Don't let exercise errors stand in your way
By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
Are you exercising regularly, yet not seeing the results you want? Or getting sidelined by pulled muscles and other injuries? Feeling tempted to drop out because you're so bored?
Don't give up your fitness program just yet. Maybe the problem isn't the exercise itself but the way you're exercising.
Exercisers (especially beginning exercisers) often make mistakes that keep them from getting the most from their workouts. Fitness experts spoke to WebMD about 20 of the most common exercise mistakes, and how you can keep them from derailing your fitness program.
1. Doing the "gym slouch." "We see many people in the gym leaning on equipment," says Debi Pillarella, MEd, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. "We call it 'gym slouch': They're on the Stairmaster, [elliptical cross trainer], or treadmill, leaning over, and hanging on for dear life."
When your back is rounded, your spine doesn't get enough support. So stand erect when you're working out on one of these machines.
2. Getting a grip. Holding on too tightly to the cardio equipment lets you "cheat" and contributes to slouching. It also keeps you from moving your arms -- which can boost your heart rate and burn extra calories. If loosening your grip makes you feel insecure, try this technique Pillarella teaches at Community Hospital Fitness Pointe in Munster, Ind. "Instead of gripping, just rest your fingers, from your index finger to the pinkie, on the bars. As you get more comfortable, drop a finger. Eventually, you may have just the index fingers resting there for security."
3. Catching up on your reading. If you're doing lots of reading on the elliptical machine, you're probably not getting a good workout, says Julie Isphording, host of the radio shows Fitness Information Talk and On Your Feet.
"If you must read, stop about every three minutes and do a four-minute focus interval," she says. During this interval, "concentrate on picking up the pace, dropping your shoulders, breathing, and using your arms."
4. Walking with weights. Carrying hand weights when you walk might seem like a good way to add strength training to your cardio workout, but it compromises your stride. "You lean forward, and it stresses the quads, ankles, and shins, and can cause stress fractures," Isphording says. "Keep your cardio and strength training separate."
5. Thinking cardio is enough. Many people think they need only a cardiovascular exercise program. "We begin losing muscle at age 30," says Isphording. "Strength training builds muscles, which increases metabolism and burns more calories."
6. Rushing your reps. Doing weight-lifting repetitions too fast raises your blood pressure and increases your risk for joint injury. It also compromises your results.
"The safest way to use strength machines or dumbbells is: in lifting phase, exhale for two counts and hold briefly at the top of the contraction, then return as you inhale for four counts," says Pillarella. "Always exhale during the hardest part of the work."
7. Giving your abs a free ride. Many people do crunches or abdominal machine workouts without ever toning their abdomens. The problem is that they're using the upper torso, neck, and head to do the work.
"Do mindful exercise," says Pillarella. "The contraction should be from the ribcage to the hip bone. Put your mind into the muscles that are working, and keep all the other muscles quiet."
8. Doing lackluster lat pull-downs. On this machine, you're seated with a bar overhead. Some people stick their heads forward and pull the bar down behind their heads. But doing it this way could injure your spine or neck -- and your back won't get that coveted "V" look.
Instead, "pull the bar down in front of your shoulders and chest, and put your mind into muscle contractions in your back," says Pillarella.
9. Using maladjusted machines. Weight machines are made for people of all shapes and sizes. You must adjust them to fit if you want to get results and avoid injury.
For example, using an improperly set leg-extension machine puts stress on your knees, says Mark Kasper, EdD, a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine. "Another problem with improperly adjusted machines is that you don't work your muscles through the full range of motion," he says.
Have a qualified trainer show you the proper settings for your physique, and write them down on a card that you carry to the gym.
10. Stretching cold muscles. Stretching before your workout puts you at risk for pulled or torn muscles. "Always stretch at the end of your workout," says Pillarella.
11. Bouncing. Bouncing during a stretch can increase your risk of straining or pulling muscles, Pillarella says. Instead, "hold a static stretch with no movement at the joints. Your body should feel lengthened but not to the point of pain."
12. Forgetting about fun. "If you're bored with your routine, and your treadmill has faced the washer since 1980, how much fun is that?" says Isphording, "I'd never want to do your workout, either. ? And why do we call it a workout? It should be a playout."
Exercise with your friends or family, just as you go to movies or dinner with people. "Unless we reframe it in our minds, it will never be fun," Isphording says.
13. Doing outdated exercises. Still doing the exercises you learned in high school, like windmills and leg lifts? Some of these oldies are a waste of time; others can cause injury. Take an exercise class or work with a personal trainer to freshen your routine.
14. Getting stuck in a rut. What's wrong with doing the same exercise routine, day in and day out? "You're working the same muscles, going at the same speed, and once you get in shape you no longer breathe heavily," says Isphording. "The muscles become very efficient. They expend less energy, and you burn fewer calories."
Find different types of exercise that you enjoy, and make it a point to vary what you do.
15. Seeking a quick fix. Many people expect dramatic results from a little exercise. "Current recommendations are for 3 1/2 to four hours of physical activity a week just to prevent weight regain," says Kasper, who is a professor in the department of kinesiology at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga. "If you want to lose weight and you're walking 30 minutes, three times a week, without changing your diet, it will take roughly one month to lose a pound."
Want to lose faster? Exercise more.
16. Being a weekend warrior. "If you're only exercising two days a week, you'll never get where you want to be, and you'll feel awful every Monday," says Isphording. "It leads to injury and burnout, and you're missing the secret to success: showing up."
17. Taking on too much at first. "Whether on a treadmill at home or working out at an exercise facility, people tend to do too much too soon," says Kasper. "They put themselves at risk for an orthopaedic injury."
He advises working with a qualified trainer who will do a screening, teach proper techniques, and set up an appropriate fitness program.
Sins of Omission
18. Skipping the warm-up. "Without a warmup, you're asking your body to work before the oxygen and blood flow reach the muscles," says Pillarella. "You increase the risk for injury, and with cardiovascular exercise, you raise the heart rate too fast. Before you exercise in earnest, spend 5-10 minutes going through the motions of your workout at an easy pace to raise your body temperature from the inside out."
If you don't warm up before lifting weights, meanwhile, you risk torn muscles and won't be able to lift as much weight, says Isphording. Get your blood flowing by spending a few minutes on the treadmill or exercise bike, or even walking in place.
19. Forgoing the cool-down. Don't come to sudden stop at the end of your workout. "If you don't cool down, you risk muscle soreness because you haven't flushed the lactic acid out of your system," says Isphording. "It takes five to 10 minutes at a slower pace, depending on your fitness level, to let your heart rate come down."
20. Skimping on water. Muscles need fluid to contract properly, so if you don't drink enough, you can get muscle spasms or aches.
"If you're thirsty, you're already a percent dehydrated," says Pillarella. "Drink water before, during, and after exercise."
And, Pillarella says, "unless you're a high-intensity athlete who's depleting electrolytes and potassium, you don't need Gatorade. Water is the preferred drink."
Originally published Oct. 13, 2004.
Medically updated Oct. 7, 2005.
SOURCES: Julie Isphording, host, Fitness Information Talk and On Your Feet. Mark Kasper, EdD, spokesman, American College of Sports Medicine; professor, department of kinesiology, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, Ga. Debi Pillarella, MEd, spokeswoman, American Council on Exercise; program manager, Community Hospital Fitness Pointe, Munster, Ind.
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