4 Major Exercise Programming Mistakes

Woman stretching hamstrings.

He who represents himself has a fool for a client. – Abraham Lincoln

In many cases, it could be also said that the person who writes his own training program has a fool for a trainer.

The reason, in both cases, is the difficulty of being objective in deciding your own needs.

It’s only natural to gravitate towards what we like and what we are good at (often one and the same), which means when we write our own exercise programs, we often neglect what we need.

In fact, if you coach yourself, chances are you are making (or have done so in the past) at least one of the following common exercise programming mistakes.

Now, if you are experienced enough, with the accompanying knowledge, you can write yourself good programs, but I would always argue, that these will generally be inferior to a program written for you by a coach with equivalent or greater knowledge and experience than you.

The problem with programming mistakes is that they compound over time (more on that later), and the risks they pose are not insignificant.

Risks of Poor Exercise Programming

Before I go on to describe some of the most common exercise programming mistakes I see, I want to outline the risks involved with making these mistakes:

  • Injury. This is far and away the biggest risk of poor programming. In my opinion, if you exercise for health, you should never get injured as a result of your exercise program. I understand that for competitive athletes, a certain amount of risk is assumed in order to push the limits of performance, and I also understand that on any given day, shit happens, so a random injury might occur. But often, what seems random, is not, and if you look at past workouts, there were modifiable factors that contributed to the injury. The other injury consideration is joint degeneration.
  • Negative postural changes. Posture is complex – it has psychological and emotional components to complement the physical components that are commonly talked about. One of the influences on posture are the activities and tasks we expose ourselves to on a regular basis. With poor exercising programming, you can develop poor postural habits.
  • Suboptimal progress. To be honest, the risk of getting injured is enough of a reason to ensure good exercise programming. However, even if you are a throw caution to the wind type, good programming will ensure you make the best possible progress towards your goals, whatever they may be.

The Most Common Exercise Programming Mistakes People Make

These 4 mistakes are not listed in any particular order, and I would say, based on experience only, that the majority of people who have poor (or no) programming when it comes to their exercise make more than one of these mistakes, if not all!

1. Improper or lack of warm up

There’s a popular quote in trainer circles:

If you don’t have time to warm up, you don’t have time to work out.

Unfortunately, like many things, the quote is more popular than the practice.

Too many people make the mistake of not warming up properly before exercising, or, even worse, not warming up at all.

Excuses range from “it’s boring” to “I don’t have time” and god knows what else.

Like many things, there is a disconnect between what most people do and what those who are succesful do.

For example: professional sports clubs, with million dollar athletes, have staff dedicated to optimising warm ups in order to maximise training and game performance and minimise injury risk.

The bottom line is, warming up is important.

During a warm up, there are 3 main goals:

  • Psychological preparation – a transition period from what you were doing, to what you are going to do.
  • Physical preparation – increase body temperature, address physical qualities like mobility and muscle activation
  • Skill practice to prime the nervous system for the upcoming task

If you don’t warm up properly (or at all), you decrease your subsequent performance and increase your risk of injury. A lose-lose situation.

2. Lack of Flexibility Work

Time magnifies errors in training. – Ian King

Ian King has been a physical preparation coach for more than 30 years, and is often outspoken about many topics. However, his opinion is based upon experiencing of producing real world results with both athletes and coaches over many years, so his opinion counts.

One of the biggest topics he is vocal about, is flexibility training.

I like static stretching. I know, I know…current trends in sport science have found favor in other methods, like dynamic stretching. But, in my opinion, it’s all part of a circle that’s slowly turning. Static stretching was the big hit in the ’80s, and I suggest that it will be again. – Ian King

Not only does Ian promote the less popular static stretching, he also promotes stretching before a workout.

Now, I’m not going to regurgitate his reasons for doing so – you can read the article for yourself – but the biggest take home was that if you are performing activities that stiffen your connective tissue (just about everything involving muscular contraction), then you should be performing activities that decrease this stiffness as well.

To counter the points above, people will cite research that demonstrates decreases in power and force production immediately after stretching (lasting up to 15 minutes).

To paraphrase Ian again, if you did a study that measured strength immediately after a weight training workout, you would see a decrease in strength, and the researchers would conclude, based on that data, that weight training makes you weaker.

The solution lies in watching how top level athletes have prepared for many years, which is generally a variation of the following sequence:

  1. 3-5 minutes of general warm up to elevate body temperature
  2. Static stretching
  3. Dynamic/specific warm up
  4. Workout
  5. Go home

The added bonus of this: after your workout, when you are tired, you don’t have to do anything else, except maybe walk around a bit to cool down and start recovering.

3. Ignoring structural balance

Structural balance is a term I first read about in the writings of Charles Poliquin, another highly experienced strength coach.

Whilst we know that posture is poorly correlated to pain, we also know that the body will adapt to repetitive activities.

Thus, if all you do is run, then your body will adapt to running, which is both good and bad.

Good, because your performance will increase, bad, because you need to do more than run in your life.

Wealso  know from various research, that relative strength imbalances can lead to injury, so the implication is clear: balance your training to reduce injury risk.

This means:

  • Exercising a variety of physical qualities – strength, power, endurance, flexibility etc.
  • Performing a variety of activities.
  • Moving across different planes of motion and different “levels” (ground, standing, kneeling etc).
  • Balancing stresses across joints as best as possible.
  • Allowing for periods of higher intensity/lower volume and lower intensity/high volume.

4. “Too Much”

This is not a specific claim, but rather, an observation that most people, once they cross the line from casual exerciser to exercise enthusiast simply do “too much”.

Whether it is too much strength work and not enough flexibility and endurance work, or too much exercise and not enough rest and recovery.

I’m a massive proponent of doing something everyday if possible, but that doesn’t mean smashing yourself every day.

In my experience, this simply stems from being overly emotional about the outcomes attached to exercise.

You are not your fitness.

If you have an overly emotional attachment to certain outcomes associated with your fitness, I’d suggest you do some deep contemplation to find more balance in your life.

Conclusions

It might seem that I keep repeating myself when I talk about training: warm up, manage your volume/intensity, work on all physical qualities, prioritise rest and recovery etc etc.

That’s because:

  1. This is what the vast majority of people need to do, but don’t
  2. Training isn’t as complicated as the internet makes it out to be.

What is complicated, is you as a person (we all are), and so a good coach helps you recognise where you are, what you need and what you don’t. In fact, many of the benefits of a coach are not that you have the best program (it doesn’t exist), but rather adherence, consistency and progression, regardless of the means.

To avoid making exercise programming mistakes, it’s best to enlist help. There are options to suit all needs and budgets, ranging from free programs online all the way to individualised coaching (both online and in person).

Whatever your scenario, even for a short time it’s worthwhile investing in coaching of some form, in order to learn skills that will stay with you for life.

 

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 



 

References

(1) Australian Institute of Sport – The Warm Up and Cool Down

(2) Ian King Blog

(3) Ian King – The Lazy Man’s Guide to Stretching

(4) Charles Poliquin Blog

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