A generalized weight training program is typically ideal for someone beginning a weight training regimen. Progress occurs relatively easily at this early stage even when following a less-than-ideal program. Substantial improvements in strength, power, muscular endurance and body composition can be seen as long as there is a bit of consistency. As a result, newcomers often feel over confident in their gains and continue to do "what works for them" even after their progress slows to a snail's pace or eventually to an abrupt halt. Others may end up hurting themselves or dropping out all together.
ExRx.net has compiled a list of the most common weight training mistakes, many made by exercisers of all experience levels. Whatever your level of experience, staying clear of common training mistakes can increase the effectiveness and safety of your weight training program, allowing you to experience continued progress for many decades to come.
Skimping on the Warm-up Sets
Even the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger once got some hair-brained idea that he had gotten too advanced to continue performing a specific warm-up set before his heavier sets. This was only until he learned the hard way by injuring himself after skimping on his usual warm-ups sets.
In addition to a specific warm-up set, a general warm-up, such as a few minutes of cardio exercise or walk to the gym, is also recommended before hitting the weights, particularly for middle aged and older participants. See benefits and rationale for general and movement specific warm-ups.
Not Sticking to the Basics
Many trainees fail to incorporate the essential basic exercises in their programs, instead wasting their efforts on either more specialize, advanced, or relatively ineffective exercises. Basic movements include tried and tested exercise (eg: Squats, Bench Press, Rows, etc.) that more efficiently build strength and muscle. Strength and muscular development lay the foundation of most other fitness attributes, which can more effectively emphasized later in a more advanced program, with greater results. See Periodization. Not sticking to the basics and performing too many auxiliary exercises can either waste time (at the best) or hamper progress (at the worst), particularly the first few years where foundation training is most beneficial.
When browsing the ExRx.net Exercise Library, choose primarily basic exercises (marked with bold or normal type face). Only choose auxiliary exercises sparingly if at all (marked with italics or normal type face), particularly as a beginner or intermediate lifter. Also see Workout Creation Instructions.
Over emphasizing muscle groups relative to their antagonist muscle groups may increase risk of injury and/or alter bodily posture (see Weaknesses and Posture Deficiencies). A program which balances the posterior with anterior chain movements are important in preventing these deficiencies. For example, antagonist movements like rows exercise muscles which stabilize the shoulders during bench and chest press movements. Likewise, relatively strong hamstrings are needed to stabilize the knee during squat and leg press moments. Conditioned abs are required to stabilize the spine during lifting movements involving the low back and some hip flexor movements. Consider using a workout template to assist in balancing out your next workout. Also see Common Inflexibilities which may increase risk of injury.
Using Too Little Resistance or Not Increasing Resistance
Using those same tiny weights will not stimulate further improvements. Whether your goal is to increase strength, build or restore muscle, increase the metabolism, or improve health, increase weight a small amount when you are able to perform your upper repetition range. For general muscular fitness, the ACSM recommends using a resistance which permits 8-12 repetitions to the point of volitional fatigue. Other Rep Range Recommendations are suggested for specific and special populations and particular fitness goals. Once the upper repetition range is achieved, the resistance should be increased for continued progress. It's during this increase that progress is essentially achieved. Failing to take advantage of this window of opportunity to increase the resistance can stagnate progress. In fact, performance improvements can actually decrease if the same training load is used over a long period of time (Zatsiorsky & Kraemer 1995). See Systematic progression methods (1) rep range criteria, (2) micro-loading, and (3) periodized progressive workloads variations.
Not Using Ideal Program for Goals
Throughout the first several months of weight training, a program designed for general muscular fitness is generally ideal. As an exerciser continues to progress, the program can be changed to better address the specific training goals of the individual. Some trainees (and even some trainers) mistakenly implement training programs and practices not optimized for desired training goals. Examples of obvious scenarios may include training for muscular endurance when the goal is strength, or training for balance (eg exercises on unstable surface) when the goal is something else entirely. In most cases, however, the contrast between training techniques and fitness goals are often more subtle and may only require a few tweaks to a program in order to align training techniques with desired goals. In any case, the wasted effort in achieving extraneous fitness goals may decrease program efficiency, resulting in less than optimal progress for the actual desired goals. See Concurrent Training and Exercise Specificity.
Specific training stimuli must also be performed regularly enough to elicit a training response. Not administering a particular stimulus (eg: exercise, workload, etc) often enough (eg: one or twice weekly) for at least several sessions may inhibit any adaptation response.
