Today's piece is the first of its kind on this site. As many of you are aware, I've been spending this summer working as a coaching intern at Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts. So far it's been a wild ride - I'm learning a ton, having fun, and pretty much bathing in awesome 24/7 what with all the incredible people here. I am one of six interns, and we've all become close pretty quickly. The idea came to me sometime last week to have a collaboration post with each of the six of us contributing and offering a different angle. We eventually agreed to write on overlooked training mistakes that most of the active population is likely to make when in the gym setting.

Here's our final product. Let us know what you think!

Improper Warm-up (Sohee Lee)

Enter any commercial gym and you’ll see people making their first mistake before they can begin their training session: they butcher the warm-up. Or they skip it entirely. I’d be lying if I said there have been times in the past when I’ve swiftly walked right by the stretching mats and made a beeline for the power rack, eager to start deadlifting. No bueno.

Regarding warm-up skipping: I know it can be a hassle sometimes, but you have to prepare your body for what’s to come. I don’t have time, it’s so boring, who needs it anyway? - I get it. I feel that way frequently myself. Prior to coming to intern at Cressey Performance, I used to consider a 5-minute warm-up really, really good. Now I always start with a minimum of 20 minutes preparing my body (and my mind). A proper warm-up achieves the following:

  • Increases body core temperature
  • Wakes up the nervous system (especially important if you’re lifting in the morning)
  • Address muscular imbalances via corrective exercises
  • Prepare for specific patterns of movement
  • Reduces risk of injury

and more. But hold on there. A measly hamstring stretch and some cries of “Lightweight, baby!” just isn’t gonna cut it. Begin with soft tissue work (foam rolling, lacrosse ball, and other forms of self-myofascial release) and then move onto dynamic exercises. Here’s a great foam roller series that every athlete at Cressey Performance goes through as soon as he or she walks into the gym:

As for dynamic warm-ups, there are many components that constitute a solid one. Here’s one that I came up with the other day and is currently the Cressey Performance warm-up for the athletes.

>Perform these dynamic exercises after foam rolling.
Perform these dynamic exercises after foam rolling.

Invest the time and the effort into a quality warm-up and you’ll have yourself a much, much better workout. I promise you that.

Improper Weight Selection (Landon Wahl)

We’ve all done it. If you perform resistance training or have even tried to do so, you probably have committed a cardinal sin of the weight room: using too much weight! Lifting the whole stack on a machine, or trying to out-bench your buddy - when in reality you can barely lift the bar itself - can lead to a multitude of issues. First of all, that’s just flat-out embarrassing. Second, and more importantly, it can cause injury. When moving more weight, it requires much more concentration on the technique (whether it's a Bulgarian split squat or a lat pulldown). It may seem like common sense, but go to almost any weight room in the world and you will see athletes trying to squat 315 and only squeaking out measly quarter squats (you want to know something about them? They don’t count!). What really grinds my gears is that many coaches or personal trainers will be watching and not say a thing. Even worse, the athletes will then actually think they performed the exercise correctly and will continue to absolutely murder it in each successive workout. If you are a coach of a college sports team and you aren't sure how certain lifts are supposed to be conducted, set aside that ego and seek help!

That’s the equivalent of me trying to coach jousting: I don’t know a damn thing about jousting! If you are unsure of how many reps to perform for any exercise, consult a strength coach. Then perform each repetition correctly with weight you can actually handle. A little bit of common sense goes a long way.

The personal benefits greatly outweigh the twenty seconds of weight room fame that you could get from ripping an ungodly amount of weight off the floor with egregious form. It’s also important to recognize when you need help. It takes a lot of maturity and humility to ask for help and you will be surprised what you can learn when being open-minded in the world of fitness. It is a constantly evolving industry. Like Brad Pitt says in the movie Moneyball, "adapt or die".

Don't. Just don't. 
Don't. Just don't.

On the flipside, not selecting enough weight can be just as unproductive. This happens moreso with females than males. This is usually because they tend to get comfortable performing the same weight week in and week out. I have also heard this response about a thousand times: "I don't want to get huge.”[Tweet "Ladies, I promise that increasing the weight will not make you huge or muscular."]The female body builders that are huge and muscular are taking supplements to increase hormone levels that are not naturally seen in your body anyhow (large amounts of testosterone), so you are fine! Perform each set with as much weight as you can handle while completing all reps correctly.  If you aren't sure how much weight you should add, once again, seek help!

