8 mistakes beginners make in the gym

As I run on the treadmill in the gym, I have a good view of people working out on the machines. Watching them helps break down the monotony of the treadmill. I can’t help noticing the same mistakes being made by many people. I assume they are beginners as no serious weight lifter would or should be doing those mistakes. So I thought I’ll note down those mistakes here. Yes, there are loads of articles like this, but none so far on this blog. So without further ado, 8 mistakes beginners make in the gym.

1. Wrong clothes and shoes

This should be obvious but I’ve seen people working out in jeans, shirts, formal shoes and even heels.
Wear what feels comfortable to work out in, but does a shirt provide more freedom of movement than a t-shirt?
Worth mentioning at the other end of the spectrum, people who work out constantly wearing a weightlifting belt. Not good as this makes the core muscles weaker.

2. Wrong posture

I see this all the time, mostly with older people. They sit at the lat pulldown machine, grab the bar and just pull down, hunched over it. Or the sit at the bench press machine, and push out, all hunched over. There are so many things wrong with this.

Poor posture = higher risk of injury, especially if you’re older.
If you do a lat pulldown or chest press and don’t push out your chest, you’re not engaging your chest or back adequately in the exercise. Your shoulders and arms end up doing most of the work.

I also see many just pulling and pushing with the arms, not even trying to make an effort to use the target muscle group. This is particularly visible with the back exercises – you can see them pulling with their arms, elbow sticking well out.
On top of all this, they end up doing half the limited range of motion, So with a lat pulldown, this becomes a wide grip hammer curl with half reps, if you see what I mean. The bar never approaches the chest, not only because they’re all hunched up and pulling with their arms, but they just stop above their heads.
Some of these people even have personal trainers watching over them! It’s not surprising as I’ve seen personal trainers working out in their own time with poor back posture.

How to do it right

Instead of just criticising, let me describe the correct way of performing these exercises at the machine.
First, adjust the machine to the correct height. The pivot of the machine should align with the pivot in the body, so for a biceps curl, it will be the elbow. Otherwise the body is put in a very awkward position to work the muscle and at risk of injury when going heavy.
For a lat pulldown, the vertical plane of motion should align with the shoulder joints, i.e. don’t pull down in front and towards your lap but rather down and towards the top of the chest.
For the machine chest press, the hands should be in line with the nipples, making the handles of the machine also in line with the nipples. This would be where the bar would naturally be if you were to do a bench press with a barbell.
After taking position, grabbing the bar and pulling down to the seat in the case of the lat pulldown, curve your back, push your chest forward, roll your shoulders back and squeeze all the muscles there throughout the set so your torso stays rigid.
Next, forget you have arms, especially for the back exercises. Imagine your forearms are gone and you only have upper arms ending in hooks which are around the bar. So you can only pull your upper arms back by pulling on the hooks. The hooks are of course your hands. While pulling back, imagine your back muscles doing all the work. This step is very important to engage the back muscles as you cannot see them during the exercise.
Pull your upper arms back until the bar touches the top of your chest. Remember, your chest is jutting forward and you’re pulling the bar forward as well, so it is inevitable that the bar will hit your chest eventually. Once it does, hold this position for a second and squeeze hard with your back muscles, imagining an apple between your shoulder blades that you’re trying to squeeze at every rep. Release and let the bar go up under control.
It’s much easier to engage your pectoral muscles at the machine press as they’re right under your eyes. Just make sure to adopt a grip that’s not too wide or your shoulders will do most of the work, or a grip too narrow that will tire your triceps first. Don’t lock out at the top, don’t let the weight rest on the stack at the bottom.
With flyes, keep your elbows slightly bend at the same angle throughout.

3. Too little weight

Not only do people just go through the motion with a poor position and limited range of motion but they don’t even use heavy or moderate weight. Perhaps under these circumstances, it is actually a very positive point as they could injure themselves otherwise. But assuming they are in the correct position, too light a weight won’t provide them with any benefit.

Women in particular are afraid to go heavy. I saw a woman once grabbing a 6 kg dumbbell and proceeding to do a 1-arm row, curls, shoulder presses and what else. The dumbbell was clearly too light for the row and she didn’t break out a sweat throughout. What a waste of time.

4. Too much weight

You’ll see this one more in the free weight area though quite rarely with complete beginners. I’ve yet to see a woman go too heavy though!

5. Too little passion

If you go through the motion as described above, doing a lat pulldown by pulling with your arms, all hunched up and with half the range of motion, using too little weight, there’s no passion in it. You’re not putting your heart and energy in your training.
You won’t see much progress but more than this, if you’re not interested, if you have no passion for it, you will see the gym as a chore and you won’t last long there. That’s why there are so many people joining the gym at the start of the year, they don’t do it because they are passionate about training and they therefore don’t last and a few weeks later, the gym is back to its usual level of activity.
You can’t do anything about your passion, or lack of. Either you like going to the gym and training hard or you don’t. You don’t go to the gym because it’s the trendy thing to do. It’s like me trying to muster a passion for ballet dancing because everyone is doing it. I’m not going to last long.

6. Too much rest

Pull half reps at light weight, then spend the next 5 minutes resting… From what exactly? People are meant to sweat and feel exhausted in the gym.

7. Too much phone

Here we go again, half reps at light weights, then 5 minutes resting and another 5 on the phone.
The best way to keep busy while resting is to think about what exercise to do next, how to do it, what weight will be used, how much weight was used last time and how many reps will be attempted. I visualize myself doing the exercise, adopting the position and if I’ve done all this and still need to rest some more, I do some stretching.

8. Too many machines

Funny how all these newbies stay in the machines area and rarely venture into the free weights area. I wish I could tell them it should be the other way round – spend most of your time in the free weights area and only use machines occasionally. Here’s why.
But I completely understand why they don’t venture in the free weights area. Some are intimidated by the big guys there, others think it’s for advanced lifters or that they’re not ready for it yet. Finally some simply don’t know how to do exercises with a bar or dumbbell. With a machine, it’s fairly simple, sit and pull or push, even if you don’t pull or push the right way.

Bonus: hogging the machine

This is not a training mistake, nor is it restricted to beginners only. It’s my pet hate. And I’m not shy to come and ask to use the machine if I see someone spending most of the time just sitting and warming the seat. I’ve had time to start an exercise, do multiple sets while the person on the machine nearby had completed only one set.
Too much rest, too much phone, too little weight, too much hogging the machine. Remember, it’s a club, there are other users too.

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