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Are You Cheating Yourself at the Gym? Part 2

Make the Most of Your Strength Training Workouts
  -- By Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer
With the hectic pace of our society today, most people don't have hours to spend in the gym. That's why it's so important to make the most of the workout time you have available. Are you cheating yourself out of the best strength workout possible? Here are five of the most common mistakes that exercisers make—without even knowing it—that end up short-changing their efforts. Find out what you can do to use your time more effectively.

1. You use weights that aren't challenging enough. Many times people aren't sure how to pick a weight that's right for them. Women especially tend to use weights that are easy or lightweight, because many believe the myth that strength training makes women bulk up. Certainly light weights still offer some benefit, right?

Why it's cheating: The point of strength training is to overload your muscles so they can become stronger. Without the challenge of this overload, you're wasting your time with strength training, because light, unchallenging weights do not offer the same benefits.

The quick fix: You want a weight that's challenging, but not so heavy that you risk injury. Here's a good rule-of-thumb to follow. If you can easily perform more than 12 repetitions of an exercise, then your weight is too light—time to take it up to the next level. If you can only perform four reps in good form, on the other hand, your weight might be too heavy. The proper weight for you is one that you can lift in good form for about 12 reps. To learn more about the concept of overload, selecting the proper weight, and how many reps to do, read out Reference Guide to Strength Exercise.

2. You only use strength training machines. Most machines offer detailed instructions and diagrams so you can use them correctly, and they're specially-designed to support your body so that you exercise in proper form. But once you get the hang of it, are machines still the great workout they once were?

Why it's cheating: For the most part, strength training machines have a two-dimensional movement pattern, so they don't offer the variety or the range of motion that other exercises (such as those using free weights) provide. In fact, machines are doing a lot of the work for you. Because they support you so much, you use your muscles less since you don't have to balance, control, or stabilize your body on your own.

The quick fix: Add free weights to your routine. They require you to do all the work and engage more muscle fibers as a result. You'll get a better workout in the same amount of time. You can also do a larger variety of exercises instead of being limited to the machines your gym has available, helping prevent plateaus. There are pros and cons to both machines and free weights, so a combination of the two can be ideal for achieving maximum results.

3. You lift weights too quickly. Who hasn't seen that big guy in the gym, pumping out a full set of bench presses in 10 seconds flat? Sure he might be lifting a lot of weight and he might also look strong. But is his fast-paced workout better than exercising control while performing slower reps?

Why it's cheating: Weight lifting should not be a race to see how fast you can finish. By doing each repetition too fast, you increase your risk of injury and cheat yourself of the maximum benefits of the exercise. By moving quickly, you aren't working as hard because momentum is helping you. Plus, the total amount of time you spend overloading your muscles against resistance is less, so you probably won't achieve the best results possible.

The quick fix: Slow down. Perform each repetition slowly to allow your muscles to fully contract while maintaining proper form. Spend about three full seconds on the lifting phase and three seconds on the lowering phase. Also don't forget to breathe! You can learn more about the benefits of slow, controlled lifting by reading High-Intensity Strength Training.

4. You rest for a long time in between sets. When you hit the gym with friends, it's easy to chat in between exercises and rest longer in between sets. Or sometimes, you might just feel tired during your workout, and take a few minutes to rest, drink some water, and listen to your iPod before you start the next set. Is it really a big deal to take a few more seconds (or minutes) to rest during your exercises?

Why it's cheating: If you rest too long between your sets, you're doing more harm than just spending unnecessary amounts of time at the gym. Long rests can also decrease the overall intensity of your workout. Some studies show that long resting periods will decrease levels of hormones that help you build strength and reduce your overall calorie burn, making your workouts less effective.

The quick fix: For most people, a 30-90 second rest period in between sets is sufficient. (Body builders might require more time for recovery since they are lifting such heavy weights.) Watch the clock or even set a timer on your watch to go off when it's time to resume your next set. Another option for maximizing your workout time and calorie-burning potential is to do a circuit, where you move quickly from one exercise to the next (with very little rest) or do cardio activity in between sets. Learn more about The Benefits of Circuit Training.

5. You skip the warm up, cool down or stretches. All of these components are important for a reason. Do you think they're a waste of time since they don't directly build muscle?

Why it's cheating: You body can't go from a resting level to a high intensity level (or vice versa) in a matter of seconds. It takes a few minutes to prepare for exercise and recover from it. Without warming up, cooling down, and stretching, you're not making the most of your workouts and you could be increasing your chances of injury or other complications.

The quick fix: Designate a few minutes per session for these tasks. If you're short on time, jog from the parking lot to the gym as part of your warm up, and walk slowly to your car as you continue to cool down, for example. Warming up helps lower your risk of injuries and prevent aches and pains. A proper cool-down slowly decreases the heart rate to prevent dizziness, fainting and that post-workout muscle soreness. Stretching can help prevent injury by promoting recovery, decreasing soreness, and ensuring that your muscles and tendons are in good working order.


Your time is valuable, so it's important to make the most of it when you head to the gym. By making some small changes to your strength routine, you can maximize your results and get on the fast track towards reaching your goals!