Six Things Holding You Back at the Gym

Also entitled, the 20% things that prevent 80% of your results.

This is the short-form version of the things I see on a regular basis that explain why people tell me they don’t have time to exercise.

1) Long Slow Distance Cardio (LSD)

If you’re an endurance athlete, this makes sense, you need to put in a certain amount of mileage to perform well, but not at the sake of ignoring other good training tactics like weight/strength training and technique training. Simply getting your distance in, is not the answer to improving performance, yet so many endurance athletes make this mistake. You also need technique work, mental training, mobility training and speed work.

If you’re not an high-level endurance athlete, then I recommend high-intensity interval training (HITT) over LSD any day. You can get similar health benefits, cardiovascular improvements and weight loss in 1/3 the total time spent. You’ll also do much less actual work (just at a higher intensity) during that time, because you get to rest in between. You’ll also take your body outside of it’s comfort zone, simulating more adaptation down the road.

**Note: If you are new to training, work your way up to HITT with the typical walk/run work approach. It works on any piece of cardiovascular equipment and is actually a type of interval training anyway. Get your mechanics/technique checked too. I highly recommend an interval protocol (you can use a piece of gym equipment if you must, I’d go with the rower, bike or incline treadmill if you must) of 15 seconds hard, 45 seconds easy to start before you work your way up to anything else. By week 8-12, you should be able to up the intensity quite a bit.

2) Lack of Focus 

Often I see this as socializing too much, other times it’s just trying to do too much at once. The social aspect is not necessarily a bad thing, because at the gym it can be a powerful incentive to keep going. However, still aim to get in and get out. Beginners and Novices focus on one thing: Getting a good full-body workout in. This can focus on either Energy System Development (lay man would call it Cardio) or Neuromuscular System Development (lay men would call it resistance training or weight training) and seriously, keep it that simple.

I’m not saying ignore the staff and other regulars, be friendly still just bring some focus to the gym with you and aim for a focused training partner.

Bring a couple of friends, that have a similar mind-set, so you get stuff done while still having fun. 2 hour gym marathons are not as productive as you think, in fact most are a waste of time but are the typical perception if non-meathead gym types — you don’t have to hang out by the bench press for 2 hours to get results at the gym. You cannot out-run your diet by doing more and 2 hours at the gym is not better than 1 focused hour. You should be able to get most of what you need to do in about an hour.

This is a productivity tool for the gym, give yourself an objective and a deadline. Ideally have a plan written out and a realistic time limit to complete it in.

3) Doing Single Sets

I still see this every day, even though magazine’s have been talking about the benefits of paired sets, super-sets, tri-sets and giant sets for years now. Usually when the magazines get a hold of a trend you see it take root at the gym, but I’m not so sure this one has yet, for some odd reason.

I think it may have something to do with the typical commercial gym set-up that makes alternating between exercises difficult — easily fixed by picking a boutique gym or health club in your home town — but I can’t completely tell. Pair up your lifts already. Get 2 friends and hog up 2 pieces of equipment for 10 minutes then move on. If everyone did it, equipment would be easier to come by too.

Long rest periods between lifts consumes a lot of time you’ll want back. As long as paired-sets do not utilize the same muscles you can pair them together and reduce the time you spend in the gym by at least 33% and in some cases more like 50%.

They’ve also been shown in a few studies now, to illicit the same strength/hypertrophy gains as single sets so there is literally next to no downside. Squats and Pulls, Deadlifts and Presses, Lunges and Pallof Presses, etc…etc… Unless you’re a power-lifter or Olympic lifter and your job requires you to be at the gym, then get in and get out by using paired-sets.

4) Doing Random Stuff at Random Times During the Workout

I watch people go from bicep curls, to squats, to bench press, to triceps push-downs then lunges, and then lat-pulldowns? Literally the other day at the gym, a guy came in, did a single set of 8-10 with 115 lbs on the Bench, walked away for 15-20 minutes, in which time I watched him do some leg extensions, some tri-cep kickbacks, some overhead tri-cep extensions, some rows, two or three difficult varieties of bi-cep curls, lat pull-downs, hamstring curls and probably something else. All of these appeared to be single sets, but then he came back to the bench — which I now occupied and was pairing with deadlifts — and asked if he could work in, he did one set, and left?