Failing to Program Variations
A basic prerequisite for continued adaptation is variation. Performance improvements will decrease if the same exercises and training loads are continued for a prolonged period of time (aka Accommodation). Subtle training alterations inhibit accommodation and ultimately, the exhaustion stage of SAID. As a beginner, progress can be made most every workout. Variation is inherent due to relatively rapid progress in the initial phases of training (see Initial Level of Fitness). As progress slows, subtle variations must be made in other ways for progress to continue. These variations should not vary too far from the training goals. See 'Not Using ideal Program for Goals' above. also see Variation Examples.
"Just when your body thinks it has all the answers, that's when you had better change the questions."
- Louie Simmons, Westside Barbell
Progress is made through a process of specific and systematic overloads coordinated with periods of sufficient recovery. In effect, adaptation actually occurs throughout the days following the workout. At best, a poorly-designed program that does not allow for adequate recovery can stagnate progress and, at worst, result in overuse injuries. See Overtraining.
A weight training program must be carefully designed to allow both muscles and joints to recover sufficiently between workouts. This is even more important when engaging in other forms of physical activity in addition to weight training. See Sample Split Program Design Flaws and Low Back Recovery.
Ignoring Signs and Causes of Injury
Trainees often fail to take steps necessary to address an injury until they've aggravated their injury to the point where they finally realize that their now more serious injury is not getting any better. By that time, they have added several weeks or months of recovery and rehabilitation time to an injury that would have likely taken only days or weeks to heal, if they would have only dealt with it at the first onset of symptoms. See Dealing with Injury
Many minor injuries can heal with sufficient recovery followed by adequate progressions when reintroducing exercise. For injuries that do not seem to get better, seek the advice of a qualified health care provider. Some general practitioners lack sufficient experience with sports related injuries, so consider requesting a referral to a sports medicine doctor, orthopedic surgeon, or physical therapist.
The cause of an injury is often obvious in hindsight, but some cases may be less apparent. Try to understand why a particular injury occurred and take steps to prevent or decrease future occurrences. See Injury Etiology.
It is common to see trainees use poor form either (1) in ignorance of proper biomechanics or (2) in a futile attempt to handle weights that they are not ready to use. The bastardized form either, no longer targets the intended muscles or it inappropriately utilizes momentum to decrease the resistance through the most difficult range of motion.
By continuing to use the same excessively heavy weight, the trainee essentially becomes weaker throughout the specific range of motion which has been reduced. This further inhibits their ability to correct their form even if they tried. This vicious cycle only encourages the trainee to execute the compromised form throughout the entire set, from the first rep to the last.
In contrast, experienced, advanced exercisers typically employ adequate form while possibly, only periodically compromising form slightly on the last rep or two using an advanced technique known as 'loose form' or 'cheating', depending upon the severity of the compromised form. Introducing cheating too early in a trainee's repertoire of techniques is not only unnecessary, but it also makes it more difficult for the trainee to learn appropriate form, thereby hampering progress.
Recommendations for novices and intermediate trainees include learning new exercises with a light resistance, introducing a weight in which perfect form can be achieved, and only preform reps in which sufficient form can be maintained. Also see Indentifying Initial Resistances. On more difficult exercises, ask an experienced lifter critique your form or video yourself performing a set.
One must consider the intended goal of the exercise in determining the proper speed of execution. Exercises intended to increase strength and/or muscle mass are typically performed at a moderate speed, in contrast to more advanced exercise intended to increase power and / or speed which are performed more quickly. See Power Training below.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of bad form are hyper-corrections. A Hyper-corrections is a foolishly used technique (or correction) intended for a specific purpose that has no real need for its implementation in a given situation. Examples of hyper-corrections pertaining to exercise may include limiting range of motion to a particular exercise, keeping certain body parts from extending out beyond other body part, and prohibiting certain styles of training that maybe in fact necessary for particular fitness goal or motor skill. In some cases, hyper-corrections can be just as problematic as other forms of poor form. These techniques and restrictions may in fact have valid purposes when applied to certain situations, but to suggest, they should be utilized in all cases (or a given case just 'because') not only exhibits ignorance of the rationale behind these 'corrections', but it may also decrease the ability of the affected exercise to produce specific and possibly important adaptations. See Over Generalizations and Range of Motion.
Inappropriate Use of Advanced Training Techniques
As a beginner or intermediate trainee, there is little need to utilize advanced techniques since progress can be made relatively easy by following basic guidelines (See ACSM recommendations). Strength Coach and Sports Scientist Dr. Dan Baker, advises to work your way up by getting the best result you can with the simplest program, then earn the right before you move onto another level of advance.
