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Don’t Make These 7 Boneheaded Mistakes When You Head To The Gym

Going to the gym should be a positive experience, not one that ends in a doctor's office. Heed these tips to stay injury-free.

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Although it’s unnerving to see paramedics rush into an exercise facility, it does happen on occasion. Exercisers who pass out from not eating enough or who insist on “working through the pain” with an injury that hasn’t quite healed — among other dangerous gym practices — may find themselves taking the quick route to the emergency room. Fortunately, most gym injuries are minor mishaps and result only in wounded pride, like when you trip over your own step in an aerobics class.

Following a few simple guidelines, however, may help you avoid becoming a more serious statistic. Here are seven potentially dangerous mistakes that well-meaning exercisers often make at the gym and tips to prevent them from happening to you.

7 Dangerous Gym Practices That Could Get You Injured

1. Not using proper form

Many people push too hard with poor form, especially when they first start out. “In the beginning, do less than you think you’re able to do,” said Richard Cotton, exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. “You can’t ‘go to failure’ on an exercise if you have less than a six-week strength training base. Inactive muscles are not as tough as active muscles.” If you have a pencil-pushing job, don’t expect to hit the gym and dive into a no-holds-barred exercise routine immediately—more isn’t necessarily better.

Your solution:

Hire a certified personal trainer to learn proper form and progression or take a weight training group class. Allow yourself six weeks of weight training to establish a base before pushing hard.

RELATED: Strength Training for Triathletes

2. Ignoring a weak or injured area

“Some people use exercise as punishment for not having exercised,” Cotton said, “so they’ll often ignore pain and end up injuring themselves.” Someone with a weak back will get on a rowing machine, for example, instead of something more accommodating, like a recumbent bike.

Your solution:

Modify your exercises and/or start back slowly when you’re recovering from an injury. Seek the help of a physical therapist or an experienced trainer for ways to modify your routine to accommodate a weak or lagging area. Avoiding the chest fly and performing only a partial chest press, for example, may be recommended if you’re recovering from a rotator-cuff strain. If you injure yourself in the same areas regularly, you may need to completely avoid certain exercises until you’ve completely healed.

RELATED: An Injury Guide for Triathletes

3. Not consuming enough calories

Exercisers who combine a difficult workout with poor caloric intake in the hopes of losing weight are setting themselves up for dizziness, fainting, and sometimes nausea. “It’s a fallacy that working out on an empty stomach burns more calories,” said Karen Brewton, a registered dietician for Methodist Hospital Wellness Services in Houston, Texas. “You’re not fueling your body when you need it. The first meal of the day jump-starts your metabolism.”

Your solution:

Don’t skip meals and eat every few hours. “Yogurt makes a great pre- and post-exercise meal,” Brewton said. And it’s a good opportunity to get the calcium you need to prevent osteoporosis. “When you’re watching your weight and reducing calories, you need to pay attention to good-quality calories.”

RELATED: Your “Good” Diet Could Be Ruining Your Life

4. Not going for that medical checkup

“Most people get a health checkup before starting an exercise program only if they’re older or have symptoms,” Duncan said. “Young women who feel okay think they’re immune, but they may not be.” If you have a family history of heart disease, a routine stress test may not even be enough to detect a problem.

Your solution:

Know your family history. “If someone in your family has heart disease at a young age [less than 55 for men and less than 60 for women]—especially a parent or sibling—you’re at increased risk no matter what your weight and blood pressure,” said Dr. Dennis Goodman, a senior board-certified cardiologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital. “Early testing for at-risk individuals should start at 18. Everyone should have cholesterol screening starting at 20, regardless of their risk.”

5. Not paying attention to what you’re doing

Talking on your cell phone while walking or running on a treadmill or turning your head to speak to a friend can send you flying off the machine with a wrenched back or broken wrist—or worse. “The tragedy is that this injury may be enough to prevent you from exercising for six weeks,” said John Duncan, an exercise Physiologist and founder and CEO of ViaScan in Irving, Texas. “Injuries are the number one reason why people discontinue their exercise programs.”

Your solution:

Focus on the task at hand. Prior to getting on a treadmill, check to be sure that the last person didn’t leave it running. (This exact accident occurred at a local gym recently, resulting in a head injury.) Look around for puddles of sweat or other “road hazards.” Leave your cell phone in your locker or at home. If someone starts a conversation with you while you’re lifting weights, ignore them until you finish. Better to explain afterward why you can’t talk in the middle of hoisting weights over your head than to have to explain it to your orthopedist.

RELATED: Three Running Workouts for the Treadmill

6. Copying another exerciser’s form

Variety is key if you want to continue to see progress in your fitness routine—that is, unless you’re getting your new exercise ideas by watching other people at the gym who may not know what they’re doing.

“You have no way of knowing if it’s that person’s first week at the gym or not and if you’re emulating someone who is doing the moves incorrectly,” notes Duncan. Also, avoid unsolicited advice unless it’s from a qualified professional.

Your solution:

Some exercises, like deadlifts or squats, should be relegated to those who really know what they’re doing or who have had professional instruction in performing the moves correctly. Hire a certified, experienced personal trainer to help you perform the exercises with correct form to reap the full benefits of any routine and avoid injury.

RELATED: Why (And How) Triathletes Should Lift Heavy Sh*t

7. Not taking time off for a cold or flu

For your sake and the sake of other gym members, stay home if you’re hacking, sneezing or coughing. Leaving a trail of unwanted microbes on benches and equipment and in the air is a detriment to the healthy people around you. In addition, you may make yourself worse with a strenuous workout.

Your solution:

If your symptoms manifest from the neck up (such as sneezing or a runny nose) in the absence of fever and body aches, the general rule is that you’re probably well enough to perform a modified workout.

“Although the infectious stage has passed [you’re most infectious just before the symptoms become overt], it’s wise to wait a week before returning to the gym,” said Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, medical director of the Fibromyalgia & Fatigue Centers. “Then work your way back up to your previous workout level over one or two weeks.” Otherwise, if you have a fever, muscle aches and other flu-like symptoms that are “below the neck,” physicians recommend resting until the symptoms subside.

RELATED: The Triathlete’s Guide to Dealing With Illness