This makes no physiological sense, and can only be explained as, ‘he didn’t have a freakin’ clue what he was doing.’ Poor guy really…

It’s really not that hard to organize a decent workout with a few simple strategies.

  1. Use a simple continuum for training: The most technical stuff is always done at the beginning (Read – Don’t jog for 30 minutes and expect to have an awesome strength leg workout after that) to least technical.
  2. Heaviest weights to lightest weight (finish with body-weight stuff — or highest intensity low rep stuff progresses to lowest intensity high rep stuff). 
  3. Most complicated lifts to least complicated (Olympic Lifting before Bench Press before forearm exercises)
  4. Free weight exercises before any machine exercises (IF you do any machine work, which I’m mostly against personally….)
  5. Multi-joint compound exercises to single joint exercises. Biggest lifts before smallest lifts (Bench, Chin-Ups always come before bicep curls or triceps)
  6. Typically speed stuff first, then power, then strength (1-6 reps), they hypertrophy (6-12 reps), then muscular endurance (12+ reps), then energy system development (when you’re already tired).

Energy System Development has a little more flexibility but unless you’re a high performance athlete, I would still keep it to the fastest intervals first (0-20 seconds in duration) to glycolytic (20-60 seconds) to more aerobic (60 sec+). As opposed to getting into ‘Fartlek styled,’ random energy system training, which is a topic for another post, and far more specific to endurance training athletes than the general weight-loss population.

**Note: These are guidelines not rules, more advanced trainees can break them more frequently to force adaptation. If you know little about training though, these are the best guidelines to start with.

5) Not Having Some Kind of Plan

This is a buzz kill for many, but I see 50 people doing this when I step into a typical commercial gym. They have no idea what to do, so they just try to do what they see the person next to them doing. Failing to plan is planning to fail, according to Winston Churchill. Learn how to workout and having a plan becomes much easier.

I’m a trainer, a skill I’ve developed over the years is programming, I can throw together a training program in a matter of minutes, most people can’t. I’m like the robot that can put it’s arm back on.

If you can’t, I highly recommend you hire someone to do it for you or if you’ve mastered the basics, buy an existing program from a reputable trainer (Read: Not the shake-weight, Brazilian butt-lift program, or anything else you’ve seen in infomercial format or on late night TV).

You wouldn’t pull your own teeth out right? You’d probably go to a dentist because they have the equipment and skills necessary to complete that task effectively. Not having a plan, is like trying to pull your own teeth.

Here are some decent run of the mill programs that’ll set you back $25 and help you get a heck of a lot more out of your $60 a month gym membership. They may not be as good as an individualized program or even a modular program but it might be a good starting point for some especially intermediate and above lifters:

  1. The New Rules of Lifting For Women – By Lou Schuler, Alwyn Cosgrove and Cassandra Forsythe
  2. The New Rules of Lifting – By Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove
  3. Maximum Strength – By Eric Cressey
  4. Starting Strength – By Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore
  5. Built For Show – By Nate Green
  6. Huge in a Hurry – By Chad Waterbury
  7. Scrawny to Brawny – By John Berardi and Mike Mejia

6) Bad Technique

This is a huge problem at most gyms. I’m almost tempted to put this first on the list. Racing through anything, and ignoring your technique is going to yield a problem eventually. It’s typically only a matter of time.

ALWAYS, Always, always, think Quality Over Quantity.

I worry about people bouncing weights off their chests, getting their low backs into those bicep curls, rounding their backs when they deadlift and other decidedly basic technique cues, that people still want to argue about or completely ignore. Not only will injury keep you out of the game and take you away from the gym completely, it was most-likely completely preventable in the first place.

I’ve seen some pretty nasty things results from bad technique, improper spotting, and host of other basic safety cues to consider at the gym. If you don’t know, most gyms can and should be willing to show you the ropes for an hour with basic safety considerations and some basic lifting cues.

There is a continuum of learning, you need to master moves at slower speeds before increasing the speed. It is a basic learning patten of life, you crawl before you walk and you walk before you run. That’s just how your body learns best. Please take the time to build your foundation before getting to more advanced speeds.

You’re not getting a whole lot out of things, not done well, anyway. You don’t have to be perfect, but aim to be optimal.

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