Some pieces of advice are heard so often in the gym that they get taken as set-in-stone rules to follow, but is this really the case?

If it were any other area of your life where someone offered advice, you would (hopefully) consider a few things before following it – for example, whether it applies to you, whether the person advising you has the experience to do so,  or if you can even do it.

Just like you wouldn’t immediately and blindly take any suggestion that comes your way, you’d want to exercise (ha! Pun quota of the day fulfilled) the same caution when it comes to common advice in the gym, such as the following.

Go Hard or Go Home

  • Who It Works For:

Experienced gym-goers who can execute high-intensity workouts without any compensations from either lack of mobility, strength, or endurance.

  • Who It Doesn’t Work For:

Those who can’t feel (or, even worse, don’t know what are) the muscle groups they are supposed to be working; those who have postural issues to work around; those who are feeling mentally fatigued, which affects the ability to focus.

  • Try This Instead:

Get rid of the mindset that it’s only working if you feel like dying. Instead, list out your goals and write out a plan (or find someone qualified to do so) to get to your goal in healthy, sensible, and evidence-supported manner.

“As fast as you can!”

“Rep it out!”

“No resting!”

Any self-respecting CrossFit gym, boot camp or even your run-of-the-mill group classes will have coaches roaring these words at their sweaty, hardcore clients. Just because this is the most mainstream form of exercise doesn’t mean that it is the best for you, whether we are talking about fat loss, your physical wellbeing or improving fitness levels. These are the easiest cues to yell out in a group setting, so you might want to give as much thought to this advice as the thought given to advise.

Dr. John Rusin gets the point across better (and just a bit more critically) than I do in his T-Nation article:

While the general idea of choosing conditioning over cardio remains solid, the basic execution of these movements is lacking. […] This has resulted in non-contractile tissues like tendons, ligaments, and the rarely-forgiving joints of the body being subjected to some very stressful and unnecessary bouts of training.


Proper training should do a few distinct things for you. Without them, you’re just wasting your time, money, and energy.

  1. Training should simply yield some positive results.
  2. Your chosen form of exercise should be a tolerable form of physical activity that can be maintained for the long run.
  3. Most importantly, it shouldn’t seriously damage your body

I’m not talking about your quads burning after a set of squats, more like burning nerve pain shooting down your legs causing numbness after your horrific kettlebell session. Lesson one of being a coach is do no harm. (Maybe that wasn’t covered in the online personal trainer certification course?)

If It Hurts/Was Injured, Don’t Move It

  • Who It Works For:

Someone very recently injured who needs to allow the inflammation to settle down first.

  • Who It Doesn’t Work For:

Someone recovering from an injury; someone with a past injury; cases where the pain isn’t a result of any specific or traumatic incident.

  • Try This Instead:

Instead of not moving it, consider not loading it. Start with isometrics if it was an injury, and do more movement-based exercises if it’s a result of overuse or a result of being too static.

There are many, many reasons that your body is signaling pain to you, and many ways which people react to it as well, which is why it’s more sensible to get impartial advice from someone with experience. Generally, though, people tend to react in extremes – either pushing through the pain or being too scared to move wherever it hurts at all. The solution is usually to move more towards the middle ground.

When it comes to injuries, common advice (even from doctors) is to let it rest, which you would certainly do the first week. Following that, approach your recovery process just like you would a workout – set mini-goals along the way, structure a plan towards those goals, and be consistent.

Our culture now promotes a habit of being too precious with movement. Try being generous with movement instead! Movement promotes blood circulation, which delivers the nutrients your body needs to heal. The right kind of movement can also act as a guide for where to lay collagen down.

Think of collagen like a Band-Aid. Old injuries resurface or never heal properly because without guidance, your body will patch on the Band-Aids (collagen) any which way. As Dr. Andreo Spina of the Functional Anatomy system says:

Movement is the stimulus/signal that dictates that ongoing turn over and adaptations of the body’s tissues. Cells, that produce (and subsequently break down tissues), rely on movement to know when, where, and how new tissues are to be laid down. Movement creates force….and force is the language of cells.

