15 Fitness Mistakes You are Making Right Now

By: Dr. Jill Murphy, DPT, LAT, ATC, CSCS

I always tell my clients, whether physical therapy or fitness clients, if you are going to take the time to work-out, you want to do it right so you never waste your time when exercising. First, identify your work-out goals, then each and every exercise should take you one step closer to achieving those objectives. In a day filled with fitness fads and fashions that diminish the importance of form and physiology, it’s easy to get lost as to what is the right thing to do to get the most out of your work-out. So here is some advice  on how to avoid the 15 most common fitness mistakes to help you make the most of your work-out minutes in 2019.

15. Working glamour muscles instead of posture muscles. While this may not seem like a big deal to the lay person, focusing your work-out routine solely on highly visible muscles and ignoring the rest has major consequences for your body. In the shoulder, for example, doing lots of bench pressing and pec work without working the scapular stabilizing muscles with rows and rhomboid and mid and lower trap work is a sure recipe for injury due to the muscle imbalance this type of work creates. The same for working rectus abdominus for the 6-pack muscle look without working the obliques and transversus abdominus, which are the most critical muscles to isolate to protect your lower back from injury or flares of pain, especially if you have a history of low back pain.

14. Counting activity that does not increase your heart rate as “exercise.” With the popularity of devices and apps that track your every move, you might be fooled into thinking you have accomplished something great for your health by merely accumulating steps. While it is better than lying in bed or sitting sedentary behind a computer all day, to enjoy the benefits that exercise provides such as weight control, changes in cholesterol profile and other cardiovascular benefits, and nervous system relaxation, it is truly maximized by a bout of exercise that makes you short of breath and break a sweat for at least 10 minutes.

13. Supplementing protein when it’s not necessary. The average American diet is chock full of protein, too much in fact, for the majority of us including athletes. Your daily nutritional requirements for protein increase for specific reasons such as pregnancy, recovering from surgery or substantial injury, if you are vegan, or if you are participating in very heavy weight training and body building, especially if you are still growing. There is a down side to ingesting too much protein. In addition to the unnecessary expense of protein supplementation, it also taxes the liver and kidney to metabolize it, even as most of the excess is excreted in your urine. Excess protein also increases your risk of dehydration. How much protein do you need? According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a recreational athlete requires 1.1-1.4 grams of protein per kg of body weight, which increases to 1.2-1.4 for a competitive athlete, 1.6 for an athlete involved in body building and heavy weight training looking to increase lean body weight, and 2.0 grams per kg of body weight for ultra-endurance athletes. Also remember that the optimal post-workout nutrition is carbs and protein in a 5 to 1 ratio, meaning an 80-gram protein shake would require 5x the amount of protein to contribute to well-balanced post-work-out recovery nutrition. Instead of a protein shake, try drinking chocolate milk or a fruit smoothie with yogurt or milk. Remember, protein supplementation for young athletes is not recommended due to the stress it places on the immature liver and kidneys.

12. Performing neck strengthening exercises to prevent concussions. Forget the Youtube videos and even professional strength training presentations that I personally have seen from coaches that have no actual scientific research that proves there is any ability to reduce concussion risk by strength training the neck muscles. While stabilizing the neck is a worthy work-out goal, there are unfortunately no exercises known to reduce your risk of concussion with sports participation.

11. Taking herbal products with unknown and impure ingredients. As someone who suffers from a variety of heart arrhythmias due to an overly excitable heart, I am particularly aware of the possible risks of dietary supplements, herbs, shakes and smoothies that contain proprietary, unidentified products that could have unknown, harmful effects on the users. Be aware that any product that purports the ability to help with weight loss or appetite suppression likely contains a stimulant of some type that could cause tachycardia, arrhythmia, or worse. For some products these harmful effects may not be disclosed until many years in the future like phen-fen after lawsuits and deaths, and some, just like phen-fen are coming back on the market repackaged as herbal phen-fen with unknown safety profiles. So buyer beware of what you are purchasing and ingesting. Keep in mind that these products have no safety inspections or guidelines, and their factories are typically overseas and not cleaned and sanitized between running various products on the manufacturing lines, creating impurities and contaminants of unknown consequence that are not disclosed on product labels.

