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April 2003 Issue
Ten Counterproductive Gym Habits
by Michael Fick
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I’m retired, but still swamped. I don’t know how you working stiffs find time for it all … jobs, kids, patching the roof, fighting with your HMO, railing for or against our president, cooking, eating right, staying in shape, reading how to eat right and stay in shape, telling your share of our 15,000,000 telemarketers to shove it (I whistle the triple SIT tone before saying “Hello” now to tell their computers to forget my number), and reading my column.

In appreciation for the latter, here are some tips to make one of your most important endeavors – staying in shape -- more efficient. The American Council on Exercise polled 3,000 fitness pros for their 10 most common gym mistakes, Molly Martin and the Seattle Times and Pacific Northwest Magazine added to them from additional expert sources, and now, with their permission, I’m shrink-wrapping their excellent advice even further so you can digest it all with one sandwich. The price you pay for this efficiency bears the aftertaste of condensation, a small price to pay for your need for speed. Don’t swallow too rapidly, and don’t blink; you’d miss a paragraph. The mistake addressed in the paragraph you miss could waste gym time or even cost you hospital time.

  1. Don’t stretch. Wrong. Stretch … but only after working up a sweat. For more, read this column from February 2002.

  2. Lift too much, with careless form. That wastes both time and effort. If you can’t lift it s-l-o-w-l-y and with flawless form a dozen times, and are not a serious body-builder, use less weight. Improper form wastes time and effort by exercising the wrong muscles, and can cause injury.

  3. Hit the gym running. But only if you want setbacks from injury. Warm up by modest exercise before hard exercise. See our Dec 2002 column for more on this and the following bad habit.

  4. Head straight for the showers immediately after that last sprint or bench press. The five minutes hurrying saves can crack your noggin.

  5. Exercise too hard. Unless you’re getting ready to compete for big bucks or for a trophy you need help carrying, the risk of injury from heroism exceeds the rewards. We must microscopically injure a muscle to make it stronger, but even a slight actual injury costs us a lot of time or even sets us back. Getting back to the gym after a long absence requires backing off on the exercise level, too.

  6. Exercise too lightly. C’mon, guys … if you’re falling asleep, you’re not doing it right. Work up some sweat, some elevated breathing, and a heartbeat in your aerobic zone. If you can recite War and Peace in one breath, you’re not exercising; you’re dead.

  7. Drink too little water. Instead, read the July 2000 column and remember that the water in your food counts towards that eight-glass guideline … unless you’re exercising a lot.

  8. Have too much fun on the stair machine. It’s not a rodeo bull-riding simulator. Run it a manageable level, because hanging on to it stresses wrists and backs. It is meant to develop your cardiovascular system, not your triceps or forearms.

  9. Jerk iron. It’s lift, folks, or “pump”, not jerk. Slinging iron is a dangerous, misleading waste of time unless you are training for competitive power lifting (as in the “clean and jerk”, where giants try to heave small-town junkyards over their heads). Pump your iron s-l-o-w-l-y, as in nine seconds per repetition (3 up, 6 down), and move nothing but the joint being exercised. If either the weight or your body is swinging, it’s counterproductive and risky. During a bicep curl, for example, only that forearm should move, with every other limb looking like a machine bolted to the floor.

  10. Eat candy bars while working out. That includes everything from Milky Ways to $5 energy bars ... which usually differ mainly in the price. If you’re strapped for time, you’re not working out continuously and hard for two hours. If you’re not working out continuously and hard for two hours, any food you eat is superfluous. We know where superfluous food goes, and, sadly, it isn’t the same harmless place superfluous vitamin C goes.

    Now let’s add some more bad habits donated from a wide cross section of Seattle-area exercise pros. One, for example, is wear your sports shoes until the staff kicks you out of the gym. Old gym shoes aren’t just stinko; they can contribute to pain and even injury once their high-tech support system collapses into mere padding. That takes just months, so if you’re staying fit in ‘em, replace ‘em before their first birthday.

    Fall into a lock-step workout routine. Changing your weight-lifting sequence at least once a month stresses the muscles more even with no increase in the weight, and stress makes them stronger.

    Depend on your per$onal fitne$$ advi$or for motivation. If that works, great. But if not, why spend the money on him when you could spend it on tennis or ski or windsurfing equipment and provide your own motivation?

    Blame your lack of gym time on your busy life. We’re all swamped, and we all put in the same 25-hour days. Those who make time for exercise have 26-hour days because time spent in exercise doesn’t count towards our time on the planet. If that truism -- somewhat supported by science -- doesn’t motivate you, find a sport wild horses couldn’t tear you away from. I didn’t retire at 45 because I was rich; I retired because windsurfing is far more important to me than more money.

    Forget balance exercises. If you can’t remember to do them, it’s time to tattoo them on your forearm along with your address and the reminder to zip your fly. If your favorite sport doesn’t provide strength, aerobic, flexibility, and balance challenges, add a sport that does complete the list.

    Exercise mainly your jaw and eyes. Talk while, not instead of, exercising, and watch your form, not everyone else’s. You’re not going to look that good no matter how hard you try, so concentrate on what you have to work with, not what Arnold was born to be.

    Set unrealistic exercise goals, and use supplements or drugs to achieve them. The former may burn you out, the latter may harm your wealth and your health.

    Watch the gym clock. Your workout should emphasize its quality, not its duration, except maybe during the purely cardiovascular segment on the track or “heartmaster”. And during the whole session your emphasis should include establishing a lifelong exercise habit … not watching the clock.

    And, finally, my own contribution to the bad habits list, a real biggie in my opinion: Emphasize the first syllable in “working out”. If you haven’t found a sport, from bodybuilding to swing dancing, that you crave to the point it impacts your career, marriage, and leaky roof, you’re missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. The highly strenuous individual sports that have consumed my healthiest friends’ lives since kindergarten rev up their cardiovascular system and occasionally max out their muscles, but not one minute of it has resembled “work”. Think they look at a clock once during a six-hour stint at their sport? Of course not; they’re looking only at the sun, hoping to eke out a few more grins before it’s too dark. Does that sound like work?

    Do nothing. No, do anything.

    For more commentary on this survey, ask Google about ACE 10 gym mistakes, and stand back.



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