Top 10 Exercise “Mistakes” and How To Fix Them

This is a list of ten common mistakes made during exercise. Quite often the exerciser and even the personal trainer or coach is unaware of these mistakes, decreasing the effectiveness of the exercise and even risking injury. This list describes each “mistake” but follows with a suggested “correction”. You may find this list helpful in grading yourself or even your personal trainer.

Ineffective warm up prior to a workout

The purpose of a warm-up is to gently prepare the body for the increased stress from the upcoming exercise session. A 5 – 10 min bout of moderate intensity cycling, treadmill walking or elliptical work or even sports specific type movements to induce a mild, sustained stretch will be sufficient. These activities have the effect of increasing blood flow to the muscles (including the heart) and increasing the core muscle temperature for improved joint flexibility and range of motion, possibly helping reduce injury.

Quite often exercisers go to the extreme when it concerns a warm up, they either do not perform one at all, or “prefatigue” by running at a high intensity for 15 -20 minutes (or more) before their session. This has the effect of draining valuable muscle carbohydrate stores (glycogen) needed for the upcoming strength training/bodybuilding exercise session.

If the goal of exercise is to lose weight, it is actually better to perform extended aerobic exercise or interval training at the end of an intense strength training session as the body will be likely to burn more fat as a fuel due to the decreased glycogen stores.

Ineffective stretching

Many individuals and personal trainers lack the knowledge to perform stretches effectively. For example, when performing a static hamstring stretch on the floor with the leg straight up in the air it is essential to press the opposite leg onto the floor to prevent excessive posterior (backward) tilting of the pelvis. Posterior tilting will decrease the effectiveness of the stretch.

When performing a dynamic stretch like a lunge to stretch the groin and thigh muscles, the spine (and pelvis) must remain erect and perpendicular to the floor otherwise the effectiveness is lost. Exercisers that stretch in the standing position while holding onto or pressing against some external source of stabilization deprive themselves of full benefit.

It may beneficial to perform dynamic stretches with good technique in unsupported standing and lunge type positions at the beginning of the session. This has the effect of simultaneously targeting balance (core stability) and flexibility while preparing the body and joints for movement during the strength training workout to follow. Static stretching may be more effective at the end of the workout session as the muscles will be warm and pliable.

Excessive use of machines

As mentioned in other articles on this website, exclusive use of exercise machines deprives the core muscles of stimulation and forces muscles to work either in isolation or in static, non functional patterns. While some machines such as leg press machines and assisted pull up/dip machines have merit; exercises that accentuate the body’s own internal stabilization mechanism (core) are excellent for increasing movement function and also allow for much more creativity and fun.

Exercise machines are good for an introduction to resistance training and for bodybuilding, but it is not advisable to use them as an exclusively. A good suggestion is to strike a balance between exercises that challenge the body’s own stability and balance (free weights, standing/lunging exercises) and traditional machine and supported exercises, which allow for greater muscle work

Poor exercise technique

Ultimately quality is the factor that matters most when exercising not necessarily quantity. It is easy to sacrifice form for function and perform many more repetitions of an exercise with poor technique than to perform the same movement with strict biomechanically correct technique. It makes sense then that correct technique is the most difficult aspect to learn and control as it is often only gained through experience and trial and error.

An inexperienced exerciser should invest in the services of an experienced and credentialed personal trainer to minimize the learning curve and get it right from the start. For example, an excellent method of assessing the quality of you or your instructor’s form in a squat is to view the back of the head in relation to the back of the heel. If the spine is straight (not curved) and the back of the head remains in line with the back of the heel (flat) throughout the entire movement, then the technique is good.

Essentially, the barbell should move in a near vertical line throughout the movement. Should the bar move forward, it places increasingly heavy loads on the spine and intevertebral discs, much like the arm of a crane. Lifting in this manner increases the likelihood of injury to the spine and the connective tissues such as discs, muscles and ligaments.

Holding the feet down and throwing the legs during abdominal exercises

An exerciser’s feet should never be held down or hooked under a bed/door when performing multiple sit ups as this will allow for a majority of the work to be performed by the hip flexor (groin) muscles. The lower abdominals are responsible for fixing the pelvis in a sit-up by pressing the low back into the floor. If the abdominals fatigue or are not strong enough to hold the low back flat and the feet are fixed, the hip flexors may cause a forward tilting of the pelvis and the development of a “hole” in the lower back.

Performing sit-ups with a forward tilted pelvis tends to strain the low back and actually stretch and weaken the abdominals instead of strengthening them. The same problems can occur while lying on the back when both legs are raised straight into the air and are thrown by a partner toward the floor. If the lower abdominals cannot fix the pelvis flat as the legs approach the floor, this type of exercise can seriously strain the lower back muscles. An alternate leg scissor action is reverse curls or hanging knee lifts are a better substitute for concentrating on the lower abdominals.

Holding onto the front or side rails of a treadmill

This is a common sight in any gym of fitness facility – a person gets on a treadmill and starts to progressively crank up the speed and incline. The incline approaches maximal and the individual is holding onto the front or side rails for dear life to avoid being thrown off the machine. The rail holding essentially cancels out the benefit of the increased intensity demands gained from the incline since the arms are literally holding the body up.

