17 Bad Habits You Should Break to See More Gains in the Gym

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

So, you know that starting a fitness programme is one of the best things that you can do for your health. Exercise is known to reduce your risk of disease, it helps you to manage your weight, helps you sleep better, and boosts your self-esteem. But where do you start, and how can you get the best from an exercise programme?

Getting started with an exercise programme

Follow these steps to get you on the road to a healthier life:

Assess your fitness level

You might have a vague idea of how fit you are, or if you haven’t exercised in a while, being fit might seem more like wishful thinking. But it’s a good idea to get an idea of your baseline fitness level before you start your fitness programme. It’s great for motivation and for help with goal setting. You can record how many press ups or sit ups you can do in one minute, your body mass index, and your waist circumference.


Design your programme

Think about what your goals are, and make them specific. Are you doing a 5k run, or do you want to lose 1 stone before your holiday in 3 months? Having clear goals will really help to keep you motivated.

Make your routine balanced

Include a variety of activities in your exercise programme to train different aspects of your fitness. You should aim to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, or cycling on 5 days of the week. Strength training should be included in your programme at least 2 days per week, and flexibility work to maintain range of motion around your joints. Make some sessions a little more vigorous than others, but always start at a level that you can manage. Overdoing it due to beginner’s enthusiasm is very common. Think about doing daily activity, like taking the stairs or gardening as this counts too.

Get kitted out   

You don’t need to spend a fortune, but invest in some basic kit which is specific to the activity you are doing. Gym training shoes won’t cut it if you want to take up running for example. Make sure that you invest in breathable clothing with technology that wicks the sweat away from the skin.

Think about investing in some basic exercise equipment for your home, which will help keep you on track on the days when you can’t make it out for a run because of the weather or you can’t get to the gym for some reason.

If you like gadgets, and you want to keep a close eye on your progress, consider investing in a heart rate monitor or activity tracking app.

Get the programme underway

Remember to progress your programme gradually. Do a thorough warm up and a cool down each session. Start at a level you can manage and build up each session. Even if you start with 10 minutes at a time, build up to doing 30 minutes plus activity on most days of the week. This doesn’t mean spending 1 hour per day in the gym. Think about walking 10 minutes to the shop near work for lunch each day, taking the stairs, running around after the kids; it all counts. Exercise doesn’t have to be structured into a class or a gym session. Take a walk on the beach at the weekend, find a fun dance class, it all counts as exercise. Always listen to your body. If you feel light-headed, short of breath, dizzy, nauseous, or excessively short of breath, discontinue exercise and seek medical advice. Never exercise if you’re feeling unwell either, no matter how motivated you are about your exercise programme, it’s not worth doing yourself damage. Take a few days off until you feel better.

Keep a check on your progress       

Reassess your fitness and your goals every 6 weeks. Is there anything that you need to tweak? Can you do 10 more press ups than you could at the start, or has your progress stalled and maybe you need to step things up a little? This is your chance to do an honest appraisal. Keep your motivation going by setting yourself a new challenge, giving yourself little rewards when you reach a milestone, or exercising with a friend.

You’re doing all of this, but still no gains, why?

Bad habits that are keeping you from gym gains

You go to the gym at least 3 days per week, and you always work hard. You eat right, you get plenty of rest, or so you think. So why isn’t your healthy lifestyle paying off, and why aren’t you getting the gains you expected to get by now?

There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, but the chances are, that you’re doing something every day that is sabotaging your healthy regime. Maybe you’re in denial about how much you eat, or maybe you’re not eating enough? Maybe you’re kidding yourself about how hard you’re working in the gym or maybe you’re training so much that you aren’t giving your body the chance to rest, recuperate, repair, and grow?

Whatever it is, have a look at the top reasons why you aren’t making the gains that you hoped, and see if you’re making the common mistakes.

Bad habits that are keeping you from gym gains

Muscle needs energy to grow and this energy should come from good quality calories

You aren’t eating enough         

Think of your body as a machine; if you don’t give it enough fuel, of the right quality, it won’t function properly and it will most likely break down. Muscle needs energy to grow and this energy should come from good quality calories. You should eat enough carbohydrates, protein, and good fats to fuel your training. If you aren’t taking in enough calories, in a misguided attempt to lose body fat, your body won’t have the energy it needs to fuel the growth and repair of your lean muscle. Instead it will use the calories for the essential processes. At the same time, though, don’t just eat, eat, and eat. Eat the right type of foods in the right amounts or you will risk gaining body fat.

You skimp on protein  

Many people, especially those on diets don’t get enough protein for their needs and to fuel their training. For people who exercise regularly and want to gain muscle, consuming 1.3-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is necessary. Include a variety of proteins in your diet to get the full range of amino acids your body needs. Dairy, beef, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, and fish are all excellent sources.

You’re kidding yourself about your exercise intensity    

Your body adapts quite quickly to a training programme. The muscles need to be overloaded to grow and develop. Many people, particularly women lift weights in the gym that are too light. When lifting weights, choose a weight that makes the last few repetitions of a set feel almost impossible. Think about what muscles you are working and get a mind/muscle connection, don’t just go through the motions.

You’re not getting enough rest, including sleep!

Your body repairs itself while you’re sleeping. The body’s levels of human growth hormone are at their highest when you are sleeping. If you consistently miss out on sleep, the body produces a hormone called cortisol, which has a catabolic effect on muscle tissue, meaning it causes it to break down. This is the last thing you want if you’re trying to look lean and toned.

