So, your New Year’s resolution was to spend a lot more time in the gym, and surprise, surprise: It’s almost fall, and once again, your workout routine is basically nonexistent. For many of us, a gym membership is the easiest and quickest way to reach a fitness goal … until we realize that the gym can actually be a pretty intimidating place when you’re not completely sure of how to use the machines.
Am I running on the treadmill long enough? Should the dumbbells I’m using be bigger? And how much weight is too much weight on leg press? The margin for mistakes is long and wide when you’re constantly asking yourself these questions. So in an effort to correct your most common gym mistakes, we linked up with an expert—Thumbtack trainer Kaitlyn Noble—to finally do it right.
Not Properly Hydrating
When you’ve just run miles on a treadmill or put in work with free weights, nothing feels better than a huge chug of water. Unfortunately, your body is not meant to digest huge amounts of water (or food) at one time. In fact, it may even make you feel sick during your workout.
“Instead, sip throughout your day (and workout),” says Noble. “Once you’re thirsty, your body is actually already dehydrated, meaning poor muscle performance and a decreased metabolism. Try to get 20 ounces in during the hour after you wake up.”
Doing Just One Type of Cardio
It can be easy to get your heart pumping on just one machine, but Noble actually advises against this. Plus, it can get boring and have a negative effect on your motivation to get moving in the first place. Instead, try different forms of moving, like the elliptical, biking, or rowing to keep your muscles and mind engaged. Additionally, add intervals to your training for a more challenging workout.
“On the treadmill, hills can add a lot of challenge and on the elliptical, adding resistance can up your game. For 30 seconds to a few minutes at a time, work at a much harder intensity, then bring it back to an easier setting for as short as possible to recover,” says Noble. Also, old or unsupportive shoes can lead to ankle or knee injury, numb feet, or poor performance, so be sure to invest in your footwear. And lastly, it’s important to work in a proper heart rate range for your body type and goals, so utilize a doctor or trainer to establish an appropriate range for yours.
Going Overboard with the Weight Machines
While challenging yourself on the weight machines is recommended, you simply shouldn’t go overboard and risk pulling your muscles. For instance, when using the leg machines, “you should be able to focus on the muscles in your legs, and if the work immediately comes from your low back, it’s a sign that you need to start lower,” says Noble.
Remember that you should always be adjusting the size of the machine to fit your body, especially if you’re hopping on right after someone who doesn’t share your body type. “Your spine needs to stay in neutral (not tucked or arched) during the entire period of the legs being bent and lengthened.” And while you’re getting in your reps, remember to lengthen but not lock out your limbs.
Not Lifting Free Weights Properly
While weight machines dictate the way in which your muscles are used, there’s a little more room for movement with free weights, such as dumbbells. However, this means you need to be mindful of not limiting your resistance to just one direction. For instance, Noble says that if you’re doing a bicep curl, the way up should feel equally challenging as the way down. But like the weight machine, you also shouldn’t over- or under-exert yourself.
“If you’re doing a bicep curl, and your entire pelvis has to shift forward to manage the weight, you’ve gone too heavy. If your 5-pound weights are feeling way too light, add some pounds,” she says.
And while the weight may or may not remain the same, you shouldn’t be working in the same range of motion or pace all the time. “For instance, if you’re only doing a full-range even-paced squat, try slowing down the pacing (say, three counts down, one count up) or make the range of motion smaller (like pulsing in a 1-inch range of motion at your deepest position),” says Noble.
If necessary, book a few sessions with a certified personal trainer and learn how to hold your body in various exercises or use tutorials (from trustworthy sources like ACE). When you’re alone, always have a mirror handy while you’re learning, and never be afraid to pull aside a trainer at a gym.
Finally, one of the biggest gym faux pas is bouncing the limbs as you stretch. Stop doing this! Instead, Noble recommends finding the depth of your stretch (you should not feel pain, just a gentle stretch) and holding that position for a minimum of 30 seconds. Warm up with smaller stretches before going into deeper ones, too. Heading into a full split without getting the body warm is asking for an injury.
Also, “it can feel good to stretch a hurt body part, but you should wait until the injury is healed to stretch (unless under the supervision of a physical therapist).”
Ready to take on the gym the right way? Here’s an expert-approved workout to get you started.