How do you pick a workout routine you can be sure will get you the results you want? Truthfully, it’s hard. The fitness world can be confusing and overwhelming, with a shedload of conflicting advice that makes it hard for beginners and experienced exercisers alike.
That means that you might make some mistakes on your path to a fitter, stronger and faster you. And that’s OK – as long as it doesn’t end with some lasting damage. But at Strong Women we want to make understanding and progressing in your training as seamless as possible. That means sharing the well-worn mistakes we’ve made so that you don’t have to make them too.
Whether it’s what we’ve eaten or how we’ve trained, we asked fitness enthusiasts and personal trainers to explain what not to do – and how to fix the mistakes if you’ve made them yourself.
1. Doing too much too soon
This is a hugely annoying mistake that I’ve personally made. When I first got into the gym I went from zero to 100 – going from never having trained before to suddenly working out five days a week. The problem was that by doing more than I needed to, I left myself no room to progress.
Instead, I wish I’d started moving with what is known as the ‘minimum effective dose’ – that is, doing just enough to get the progress you want. It might sound counterintuitive, but it means that when you need to increase the intensity of your training because you have adapted to what you’re doing, you actually have somewhere to go. With my body plauteing at five workouts a week, there wasn’t a lot I could do to get out of that rut but train extraordinarily hard.
It’s actually bigger than simply being a nuisance, says personal trainer Hannah Lewin. “Working beyond where you need to be is ultimately not sustainable,” she says. “If you’re starting with high-frequency or high-intensity, that Jet from Gladiator feeling will wear off and you’ll probably start to feel like a failure. Beyond the physicality, you’ll mentally feel like you’re on the back foot.”
2. Not taking time for recovery
Do you go, go, go with daily workouts but don’t give yourself any time off? Well, stop. Every trainer I’ve spoken to says that this is a mistake. “Think of your workouts as going to the shop,” says Strong Women Training Club trainer Emma Obayuvana. “All you’ve done is buy the ingredients. It’s during recovery that they produce something wonderful.”
Even if you follow a workout split and never train the same muscles back-to-back, time off is important to avoid what Obauvana calls the “compound effect. If you keep damaging your body, it will never catch up with repairs.”
Lewin agrees: “If you don’t give muscle tears time to heal, they just get bigger and you end up with a lot of inflammation in your body. That can really compromise your immune system and sleep cycle, and leave you feeling exhausted and tired,” says Lewin. “You’re also never going to be working at 100% if your muscles are too sore or fatigued.”
Plus, the mental impact can’t be ignored. Exercise is a stress on the body, and we tend to ignore that fact. Continuously stressing out the body can lead to all sorts of complications. You get a weekend from work, so give yourself a few days off from training.
3. Forgetting mobility work
“When I first started exercising properly, I had no variety in my training. I neglected any of the stretch sequences in favour of early morning high-intensity workouts and my mobility was suffering. I felt stiff all the time and my functional movement was getting worse, not better,” says Nancy Best, a personal trainer and founder of Ladies Who Crunch.
Mobility work may not be the sexy, results-driven part of training, but I’ll keep banging on about how important it is. We spend most of our days immobile, so we need to train our bodies to be able to move our bodies through their full range of motion.
“Whether it’s the depth of your squat or your shoulder extension in an overhead press, our bodies build power and strength in movements when we can move fluidly. Prioritising mobility, regardless of your goals, is essential,” agrees Best. “I’ve completely revamped my training structure, so I match every strength and condition session with a rehab session. It’s helped me lift heavier, sleep better and feel stronger.”
4. Neglecting the warm-up
What you do before your session counts. But how often do you just open your phone and flick to the HIIT video you want to follow without thinking about the warm-up? Well, it’s a recipe for injury. “I injured my shoulder by not getting it ready for my lift, and that’s an injury that constantly recurs now and prevents me from doing particular exercises unless it’s really gently eased in,” my friend tells me.
It’s an all too common story and one that’s easily avoided. “Taking time to warm up optimises both physical and mental performance,” says Lewin. “It’s very difficult on both the brain and body to go from your day-to-day life to suddenly deadlift your body weight. A warm-up allows us to improve the flexibility of muscle fibres, raise the blood temperature and blood flow to muscles - all things that help us move more efficiently.”
So what should we look for in a good warm-up? “Always make sure your warm-up is workout specific. If you’re running, you might do active stretching and a light jog for a few minutes before picking up the pace. If it’s weights, you might do your first few sets with bodyweight or lighter weights to work through your range of motion.”
5. Running through the pain
“I had pain along my thigh when I ran but didn’t want to stop training so just kept running through it,” says journalist and fitness enthusiast Melissa Barran. “I just took painkillers and kept going, I didn’t see a physio until it was far too late. I just thought I could ‘run it off’ but it turned out I had ITB syndrome.”
The problem with not stopping when your body is screaming at you to is that you eventually end up worsening the injury. By putting off a week of rest, you might end up with six of them, says personal trainer Lianna Swan. “It’s tricky to know what’s lactic acid build-up and discomfort from training and what actual pain is,” she acknowledges. “But anything that feels sharp won’t benefit from a ‘no pain, no gain’ attitude. It’s best to take a few days off and see if it feels better, and if it doesn’t, talk to someone – a good place to start could be a trainer in your gym who can point out problems with form or weaknesses and refer you to a physio if it looks like something worse.”
7. Under fuelling
“I was encouraged to drop a lot of weight during some of my training, which meant that I really struggled to see results,” says fitness and wellness PR Tori Porter. “While I now do eat more, I generally have a low appetite which I think hinders me from progressing. Often, we’re told that we should eat less and move more, but if you want to get stronger you don’t always need to be cutting your calories.”
Swan agrees. “We see so much about calories in versus calories out, but not eating enough is a big mistake when it comes to composition, performance and overall health. Your body can’t build the muscle you want if it doesn’t have the energy intake.”
Instead, Swan recommends focusing on eating enough protein around your training and whole foods, rather than low-calorie options to make sure you’re fuelling your body properly. Remember that the more you move, and the more muscle you have, the more your energy requirements increase.
7. Not taking the regression
Hands up who’s been in a workout class and offered an ‘easy’ or a ‘hard’ variation? Even if it’s called ‘beginner’ and ‘advance’, it feels as though you have no choice but to push yourself to do the more intense version of an exercise (looking at you, push-ups-on-toes). “I don’t believe in ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ - it’s all about personal effort. Some variations of movements are essential, and they allow you to perfect the fundamental form. When you don’t allow yourself to regress an exercise, it can be really dangerous,” says Lewin. “Often it’s an ego thing, but it also comes from pressurised environments. Who is voluntarily going to take the ‘easy’ version in front of a class packed full of people?”
The only answer here is to understand what your body needs and be OK with doing it. That’s easier said than done but will have a huge payoff.