Fallacies abound in the health and fitness industry, often contradicting the basic principals of exercise and sports science. It’s easy to become confused, misguided and disillusioned in our quest for our own version of physical perfection… And I’m talking about the trained professional! So what chance does the average person have when it comes to knowing what’s right or wrong and choosing the ‘correct‘ method for themselves?

As a fitness professional who has been working over 15 years in the fitness industry, I’ve seen lots of trends come and go… Let’s begin to identify the five most common gym mistakes I see and in brief discuss ways to improve your training.

Mistake #1
The DIY approach 

One thing is for sure, there is always someone out there that ‘knows’ what they are doing, perhaps they were kind enough to show you a thing or two… but here’s the thing, they are not you! So what may have worked for them, may not work for you. So what’s my point? A little knowledge without the wisdom of how to properly apply it is dangerous.

Exercise needs to be specific and tailored to each individual based on many factors, to name a few: your individual goals; medical history; training history; your current level of fitness etc.

Your health is (should be) your most valued asset in your life, to self prescribe or to allow an untrained individual that does not fully understand your needs or contraindications to guide you along your health and fitness journey would be like walking into the forrest without the latest GPS system. You are bound to get lost or hurt.

Expert tip #1
  • Get a trained professional that understands your health issues, needs and wants, to design and tailor a program for you. This will dramatically increase your chances of achieving your goals safely and efficiently.
  • Your training program should be a forever evolving one, as you progress to new levels your training program should also progress.
  • Also remember, things that worked previously, may no longer work, your body may have adapted to the training modality or intensity, not to mention that circumstances change and that the old program may no longer suit your current schedule.
Mistake #2
The focus of toning exercises instead of strength training

Somehow, this is still believed and taught! How did toning become a lesser evil than strength or resistance training, or for that matter, bodybuilding?

Let me make this simple, there is NO difference between toning a muscle or resistance training, shaping, sculpting and bulking. Essentially we are using a form of resistance with the intention to trigger myofibrillar protein synthesis. Actually, there is a difference, in the results or lack thereof! How it differs is in the degree to which you increase neuromuscular efficiency or induce hypertrophy. Muscle itself does not care what you call your method of resistance training, it only acknowledges one thing… “have I been overloaded or not” if not, then the muscle will not change.

What is overload?

The principle of overload states that a greater than normal stress or load is required for training adaptation to occur. Once the body adapts, a new or greater stimulus is needed and so on. So basically the body says “ouch, I better adapt to this and get stronger before this crazy person does this to me again!!!”.

How heavy is enough?

The purpose of any weight training program basically should be to maximally recruit and fatigue all available muscle fibres or motor unit pools. To do this, you must sincerely reach true muscular fatigue, whether this occurs at 6RM or 25RM, all available muscle fibres including fast and slow twitch would have been activated.

How will I know if I have trained hard enough?

The body is amazing at communicating with us on many levels, with an intense resistance session that has caused enough overload you will generally get some DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness). DOMS is normal and is simply a indication that there has been some level of micro trauma to the muscle fibres within the muscles you targeted the day before. So, don’t be worried if you are sore, continue to train at a high enough intensity that you will experience this DOMS after effect each and every time you train with resistance.

Expert tip #2  
  • If you have been weight training for years and are still lifting the same weight or performing the same exercises in the same order for the same amount of reps then you are wasting precious time and need a change, fast.
  • Safe & effective resistance training should be programmed and periodised so that you progress slowly to greater intensities over the course of the year.
  • It’s important that you work up to a weight that you will fail at between your desired rep ranges
  • It’s is important to reach true muscular fatigue, otherwise you have not maximally stimulated myofibrillar protein synthesis
  • Some other variables to consider with your strength training are: muscle groups per workout, sets per muscle group, rest intervals, exercise sequencing, exercise selection, training volume, frequency, speed of movement, range of motion, muscle action.
Mistake #3
The belief that hybrid resistance exercises are the most efficient calorie burners

Hybrid exercises fail in a major way, they fail to sufficiently overload all the muscle groups involved. Hybrid exercises have become the new craze in gyms and amongst trainers, many using this style of resistance training exclusively. The issue is they have not questioned the validity or accuracy of the information which has lead them along this new path. Perhaps they would be better served trying to reinvent the wheel? Every day I see a new weird and wonderful exercise that supposedly manages to recruit all the muscle you need and produce enough overload on every muscle group involved for maximal results. Wrong! I don’t know about you but I can military press significantly less than I can front squat! Does this sound familiar? Perhaps they are toning? Well, we now know that there is no ‘toning’. As previously mentioned in the discussion about ‘toning’, the lack of overload renders an exercise ineffective. The fact that you sweat whilst performing the hybrid exercise(s) is insignificant because perspiration has nothing to do with muscle fibre trauma.

A couple of examples of hybrid exercises…
  1. Cable Squat & Upper Back Row

This is a great example of an ineffective hybrid exercise. In this exercise, you would use a pin loaded cable system standing facing the machine. Adopting a squat stance with both legs, you then hold the cable handle with both hands. Normally you will see the individual do one squat repetition alternated with one row repetition.

What’s the issue?

A man by the name of Newton discovered that “things tend to fall downward”. By the cable pulling in a horizontal plane there is effectively no extra weight downward on the person’s body/skeleton to increase the intensity of the squat overtime. Therefore, there is no chance for progression in the squat with this particular exercise.

