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While remaining fit is a top priority for me, I do not work out at a gym. I never have for one very good reason. I just can’t watch what other people are doing without stressing out so badly I negate any benefits of going to the gym in the first place. Some of the things I see people doing look to me like serious injuries waiting to happen.

I think anyone who has been to the gym is familiar with the young buffed male pumping way too much iron than he safely should, while perusing the room to see who is looking. But it might surprise you to know that most average folks are also doing things improperly and unsafely. If you want to stay safe at the gym and get a useful workout, here are a few tips.

Alignment is Everything

Regardless of what exercise you are doing, if your body isn’t aligned while doing it you are not spreading the load evenly and some part is taking too much stress. If you do this repeatedly you will eventually pay.

While a lot of us are uncomfortable with working out in front of a mirror, they are there in the gym for a reason (well, other than allowing Mr. Buff to perpetuate his self-love affair). By watching your movements in the mirror you can often pick up on things such as a twist through your lower back, one shoulder that is higher than the other, or maybe a strange neck movement while doing arm exercises. Any of these things can lead to injury with repeated movements.

When your body is aligned and stable, then you can really target a particular muscle group with a particular exercise (such as bicep curls). This may mean backing off on the weight you are using in order to maintain proper form, but remember if you are cheating with some compensatory movement you aren’t even lifting that extra weight with that muscle you are trying to develop anyway. You are just cheating with some other part of you and risking injury.

Don’t Try to Keep up with the Joneses (or Janeses)

This is a common phenomenon, particularly when participating in a class environment. While classes are great for motivation and keeping you on track (because really, who is going to do 50 squats in a row without someone yelling encouragement), they can also lead you down the road of injury if you don’t listen carefully to your own body.

Unfortunately I hear a common refrain in my clients of “well I knew I shouldn’t have kept going but I wanted to keep up with the class.” There is no shame in going more slowly, doing less reps, using less weight, or even just watching a new exercise to ensure you are comfortable before trying it. And if you have an instructor who is going to give you a hard time for doing so then you need to find a new class. Listen to your body. It’s way smarter than you. Trust me.

Machines are not any Safer or Better

It seems sometimes people think that if they use a machine then they have to be using proper form and therefore it must be safer. While in some cases this may be true where the machine locks the rest of your body into a relatively stable position while you work the targeted muscle, I find this gives a false sense of security. Since there is no risk of dropping a weight on yourself, people tend to try to lift too much. Even when using a machine you can use compensatory movements and put stress where you don’t want to if you push the weight too high.

A good way to gauge if you are doing this is to ask yourself where in your body you feel the work is being done. If it is in the targeted muscle, great. If it is elsewhere then you need to back off the weight. Again, listen to your body.

The big disadvantage to using machines is that the challenge to your core stability is removed. When the rest of your body is locked in or propped against some part of the machine, you don’t have to stabilize your core. While this may help prevent injury, it is in no way functional. When do you ever use your biceps to lift something while the rest of you is propped on something or strapped onto some kind of frame in real life? Never.

Exercise Must be Functional

In order for your brain to transfer the benefits of your workout into real life, the exercises you are doing need to be functional. Those fancy machines are in absolutely no way reproducing functional movement. Stop a minute and think about every machine you have ever seen in a gym. Have you ever in your entire life seen someone reproduce that movement in the real world? I think not.

Which brings me to the one machine that I think should be abolished from the planet – the leg press. You know, the one where you sit, scrunch yourself all up to squeeze in behind the plate, and then push that plate out in front of you with your legs. People can generally push quite a bit of weight with this machine as they are using both legs at the same time. However, when the weight is in close to them the amount of pressure this puts on the lower back is phenomenal. As a result, this machine is a herniated disc waiting to happen, and I have treated people who have done exactly this.

No one, other than Cirque du Soleil performers balancing a fellow acrobat on their feet while lying on their back, uses their legs against that much resistance in that position EVER. So please keep walking past that monster before it does you in. Go grab some free weights instead and do some good old-fashioned squats or step-ups.

Strength for strength’s sake is not useful. If it doesn’t translate into things like finding it much easier to lift your bike on and off your bike rack then what’s the point? In order for this to happen, your muscles have to all work together, not in isolation. Increased bicep strength without the corresponding core stability that should come with it will not allow you to lift anything heavy more easily or safely.

So next time you are in the gym, get over your shyness and get in front of that mirror, watch your alignment carefully, listen to your body, and think functional movement. Do all of that and you will remain safe at the gym and translate your workout into making your daily life easier, and isn’t that why we go to the gym in the first place? Well, unless you’re cruising Mr. Buff, in which case good luck competing with that mirror.

We see the forest and the trees.

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