Gym fails aren't just a source of embarrassment; they can also be hugely dangerous. From over-training, to following spurious fitness advice, or taking on too much too fast, it's important to protect your body from injury and give yourself the best chances of achieving sustainable, long-term results.
In a recent video, Dr. Mike Varshavski, better known as YouTube's Doctor Mike, shares some of the most common mistakes he has seen patients make when they are at the start of their fitness journey, and offered some advice for beginners who want to start working out safely.
Thinking exercise is all they need
Many people who are trying to lose weight look at exercise as their singular, best method for fat loss, explains Mike, when there are other important factors, like diet. "70 to 80 percent of weight loss that occurs happens as a result of the foods you take in," he says. "You should be thinking about recovery, sleep, nutrition and exercise. You can't just focus on one pillar."
"It doesn't exist!" Says Mike. "It's been tested over and over again... You have to decrease your whole body fat content in order to see more muscular definition." He cites a study into tennis players, who perhaps predictably have more muscle in their dominant forearms than in their non-dominant arms—but the fat content in each arm is exactly the same.
"The simpler your workouts are, the more likely you are to see some long-term success," says Mike. "I'm talking about mixing in some cardio with some good old-fashioned compound weightlifting movements."
"You do not need to go on a shopping spree in the supplement store," he says. "You need to become consistent with your workouts first. You need to make sure that you're following the right protocols, that you're eating a healthy diet, that you're recovering correctly." He advises that the benefit you'll see from supplements is negligible at such an early stage of your fitness journey.
Mike admits that one of his pet peeves, and something that he sees far too frequently when he's in the gym, is somebody walking or running on a treadmill while holding onto the sides. "Essentially what you're doing is decreasing the intensity of the workout, decreasing the strain on your core, so making your core weaker, hurting your posture, and if you're creating an incline on the treadmill, by holding on you're actually decreasing that incline."
"Tracking can be interesting and fun, but obsessing over these numbers is truly counterproductive," says Mike. "If you show up consistently, that's going to mean so much more than the intensity of how hard you work out, how much weight you're lifting, how many calories you're burning. Forget about the numbers, especially while starting off. Focus on showing up, having a good time, and enjoying the process."
Going too hard too soon
Mike has treated many patients who had an amazing first session with a personal trainer, then ended up getting sick or injuring themselves because they went all out, pushing themselves further than their bodies were ready for. "Never, for your first workout, should you go all out," he says. "It creates increased risk of injury, and you're less likely to feel motivated to go back to the gym."
"I tell everyone that they need to do a good warmup before doing any kind of workout, but it's not mandatory that you stretch," says Mike, who suggests prioritizing getting the blood flowing through your muscles and increasing your heart rate. "Stretching can and should be reserved for the end of your workouts."
If you avoid strength training in your workouts, Mike says you're leaving a range of benefits on the table, including improving your metabolic rate, helping the body's ability to burn calories, improving posture and balance, and promoting better sleep.
Providing your body with adequate rest, protein intake, sleep and hydration is all integral to helping your muscles heal and grow back stronger after a workout, while also lowering the chances of getting hurt while training. "It's actually been proven that when you're over-training and under-sleeping, your stress hormones can peak and stay chronically high, which can hamper your progress and increase your risk of injury," he says.