For Everybody Who Trying to Get Healthy: 5 Common Mistakes You’re Making at the Gym

Going Overboard on Cardio Machines

By ALEXANDRA SIFFERLIN

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Getting regular aerobic exercise does wonders for your health, decreasing the risk of obesity and diabetes, strengthening the cardiovascular system and perhaps even staving off Alzheimer’s disease. The problem is that many people aren’t getting the maximum benefit from their cardio workouts because they’re either using the machines wrong or failing to pace their exercise correctly.

If you’re using an elliptical machine, for instance, don’t set the resistance so high that you can’t work out comfortably without leaning on the machine for support. “Hunching over or using a death grip on the machine handrail because your incline or resistance is too high for you cheats your body and can throw off your alignment, jarring your spine, shoulders and elbows,” says Scott Danberg, the director of fitness at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami.

He suggests challenging yourself enough that it’s a tough workout but not so much that you can’t use a natural gait with a light grip while you’re on the machine; this goes for any cardio machine. For a harder workout on the elliptical, Danberg says you can hold on lightly with one hand and move the other arm, switching arms periodically. “Save the reading for after your workout so you can focus on good form,” he says.

(MORE: Prescription for Type 2 Diabetes: Cardio Plus Weights)

If you’re staying on cardio machines for too long, that may mean you’re not working hard enough. “Decreasing time and increasing resistance can shave off half of your cardio routine,” says Sara Haley, a Global Reebok master trainer and independent fitness consultant.

Also, try mixing up your routine. If you’re a die-hard treadmill jogger, Haley recommends adding high-intensity machines like the rower or the Jacob’s Ladder to your routine; these machines make cardio more efficient by working more muscle groups and burning more calories.

“Employing different planes of motion with lateral trainers like the Ultraslide and the Helix also prevent people from working the same muscles over and over,” says Haley. Diversifying your workout will ensure you give all your muscles some love.

Incorrect Weight-Lifting: Too Heavy, Too Light or Too Fast

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Many make judgment errors when lifting weights. Men are more likely to lift weights that are too heavy for them, while women tend to be fearful of bulking up and go for weights that are too light. But a recent study found you don’t need heavy weights to gain muscle — lighter weights can be just as effective if used correctly.

Danberg recommends choosing a weight that you can lift 30 times to start but afterward can lift only 15 times more. “You want to get to your repetition goal but be able to put down the weight and think, What’s next? You don’t want to feel exhausted to the point of ‘Oh, God, what did I do?’ ” says Danberg. “This will keep you injury free, but you will still feel the burn.”

When it comes down to it, it’s all about maintaining correct form to get the most out of resistance training. “When you have incorrect form, chances are you are going to jeopardize your balance. You work your body harder than it actually has to work,” says Danberg.

Maintaining good form while lifting will also improve your overall posture. “Generally, people who don’t have good posture have tight or weak muscles,” says Danberg. “If you do not think about your form while you are lifting, you are training poor posture.”

Quick tips for correct form: keep a strong upper back, with your chin and chest up, and tighten your core.

There’s nothing wrong with taking it slow, says Haley. A lot of exercises become more challenging when they’re slowed down. “Try lowering your arms slower when doing a bicep curl,” she says. “Using your full range of motion is sometimes harder because you need to use all your muscles to do it all the way.”

Failing to Focus on Your Core

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“When people are not paying attention to their core at the gym, you can see it,” says Danberg. “They stand there as if they are at their kitchen counter.”

Both Danberg and Haley say the body’s core is the basis of all human movement, so strengthening it improves all other physical activities. “Many exercisers only place a focus on contracting the abdominal muscles when doing specific ab exercises such as sit-ups or when using an ab machine. While this is good, contracting this area during exercise movements such as bench presses, back row and leg presses will allow better stability during the movement and less risk of injury,” says Danberg.

The core refers not only to your abdominal muscles but to the entire area from your chest down to your hips. Strengthening the core means focusing on your legs and upper, middle and lower back too.

Danberg tells his clients to always work out in “sport-ready position”: standing in a posture you could quickly move from if, say, someone threw a ball your way. “Slightly bend your knees and hold in your abs. Your posture will immediately improve, and you will feel your whole body working,” he says.

Ignoring Unseen Muscle Groups

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People go to great lengths to achieve bulging biceps or well-defined abs, but they often forget about smaller or less visible muscle groups — like those around the joints.

“We tend to only target our biggest muscles, which is important because we need those to move. But we also need to focus on our stabilizing muscles, those smaller muscles around the hips and shoulders,” says Danberg. “By working those, form improves, and you can actually do more during your workout.”

Haley advises people to pay attention to invisible inner muscles — namely those that help control the flow of urine. Kegel exercises — contracting and relaxing the muscles on the pelvic floor — work these deep muscles and should be a part of both men’s and women’s workout regimes, she says.

“These muscles are known to help women have an easier childbirth, are believed to help in sexual function for men and to help combat incontinence in both genders,” says Haley.

Doing Too Much Too Quickly

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If you’re new to the gym or rarely exercise, always start slow. “Do something little every day,” Haley suggests. “Some of us go to the gym and think we need a full hour, and people get scared. The reality is, just half an hour for most days of the week is fine.”

Those 30 minutes can be broken up too. Haley recommends trying to get 10 minutes of exercise at three different times during the day. “Maybe I run 15 minutes in the morning, and after work I can get in my sit-ups and push-ups,” she says. “That goes for those of us who love to work out too. I am happier doing a little something every day than doing nothing at all for two days.”

(MORE: How Exercise Can Change Your DNA)

Also, whenever you attempt new moves or exercises, tread lightly. New movements require new muscular and neurological coordination. “These demands often recruit more muscular activity to perform the movement and additional demands for balance and agility,” says Danberg. “A weak elbow, wrist, shoulder or knee may fail if too much new physiological stress is applied too soon.”

This is especially true when it comes to exercises involving physioballs, medicine balls or plyometric movements — like jumping or throwing — since they require good balance and coordination to avoid injury.

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