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7 Ineffective Habits of Weight Training

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of mistakes made in resistance training across the fitness floor. In fact, that’s how I’ve gotten to know many members over the years. I loved offering a little guidance to people who I saw working out with bad habits.

If you’ve had a lot of success over the years with your fitness program, you may look at the rest of the article and think, “Well, I knew all of that already.” If that’s the case, awesome! You’re ahead of many other people. The habits here may not apply to you, but they might apply to someone else you know, so pass them along. Many who have been consistent with their fitness program for some time may see a mistake or two they’re making and make their program more effective.

Mistake # 1:  Using the same amount of weight and number of repetitions (reps) each workout.

Overload is an important principle in resistance training. Basically, it means that you must continue to push yourself to a different level as time goes on. If you’re just starting a resistance training program, you’ll experience a significant increase in strength in most, if not all exercises. Your nervous system becomes more coordinated, making the movements more efficient (the same thing happens with cardio). As your nervous system adapts, it also allows you to use more of the muscle you already have.

In fact, as your nervous system becomes more efficient, you can actually lift the same amount of weight with less effort. That’s not a good situation if you want to get stronger, healthier and leaner. A novice trainer can gain significant amounts of strength in the first several weeks without adding any muscle as his/her nervous system adapts.

In time, strength gains start to slow, but this is where it becomes even more important to push harder each week. Progress can mean doing one more repetition than the week before. It can be in adding 2 ½-pound plates on the bar. Resting less between sets. There are a variety of ways to increase the level of intensity in an exercise. The point is, intensity levels must increase over time if you hope to continue seeing improvement. If you’re a female who is afraid of getting “big and bulky,” don’t be. Most women don’t have the hormones to gain muscle mass like men. Even if they did, it would take specific training, nutrition and supplementation to gain significant amounts of lean body mass.

Mistake # 2:  Not writing down your workouts.

We just talked about how important it is to work harder from one week to the next. Without recording your workout, you won't remember the number of reps you did or the weight you used in your previous workout. Recording workouts is important for ensuring you push yourself harder each week, especially if you train alone. There are days when I don’t feel like pushing myself, but when I look back at a previous workout, it gives me a target for weight, reps or rest periods I know I must beat.

When I’m traveling, I try to get to other fitness facilities so I can compare them with Life Time. I’m always surprised when I see personal trainers working with clients without any kind of workout record. They appear to simply make things up as they go along, avoid writing anything down and then move on to the next client at the turn of the hour or half hour. From personal experience, I consider it nearly impossible to remember what my clients did in previous workouts. So, I always kept a record of each workout and gave them a copy as well. That way, if they were going to workout alone on some days and repeat what we had done together, they would have to match, if not exceed, the weight or reps from their previous workout. Without a record of the workout, there’s no way to do that.

Mistake # 3: Picking a row of muscle-specific exercise machines and doing a set on every machine in that row.

While it's nice that the equipment in many fitness centers is laid out by body part, it doesn't mean you should use each machine in that row. Many of the machines do the same thing; they're just made by different manufacturers. Strength training should fatigue the muscles you're targeting. Rather than hopping from machine to machine, you'll find more benefit from sticking with the same machine and doing another set or two. For example, if you want to work your legs and select a leg press machine, you'll likely find more benefit from doing 2-3 sets on the same leg press rather than using two or three different leg presses in the same workout. In fact, once you find a machine you like, you may want to use it for several weeks. That way, you'll know whether you're working harder from one workout to the next.

Mistake # 4: Women focus on thighs and triceps, while men focus on chest and abdominal muscles.

If this article was titled, “Three exercises to shape your thighs!” or “The ab attack workout!” it might get a lot more views. Everyone is looking for an easy solution to shape their trouble areas. Though I can assure people repeatedly that weight training should not be used to “spot reduce,” many still get lured into articles that make them think it can be done. For the most part, multijoint movements like squats, lunges, presses (pushups or chest presses) and pull-ups or rows are the most productive movements you can do for trouble spots. They not only shape trouble areas, but affect  muscle across your body, which has the greatest impact on your metabolism.

Mistake # 5: Doing the same workout you did in college or high school.

Exercise apparel has changed in the past couple decades. So has the equipment. Program design has as well. If you played high school football back in the 70s, 80s, or even 90s and think you can use your old routine to get back in shape, hold up a second. That’s probably as silly as wearing the gym shorts you wore back then. Are you training for football again or training for life? Are you in the condition you were when you started high school?

About four years ago, I noticed a member I hadn’t seen before loading up a bench press with a couple 45-pound plates on each side of the bar. That’s 225 pounds. Though it’s not a crazy amount of weight, it’s still pretty heavy for the bench press. I had an uneasy feeling, so I took a few steps closer. I didn’t want to question what he was doing as many men — including myself — occasionally have a hard time being questioned about what they’re doing. He lay down on the bench and I took a few steps closer. He lifted the bar off the bench, positioned it with his arms extended over his chest and began to lower the bar.

Well, lowering it didn’t work out so well. It wasn’t quite a free fall to his chest. The bar didn’t crash off his chest, but it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to lift it up again. I grabbed the bar and helped him lift the weight back up to the rack. We introduced ourselves and I mentioned I hadn’t seen him in the club before. He said he had just joined that day and wanted to see if he could still lift what he used to in high school, more than 20 years ago! Talk about a great way to hurt yourself. If it’s been a couple decades since you’ve been on a program, get some professional assistance.