In summary, just be smart! Do what your body can handle and you will see the results. Leave your ego at the door and stay humble.

Improper Setup (Doug Davidson)

One of the most fundamental mistakes a lifter can make is failing to set up properly. This is something I see on a regular basis even with athletes who have several years of lifting experience. Sometimes a poor setup is due to a momentary lapse, but more often than not, it’s a result of an athlete rushing through their lift, or simply lacking proper instruction. Regardless of the cause, a poor set up will inevitably lead to poor form, and in some cases injury. Here are a few simple guidelines to ensure you don’t fall victim to this training blunder:

  1. Learn how to setup. This seems like a no brainer but many athletes simply don’t know how to set up for a lift. It amazes me how often I see people on the bench press just laying there limp like a dead fish, or doing a trap bar deadlift with their heels nearly touching the back of the bar. Simply put, if you want to lift properly and get results, take the time and initiative to learn the set up first.
  2. Don’t rush things. While speed is definitely important when you’re pulling the bar off the ground or coming up out of a squat, it can often be detrimental when it comes to the set up.  So before you even get to the bar, slow it down and take a few seconds to consider what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. When you get to the bar, make sure you’re properly positioned, and then lift away. Furthermore, if you feel like you start to lose your positioning in the middle of set, don’t just keep lifting while your form deteriorates - take a second to get reset, whether that means adjusting your feet at the top of a squat or pulling your chest up at the bottom of a deadlift.
  3. Have someone knowledgeable watch your setup. This really applies to lifting in general, but one of the best ways to ensure you’re setting up (and lifting) properly is to have someone who knows the intricacies of a lift watch you. Even the best coaches can struggle when it comes to coaching themselves, so it’s important to have a second party watch you lift and critique you to keep you in check. After all, no one likes to admit to themselves they made a mistake, so having an experienced coach/training partner to tell you when something needs to be fixed will pay huge dividends in the long run.

While these are by no means the only ways to make sure you’re setting up for your lifts properly, they’re definitely a good set of rules to follow that will help you become a better lifter and athlete.

Improper Breathing (Molly Caffelle)

Breathing is one of the few things clients, athletes or coaches don’t think about when training.  Most focus on volume, repetitions, and sheer difficulty of exercises that breathing gets thrown to the back burner.  Proper breath is nevertheless necessary for everyday life and especially while training.

Most athletes are shallow breathers. Shallow breathers inhale and exhale using solely the upper part of the chest which consequently only uses a small portion of their lungs. Some individuals won’t breathe at all while performing exercises. Case in point:

Aside from the horrific form, what looks a little off here? Clearly this is not good! Learning how to one, breathe in the first place, and two, breathe deeply and correctly can greatly improve the quality of their training. Practice deep breathing so you can fully understand how proper breathing feels.  Some tips:

  • Take a deep breath by inhaling through the nostrils so air fills the lungs entirely
  • Focus on expanding the ribs with each breath to make sure no shallow breathing will occur
  • Exhale by forcefully pushing air out of the mouth and nose by contracting the abdominal muscles
  • Exhale during the exertion (pressing) portion of the exercise
  • Find a rhythm with breathing so the exercise will be performed smoothly.  Choppy breathing can be harmful for performance, so avoid it!

To dumb it down even more, breathe into your belly. By this I mean that when you inhale, your belly should be expanding not just out front but also to the sides and back. CP intern Kyle O’Flaherty is demonstrating supine breathing below:

He is inhaling through the nose and pushing the belly out at all 360 degrees. You can also try prone breathing, in which you’re lying prone on your stomach and trying to push the belly into the ground.

These exercises are good to incorporate into your warm-up or even when you have a few spare minutes at the office. Learn how to breathe properly and notice how much better your lifts feel!

