We’re men, and we’re not perfect. Sometimes our priorities are a little out of whack, and that’s putting it gently. In the gym, for instance, perhaps we put a little too much emphasis on certain bodyparts at the expense of others that are equally (if not more) important. And maybe our form on some of the big lifts isn’t what it should be. And maybe our egos get in the way of our better judgment from time to time. Imagine that.
But here’s the good news, guys: Your training faults — at least some of them — can be fixed. And there are some fitness faux pas that absolutely must be eradicated to make your loftiest goals attainable. The following four male-oriented gym gaffes fall into this category. Correct these and your program (and your physique) will be much closer to perfection than before. But first, you might want to check that ego.
Guy Gym Gaffe #1: Not Warming Up Properly
News flash: A few half-ass arm swings followed by 10 reps of 135 pounds on bench press is not a sufficient warm-up for an intense upper-body workout. Nor will a few minutes on the elliptical (and nothing else) prepare your legs for an onslaught of squats, lunges and step-ups. Yet this is how many guys start their workouts before diving right into the heavy weights. And then they wonder why they keep getting injured, have little flexibility or mobility and aren’t getting stronger on their lifts. Because they’re not setting the table for a great training session with an adequate warm-up, that’s why.
“This is a major no-no because a proper warm-up is a must in order to succeed in the gym,” says Jim Ryno, a personal trainer and owner of luxury home gym design firm Iron House (iron-house.co) in Alpine, New Jersey. “Raising the body’s core temperature will allow for the muscles to become more elastic, thus being ready to handle the stresses placed on them in the workout. A good warm-up will also assure that you remain injury-free and will lessen the chance of reaching frequent training plateaus.”
FIX IT: To get the most out of your training session, your preworkout routine needs to involve two things: some type of low- to moderate-intensity cardio activity to raise body temperature (typically 10 minutes or so will suffice), followed by a slightly more intense warm-up of dynamic stretching and muscle activation focusing on the bodyparts you’ll be training. If it’s leg day, you’ll want to target the hip joints through stretching/mobility work as well as activate the glutes, especially if those muscles have been “turned off” via being in a seated position for an extended period leading up to your workout. For upper-body days, shoulder mobility will be key. Doing a full-body workout? Well, then, all of the above.
Here’s a simple warm-up that will work you head to toe and take no more than 15 to 20 minutes:
- Do five to 10 minutes on an elliptical, a rowing machine, a stationary bike, jogging on a treadmill, skipping rope or any combination of these activities. Keep the intensity low to start, and work up to medium intensity by the finish.
- Perform the following five exercises as a circuit, completing two to three rounds total:
- Jumping Jack: 25 reps
- Arm Circle: 15 reps forward, 15 reps backward
- Side Lunge: 10 reps per side
- Leg Swing: 10 reps swinging front to back, 10 reps swinging side to side (holding onto a stable structure with one hand for balance throughout)
- Superman: 10 reps performed slowly, squeezing the glutes and back muscles at the top for one to two seconds
Guy Gym Gaffe #2: Not Squatting Below Parallel
Most men don’t put a barbell on their back and squat with it in the first place. They opt for easier alternatives to the “King of Exercises” like leg presses, hack squats and dumbbell squats. But even those who actually do use a barbell and a power rack often don’t go down far enough. If your thighs aren’t at least reaching parallel with the floor, you can’t really call that a squat — that's more like a half squat. And if you’re just barely hitting parallel, you’re still not quite hitting a full range of motion. Sorry to break the bad news.
“One of the major misconceptions people have is that full squats are bad for the knees,” says Robert Ciresi, a certified personal trainer at A Taylored Body gym in Riverside, California. “As of today, there is no conclusive evidence to support this claim. In fact, Olympic-lifting coaches typically believe you’re doing yourself more of an injustice and more damage to the knees by doing half squats. The body was meant to go through a full range of motion. Ask any kid 5 years old or younger to squat for you and he or she will naturally drop into a full squat, thighs past parallel, and be able to sit quite comfortably in that position for minutes at a time, pain-free.”
FIX IT: Let’s be clear, when we’re talking about “parallel,” we’re referring to the quads reaching parallel, not the hamstrings. Even so, your goal should be to reach this point, then lower down at least a few more inches. This is a full squat. Your butt won’t be touching the floor, of course, but it shouldn’t be too far away.
If you’re not currently getting down this low, first lighten the weight on the bar considerably. On your setup, consider widening your stance, which will help maximize your descent. All the way down (and back up, for that matter) focus on keeping your knees pointed slightly outward; this will require pointing your toes out a bit, too. These pointers will make it easier to take your reps beyond parallel. “Yes, the full squat does take practice,” Ciresi says, “but once executed properly, it will serve to strengthen the quads and hamstrings as well as the integrity of the knee joint better than any half squat.”