In beginners and intermediate exercisers, many advanced techniques can actually stagnate progress and increase risk of injury. Even for an advanced exerciser with many years of training experience, it is important to properly progress toward and implement these more complex and potentially taxing training techniques for optimal results.
In the early years of training, progress is typically consistent when training for general muscular fitness with a weight that allows 8-12 reps. After a few years of training, going heavier maybe necessary to achieve certain fitness goals. Beyond the intermediate level of training, working out with different workloads every workout (eg: medium / light / heavy) is more effective than training with the same or similar workload (See Varying Workload Research). Training heavy most every workout leads to accommodation (AKA: stagnated progress) and increases the incidence of injury. Even the most advanced powerlifters, Olympic Weight-lifters, and professional athletes cycle their loads every workout, allowing for greater gains than if they always train heavy. See sample programs an Olympic-style Weight Lifting, Powerlifting, and other Athletes.
Regular Use of Forced Reps
Give your ego and spotters a break and use only the weight you can handle by yourself. Utilizing Forced Reps regularly can lead to burnout and over-training syndrome. Limiting the use of force reps will allow for a more manageable applications of training loads. Other techniques which coax progress are much more effective in the long run:
Drinkwater (2007) found no benefits in performing forced reps for strength or power development. Accomplished powerlifters, Olympic-weightlifters, and strongmen actually attempt to avoid training to failure and very rarely use this technique. In fact, they do not even approach failure throughout most of their workout.
Even when contemplating forced reps for bodybuilding-style training, more sustainable and productive techniques exist that allow more manageable long-term progressions. See Forced Repetitions.
Power training involves exercise designed to increase explosiveness. They include Plyometrics, Olympic-style weightlifts, other explosive type exercises. Whatever your goal as a beginning trainee, a program aimed at general muscular fitness should be performed for several months before specialized training is introduced. The adaptations gained during basic training serve as a foundation so more specialized training can be performed more safely and efficiently. The National Strength and Conditioning Association suggests athletes should be strong in the squat before beginning a lower body plyometric program. In addition, they also recommend that high intensity plyometrics should not be performed year round (NSCA, 2000). Also see Power Tidbits.
Abrupt or Prolonged High Volume Training
Using excessive training volumes (gratuitous number of sets or exercise for each muscle group) can increase risk of injury and stagnate or halt progress altogether, particularly when utilized indefinitely or introduced too quickly. However, the degree of volume that can be tolerated appears to vary between individuals. Certain individuals can tolerate higher volume training, whereas, other individuals tolerate less, particularly as one ages. Those who consider themselves, 'hard gainers' report making better progress on lower volume programs.
Issues such as over-training and overuse injury can occur when implementing a high volume program indefinitely or haphazardly, particularly with little understanding of its intended application to specific training goals.
Certain fitness goals require progressively increasing volume for periods of time, but magnitude of volume required for an adequate training effect may be less than what is normally prescribed. Any small and temporary strength, muscular size, and metabolic improvements gained from a volume increase gradually diminish as volume is increased beyond a modest level. For example, only marginal benefits are gained between 2 and 4 sets per muscle group in trained individuals. See Strength Dose-Response Curve and Single versus Multiple Sets.
In addition, certain fitness goals simply do not require the high volumes that are generally prescribed. For example, Heden (2011) found that one set is equally effective as three sets in increasing energy expenditure for up to 72 hours after weight training in overweight college males. Also see Weight Training for Fat Loss Requires Long Workouts Myth.
If high volume training is deemed necessary for particular fitness goals, it should be administered progressively and judiciously. Even the most advanced exercisers with the greatest tolerance to high volume programs will benefit from a gradual progression of training volume. This may occur when transitioning from a lower volume mesocycle or resuming training after a layoff.
The body responses more favorably to small incremental progressions. All it takes is a little bit more than the last time. See Adaptation Criteria. Since any small change in volume is enough to illicit a training response, anything greater could be considered a waste of effort particularly since rapid increases in volume can prolong recovery.
Periodic increases of volume should be intermittently cycled with periods of a low volume. Typically, training intensity is inversely cycled with training volume in a strategic manner. See Weight Training Periodization. Concurrent progressive high volume and high volume workloads are generally not recommended unless the intent is to overreach with a subsequent taper of training volume.
It is plausible that overall progress may be greater on a generally lower volume training regimen by keeping training more consistent over many years through greater long term program adherence and lower incidents of layoffs due to overuse injury. Any small increases that might be gained with continuous high volume training are are potentially lost, soon after the first incidence of overuse injury, if not the attrition due to burnout. See Low Volume Weight Training and Overtraining.