Updated: Nov 4, 2021
I've been exercising properly since I was 18, that's 13 years at the time of me writing this. I was never a particularly active child, especially as I moved into my teenage years, so I can only really claim 13 years of training under my belt. Through much trial and error, many, MANY injuries and setbacks, and some pretty decent achievements along the way I have learnt a thing or two. Add to this 10+ years of studying, researching, learning and implementing I feel I have a pretty good foundation of knowledge to help others on their fitness journey.
With that being said, I can look over the past 13 years and identify mistakes I have made which you might be making as well. So, let's look through 5 of my biggest training mistakes:
1. Listening To The Wrong Advice
The most distinct fact that jumps out at me is that 12 years ago I knew more about training than I do now. Well, at least I thought I did. What I realise now is that, even though I have many years under my belt, I am still learning and perfecting many of the simplest exercises. Now, that doesn't mean I am weak - I have squatted almost double body weight and can easily clean and jerk more than my body weight - what it does mean, however, is that there is much more to a strong back squat than what we learned during our Personal Training course.
For example, we learned that the knees shouldn't pass the toes and you should squat to parallel. Both of these are wrong. The knees should move forward of the toes and you should squat as deep as physically possible - just look at any Olympic weightlifter.
Herein lies the issue. As a naive gym newbie, you tend to trust what is written in the pages of "Men's Healthy Fitness" or whatever glossy mag you can find in your local supermarket. You also tend to listen to whatever gym-bro who has the best physique recommends. This is a recipe for failure or injury. Take the time to learn how to move properly and look beyond the covers of those flashy fitness magazines (the kinds that are more advert than content).
The best coaches and trainers in the world aren't on Instagram. They aren't contributing to commercial fitness magazines. They don't have mega-popular Youtube channels. They are busy training world-class athletes. They do, however, have books and some lesser-viewed videos you can find online. So, if you really need to follow some great advice, look to highly-qualified personal trainers, and bury your head in books and videos written by the likes of Dan John, Pavel Tsatsouline, Mark Rippetoe, Tommy Kono, Yuri Verkhoshansky and even Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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2. Training Incorrectly
This error stems from the previous point, in part. The problem is that at the age of 18 and just starting out weight training, results can be achieved in spite of poor form. These days poor form leads to back spasms, pulled muscles and physio visits. I simply didn't know how to move properly and I didn't really know how to use my body.
The main issue stemmed from the inability to properly use my core and create tension to stabilise the spine. Basically, when using heavy weights my lower back did most of the work and when things got tough I resorted to using a weightlifting belt. This doesn't work. In fact, I haven't used a weightlifting belt in years.
Learning to move correctly and train correctly, especially when starting out is the key to longevity in training and health. Leave your ego at the door and focus on moving properly, through a full range of motion and with correct form. You might not be able to lift as much as your peers, but 2-3 years down the line when you're squatting ass to grass with 100+kg people will be impressed, even those quarter squatting 140kg with a belt, knee wraps, wrist wraps and a permanent look of pain on their face. Trust me!
3. Eating The Wrong Things
Ah, yes. Baked chicken breast, brown rice and something green, four to five times a day, how I haven't missed you. I've seen and done it all. Multiple protein shakes, blended meals (roast chicken, potatoes and veg in a blender is as bad as it sounds), rice cakes (yuck) and boring, repetitive, tasteless meals. This type of eating isn't healthy. Let's just get that out there now. By eating the same things too frequently you run the risk of missing essential nutrients, becoming bored and affecting your ability to digest other foods.
Eat a variety of natural, seasonal and local foods. Stay away from sugar, trans fats and seed oils. Drink plenty of water. Use supplements as a supplement and not a staple. Eat protein with every meal. Eat all types of fat. Limit your carbs to around your workouts. Simple.
One interesting effect of eating like this for a long period of time is that it changes the way you look at food. Food is fuel. Food should provide us with the nutrients we need in order to survive and thrive. Viewing food in this manner makes it easier to make healthy food choices and can drastically improve your health.
4. Training to Look Good
If you are a bodybuilder then every exercise you perform you do so with the intention of it improving your physique. Your diet is designed to help you pack on muscle or strip layers of fat away. This is not synonymous with optimal health. Sorry bodybuilders.
A good physique should be a result of correct nutrition and exercise. If you train properly with the intention of moving better and becoming stronger, eat a balanced, nutritious diet as outlined above and recover properly from exercise, then you will most likely develop a great physique.
Training with the sole intent to look a certain way leads to an unhealthy relationship with food, body image issues and undue stress. Exercise and eat to improve as a human, not to look like a statue.
What I will say about bodybuilders is this. Bodybuilders who train properly and are clever with their approach to health and fitness are actually amongst some of the fittest people on earth. Certainly, the biggest guys on the stage of the Mr Olympia might have or develop some health issues later on in life, but that can be said for any top-level athlete.
5. Not Recording, Tracking and Evaluating
If you want to change X, first you must know what X is. Then, you can add Y. Once you have added Y, you need to know what you have. You might have Z or you might have low-back problems, skinny legs and chronic indigestion.
Logging your workouts and evaluating them every 6-8 weeks is a key component to becoming fitter and stronger. At the end of the day, you need to discover what works for you, and you can only do so if you track what you are doing.
Log your workouts, set goals, monitor progress and evaluate. Make only 1 or 2 slight changes every two months or so, and see how it works. If you change 30 things every 6 weeks how will you know what works?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Maitland is a personal trainer with over 13 years of experience. He has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.