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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brandon

5 Common Mistakes when returning to the gym that lead to time off from injury

Do your New Year’s Resolutions include getting back to the gym? Has it been a while since you

laced up your sneakers, dusted off the treadmill, or stretched? Don’t make these 5 common mistakes that often lead to injuries and lost time at the gym as well as missing out on not only your fitness and weight loss goals but also time with the family because of an easily preventable injury. (Watch our free on-demand workshop: How to Exercise Pain Free and Reach Your Fitness Goals in 2022 )

Before we dive into the 5 common mistakes- let’s cover some things that may be a bit confusing. First-what is mobility and how do I know if I have too much or not enough. Think of mobility as the stiffness around your joints. A common example of not enough mobility is your heels popping up off the floor when you’re doing squats. Some joints that need more mobility(on average) are your ankles, hips, and mid-back. Often, they need joint specific stretches or movements to loosen them up to let you move well and without compensation. Now, this is different from tightness which you might feel in your calves, hamstrings, or low back. Those are shortened muscles, sometimes from sitting too long or other times from your body trying to protect you from certain movements that might cause pain(think low back pain and chronically tight hamstrings). While one benefits from stretching the other benefits from fixing the problem that caused them to try to protect you in the first place(more on that in a bit). Now we go to the opposite end of the stiffness spectrum to the person who is very flexible who could benefit from exercises that work stability and control. This person usually loves to stretch(mostly because they are very good at it) but strength training sometimes makes their joints hurt, especially if they haven’t worked the muscles that stabilize areas like the knee, hip, or shoulder.

What Body Part Needs What?

Now let’s explore some common trouble areas that often lead to injuries elsewhere. Starting with the ankles, ankles usually need more mobility. If my ankle doesn’t have enough mobility, my foot and knee can both become injured with things like plantar fasciitis or runner’s knee. Next up is the knee which can not only be the victim of problems at the ankle but also from problems at the hip. Often we try to protect the knee by doing leg press or knee extension exercises but the true protectors of the knee are the “rotator cuff” of the hip, your glutes and rotators. Next up, the hip is an interesting joint. It tends to be too stiff and too loose at the same time. How can that be? Well, as a ball and socket joint, it can move in a full circle. The forward and backward part of that movement often suffers from being too tight and stiff while the rotating and side to side movements tend to not have enough control. Next up is the back which now needs stability and is sometimes the cause of both hip and knee pain, stiffness, or instability. As a Physiotherapist, I often note that when the back is fixed, both hip and knee issues including chronically tight hamstrings disappear. When we move on up to the mid back or thoracic spine, we now switch to an area that needs a lot of mobility work because when the mid back is too stiff, that can make for problems at both the shoulder and neck because they often have to become more mobile just to compensate. For example, try slouching then raising your arm overhead. You’ll find that you can’t point your arm at the ceiling in a slouched position and you just might feel a pinch at the top of your shoulder.

So with that in mind, we’ll look at the top 5 most common mistakes people make when returning to the gym or fitness routine.

Mistake #1: Jumping back into the same routine-too much too soon. If you’re like many people, you keep some kind of journal of what you’ve done in the past. Maybe it was a food or workout log and it is time to make a new entry. Maybe last year you made it halfway through the year so what do you do? Look at what you did last and plan on jumping back into it at the same weight, same reps, or same sets. This can get you into trouble on a couple of different fronts. First, you might load your joints, muscles, or tendons too much and pick up an injury that knocks you out of the gym(or makes you not train that part for several months). Often we need to jump back in at about 50% of our last workout(especially if it has been a long time). This can save both injuries and a nasty condition called rhabdomyolysis where you break down your muscles so much that it can clog your kidneys and send you to the hospital. Special note, if you have recovered from Covid, be aware that there are some heart issues being noticed by people when they exercise so consult your doctor if you are at all concerned.

Mistake #2: Not preparing for success in the gym-pre workout sleep and nutrition. Muscles recover and are made while you sleep and the best way to sabotage your workout is how you fuel for it and how you recover from it. If you’re getting less than 7 hours of sleep, not hydrating or drinking water, screwing up your sleep with alcohol before bed, and not getting a meal that fuels you through your workout, you are wasting the workout. How do you know if you are hydrating enough? Check your pee, if it is clear or light yellow, you’re good. If it is darker, drink up and fix it(note some supplements will turn it a fluorescent yellow color).

Mistake #3 Not preparing your body for action: Just like you can win or lose your workout while you sleep, you can win or lose your workout during your warm-up. Doing your mobility work(like loosening your ankles with a floss band or mobility ball / foam roller muscle release) then getting the blood flowing through a warm-up that preps your muscles for action is key to winning your workout so you lower your chances of injury and give your joints and muscles the ability to move well and move often.

Mistake #4 Shooting a cannon from a canoe. What do I mean by this? More often than not, we all love to work on the big muscles(mostly those we can see in the mirror) but ignore the supporting cast of muscles that stabilize our joints and allow us to run faster, lift more, and be more mobile while reducing our chance of blowing something out. So, when we work the big muscles, like chest press or leg press and then try to run or lift something without having worked the supporting cast, we are in essence working on an unstable foundation( the canoe). Include working those stabilizing muscles into your workout and use them they way they were made to be used (ignore most rotator cuff exercises) and you will avoid this mistake.

Mistake #5: Not knowing where to start but doing it anyway. Have you ever tried to use a map, not the app sort, but one of those prehistoric paper ones? It is really hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re starting. It is really easy to get off track and waste time working on the wrong things while the things that would help you get neglected. That’s why I created our free on-demand workshop How to Exercise Pain Free and Reach Your Fitness Goals in 2022. In it I teach you how to learn what areas need mobility, which areas need stability, and what to do about them. Need a more personalized approach? Schedule your Free Injury Risk Assessment, a 9 point head to toe check-up that looks at the most common reasons somebody gets injured when working out. Already in pain now(or had an injury in the past and you’re unsure about reinjuring it)? Our No-Cost Total Body Diagnostic Test helps find the cause of your pain and helps you confidently know what the next steps are in dealing with it.


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