So you've joined a gym and you're eager to get in shape, but don't just charge in and start hefting weights about or sprinting on the treadmill. It pays to be properly prepared so you don't end up doing yourself a mischief. Here are some of the most common pitfalls that await gym newbies...
See also: How to stick to an exercise regime
See also: Eight ways to stay supple in middle age
Learn form for lifting
Perhaps the single most-important thing to do before you hit the gym is to get some pointers from a fitness professional on the correct technique for lifting weights. If you're joining a gym, ask if they have a coach who specialises in strength conditioning – and they can teach you how to apply the basic principles to protect your spine and to make sure you get the intended benefits from your workouts.
Don't skip the warm-up
Don't head straight for the heavy weights or whack the treadmill up to maximum speed when you arrive at the gym. You're more likely to injure yourself if you don't warm up. If you're purely lifting, then start out with lighter weights and do multiple sets to warm your muscles up. If you're doing a cardio or mixed workout, start at a jog or with a gentle spin on the static bike, gradually building up the speed.
Don't go too hard too fast
If you're starting from a low level of physical activity then it's best to build up gradually and to give your body time to adapt to the increasing workload. Gyms will often provide new joiners with suggested workout programmes, which increase in difficulty, intensity and duration over the weeks. It's even better if you can get a programme personally tailored to your needs and the areas you wish to improve.
Get enough rest
Rest is a vital component to effective training – and perhaps the one that's most-often overlooked by gym newbies. Space out hard workouts across the week and plan an "easy" week in once a month or so. Getting a good night's rest is also important to improvement, and many athletes are fanatical about making sure they get eight hours or more shut-eye each night. The body needs to rest and repair in order to become stronger and fitter.
Don't play to your strengths
You're bound to find that you enjoy some aspects of your workout routine more than others, or are better at using certain pieces of equipment. Don't fall into the trap of concentrating on those at the expense of your weak spots. If you struggle with deadlifts for example, take the time to perfect your form – or even get a session with a trainer to help set you on the right road. If anything, you should be focusing on your weak points in order to level out your game.
Don't get into a routine
There's nothing wrong with hitting the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday like clockwork. What you shouldn't do is stick to the same tried-and-tested routine week after week. Your body needs progressively tougher challenges to adapt and get stronger, and varying the exercises in your routine will help to prevent imbalances developing. Try a different class at the gym, or pay for a few sessions with a personal trainer to mix things up.