I spent some time with a friend recently discussing form on different exercises and how little tweaks can make the move more effective. She commented that it would be awesome if I could show her trainer how to do these exercises 'better' and though I knew what she meant, I would never tell anyone how to do an exercise better. Occasionally, when someone is using exceptionally poor form, I may ask what muscle group they are working and then ask if they would be interested in learning another way to perform the move that would make it more effective. It's just that people can be very defensive of what they are doing and I find it best to be 'invited' into their space. However, it still amazes me that few people are open to suggestion when it comes to advice on their workout yet I see so many mistakes occurring when in the gym that I am not surprised by the general gym-attendee's lack of results with their routine. How do you know if you're one of them? There are 3 signs that you could use a bit of routine revamping: (1) You use the same weight every time you exercise; (2) You do 20 (or more) reps of each exercise and then stop, even if you don't feel it and (3) You have no clue what proper form is on any given move. You may even go into the gym without a plan and just assume that whatever you do will help you reach your goal.
1. You use the same weight for every exercise of your entire routine. Even for someone with the goal of maintaining fitness levels, this is not a good approach. Your body adapts and there will come a point of diminishing returns-this is all the more reason to make adjustments from time-to-time. If you aren't seeing any changes in your body, you should examine your routine. With countless ways to increase your workout intensity without having to add a lot of weight, look at this as a way to easily up the effectiveness factor. Change the order of exercises, super-set, add a few new moves or add just the minimum amount of weight to any or all of your moves. Make sure you incorporate these new tactics long enough to see results, usually 2 weeks, before evaluating the efficiency of changes. Keep track of your sessions with a simple journal of workout progress so you can readily see where changes are working and what needs to be addressed. And while I've said it many times and I assume that every woman gets this by now, using heavier weights will NOT make you manly! In fact, most women don't lift anywhere near what they are truly capable of.
2. You use a rep count to determine when a set is complete. This tells me you are all about a calorie burn. Example: I saw a woman sitting on the adductor machine, using 30 lbs. and quickly going through rep after rep. Or not so quick-as I was waiting to use it, and after 8 minutes, I returned to find the same woman still on it with the same 30 lbs. How can you not understand that if you can use a machine for 8 minutes and still be able to move that you are not getting the benefit you think? Even the calorie burn is minimal with such a light weight, the cardio response is minimal as the weight is not even heavy enough to cause an elevated heart rate and the changes to your body will be minimal to non-existent because there is no physical challenge. Don't let yourself fall into the fallacy of using this as a calorie-burning session as there are far better ways to accomplish this. Do aim to feel the work you're doing before finishing an exercise by making it more challenging. Add weight, move slower, increase the ROM you work through, do a 2-second isometric hold, work the negative portion of the exercise to a 4-second count-these are all great examples of how to make the workload more representative of an actual 'work' load.
3. You use form that is questionable. If you've never had training with someone who truly understands what good form is and why it is of the utmost importance, you are missing out big time. And, once you've learned bad form, it can be hard to change due to muscle memory. You may even have muscular imbalances that are made worse by doing an exercise you think is helping but using improper form could actually be doing you more harm. A good example is deadlift. This is an exercise that should be part of most everyone's exercise arsenal but when done improperly, it has the potential to do serious damage. Most people will do this exercise without focusing on keeping the bar as close to the body throughout the move as possible. This will cause more stress on the low back but if you change the move so that while lifting and lowering the bar, it drags against the front of the thighs, this ensures the bar stays close to your body, eliminating the stress on the low back and putting it back on the glutes where it belongs. It's a little tweak to the angle of a lever. This doesn't make it easier though it does make it more effective and a whole lot safer. Any time improper form is used, the effectiveness of the exercise is compromised.
You may also be a fan of copying what you see others do in the gym. If you'll take the time to google comparison shop when you're in the mall, why wouldn't you fact-check an exercise before doing it? You could be copying moves given to the person you're watching meant to improve functionality in their golf game. Doesn't mean it's going to hurt you if you do it but what if you don't golf and your goal is to build muscle? Are you making the most of your time in the gym without a well-thought out plan including clear knowledge of how to implement as well as improvise your plan to ensure you get the results you want?
There are also countless exercises you could perform in the gym. How do you know what the best ones are for your purpose and how do you know if they are safe for you? If you've never had an assessment of your postural alignment, both at rest and in motion, you could be unaware of say, having an anterior pelvic tilt. In a nutshell, this typically means you have a dysfunctional back-side that is unable to hold your skeletal structure in proper anatomical form. Exercise done improperly will only serve to exacerbate the issue(s). Start by doing a self-diagnosis on your posture using The Mirror Test:
(Front view) Stand facing a full length mirror and check to see if:
1. Shoulders are level
2. Head is straight
3. The spaces between your arms and sides seem equal
4. Hips are level and kneecaps face straight ahead
5. Ankles are straight
(Side View) This is much easier to do with the help of another or by taking a photo. Look for the following:
1. Head is erect, not slumping forward or backward
2. Chin is parallel to the floor, not tilting up or down
3. Shoulders are in line with the ears, not drooping forward or pulled back
4. Stomach is flat
5. Knees are straight
6. Lower back has a slightly forward curve
Once you have an assessment, you can choose exercises to address any imbalances and progress from there. If you don't build a strong, stable, balanced core capable of producing properly aligned movement, you could be setting yourself up for failure on many levels. A sign of this is constant injury or pain after working out.
Also, depending on the sources you use for exercise fact-checking, you could just end up being more confused. Several bodybuilding friends ask how I get quad size without doing leg extension; others say you should NEVER do leg extension. Here's my take on it: I can't do them. I mean, I can but I shouldn't. Two bad knees, including a torn ACL and two torn menisci, keep me away from this move. And while it used to be my favorite quad exercise, I've rethought it. Why would I want to move as much weight as I possibly can for 4-6 reps (assuming max muscle stimulation, always increasing weight when 6 reps can be surpassed), meaning there's going to be a LOT of stress placed on the knee, when I can get just as good results for my quads by doing moves utilizing the glutes and lower leg as well? I get the whole isolation theory of weight training. But here's a situation where ability to improvise is important. Since I have excellent posture and pay close attention to postural alignment under load, I can safely perform other leg exercises that won't compromise me. If you're not even aware of having a certain imbalance that needs to be corrected, you're at a disadvantage.
Even if you have been going to the gym for years and are well-seasoned, it's still a good idea to have your posture evaluated. Make sure your hard work will be repaid with continued progress and improvement, not BENGAY and an ice pack!
(In reference to the squatter and modified Smith Machine in the opening photo, this is not meant to be included on the DARE list)