A wise man once said: “Look at what the majority of people are doing in the gym, then just do the opposite. And you are probably on the right track.” 

I can’t for the life of me remember who said it, but it sadly sums up what goes on in most gyms.

There is value in that quote though. It can make you take a hard look at your training. Are you just going with the herd, or have you done your homework and know there’s a road less travelled?

What you see in most commercial gyms nowadays is as entertaining as any soap opera. It has made me want to cry, laugh, cringe, yelp in agony, and generally provides me with more “wtf?!” moments and second-hand embarrassment than the latest Nic Cage movie.

I’ve done my share of crap at the gym, but I was still always on the lookout for the most effective training methods, and I put in the time to educate myself on exercise technique and progressions. So, I never understood why anyone would not care to do that. If I spend several hours a week pursuing something, I want to make sure I come prepared and not make a total fool out of myself.

Horrendous execution aside, the below guide will shed some light on some other things you may have been guilty of, and highlight areas that require a 180 turn to help you become one of the select few who take that road less travelled of sensible training, charging toward your goals.

It’s easy to come up with countless more of these, but let’s just focus on an essential few here:

We are doing: Too much upper body
We should be doing: More leg work

I was training at a commercial gym the other day. The whole time I was there, not a single guy there trained his legs. I’m not exaggerating either. And the gym was busy. There were more biceps curls done in an hour, than squats in a week. Why are people still not training their legs? I can come up with a few reasons, but none of them plausible. I’ll try though.

Maybe it’s for the shallowest reason of all, simply that others don’t tend to see your legs. They’re covered. Then, training your legs is hard work. Squats, Lunges and Deadlifts will take it out of you. These lifts take some skill and mobility, which many can’t be bothered working on. It’s more comfortable to just skip them.

People still undermine what a good set of wheels can do for them in terms of performance and body composition. They want to look strong, but don’t care so much about actually being strong. But being strong will lead to genuinely looking strong.

The biggest muscles of your body are in your legs and hips, the latter rightfully called the body’s “engine”. That’s where your power stems from. If you want to put on serious muscle, why on earth wouldn’t you train them? Squats and deadlift are known to slab on muscle in the upper body too. How? Because five sets of heavy Squats will produce a more anabolic hormone response than countless biceps curls and its cousins, and that’s really all it comes down to if you want to put on size.

Train your legs!

We are doing: Too much Pushing
We should be doing: More Pulling

There’s too much Bench Pressing going on in the gym and too little to counter it. I have a rule: For every set of horizontal pushing like the Bench Press, there should be two sets of horizontal pulling (Inverted Rows, Bent-Over Rows, TRX Rows) to balance it. Why the emphasis on “horizontal”? Because there is pulling going on in the gym, but it’s usually of the vertical kind, like the Lat Pulldown or Pull Ups. Bench Pressing and Lat Pulldowns/Pull Ups both internally rotate your shoulder, giving you the ugly hunched forward look (Kelly Starrett calls it the “douchebag shoulder syndrome”) and will over time not only mess with your ability to bring your arms overhead, but lead to other issues as well, if you don’t spend at least equal time working on rowing movements.

Strength Coach Michael Boyle says you should be able to row at least 80% of what you can Bench Press for the same amount of reps. I know few people that can. Let’s assume you can Bench Press 100kg for 5 reps, that means you should be able to do an inverted Row (with the body being completely horizontal to the floor, feet up on a box) with 80 kg in total, chest touching the bar and pausing for a 1 second count at the top. You need to factor in your bodyweight and that some of it is taken away, as your feet are placed on a box. Have someone place the extra weight plates on your abdomen.

You probably know, if you’ve been neglecting your rows, but try this test to see where you stand.

We are doing: Post-workout Stretching
We should be doing: Pre-workout Mobility

Many trainees skip the warm-up, but then spend ten minutes stretching at the end. I never understood this. You need mobility more than you need flexibility. What’s the difference between the two? Stand up, lift your right leg straight up as high as you can. That’s your mobility. Your flexibility would be resting your straight leg up on the highest external object you can manage. The bigger the gap between the two, the higher your risk of injury. Good flexibility does not mean you have good mobility, and vice versa. But for training, better mobility is in most cases more important than flexibility.

Treat mobility and flexibility like strings on a guitar. Don’t randomly loosen and tighten any old strings/muscles. Tighten the right strings and loosen the right ones. The result is music rather than just noise. And as Dan John says: “Enough is enough when it comes to mobility.”

Turn the tables, spend at least 10 minutes on mobility at the start of your session and if you still have time left, do some stretching at the end. Not the other way around.

We are doing: Too much cardio
We should be doing: More conditioning work

I’m not going to take a black-and-white stance on this and tell you all long-slow cardio is bad. It has its time and place. And if you enjoy running, knock yourself out. But people who would rather get poked in the eye with a sharp stick are logging hours on cardio machines, because they think that’s what it takes to lose fat, and it is far from the most efficient way to achieve that.

Tons of research over the years has shown that short, high-intensity intermittent conditioning methods are superior for fat loss, lean muscle retention, favourable hormone responses and your social life. I added the last one, because I see how switching to short conditioning methods frees up some of your time to be where you’d rather be.

Add some Interval training to your program 2-3 times a week. Do some treadmill or bike sprints, push a sled. Add short rest periods between sets. Anything that really ramps up your heart rate. 15-20 minutes is plenty. If you can do it for longer than 15 minutes, you’re probably not going hard enough.

We are doing: Too many isolation exercises
We should be doing: More compound movements

When it comes to distribution of exercises, many trainees make the mistake of giving too much focus to isolation exercises, rather than compound, bang-for-your-buck movements. This isolation exercise madness has its roots in bodybuilding. Most of us aren’t bodybuilders though. I bet you can train three, maybe four days a week for an hour or so. That’s a bodybuilder’s volume for a single day. If you’re not a bodybuilder, don’t train like one. You’ll get nowhere.

If you’re spending upwards of 60% of your time on isolation exercises, cut that back to maybe 20%. The other 80% you should spend on compound exercises (eg. Squats, Pull Ups, Deadlifts, Lunges, Bench Press, Dips, Bent-Over Rows). Treat isolation exercises like the “assistance” exercises they are and focus on getting stronger in the ‘big’ exercises above.

We are doing: Too much improvising
We should be doing: More program following

Alice: “What Road do I take?”
Cheshire Cat: “Where are you going?”
Alice: “I don’t know.”
Cheshire Cat: “ If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

This pretty much sums up training for a lot of people. There is no clear cut vision of where they’re going. The results are random, aimless workouts, and them floating like a vessel at sea, dominated by the wind.

I’ve said this many times. Get a program and follow it. And make sure it’s not Ronnie Coleman’s Mr. Olympia routine either. There are good programs, that pay regard to all of the above points.

Leave the dirty work, improvisation and experimentation to people like us, who are deep in the trenches trying different shit to see what works, in the name of producing new awesome programs for you, that we know work. For you though, cash in on what’s out there. Following a program will give you better results in three months than winging your workouts for a year. The direction, motivation and focus will do wonders for you. And you will learn what works for your body and what doesn’t.