10. Imbalanced approach to strength training. When I analyze a client’s weight training program, the first thing I look for is a balanced approach. How do you accomplish that? The first is an obvious, yet maybe not so obvious way, in balancing the natural strength and weakness we have between or dominant and non-dominant sides. Doing more unilateral weight training with dumbbells in weights specific to your right and left side is the best way to maximize the strengthening of your non-dominant, weaker side, while still challenging your dominant side, i.e., you should not be lifting the same amount of weight for the same number of sets and reps for each side. Instead, lift the amount of weight that makes you feel so tired that you cannot complete one more rep to hit your desired number of reps (3-15 for strength training, 15-20 for toning/endurance). The balance most of us forget is the balance between the front and back side of the body. If you strengthen your biceps at the front of your arm, then you need to also strengthen triceps on the back side, with the same number of targeted exercises for each muscle (3 exercises for the biceps and 1 for the triceps creates a muscle/tendon strength imbalance at the shoulder and elbow). Same goes for the front of the chest (pecs) and it’s opposing scapular muscles (rhomboid, mid and lower traps, and lat dorsi). At the hips, it would mean hip adductors and hip abductors, and hip extensors opposing hip flexors. For the thigh, it would mean targeted quad strengthening as well as hamstring, and so on throughout the body.


9. Assuming that you will lose weight without cardio. While you can lose weight through any variety of means, the optimal weight loss program includes a healthy, calorie-aware balanced diet, cardio to lose calories, and strength training to lose calories and build lean muscle mass that will consume more calories at rest.

8. Drinking Gatorade or Powerade instead of water. For most of us folks doing our typical recreational work-out routine, good old water is all we need for hydration before, during, and after exercise. A sports drink with balanced electrolytes and carbohydrates is required only for heavy, sustained exercise for more than one hour, especially if in a hot and/or humid environment. Otherwise, the good we do with our work-out gets cancelled out by the additional calories contained in these sweeter beverages when water would suffice.

7. Using the leg extension machine to strengthen the quads. My patients hear this advice frequently. I do really wish knee extension machines in gyms would be ripped out and banished forever. Why? While using this machine does strengthen the quad, the biomechanical alignment of these machines creates excessive force at the patello-femoral joint, increasing wear and tear well beyond your years, contributing to chondromalacia and arthritis at the patella. But don’t skip strength training the quads. Instead add some body weight squats with excellent form (knees stay behind the toes, back is straight, not flexed), weighted wall sits (again knees behind toes), or leg press (again, knees stay behind toes, so place your feet high on the platform with toes likely off the top) for some basic quad isolated strengthening while avoiding undue stress on your knee joints.

6. Thinking that rectus abdominus is part of the “core.” Rectus abdominus is an ambitious muscle, looking pretty for those with low body fat composition, and over-working for the rest of us as a primary trunk flexor. Where rectus abdominus falls short is in protecting and stabilizing the spine. This muscle is NOT the primary spine stabilizer, but because of the muscle imbalance we all have at the abs, it takes over the role of the actual spine stabilizers (internal and external obliques and transversus abdominus) and actually increases stress on the posterior elements of the spine. Why is this important? The posterior elements of the spine are your facet joints and intervertebral discs, which are the first to be injured and degenerated in humans, starting in your 20’s and 30’s. This process needs no additional encouragement. So, instead of focusing on rectus abdominus with sit-ups and crunches, try instead a targeted spine stabilization program that begins with an ab brace, progresses to planks, and eventually is helpful with every strength training exercise you do. Check out our article, “Build a Better Body: Myth-Busting the Abs” on how you can adequately address this area, the true core.

5. Performing squats when you intend to do deadlifts. Pictures really are worth a thousand words here. If I had a dollar for every time I see or catch myself doing a deadlift incorrectly with TOO much knee flexion (which turns out to be a squat!), I would seriously be rich at this stage of my career! This habit is the easiest to break by going back to the original Romanian deadlift form instead of the modified Romanian deadlift. Keeping in mind the deadlift is an exercise for your gluteus maximus, focus on these two things to perform it correctly. First, lead with your hips- stick your bum out fas far as you can behind you, keeping your knees straight (Romanain deadlift) or only slightly bent (10 degrees or simply unlocked) for the modified Romanian deadlift. Second, remember to squeeze your gluts on the way up to maximally activate the actual muscles that this exercise is intended to work!