Your lifestyle is not consistent with your goals

You might be pushing yourself hard in the gym, but outside of the gym you might be undoing all your hard work. No amount of exercise can undo a poor diet and overall unhealthy lifestyle, so be consistent with your nutrition, your training, and your rest to help you achieve your goals.

You’re doing too much cardio          

Cardio is needed to keep your heart and lungs healthy and can help reduce your body fat, but it also burns calories which you don’t want to be taking away from your precious muscle tissue. Keep cardio sessions to 20-30 minutes, 3 times per week, and look at doing intervals, not long, drawn out sessions which will deplete your strength.

You aren’t exercising correctly for your goals

If you want to build lean muscle, you have to overload the body and lift heavy enough to stimulate as many muscle fibres as possible. You have to train in the correct repetition range for your goals too. It is generally agreed that 3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions stimulates muscle growth, and higher rep ranges of 12-15 at lower resistance improves muscular endurance. If you want power, your rep range should drop even lower; think lifting near the maximum weight possible for 4-6 repetitions per set. Focus on every repetition and vary the exercises in your routine, as training each muscle group from different angles will promote better development.

You aren’t taking the right supplements

Supplements don’t make up for a poor lifestyle, and only when you have your diet, exercise programme and rest sorted should you even consider them. Take a good quality multivitamin, not as a substitute for a good diet, but as an insurance policy to ensure you’re getting your quota of essential nutrients. Take a fish oil for heart, brain, and joint health, and invest in a good whey protein powder to make sure you’re getting all the amino acids your body needs for muscle growth and repair. Creatine is a supplement which is backed by science. The body naturally produces it, and it is known to promote increases in lean mass and strength, and it aids recovery from intense exercise.

You haven’t set any goals

Your training routine should be centred around some specific goals. Not just ‘I want to lose weight’, but something like ‘I want to lose 6% body fat’. This increases motivation and will help you tailor your programme more effectively around your goal.

You don’t have a coherent plan in the gym

Even if you have a goal in mind, if there’s no logic behind your exercises choices or routine, you won’t get far. A good exercise programme should be progressive, and designed to achieve specific goals. Only doing the exercises you like, or training the muscles that you think are the most visible, such as the chest and arms (yes, men, I’m talking to you!) is not a great route to the development of balanced strength and size.

Your diet doesn’t do justice to your training, or vice versa

You should try and modify your diet to fit in with your training and to match your goals. You shouldn’t be cutting calories and protein if you want to gain muscle size, just as you shouldn’t be taking mass gainers if you’re a long-distance runner. Adjust your calorie intake to match your level of activity or you risk gaining body fat. For example, if you have been going hard in the gym and reaping the benefits, then all of a sudden, you’re laid up with illness or injury, you need to reduce your calories accordingly, or the energy that is not getting burned off will simply be stored.

You’re aren’t doing the exercises that give you the most bang for your buck

Compound exercises are exercises that work multiple muscle groups and joints in one movement. These should form the basis of your training programme. Examples of these types of exercises are squats and squat variations, bench press and bench press variations, deadlift and deadlift variations, and chin ups and their variations.

You’re not warming up

Different goals require different types of warm up, but a good warm up gets the muscles switched on and firing correctly before you even start working out. A correct warm up reduces the risk of getting an injury that could set you back. To warm up correctly, make use of the following techniques: foam rolling, hip flexor work like leg swings, rotator cuff exercises like internal and external rotation, and glute activation work like bridges.

You try to train too hard, too fast

If you try to lift weights that your body isn’t ready for, or you exercise with poor form, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. It’s far better to learn the correct exercise technique and lift lighter weights if you have to, than let the gym room machismo take over and it causing you an injury.

Your exercise form is poor    

It doesn’t matter how hard you are working, if you’re not doing an exercise correctly, it can cause an injury or lead to you working the muscle completely incorrectly. If you look around any weights room, you will see examples of people ‘cheating’ in order to lift more weight. Examples of this include bouncing the bar off their chest when performing a bench press, leaning backwards and using momentum when doing bicep curls, and shortening the range of motion of exercises. Using correct technique will help protect your muscles and joints, and keep you away from the physio and chiropractor’s office.

You’re carrying too much body fat

Everyone in theory, has a six pack. You may scoff at this statement, but the visibility, or lack of, of your musculature has everything to do with the amount of body fat you have covering it. This layer of fat is stored energy, which does have a role in the body, but doesn’t look too nice when there’s a lot of it. It needs to be burned off, by exercising and reducing calorie (especially fat) intake. This will create a calorie deficit, where the stored fat will be used as energy.

You need to get more educated on health, fitness, and nutrition

The more you learn about your own body, the easier it will be for you to reach your desired goals. Read up on health and fitness online, or in reputable books and magazines, and this will keep you informed about what you might need to do to tweak your routine. Knowledge is definitely power. Don’t hesitate to make use of the knowledge of the gym staff either, they will most likely know plenty of tips and tricks to set you on your way, and they will be able to give you the guidance to exercise safely

Final thoughts

Starting an exercise programme is one of the best decisions you will ever make for your health. If you start out with a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and with an honest appraisal of your fitness level, there is no reason why you should not become a healthier and happier person.

But there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, and a lot of it is not helpful. It’s little wonder we get confused about what we should be doing. Make a point of researching exercise plans for your goals, cleaning up your diet, and checking the rest of your lifestyle, to make sure that there are no bad habits that might be undoing all your hard work.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.