Top 5 Mistakes Women Make at the Gym

By Alan Frost, updated January, 2014
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This article is about women at the gym and the most common mistakes that I see them do. This is not to say that all women are guilty of this, nor that guys don't make their own mistakes(see Top 5 Mistakes Guys Make at the Gym), but the points I make below are extremely common.

1. They only train the areas that they want to slim down

I have seen it time and again. The girl that moves between the mats and the dumbbells performing set upon set of crunches and triceps extensions.

Spot reduction does not work. In layman terms this means that you cannot target your fat loss or, in the very least, that the effect is negligible. Sadly, genetics determine if some areas are emphasized over others; all we can do is create a calorie deficit and train our whole bodies (not just to burn calories but also to improve our health and well-being).

A danger of training just a few muscles — beyond wasting your time — is that you end up training just one side of two opposing muscle groups. This can lead to posture problems, which can have serious health repercussions.

In fairness, while women at the gym tend to be guilty of this, guys often focus on the muscles they want to show off… so I suppose this advice is equally applicable to both genders.

Bottom line: Incorporate a full body workout into your routine, one that relies on big movements that incorporate multiple muscle groups (like squats, presses, and pulls). Pay attention to your opposing muscle groups — particularly abs and your lower back.

2. They only stick to cardio equipment

Don't get me wrong, cardio is great. If you can only do one kind of exercise and want to get the most health benefits then cardio is probably the way to go. However, weight training has many positive effects cardio cannot duplicate and, if you are at a gym anyway, why not take full advantage of these added benefits?

Apart from the extra calorie burn and benefits from being stronger and fitter, resistance training also increases bone strength and boosts your metabolism for a long time after the training is over. Your metabolism following cardio training returns to normal within a few hours, but with weight lifting it stays elevated for one to two days, even while you sleep. Increasingly it seems, experts are recognizing that the effects of the calorie burn resulting from weight training has been underestimated.

Bottom line: Try to throw in some weight lifting before your cardio. It does not have to be a lot, you can work wonders with three or even two weekly 45 minute sessions, particularly if your program is well designed (see Beginner Weight Lifting Routine). Its a small price to pay for such huge gains.

3. They avoid lifting "heavy"

Set upon set of high rep resistance exercises, which do not stress you, will not achieve great results. This is where one typically hears the line "oh, but I don't want to get big". Do not worry, there is no chance at all that you will wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and realize that you are now packing huge guns.

Building muscle is a slow process, particularly for women. Female bodybuilders (the image that is most often conjured up when women talk of lifting heavy) lift for years and years, they stick to extremely strict diets, they take a wide range of supplements… and they often also take plenty of illegal substances.

Bottom line: Lift heavy. By all means work your way up to it, and by all means do not push yourself to the point of injury. Hard sets (not to failure, but not far from it) of 8-10 reps will be suitable for most people's goals. Over time you will slowly build a few pounds of lean muscle, burn more calories, improve your metabolism, improve your general fitness, etc. You can always stop if you think you are getting too big, but don't hold your breath, real size takes years and years of dedicated work.

4. They stick to machines

Machines give you an easy, controlled way to lift the weight. That makes them safer and better, particularly for people who are beginners or amateurs, right?


Machines isolate the muscle. By doing this they do not hit all the supporting muscles that are involved in a "realistic" movement of that type. For example, if I have to lift something heavy I bring in dozens of muscles to support and stabilize me in the movement. This means that by sticking to machines you:

  • Increase your risk of injury the minute you use your new found strength in the real world. Sure, your pecs may be strong, but they are held together by noodles.
  • Isolate the muscle thereby increasing the chance of over-training it.
  • Burn fewer calories.
  • Make overall muscle growth or strength development harder to accomplish.

Note: I cannot stress enough how important it is to learn proper form before engaging in any exercise, whether free-weight or machine, however because one has added freedom of movement, this is particularly important for the former.

Bottom line: In most cases, machine training is less effective, irrespective of whether your goals are fitness, size, or strength. This basically means that you will have to do more exercises because you are training everything piecemeal, and you increase the risk of injury along the way. Our bodies respond best to big, free-weight compound (i.e. multiple-joint) movements so there is simply no reason to use a machine unless you have an injury or other condition that prevents you from doing the free-weight alternative, or if you are an advanced bodybuilder that uses a isolation movements to target specific muscles (and even then it is often abused).

5. They do not have a plan

Ok, many guys are guilty of this one too. Nonetheless, I often see women at the gym move from one machine to another, randomly taking single (or sometimes multiple) sets hitting different body parts, with no rhyme nor reason.

There are many principles involved in building a good workout plan. I cannot go into them here since they all start with the question "what are your fitness goals?" However, a sound program will hit all muscle groups, it will start with the big ones first and work its way out to the smaller ones, it will incorporate multiple-joint, free-weight movements, and it will be designed to fit your schedule and goals.

Bottom line: Determine your exact goals. Then get help in designing the ideal routine, that takes into account your specific situation (including physical ability, age, etc.). Be open to what a personal trainer tells you — even if it makes working out a bit harder.

This wraps up my version of the top 5 mistakes that women make at the gym.

Honorable mention: Poor form on cardio equipment

This one did not quite make the cut because many women do this right. Still, if I look at my own experience at the gym, I see women abusing stair-climbers, elipticals, and treadmills more often than I see guys.

Bottom line: Do not lean on the equipment. Do not hunch over on the equipment. If you are using your hands to do anything other than help you maintain balance, you are doing it wrong. So, maintain a good posture and either do not hold the handrails at all or use them just enough to feel safe.

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