Deadlift Poor FormDeadlift Poor Form (knees are too flexed)
Deadlift Good FormDeadlift Good Form (knees are straight or slightly unlocked)


4. Thinking that doing cardio will strengthen your muscles. This is a common error I hear from my clients. Swimming, rowing, running, biking, and walking, while excellent cardio or endurance exercises, do not “strengthen” your muscles. You need to perform strength training, in other words, an exercise that you can only complete a total of 15 reps or less and this completely fatigues the specific muscle or muscles to actually strengthen the muscle or create muscle fiber hypertrophy (muscle fiber growth or the addition of new muscle fibers).  Keep up the cardio, as this with improve your overall stamina with daily life activities, but if you want to strength, start a balanced strength training program.

3. Doing the wrong number of sets and reps for your target strength training goal. So what exactly should you be doing? What is your weight training and/or fitness goal? Decide on this first. Then, realize that the number of reps should end not at a pre-conceived number, but rather depends on the amount of weight you are using for each muscle. For example, if I can perform 25 leg press reps at 120#, clearly I am not hitting the correct number of reps for any of the goals listed in the table below. If my goal is to increase my muscle strength, I need to find the magic weight that fatigues my muscles completely in 6-12 reps. If I can perform 20 reps, I’m lifting too light. If I can only do 1 rep, the weight is too heavy. This is how you decide on how much weight to lift for each muscle/exercise.  The number of reps is an estimate, because on a given day, you may feel more tired and not hit your target number of reps, or you may have more energy and strength and can do a bit more.  So perform the number of reps until you are fatigued, following the guidelines listed in the table below for your specifc strength training goal.

Goal Sets Reps Days/Wk
Increase Muscle Strength 2-3 6-12 2-3
Increase tone or muscle mass 2-4 15-20 2-3
Serious muscle strength/mass building 3 3-6 3
Weight loss 2-3 6-15 2-3
Injury rehabilitation 2-3 8-15 3-7 (lower weight, higher reps if performing daily ex)

stretching2. Stretching before you exercise. While stretching before you exercise is not necessarily bad for you, research shows it is not as beneficial as stretches performed right after you exercise. Stretching while your body is warm helps your muscles maintain their length as they cool down after your work-out. We do advise our clients to stretch a problem muscle or muscles prior to the heaviest part of their work-out or cold right before the work-out if need be, but this optimally would be after at least a light work-out that breaks a sweat as a warm-up first to gain maximal muscle fiber and collagen length from your static stretch.

1. Expecting amazing results from the same old work-out routine. This is the answer to the inevitable question we all ask at some point when working out- why am I not seeing the same results I saw the first 6 weeks I began working out? First, there are many benefits to beginning a work-out routine when you have previously been sedentary. The majority of these benefits are maxed in the first 6-12 weeks. Once you have built your work-out base, then build to a higher level of exercise by increasing the duration (number of minutes), intensity (increased cadence, increased resistance, addition of intervals or bursts of faster work, or reducing rest between reps), speed, and/or frequency of your work-outs. Realize the gains that you see are based on your body seeing new, challenging work that it has not yet adapted to. Once your body adapts to your work-out routine, which usually occurs at about 8 weeks, it is time to shake up your work-outs if you desire additional adaptations like strengthening, increased endurance, weight reduction, etc. How different does it need to be? For cardio, try a different type of cardio, or add resistance or hills to your work-out. For strength training, add speed work, plyos, or change the type of strength training you are performing for the same muscles or groups of muscles. Or try a different type of strength training program altogether. If you are currently doing strength training working on isolated muscles, try some body weight exercise that focuses on groups of muscles, or another focused type of strength training (there are many varieties that are popular currently). Or try something really different like rock wall climbing, hiking, dancing, balance exercises, tai chi, yoga, Pilates, etc. The idea is to throw something new at your body to force new, additional adaptation, plus it will keep your work-outs fresh and prevent burn-out. Remember to keep alternating and adjusting your work-outs in 8 week cycles to get the most of your exercise time in 2019!