  1. Barbell Front Squat & Shoulder Press

In this exercise, a barbell is used. Starting by placing the barbell on the front part of your body, you perform one squat repetition followed by one overhead shoulder press repetition.

What’s the issue?

The quadriceps, hamstrings gluteals, erector spinae muscles are large muscle groups that are capable of producing large amounts of force to shift relatively large amounts of weight around. To try and get our teeny weeny triceps and deltoids to match it with them is crazy! Effectively what will happen is you will have to reduce the weight significantly so that you are able to perform even one overhead shoulder press, but in doing this, the weight being used will not even be sufficient enough to get the leg muscles to want to get out of bed! Again, this exercise will not effectively work the legs.

So what were they trying to achieve then with these hybrid exercises?

What they were trying to achieve is was an EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) effect. Simply, the EPOC effect is an increased usage or need for oxygen after exercise. This causes a number of effects in the body such as: hormone balancing; increased fat oxidation; replenishment of fuel stores and anabolism. All we need to know is it increases our metabolism. Depending on how hard the session was will effect how long this EPOC effect lasts.

Expert tip #3

For increased intensity, choose large muscle groups and perform your exercises in a active recovery circuit fashion alternating between an upper body exercises and lower body exercise or one pushing exercise and one pulling exercise. instead of trying to do them all at once (see table below) – you will see how vastly different loads are used for each exercise and thus how inefficiently you have been working!

Mistake #4

The belief that heavy resistance training will make you bulky

Many people avoid using heavy weights in their workouts, believing that they will bulk up like a bodybuilder. If only it were that easy to put on muscle, then bodybuilders wouldn’t need to spend so much money on illegal steroids, maybe someone should tell them? In fact, using a weight that isn’t easy to lift, requiring lower repetitions (1-3) during a set actually promotes a different adaptation and is not the most effective way to produce lean muscle mass. Large defined muscles are not guaranteed by lifting weights, careful nutrition, genetics and an appropriate training regime is needed. In other words it wont happen by mistake.

Failure to properly monitor your calorie intake and control your energy balance whist conducting any form of training regime or sporting activity will still allow for potential weight gain and lead to a bulky physique! That’s right, even a step class! This mismatch of calorie input versus calorie output will cause increased fat deposits which ultimately will cover any lean muscle you have, this giving the illusion of bulky muscles. For further proof of this, all you would have to do is look at the physiques of women that compete in bikini model competition through the various bodybuilding associations, they do hours of weight training a week and exhibit the lowest body fat / skin fold sums of any recreational athletes.

Expert tip #4
  • Plan to reduce your overall body fat % and you will lose that bulky look
  • Find out what your resting metabolic rate (RMR) is. Your RMR is how many Calories you need to eat daily to sustain your current body weight at rest. Great way to do it is by getting a DEXA scan (www.measureup.com.au)
  • Keep a food diary for 3 days and write everything down with detail (e.g portion size; types of foods etc). This will produce self awareness so that you can actually see your dietary habits in front of you.
  • Using a calorie calculator, calculate your daily calorie intake
  • What you would hope to achieve is a balance between your calorie intake with your RMR. Then, get exercising!
  • To reduce fat mass you need to create a negative energy balance, no matter what any fitness “expert” may tell you about hormones, no fat loss will happen without achieving energy deficit.
Mistake #5
The obsession with functional training

Oh no, did I just open a can of worms? Perhaps I have, but one that was way overdue! This term functional training is thrown around way too often by trainers and gym enthusiast’s alike, often dismissing many exercises as ‘non-functional’ without considering the complex processes involved within the central nervous system and the exercise involved.

If you were to do a search on the term ‘functional training’, you would find various definitions by many so called guru’s that fail to properly and accurately explain this issue.

No exercise or movement by the body can be initiated without a stimulus from the nervous system via neuromuscular processes. All exercise(s) improves neuromuscular efficiency, this response will lead to increased strength, this extra strength will lead to improved function. The fundamental principle then of strength training is that all strength increase is produced by both intra-muscular and inter-muscular coordination via neuromuscular stimulation. Too nerdy? Basically we can’t simply label things ‘functional’ or ‘non-functional’.

Dr Mel Siff in his book “facts and fallacies of fitness” draws our attention to this discussion by making an easy and clear definition for us between the two types of training, functional and structural resistance training.

Functional resistance training – is primarily targeted at producing increased neural efficiency and improving the appropriate performance effects desired

Structural resistance training – is primarily targeted at producing an increase in muscle size or hypertrophy

Although now we have discussed these distinctions, no exercise is purely structural or purely functional as both methods require neural activation and to some degree cause some structural changes over time. This means that to a point, all exercise is functional.

So, next time a smarty pants trainer recommends you get off the leg press because its ‘non-functional’, refer them back to strength training 101. I will be writing a follow-up on the reality of functional training (it may even be in multiple parts – lots to cover!).

Expert tip #5
  • In early stages of training the functional stage should precede the structural stage
  • Allow for 4-8 weeks when beginning a training program for neuromuscular adaptation or anatomical adaptation to occur
  • Increase the training intensity by small increments weekly so that there is sufficient overload to stimulate progression overtime
  • Your program should change every 4 weeks, each programming progressively offering a new training method or intensity

In closing, I hope that in reading this article you have learned to question all things and are now on the way to building the best version of you!

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