Continuing on from Part 1, let’s dive right into the inefficient and least productive gym practices that keep me up at night.
10 MOST COMMON CARDIO & STRETCHING MISTAKES
10. Not lifting weights, thinking that cardio is enough
Many of the people who toil away on the cardio machines don’t spend an equal (or ANY) amount of time lifting weights. They mistakenly think that cardiovascular activity represents the full spectrum of being “in shape” or that it is far superior to other components of fitness. While running/cycling/walking is an important part of maintaining a healthy cardio-respiratory system, there are other aspects of your fitness that need attention.
To be well-rounded you need other attributes like strength, power, and mobility. Strength takes the cake when it comes to promoting lean muscle mass, losing body fat, being well-functioning in the outside world and, well, getting stronger. The primary way to gain strength is to lift heavy things (refer back to Mistake #1). Oh, and power and mobility are closely tied to strength so those other things will get better as you push around some heavy metal objects.
11. Using bicycles for cardio
Unless you are training for a bike race, stay off the bikes. Unless you are ordered to reduce your impact activities, stay off the bikes. Sitting on a bike is comfortable but workouts aren’t supposed to be comfortable. You sit on a big cushy seat (read: not bearing your own body weight) and then push against an external resistance. In the real world we have to move our entire body weight through space (often while carrying extra weight) so why take a short-cut in the gym when you are supposed to be exerting yourself more? I’m fine about you taking a spin class every now and then—I especially like the part when you stand up to bear your own body weight—but do not rely on bikes for all of your cardio needs.
Also, do not go on the recumbent bike. Unless you are rehabbing from some injury under a physical therapist’s guidance (not likely) or prepping for a flight simulator test to get your pilot’s license (even less likely), only sit on that machine in order to lace up your sneakers. Why am I so fanatical about this? Because 1) you are sitting, which you do too much of anyway, 2) you are encouraging bad posture by sitting in a position of extended spinal flexion—when your hips are in front of your shoulders–a no-no for people with, or who want to avoid, back pain, (see a previous post on Neutral Spine) and 3) the range of motion at the hip joint removes any real hip extension, meaning your butt and hamstrings aren’t working very much. Need I go on?
12. Draping over cardio machines
Just because machines have handles doesn’t mean you are supposed to use them. If you can’t sustain the pace or intensity on the treadmill or stair climber without hanging on, then lower it. Don’t think you are accomplishing more on the treadmill by gripping on and leaning back at incline 14, frenetically jerking your head back and forth, then if you were to pump your arms free form at level 8. Just don’t do it!
13. Only doing steady state cardio
You deserve applause for making the effort to get in your cardio. Many people don’t and we’re not going to waste our time talking about them. Let’s focus on you, you training aficionado who religiously performs mindless treadmill sessions or hour-long elliptical prancing. You’ve got good intentions and I just want to redirect your efforts a bit.
Keep on doing those long, steady bouts of cardio in which you’re able to sustain an effort level of about a 6-7 (out of 10) for 30-60 minutes. Then be prepared to do high intensity intervals the next time you come to the gym. Some guidelines: 30s-1min of near maximal effort (8-10 effort level) followed by lower-intensity (4-6 effort level) recovery periods of 1-3 minutes. Shoot for 8-12 intervals per workout.
14. Not doing cardio at all
You think that because you lift some weights and get a little warm and sweaty that you don’t really need to do cardio. While it’s true that you get your heart rate up during the few seconds of challenging bicep curls, cardio is important to increase oxygen utilization, work capacity, resting heart rate, stroke volume, blah, blah, and other sciency stuff (1). Also, regular cardio will reduce blood pressure, help with fat loss, increase cognitive function, and prevent you from getting ridiculously out of breath when chasing your kid in the park.
I know there are tons of gimmicks about “3 minutes of cardio a week is all you need” and, while there is a tiny amount of truth to such claims, nothing replaces a good sprinting session or vigorous spin class. I’m not suggesting that you have to grind through mind-numbing hours on the elliptical. You should mix up your intensity and duration as outlined in the previous point. But, whatever you do, make sure you get uncomfortable.
15. Not being uncomfortable
I mentioned earlier that one of the joys of having fancy equipment in the gym is to sit, lie, and generally lounge on it to make your workout experience more comfortable. I also said how working out isn’t supposed to be comfortable. How many times have you looked around your gym to see Blonde Betty bouncing rhythmically on her elliptical for hours, no real sweat accruing, no noticeable heavy-breathing taking place? And guess what? Her body has stayed the same for years because she stays within her comfort zone.