Holding the railings also negatively affects natural walking/running biomechanics – the lack of arm swing may unnecessarily strain muscles and connective tissue – especially those of the pelvis and low back. Rail holding also has the effect of reducing the core/balance training stimulus required to walk/run in the unsupported condition.

Lastly, since most people use treadmills as a means of performing aerobic exercise to lose weight why stop the arms from moving as this contributes to energy expenditure?

Ineffective exercise progression

Any exercise session should have some logical order to maximize results. Often exercisers and trainers do not place a high priority on exercise order; switching from one exercise to another with no apparent sequence. Exercise order is very important on the eventual results and should be motivated by the neuromuscular and energy system demands of the chosen exercises. For example, core exercises which require a great deal of concentration and precise form to perform effectively, should be performed when the person is “fresh”- right after a short warm-up and stretching.

Core training may be followed by power training (if appropriate) since this form of exercise also requires that the exerciser be rested and fresh to perform effectively. Multiple joint strength training (exercises like squats, lunges, bench press, shoulder press etc.) should follow power training since these exercises require large energy reserves.

A good variation here is to alternate between upper and lower body exercises or use the “pull/push” rule – that is, follow a pulling type exercise with a pushing type exercise. Since most isolation exercises such as tricep extensions, bicep curls and sit-ups have much lower energy requirements, these can be performed near the end of the session.

Trying to perform stabilization and mobilization exercise together

The core muscles stabilize the pelvis in its “neutral” position (as in standing upright with perfect posture). The muscles like the hamstrings, large back muscles and hip flexors that are attached to the pelvis are mobilizing muscles and do just what their name implies – they tilt the pelvis forward and back, side to side and rotate it to allow for bodily movement. It is very difficult to train stability and mobility in a single exercise since technically they are opposite actions.

For example, performing squats (requires movement of the pelvis) on a BOSU ball or while standing on inflatable discs or foam rollers is probably of little benefit to strengthening the core. Likewise, performing curl-ups on an exercise ball is unlikely to improve core strength as this exercise is targeting the muscles that tip the pelvis backwards.

Core exercises are best performed in static positions such as bridging and standing. It is beneficial then to concentrate on stabilizing strength and mobilizing strength separately and not together. Build a foundation of core stability and flexibility first before trying to work the arm and legs. Much more leg strength can be trained when the foot is in contact with a firm surface (like the ground) – besides this is how we operate in daily life anyway.

Faulty exercise progression

Quite often exercisers, personal trainers and even coaches fail to understand functional exercise progressions. They observe other people performing a particular exercise and decide to incorporate it in their or their client’s routine. It may be however that the person they observed performing the exercise had progressed to that point correctly in a functional and systematic manner. If an exerciser attempts to perform an exercise that they are physically unprepared for, there is increased risk of injury and performing the movement with poor technique.

The brain remembers and stores both good and bad motor and movement patterns, so the old adage JUNK IN = JUNK OUT holds true for exercise too. A good suggestion is strengthen form the “inside out” and not the “outside in” by focusing on flexibility and stability. These are the prerequisites to the successful performance of functional movements such as squats, lunges and sport specific movements.

So static stability training and stretching progresses to dynamic stability training, which then progresses to strength and finally power training. To attempt to strengthen and condition the body from the “outside in” instead of from the “inside out” will fail to give any satisfactory results. Any exercise program should look first to develop a base (core stability, cardiovascular fitness) and then progressively “build” on this base to improve performance, strength and function.

Placing blocks under the heels in a squat

Placing blocks under the heels is a common technique used by trainers and exercisers alike to compensate for tight calf muscles (soleus) or to concentrate work on the quadriceps (thigh muscles). Often exercisers see other individuals performing squats in this manner and they aim to copy them. This practice is not advisable since one is essentially “giving in” to the lack of flexibility at the ankle and failing to increase the quality of this highly functional movement.

Raising the heels also places the ankle in an unstable, plantarflexed position making it more susceptible to injury – specifically a lateral ankle sprain. In this position, the body’s center of mass shifts from the midfoot to nearer the toes, increasing the likelihood of a loss of balance and possible injury. A safer method to target either the quadriceps or the hamstrings and glutes is to control the bar placement on the back.

In the high position the bar rests on the posterior deltoids (shoulder muscles) at the base of the neck, this has the effect of targeting the quadriceps muscles. In the low position, the bar rests further down the back across the posterior deltoid at the level of the middle trapezius (top of the shoulder blades) this positioning will translate into a greater load being shifted towards the hamstring and glute muscles.

This article has aimed to highlight the common mistakes that people may make in their exercise routines. Very often just an awareness of the mistakes can often remedy the situation while other problems may take time and experience to deal with like learning correct exercise technique. It is hoped that this article served the purpose of informing the reader so as to allow him/her to get the most out of their exercise routine and allow them to make educated assessments of themselves and other exercise professionals.