At The Gym: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Even though I am a trainer and have the equipment to work out at home or at the sports therapy clinic where I work, I still prefer going to the gym.

It’s partly a social thing I suppose – I’m not a big chatter at the gym, but I do have the people I say hi to or nod to. Strangely it’s also partly being able to tune out. I love to put my mp3 player on and enjoy some loud tunes. Aside from at the gym and in the car, I don’t listen to a lot of music. Maybe I need to do that more. ..

And then there’s the amazing mirror in the women’s change room. It makes me look very tall and very thin. Every mirror should provide that kind of positive reinforcement.

I tend to pay attention to what others are doing at the gym – what can I say – I’m interested in exercise. And so I thought I would share with you some of my observations, sorted into the good, the bad and the ugly. Hopefully you don’t see yourself in the ugly category!

The Good

People working out. I know: It’s a gym. That’s what people do at a gym. I still love it. These are all people who feel that their health and happiness is important to them and so they are taking the time and putting in the effort to maintain their health, and their weight, and their fitness level.

Very overweight people working out. Every time I see someone who is very overweight working out at the gym, I feel inspired. My friend Jennifer has pointed out that being 10 lbs overweight is like carrying around a bag of potatoes everywhere. Then I saw a Michael Boyle presentation, and he made the analogy that someone who is 150 lbs overweight is effectively carrying another person on their back everywhere they go. That would be exhausting!

Many of the people I know who are only carrying around a bag of potatoes don’t have the energy to get to the gym, but then the person carrying around another person does? That’s impressive.

People helping each other. I think this is something that most men are aware of, but most women are not: people will ask strangers to spot them on an exercise, and the strangers will happily oblige. So if you’re ever at the gym thinking that you want to try a free weight exercise but are worried that you will get stuck – ask someone to spot you. Odds are they’ll be happy to do it.

Many years ago I was afraid to go into the free weight room. It was very intimidating looking, and I thought the guys would snicker at my weak little bench press. I felt like I had to be strong before I could go in there. One day I went in anyways. A crazy thing happened: nobody snickered. Instead I got welcoming nods. Even from the big muscle heads. Give it a try.

The Bad:

The machines. There are two main reasons I don’t like machines for workouts:

  • They force abnormal movement. Next time you are at the gym, watch someone doing a bench press from the side: You will find that they do not lift and lower the bar in a perfectly straight path. So what happens if they do this with the machine? It forces them to move in a path that is not natural for them, and in my opinion this puts them at a risk of injury.
  • When you use a machine, you basically take your core out of the equation; and then you go to core class. OR you could skip the core class and do the exercise while standing with either the cable column or dumb bells and work your core while you work your other muscles.

The Smith machine. I know this is a machine, but I despise it so much that I feel it deserves its own heading. In case you are wondering, the Smith Machine looks like a squat cage, but the bar is locked into position so is only able to go straight up and down. This provides for potentially dangerous movement – particularly for your knees and lower back. Please, do not use the Smith Machine for squats or bench press

It does have some great uses though! It is great for doing inverted rows (hang upside down from the bar and pull your body up to the bar), it can be used for incline pushups, and it is a great place to hold your towel, or as a surface to lean on while you are chatting with someone instead of working out.

Women lifting tiny weights. Every time I see a woman using 2 pound weights I sigh (I’ve never seen a man hold a 2 lb weight – have you?) . Not quite every time: there are situations where it makes sense – if you really are not strong enough to lift a 5 lb weight for 10 reps; absolutely use the 2 lb. If I see someone really struggling while lifting the 2 pounds then I think that’s awesome – it means that they are lifting within their ability and that is fantastic!

But most of the women I see holding 2 lb weights are strong enough to lift more. How can I tell? Because they are moving their arms up and down 15 or 20 times, without their core contracted because they don’t need to contract the core to support 2 lbs (that’s like 2 cans of soup), without the slightest perceptible muscle twitch, and without generating a single bead of sweat. What is this accomplishing?

The reason I think this is unfortunate is that it occurs because many women are afraid to lift heavy weight because they think it will make them big. Instead they lift light weight to work on “tone”.

The truth is that lifting heavier weights will help you lose more fat, give you more energy and help tone your body. Sounds pretty good.

Sitting on the bike or elliptical for an hour. Pedaling or stepping slowly while reading a magazine. If you are doing this because you find it relaxing and are really just looking for some “me time” where you can read a trashy entertainment magazine, then I take it back – enjoy your hour.

But if this is how you are working out to get fit and/or lose weight, then you are wasting your time. The research – and results – are very clear: you need to workout with intensity to reap the fitness and fat loss benefits of exercise. You have to sweat. The good news is that if you do work hard on the bike, then you will continue to burn calories long after you finish. The other good news is that you don’t even have to go hard for very long. Over a 15 minute span, you can put in about 5 minutes worth of hard work, interspersed with easy riding. See – there is room for your easy riding – just not much of it.

The Ugly:

Exercises done dangerously. I see this most often with deadlifts and squats. Sometimes it is bench press. Usually it’s young men trying to lift more than they should.

With deadlifts, the problem is usually too much weight. This tends to cause the lifter to pull up with the back first and then extend with the hips. This puts the back in a very precarious position.

The other prime offender is the squat. A squat should actually be like the movement you do to sit on and get up from the toilet. What I often see is someone squat down until their knees are only bent to 45 degrees. That is nowhere near a proper squat. So why is this dangerous? Well for starters, people can do a 45 degree squat with much, much more weight than they can a full squat. I just don’t like seeing that much weight on someone’s spine.

Maybe part of my problem is that this is an exercise I used to do when I was working out with a trainer about 7 or 8 years ago. It felt awesome because I was “squatting” 355 pounds. I eventually ended up with neck problems – right around where the bar rested. I no longer do partial squats.

Exercises with minimal range of motion. I think I see this most often with pull-ups. I find it funny to watch a big muscle-y guy pumping out 10 pull-ups, but comes nowhere near fully extending his elbows at the bottom. Partial pull-ups are easy. Want to try a really good exercise? Do a full pull-up! Sometimes I do see people who can bang out 10 full range of motion pull-ups with a plate hanging off them. That brings me back to the good…

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