Emphasizing Quantity Over Quality (Rob Rabena)

Oftentimes I see the mistake of either training too much (overtraining 6-7 days a week) or not training enough (1-2 days a week).  Those of you who overtrain need to consolidate your training schedule to what is recommended by NSCA and ACSM of 3-5x a week. This will help avoid burnout and symptoms found within this older study on overtraining.  Quality training sessions will always exceed quantity training any day of the week.  For those who train once or twice a week and are asking themselves, “Why am I not seeing results?” you likely need to pick it up a notch and find time for one or two more training sessions.

 Don't let this be you. Don't let this be you.

How many sets should you do when you’re in the gym? I often see another mistake of doing three sets for every exercise.  It’s alright from time to time to do more and yes, less than three is also acceptable! The quality over quantity rule that works great for overtraining might not apply to working sets. Check this new study out, which examined whether one, four, or eight sets of squatting (80% or 1RM) twice a week for six weeks was best for increasing strength.  The authors found that all groups increased strength - but the eight-set group increased significantly (p<0.05) as compared to the one set group after the six-week mark.  It doesn’t matter how many sets you have; just give 100% effort (quality sets) all the time.  Now this was just one interesting study that I wanted to point out.  There are so many recommendations for how many sets and training sessions per week in muscle magazines, textbooks, and journal articles. These recommendations will ultimately depend on your goal, whether that be to lose weight, gain muscle mass, improve performance, or just look, move and feel better. And remember, make all your sets count (quality) - don’t just rush through them.

To keep it simple for you, my general recommendations for resistance training are to train upper/lower or full body 3-4x a week at a moderate (2-3 sets) to high (4-6 sets) intensity for each exercise, all depending on your goal and training experience.  Now go get better!

Becoming a Slave to Exercise (Kyle O'Flaherty)

The most problematic paradigm seen in our generation is the shift from the pleasurable symbiotic relationship people once had with their workout to now being enslaved. Missing a day at the gym or a “cardio day” has now become the equivalent of going to work after forgetting to shower: the whole day revolves around that guilt. Consequently, exercise can start to push other daily activities out as it becomes priority number one!

Fitness level should not dictate self worth. Mood should only benefit positively from the euphoric feeling of completing a squat set and should not be contingent upon whether it has been two days since you last elliptical-ed (which you probably shouldn’t be doing to begin with).

While body image may be the main reason why the general population partakes in fitness, (sorry, doc - it’s not heart health) we must still accept exercise to be the purest form of a healthy hobby. Emphasize the healthy. The habitual nature of this hobby should derive from having a consistently enjoyable activity to look forward to every week.

Do what you love and love what you do.
Do what you love and love what you do.

Once we make the clear distinction between healthy hobby and unhealthy compulsion/obligation/necessity, we can free ourselves. I look forward to my lift everyday because it gives me a chance to be me, exert myself, and be my own boss and motivator. This is my drive. Define what drives you!


  • Be motivated to lead a healthy lifestyle in all facets, and reap the rewards of a positive body image as an added bonus.
  • A “foody” analogy would be eat the foods that are healthy, but you still enjoy. You won’t eat tofu if it tastes bad, would you?
  • Make time for the gym but make it from otherwise free time. This distinction relates to both genders - make no mistake, Bicep Farmers!


Summer 2012 Cressey Performance Intern Bios (in order of appearance)

Sohee Lee received her BA in Human Biology (concentration in Psychosocial and Biological Determinants of Health) from Stanford University in June 2012 and is now frolicking on the east coast. She likes Swedish Fish, deadlifts, and cute puppies. She sometimes misses California.

Landon Wahl is an Exercise Science/Physical Therapy major and baseball player at Gannon University in Erie, PA. He likes big butts and he cannot lie.

Doug Davidson. He is Canadian, eh.

Molly Caffelle is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a pending BS in Kinesiology. She is a lover of all sports and a bad ass in training.

Rob Rabena MS CSCS hails from Philadelphia, PA. He received his undergraduate degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion from Cabrini College and Masters in Exercise Science from East Stroudsburg University.

Kyle O'Flaherty is an Exercise Science major at Springfield College. He is trying to soak up all the knowledge he can from every aspect of fitness to build a base for a career in strength and conditioning. His main focus and interest is in the corrective exercise and rehabilitation aspect. He enjoys long walks on the beach and bubble baths.