Ladies! Don’t Make These Mistakes at the Gym

Renegade Row with dumbbells

Every Monday, I head out to see my client John. His apartment complex has a great gym. There’s a cable system, free weights, lat pull down station, benches, boxes, kettlebells, battle ropes, medballs and tubing. These are all my favorite things for a functional strength training workout.  Of course, the gym also has the requisite chest press, ham curl and leg extension machines, and some treadmills and ellipticals. The “requisites” are always busy. The functional stuff, not so much.

Since selling my gym years ago and going out on my own as a trainer and strength coach, I rarely step into a traditional gym.  But when I do, I am ever vigilant.  Some of the crazy ass things I see in the gym actually scare me. I’m waiting for a rotator cuff to blow, or for a middle-aged guy to fall off a box.  I also see a lot of ladies at this gym. One time, I saw 2 older women in down coats walk on treadmills at 1 mph. I think they were from Africa. I mean this literally. It was wonderful to watch as they attempted something brand new for them. But I’ve also seen lots of women doing things that are very outdated…. lots of things that might not be aligned with getting fitter and reaching goals. After all, that’s what going to the gym is about, right? Getting Fitter. Getting stronger. Achieving something.

Pink Dumbbells? Ahhh…no.

Here are a few things I see at traditional gyms, mistakes made mainly by women ( my guy version of this blog is in the works, too ). And so that I don’t sound too much like a negative Nancy, I’ve also provided my recommendations for fixing these mistakes.

Only doing arm work in your “upper body” workout

Many women at the gym only do their biceps and triceps during their upper body workout. Sometimes I’ll see a lateral raise, but rarely, if ever, do I see pullups, push-ups, rows, rotator cuff work, or heavy lat pull down.  Doing just your arms is not an upper body workout. It’s an arm workout. And, I guarantee you, you’ll never lose bodyfat or change the shape of your arms dramatically only doing arm work.  You’ve got to do the hard stuff, and do it heavy, if you want change. Please add rotator cuff work like external rotations or reverse flyes to your regimen, as shoulders are vulnerable to injury. Speaking of injury- avoid the worst of the upper body machines- pec dec and chest flyes. They are not functional and have a higher risk of injury.

Only doing floor work as your” lower body” workout

If you are not an avid gym goer, it can often be confusing and a bit embarrassing to go to a new gym. It is particularly true of women new to strength training. “What do I do”? they ask themselves. Often, they’ll resort to low level floor exercises because they are familiar, things like side leg lifts…inner thigh exercises…. Pilates leg lifts. While these are all fine adjunct and corrective exercises, they’ll never give you strong legs. And you’ll never expend enough energy doing these kinds of exercises to lose bodyfat and add muscle to your legs…just like my above point about arms.   Dead lifts, squats, lunges of all kinds, hip thrusters and step ups should all be part of your lower body workout. Emphasize the glutes, keep away from leg machines if possible, and work on functional weight bearing leg exercises.

Thinking cardio endurance work is enough to keep your legs strong

See above. Cardio is not strength training. Just because you can ride a recumbent bike for 30 minutes on level 5 does not mean you have strong legs. Typically, I hear “oh, I do cardio for my legs, that’s not my problem area”.  Training your legs is not about how they look, but about how they move and how they help you carry loads…. like when you are shoveling, or hiking and climbing, or moving furniture (with your husband as he yells at you for not moving fast enough hahaha).

Reading a book while biking or walking on a treadmill

Apologies ahead of time. I know this may be a go to for some of you. That’s fine. But please don’t call that a workout. It means you went to the gym to catch up on your gossip in People magazine.  Or, you find it relaxing.  But neither of those things qualify as a workout.  If this is your “go to” because you want to decompress or relax, I’d much rather see you stretch, or do yoga, or walk outdoors. This just isn’t an optimal use of your time, especially when all of us have such limited time to workout. If you are really interested in doing cardio, push yourself. Get tired or out of breath.  Do intervals on the rower, or jog on the treadmill. 10-15 minutes of interval work is more valuable than 30 minutes on a recumbent bike.

The Big Picture:

It can be intimidating to go to an unfamiliar gym, or to head back to the gym after a hiatus.  Have a plan of action so you don’t step in the door and look like a deer in the headlights. That plan should include an organized strength training program.

Strength training is incredibly important for women to focus on in order to stay strong, beat aging, and save yourself from injury. The more muscle, the better. Center your gym time on strength work. I always recommend my female clients train their whole body in each workout, shooting for 2-3x/week of strength. Typically, I don’t recommend split routines for most women; it’s just not enough of a stressor to get the visible changes we want.  But, if you are short on time at the gym, an upper body/core, lower body/care split is fine. But I still find whole body training most effective.

Get familiar with free weights and cable stations.  Get in there with the guys. You deserve to use the best equipment possible.  Free weight exercises and functional exercises are best for overall health, coordinated movement and sports performance. Learn these exercises. Avoid a machine-only workout which always involves sitting in a machine and isolating 1 muscle group. We sit enough. Our muscles do not work in isolation, but in conjunction with all the other muscles of the body.

Low level, long duration cardio is very ineffective and inefficient for getting fitter. Make sure you aren’t cutting corners and regressing back to just sitting on a bike or walking on a treadmill. These activities rarely get us where we want. You have to feel some discomfort during cardio in order to be working towards getting fitter.

The biggest complaint I hear from my female friends and clients is they just don’t get results. We have the power to change this. Watch your nutrition and hit the strength training hard. Hire a personal trainer to teach you the best exercises for yourself. It’s money well spent.