Just this last week in the gym, I watched a guy prepare to bench press by stacking plates on either end of a barbell — not a small guy, but also not the kind of guy who looked like he could bench more than his own body weight.
So I predicted one of two things would happen: he'd surprise and impress me by flawlessly benching the weight. Or, he'd unrack the bar, lower it a few inches then back up, knock out a few more fast "reps" like that, then finish his set.
Do I really have to say that he neither surprised or impressed me?
Any gym is full of people lifting, or attempting to lift, waaaay too much weight. And I say "people" because, while it's mostly men who do this, some women are guilty of it too.
Check your ego at the gym door
It's pretty obvious why someone would do an exercise wrong, sacrificing their results and increasing their risk of injury: because how heavy you lift (or think you can lift) is valuable social currency.
Heavier is better is a powerful myth.
It's also why it's so hard for trainers to convince the people we're coaching to use lighter weights.
Sydney personal trainer Dinny Morris lists "not checking ego at the door" as one of the most common mistakes he sees people make in the gym.
"Trying to out-lift your friend, or doing some sort of weight you shouldn't be doing and then getting stuck under the chest press bar — I see this happen at least three times a week."
The consequences go beyond the embarrassment of having to ask someone to come lift the bar off you: "Disc bulges, shoulder and knee issues, minimal results because you're not performing any of the exercises correctly," Morris warns.
Lift smarter, not harder
Morris says that if you want to grow muscle, you're best off doing exercises through their full range of motion. For my mate on the bench press, that'd mean lowering the bar all the way down to his chest.
One of my first PTs gave me a great bit of advice, one of those workout mantras that's hackneyed by true: "You don't come to the gym to lift weight. You come to the gym to build muscle."
Check your ego at the gym door. Lower the weight you're lifting — heavier isn't necessarily better. Learn to do each exercise correctly, either by recruiting a trainer or finding YouTube channels where professionals clearly talk through the movements. (Athlean-X and Fitness FAQs are two I've recommended in this column before.)
Make time for training that improves your posture and mobility. And slow down your strength workouts to focus on the muscles you're working, rather than just zoning out and powering through reps as fast as you can. You'll be surprised how much harder a workout gets when you slow it down a little — but it'll deliver better results .
"Focusing on muscles contracting is important. It's an old term called muscle-mind connection," Morris explains. "It allows for better contraction of muscles worked [and] as well it helps stop any injuries… this way the exercise is safer but also the client can get better results."
According to Sam Downing, the secret to wellbeing is just to keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also a writer focusing on everyday health.
Follow him on Twitter.