6. Sticking with high reps and low weight to “tone”

Women tend to set up their weight training program based on the idea that high reps are intended for toning. We talked about how using the same weight or reps each workout leads to stalled results. Even if you’re using more weight and reps, but your workouts are always at the higher-end of the rep range (15-30 reps per set), you may be missing out on some serious fitness benefits. Many fitness magazines feature women using 3-8 pound dumbbells. Adding to the misinformation, even Gwenyth Paltrow’s trainer told Oprah that women should never lift more than three pounds! Based on Oparh’s following at the time, you can imagine how many people believed something so silly. My wife’s gym bag is heavier than that. Does that mean she should get a bag with wheels so she doesn’t have to lift it? Kidding aside, there is a time and place for just about anyone’s fitness program to include a period of heavier lifting.

As we age, we lose muscle and bone density. The more we build up, the more we’ll have in our older years. Using heavier weights for fewer reps stimulates different muscle fibers than high-rep sets as well. These “fast twitch” muscle fibers are important for strength, speed and agility. Though it’s not appropriate to use weights where you fatigue in 4-8 reps all the time, there are periods of time when it’s appropriate. There is also benefit in using higher reps for short periods of time as well. Logically changing the design of a workout routine is called periodization, a topic we’ll address another time. For now, if you’ve been doing high reps to “tone up,” ask a fitness professional for some assistance on how you can change up your routine and use some heavier weights. You’ll probably be surprised at how much leaner you’ll look over time by including some heavy weights in your workouts.

Mistake # 7: Focusing on intensity before learning proper form.

Much of the benefit of resistance training comes from putting muscles under an increasing level of stress and resistance, but to achieve benefits, form and technique is more important than the effort used. I often see people try to complete dozens of repetitions of movements such as pushups, lunges, squats and pull-ups. Unfortunately, much of the benefit of these movements is lost because people focus on doing more repetitions rather than using proper form.

In most cases, a person shouldn’t attempt 10 reps of a pushup if he or she can’t do one low enough to touch his/her chest to the floor. People shouldn’t try for 10 squats until they can squat low enough to get their hips even with their knees. They shouldn’t be doing dozens of lunges until they can do one with their back knee brushing the floor.

Often, we may think we’re using good form, but without a fitness professional assessing our movements, it’s difficult to tell. If you don’t have a fitness professional to help you, have a friend take photos of you doing the movement. You’ll probably be surprised at the photos. It may feel like you’re doing the movement right, but the photos will show you the truth. If you you’re your resistance training program to be effective, train smarter, not just harder.


Weight training is an important part of any fitness program, but it involves more than simply going through the motions. There are plenty of good books and a few decent magazines with good ideas about weight training, but most people won’t benefit much from reading or trying to mimic pictures. If you’ve never tried strength training, ask for help so you get started the right way. If you see yourself in any of the examples above, ask for help as well. You’re already investing the time. You might as well get more value from the time you’re investing.

If you have some good personal stories to share, questions on any of the habits above, or any other thoughts, share them below.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (13)

I like "Body for Life" which seems to avoid these mistakes.

August 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDale

You're missing number 6.

August 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason Dimaio

Mistake number 8. Learn how to count to 7 so u can do the proper amount of reps. Remember fitness people 6 comes after 5 and before 7.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFred

Wow! I don't know what happened to #6 when the post went live. I will get it added back in later this morning. Thanks for noticing!

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Thanks for the article, Tom. I did know some of those things, but hadn't given much thought to others. The guidance is appreciated!

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa F

Great article, thanks for sharing!

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJBeccari

I have been lifting for 25 years and I am ashamed to admit-I'm guilty of many of the mistakes you mentioned here. Thank you for such a well-written and informative article.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBeth F.

Thanks for the great reminders and for sharing the reasoning behind them. Very helpful!

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Nice article Tom. I've read all of these things separately before but you succinctly put it all in one good resource.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTony Stith

It seems like all the fitness classes I take at LIfetime are about reps, reps, and more reps. I am definitely not doing lunges with my back knee brushing the floor when I have to do 100 of them. I also use lighter weights because we do so many reps. I hope the group fitness instructors read this.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiza

Hey Liza. I was doing Total Conditioning for quite a while myself, and though many of the people in the class were doing a ton of reps, I stuck with making sure I was doing as many reps as I could with a full range of motion. It took several weeks before I could keep up with the pace, but it's the right thing to do. I would not try to keep up with your instructor or the people next to you. Do the movements with good form at whatever pace you can. Ten full lunges will do more from you than 100 quarter lunges.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

With my weight lifting routine, I did some of the mistakes in your article. thanks Tom for reminding me again. Great article!

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterArthur434

I agree about the form being so much more important than reps, especially initially. I have had the same experience as Liza - most of the group class instructors at my LTF do not emphasize, let alone demonstrate, proper form. I can think of only one who will demonstrate a set to be done as a group, and then will instruct to for people to do the next set at their own pace, slowly, emphasizing form. It makes a huge difference in the work out benefit. Great article!

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJan

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