Top 5 Training Mistakes

JMC and Jason Reed recently gave me an opportunity to speak on their radio program called Fresh Set. One of the topics we hit on was common training mistakes. Let's just say that my speaking skillz could use some work.

Truly legitimate disclaimer: No matter how many mistakes this training snob wants to write about, the biggest mistake is not training at all, sitting around complaining about how you look and feel and "use-ta" be way awesome.

Nonetheless, if you're awesome enough to undertake the discipline of regular exercise, get the full pay off. Try to avoid these mistakes.

1. Failing to set specific goals.

You should be specific about a few goals, both long- and short-term. Goals like "gain muscle" and "lean out" are not going to cut it. Identify and write down realistic yet challenging goals, so you see it concrete. Make sure there's a time frame. Don't try to accomplish anything too fast or set too many goals at once.

There's nothing wrong with setting a goal to complete a 5K race or half marathon if you enjoy that sort of thing. But distance running is not the measure of all things fitness. Neither is bench press THE measure of the man.

Writing out specific goals helps you choose your training wisely. For example, no reasonably fit person is going to max out their fat loss and muscle gain at the same time. If you're fairly sturdy and strong and would like to focus on your conditioning, don't also expect to put on 10 pounds of muscle.
Goals for a wiry 20 year-old may be to attain 18 body weight chin-ups and a 28" vertical jump. If those are the goals, then don't train with a body part split routine that's tailored for a 35 year-old bodybuilder who's mostly sedentary outside of the gym.

If your goal is to lose 4 pounds per month over six months and maintain that weight at 12 months, then don't train like a marathoner. I've seen people get trapped in the cycle that you simply can't win: eating less and less and jogging longer and longer distances to sustain weight loss. There are better ways to go about this.

2. Poor exercise selection.

First off, you can and should do more than just run (or walk). In this writing I proclaimed the good news that you don't have to jog!

I'm no fan of machines for strength training. Leg press and lat pull-down machines are okay at times. Chest press when you're in a hurry. But that seated torso twists machine? I've written about the ridiculous leg outtie-inny machines here.

Free weights are best; just you and some iron and gravity. Understand that a very large portion of functional strength has to do with building a strong and efficient nervous system. That simply doesn't happen when doing hard core Nautilus seated shoulder raises or Hammer Strength leg extensions.

Skipping the three sets of 8 to 12 on 10 different strength training machines should leave you plenty of time to get well acquainted with the big lifts. Squats, dead lifts, overhead presses, horizontal presses (bench, dumbbell presses, etc.), weighted dips, rowing, and weighted chin-ups. Depending on your baseline strength, stability, and mobility, it may take you 3 or 4 months to identify what variation of these lifts are best for you, and another month or two to find your groove of good form in those lifts.

ACTUAL RESULTS from doing one dead lift!
 And yes, people get hurt jumping into the best exercises like squats, dead lifts, and heavy presses when they haven't given adequate time and careful attention to the details. Be patient and move along slowly. No, really be patient.

Some of the most unglamorous advice you will read: put the time into identifying what exercise variations are best for you and perfecting form. Maybe you simply can't squat safely, but I'm pretty sure that your knees and low back will tolerate heavy single leg squats and backward lunges off a step.

Also, a lot of isolation exercises, free weights or otherwise, are rarely a good idea. This includes ab crunches. And that thing where you do a massive drop set of bicep curls, going down the rack from heavier to lighter dumbbells? You will never see a fit and strong guy doing that.

If I could pick just one exercise that's most worthy of heckling, it's tricep kickbacks. Don't let me catch you doing them unless you can press at least 193.67 pounds overhead or do eleventeen handstand push-ups.

3. Poor frequency.

What I'm referring to here is over-doing it or under-doing it on a regular basis. People seem to be gung-ho all-out or nothing. Both work against you.

Athletes push themselves hard under the weights 2 or 3 times per week, then condition for their sport twice per week on top of games and practice. That's a lot of time and painful effort for little to no benefit. Is it any wonder that performance goes down when coaches and athletes pay no respect to recovery?

On the other hand, some folks never get around to consistent exercise because they just don't have the time. If working out means packing a bag and driving to the gym and shooting the breeze and training 3 sets of 10 on 15 different resistance training machines then doing some abs and cardio then driving home; well yeah, who has time for that?

Just about anyone can warm up and then go run (or speed walk) some intervals on a hill. It takes very little time and equipment to perform variations of squats and/or deadlifts, an upper body horizontal push and pull, and an upper body vertical push and pull.

4. Too much variation.

This refers to changing things up and beginning a new training scheme every other week. While getting stale and stuck in a training rut can also be a problem, rarely do people work too hard at a good training cycle for too long. Structured variation is absolutely called for. But please understand that "never doing the same thing twice" isn't necessarily a good thing, especially for athletes.

The term muscle confusion has been used to describe variety. Varying reps, exercises, and other training variables so that you never adapt to one thing. The bad news is that you never adapt to one thing. Muscle confusion is great if you want to be perpetually sore and never find your true limits in any performance measure. I call that chasing fatigue. Why are you getting tired and (later) sore? "Confusing" your muscles is a lot easier than challenging them head on to do 2% more/faster/higher than they did 2 weeks ago.

Again, be patient. Beginning slow and easy seems to build a "training momentum" that helps you continue to roll when things really get challenging. Schedule your routine and set your goals over months and years, not days and weeks.

5. Incompatible nutrition

I'm no nutritionist, but running two miles 3 or 4 times per week is not a license to eat like a stray animal. I've wondered how adult men can play some pretty intense basketball 2 or 3 days per week and look exactly the same year to year. I'm really not one to judge others, but they are often the ones complaining about getting heavier. On the other hand, super strict dieting and other fast weight loss tricks will come back to get you one way or another.

If you're training like a bear to gain size or strength in the middle of practices and an active life style, for heaven's sake, eat. A lot. It's much harder to put on lean (muscle) weight than it is to lose (fat) weight. If you're training hard and eating boatloads of mostly healthy food and somehow getting a big beer belly, deal with that later. Until then you need to eat to support muscle growth and not worry about getting simultaneously more ripped. Putting on some muscle always causes the body to appear more "ripped," even if you have not actually lost any (fat) weight.

6. Oh, and here's a bonus training mistake that I don't see often, but a big one nonetheless.

For heaven's sake, WHY?

Seriously get off the unstable surfaces unless you're rehabbing a significant ankle or knee injury/surgery.

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