Guy Gym Gaffe #3: Going Too Heavy On The Bench
Let’s be honest, men tend to be more concerned than women with how much weight they can lift — way more concerned. And while going too heavy is common on many exercises, no move is loaded more excessively than the bench press. This can spell trouble not only in the form of injuries (particularly to the shoulder and elbow joints) but also in unrealized gains in size and strength. Here’s why: When you go too heavy, rep counts are greatly diminished — meaning sets of five or six reps with a given weight instead of eight to 12. The latter rep range is the sweet spot for promoting hypertrophy (muscle size), which goes hand in hand with strength. So while you may think you’ll grow stronger pressing the heaviest weight possible every bench day, a chronic plateau is the more likely outcome.
“When I first started lifting weights, I couldn’t wait to bench press,” Ciresi says. “I would lift the weight off the rack, lower it halfway down and press it back up. And just like any other red-blooded male, I kept adding more weight, hoping for the day I could press 225 pounds. I tried for a long time to reach 225 but was having an awful time achieving it. I couldn’t understand how I wasn’t getting stronger even though I was trying to lift heavier and heavier weights. Ironically, as soon as I had the epiphany to start using lighter weight and go all the way down on every rep, my bench press progressed quickly.”
FIX IT: Ciresi’s advice for properly loading the bench press is simple: “Use a weight you can handle, go through a full range of motion and add weight incrementally as you get stronger.”
Let’s break this down piece by piece. Using a weight you can handle means erring on the lighter side when deciding how much to put on the bar. If you’re shooting for 10 reps, don’t go with your true 10-rep max (the maximum amount of weight you can do for 10 reps) unless you’re feeling good and this is your very last bench set. If you still have a few sets remaining, pick a weight you can do for about 12 reps. Your first set or two might be short of failure, but that’s OK. This just means you’ll be able to do more reps on your last set or two, reaching failure at about 10, if not fewer, reps.
A full range of motion means lightly touching the bar to your chest at the bottom (not bouncing it) and pressing it back up to just shy of full elbow lockout.
Ciresi’s last piece of advice — “add weight incrementally” — is arguably the most important. Remember, there’s no rush. You’re in it (“it” being training, fitness and overall health) for the long haul. We highly recommend adopting a popular powerlifting training technique called “micro-loading,” which simply entails increasing the amount of weight you use from workout to workout by the smallest amount possible. On the bench press, that’s 5 pounds (adding a 2.5-pound plate to each side). If you have a great bench day and feel like you’re getting stronger, don’t get overzealous and slap on another 10- or 25-pound plate per side the next time out. Be patient and stick to the modest 5-pound jump. If you feel your strength levels start to plateau, take a “deload” week, in which you decrease weight significantly and stop every set short of failure for a week’s worth of workouts. In fact, most elite powerlifters believe a deload week should be administered every month or so to keep strength plateaus at bay.
Guy Gym Gaffe #4: Neglecting Your Posterior Chain
The term “beach muscles” didn’t come from women. It’s a guy thing, and it refers to all our favorite bodyparts to show off when hanging out by the water shirtless: pecs, abs, biceps, delts. And what do these muscle groups have in common? They can all be seen from the front, which means their rear counterparts often get short shrift in the gym. Out of sight, out of mind.
We’re talking about the posterior chain, which by definition includes any muscle on the back of your body — namely, but not limited to, the hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors (lower back) and lats. Overall balance is the key, and if you’re focusing too much on the front musculature and not enough on the back, you’re opening yourself up to a host of potential injuries, particularly in the lower back. More than that, you’re severely limiting your strength and power output if you don’t train your hams, glutes and lower back with as much vigor as you do your abs and chest. How many elite powerlifters and strongman competitors do you think have a weak posterior chain? Zero, that’s how many.
FIX IT: If you’re already balancing out the number of sets you do in the gym for chest and back, that’s great. Now it’s time to do the same thing for the lower back, hams and glutes, the opposing muscles to the abs and quads. Keep doing your sit-ups, leg raises, squats and lunges, but give your posterior-chain development a huge boost by working these four exercises into your routine on a weekly basis:
Deadlift: Use all variations of this classic movement: traditional, Romanian and sumo deadlifts, to name a few of the most common. When doing traditional and sumos, shoot for four to five sets of eight or fewer reps. With Romanians (or stiff-legged deadlifts), go light with slightly higher rep counts — three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Glute-Ham Raise: This is an extremely challenging exercise for the uninitiated, a bodyweight-only movement most effectively performed on a specialized piece of equipment called a glute-ham developer. Begin with two to three sets of as many reps as you can do, even if only a few.
Kettlebell Swing: Focus on minimal knee bend, “hinging” at the hips (pushing the glutes rearward) and keeping your lower back flat throughout. If you haven’t done these in a while, keep volume in check to minimize hamstring soreness in the days that follow. Work up to four to five sets of 20-plus reps using a challenging weight (20 kilograms or more).
Back Extension: This is the perfect counterpoint exercise to the beach-muscle-friendly sit-up. Use whatever “hyperextension” bench your gym has, or just do the movement lying facedown on the floor. No need to add resistance here, at least at first. Shoot for three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps.
Photography by Robert Reiff