during a lunge or squat, for example, can put too much stress on the knee.

Related to bad form is poor choice in shoes. Buy shoes that are designed for your particular workout and your foot.

Not enough variety

Too many people find a routine or physical activity they like, then never change. But not changing workouts can lead to boredom and plateaus or, worse, injury or burnout.

Try not to do exactly the same workout two days in a row. Change-up your activities by walking one day and swimming the next, for instance. Varying your workouts exercises different sets of muscles.

“Repetitive stress injuries are common in people who do the same weight or running routine day after day because they’re using the same tendons and muscles,” Bryant says. “But people who cross-train or have several workouts to choose from on a given day achieve more well-rounded levels of fitness with fewer injuries.”

Not adjusting machines

Most exercise equipment is designed to accommodate a wide range of body types and sizes. But it’s up to you to adjust each machine to your body’s unique needs. Using improperly adjusted machines will lead to less-than-optimal results and increase your risk for injury. Also check the equipment to make sure it is properly maintained.

Dividing your focus

“Reading or watching TV can adversely affect the quality of your workout because the distraction can literally slow you down or cause a misstep,” Bryant says. “However, listening to up-tempo music is an exception because it tends to keep your intensity higher than it would be if you weren’t listening to it.”

Not warming up or cooling down

Warm up for about 15 minutes before beginning your workout. If you run, for example, start out with a slow, gentle jog to gradually increase your heart rate and warm your muscles. Warming up helps prevent injuries and muscle soreness.

After your workout, take a few minutes to do lower-intensity exercise to lower your heart rate. Follow that up with stretching to improve flexibility.

Not setting realistic goals

Unrealistic and vaguely stated goals are among the leading causes of exercise dropout, but this can be avoided.

“Establish a training goal that’s specific and appropriate for your fitness and skill levels—something a bit challenging but not overly difficult,” Bryant says. “Checking in every so often with a trainer or an exercise physiologist can help you set attainable goals regarding weight loss or strength training that you can work toward and achieve safely.”

Follow the 10 percent rule. When you are ready to boost your workout to the next level, do so by no more than 10 percent a week. If you walk a mile, for instance, add no more than a tenth of a mile a week. If you are lifting weights, add a maximum of 10 percent per week.