If it isn’t an injury but chronic pain instead, look at your daily habits and what might be causing the pain first. As Dr. Perry Nickelston says:

Just treating the site of pain is crazy. Rarely if ever is the site of pain the cause of the pain. It’s not always the area that screams the loudest we need to be focusing on. Pain actually doesn’t tell you a whole hell of a lot. It only tells you there is a problem, it does not tell you what it is. It’s simply an effective way for your body to tell you it doesn’t like something. Pain is a request for change. A change in your habits. How you move is a powerful way to do just that.

Just because your neck always feels tight doesn’t mean that you need to be constantly massaging your upper traps – it might be that you need to strengthen your scapula and work on your breathing. If your hips always feel tight, it might not only be because your hip flexors are constantly shortened from sitting all day but also that your big toe can’t move because your shoes have frozen your feet into place.

Look at your body as one connected unit instead of individual parts, and you might just start to understand where your problems are coming from.

Don’t Do (Fill In Taboo Exercise)

  • Who Shouldn’t Do That Exercise:

Someone who lacks the range of motion to carry out the movement; someone who doesn’t have good control over their range of motion throughout the movement.

  • Who Can Do It:

Someone who knows why they are doing the movement and how it fits in with their goals or into their general program.

  • Try This Instead:

Identify your weak points and strengthen them, making sure the movements you centre your program on all have a purpose.

There are some exercises or movements which are seen as big no-nos in the gym. Anyone who is seen doing them will be slapped with the label of newbie and pitying comments on how they have no idea what they are doing: behind-the-neck presses, behind-the-neck pulldowns, knees past toes in the squat, losing the neutral spine position. The list can go on and on depending on who you ask.

Keep an open mind and look a bit further into the aim and requirements of each exercise if it is something you are interested in. Sometimes staying away from a certain range of motion might further limit your mobility. If you never do a certain movement, for example if you never let your ankle roll or rotate, then your body will classify that as a ‘dangerous’ movement and begin to signal pain when you move into that unfamiliar range. Think more along the lines of rather than always keeping a flat back, aiming to finetune the way your spine moves instead and learning to isolating your thoracic spine (upper back) from your lumbar spine (lower back).

Your body’s goal is to use its energy as efficiently as possible – when you stop moving around a certain joint or range of motion, the efficient thing would then be to redirect the energy elsewhere and ‘shut down’ that movement. What to do then? Don’t use a one-size-fits-all mentality with exercise cues. Work to control a full range of motion around all your joints and constantly monitor the feedback your body is giving you. Check out Dr. Ryan DeBell‘s video below for a good way to start moving your joints every day:

Change It Up As Often As Possible

  • Who It Works For:

Someone who has been stuck in a plateau because they tend to stay within their comfort zone.

  • Who It Doesn’t Work For:

Someone who has never followed through with a 4-6 week program; someone who doesn’t see consistent progress with the exercises they’ve been working on.

  • Try This Instead:

Base your program around the same major exercises and switch up into another version of the same exercise every 4-6 weeks; if you want more variety, use that in your assistance exercises.

This article from Breaking Muscle puts it well:

Back when the only training information you could find was a bodybuilding magazine, a lot of articles talked about muscle confusion. Muscle confusion was this idea that by using a different workout every time you trained you’d make more progress. The only problem with that idea is this little principle called SAID – specific adaptation to imposed demand. SAID says you get good at the things you do repeatedly.

If, for instance, you wanted to get really good at push ups and pull ups, you’re going to get better by making sure to do lots of push ups and pull ups in your training. See what I mean by it’s not rocket science?

Don’t get fooled by so-called muscle confusion and think that you’ll progress faster by swapping your training around every session.

What SAID does is make you aware of the need for consistency in training. […] Instead of “muscle confusion,” think specialized variety. Specialized variety exercises are those that are similar to your goal, but just different enough to force some change. This is actually where people got the idea of muscle confusion, but then they took it a step too far. For instance, if my goal is to get better at push ups, I might integrate ring dips, push ups on rings, push ups with my feet on a box – anything that looks similar but isn’t exactly the same push up variation I’ve been working with.


So these are my two cents (and a little more) on some common misconceptions in the gym. The main takeaway is to keep an open mind until you do further research into the advice you’re given, and then to form your own opinion and see whether you are getting good results from whatever you are doing! What works for you might not work for someone else and vice versa, so you will never know until you learn from experience.


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