Now, pan over to the chick running sprints on the treadmill or a guy squatting some serious weight. What do you notice? They are both breathing hard, require recovery time in between sets because of the high intensity effort, often have a strained expression on their faces, and generally look uncomfortable. It is the people who dare to push themselves and who relish working under challenging conditions, who generally have the shapelier bodies and more resilient minds to better handle stress. So, the next time you are yawning on your bike or flipping through pages of Self magazine, ask yourself, “Is this workout making me uncomfortable?”
16. Training balance by using wobbly implements
Let’s say that one of your goals is to improve your balance and the colorful toys in the corner of the gym are just calling to you. “Stand on me,” the wobble board says. Then, the half-domed blue Bosu ball chimes in and tempts with, “Try balancing on me.” There are so many alluring options that it’s hard to pick which implement to use. Let me help: turn around and walk away. Ignore the urgent cries of bouncy balls and wobbly boards. Let me explain.
Maintaining your balance has to do with how well you can keep your center of gravity over your base of support (read THIS previous post to understand these terms). There are lots of ways to challenge your stability—that have more real-life transfer—that come before squatting on a board. Try standing on 1 leg. If you are wobbling on a stable surface just doing this then you’ve got some work to do before getting on an unstable surface. See where I’m going with this? Once you can stay balanced on 1 leg, then start squatting. Progress in stages before camping out in the circus-training corner.
Learn to control your body in space with a solid surface underneath you because, in the real-world, we don’t get up from a chair that’s resting on a wobbly surface or push open a heavy door while surfing a Bosu ball. Of course, it’s fine to have fun and add some variety to your training every once in a while. And, it’s possible that you are training for an activity on an unstable surface (water, sand, horse). Just don’t make these implements a centerpiece of your workouts if you are like the majority of folks who want to be better at land-based activities.
17. Not warming up, at all or properly
You’ve only got 30 minutes and you are cramming in a workout so you decide to skip the warm-up. Or, you get up at the crack of dawn to hit the gym and figure that you’ll work your way into the workout by starting with lighter weights. We all have reasons to skip the warm-up but it’s really important because:
1) Your tissues need an increase in temperature and viscosity to contract optimally. Cold muscles aren’t as efficient or safe.
2) You need to prime your neuromuscular system to prepare for the exercises you are about to do so that your nerves can fire quickly and to the right muscles in the proper sequence and duration.
3) Your body only uses a small range of motion at its joints during a typical work day. We don’t usually reach high overhead, lunge forward, or bend sideways. It’s important to warm-up so that you can employ the entire range of your body’s capabilities to maintain good mobility in all planes and directions.
4) Psychologically, it’s good to transition from your job/bed to the gym so you can be present and give your best effort rather than dwelling on the list of tasks waiting to be done or those left unfinished. A warm-up tells your body, “It’s workout time.”
Click HERE to see a bunch of dynamic warm-ups to use before starting a workout.
18. Not stretching after, or at all
Much like the previous point, stretching is an important, yet often neglected part of being comprehensively fit. Stretching allows your body to maintain ranges of motion that you may want to use during desired activities.
There has been a lot of attention given to stretching recently: the right ways, wrong ways, different types, and proper duration. Here’s a rule of thumb: before activity do dynamic warm-ups (like those in the video above) and after activity do static stretches (hold each position for 20-30 seconds).
After a workout, in which we’ve contracted muscles and shortened them, it’s good to do static stretching to return muscles to their resting length. Muscles have an optimal length from which they can produce a maximal amount of force. Skipping stretching can impact your force production (how much weight you can lift) and, since we established in Mistake #1 that we have to lift heavy, just do your stretching!
19. Not drinking enough water
Staying hydrated is important for so many reasons. Let’s start with the fact that you are made up of about 60% water. Muscles would look like shriveled up beef jerky without water to hydrate them and make them pliable and elastic—2 important properties that allow us to contract our muscles (generate force) and to prevent injury. Our muscles also need water to expel waste products, the byproducts of physical activity, and to shuttle in cellular nourishment to aid in metabolic processes (2).
Please drink more than a sippy-cup size bottle like one of my female clients (which she doesn’t even finish half of). And, for you senior exercisers out there, drinking is even more important because our tissues lose hydration as we age. Bottoms up!
This concludes the unbearably long list of common workout mistakes. Please don’t be upset or concerned if you are one of the people that I see making these mistakes. It’s OK and rules are meant to be broken, on occasion. If you are truly tired and are proud of yourself for just hauling your butt to the gym at all then break as many rules as you want. Drape over the step machine and listlessly linger on the leg press for 10 minutes! I’m proud of you for even making the attempt. Just make sure that when you come back more well-rested that you’ll start making some adjustments to your routine to get the most out of your workouts.
Keep on Movin’
(1) Brooks, G. A., Fahey, T.D., & Baldwin, K.M. (2005). Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
(2) Whitney, E., & Rolfes, S.R. (2011). Understanding Nutrition (12th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.