10 min read

Six Things Holding You Back at the Gym

Also entitled, the 20% things that prevent 80% of your results.

This is the short-form version of the things I see on a regular basis.

They are skills/execution issues that help explain why people claim they don’t have time to exercise.

These could be things that can accelerate your progress.

#1 – Lack of Focus 

Does your training session have a clear focus? Strength? Power? A new skill? Better technique? What’s the goal of the session?

You should have a clear focus before you start training.

A lack of focus reveals itself in many other ways.

Sometimes it’s socializing too much, other times it’s just trying to do too much at once (watch Netflix or a listen to a podcast while training).

Mindless training on a piece of cardio equipment is fine. If you’re just doing some mindless steady state cardio for recovery or an off-day.

And the social aspect is not necessarily a bad thing, because at the gym it can be a powerful incentive to keep going.

However, still aim to get in and get out. You should be able to get most of what you need to do in about an hour.

Try to keep it to supportive social interaction. i.e. people that lift you up. Also, aim to do most of your socializing before or after you train.

Your focus can be either:

Beginners and Intermediates can get a lot done with a good full-body workout. If you’re more advanced maybe you rely on a split like the X Split or an upper/lower split or anterior/posterior split.

I’m not saying ignore the staff and other regulars, be friendly. Be polite and courteous.

Rather aim to interact with people who share a similar mindset to yourself. You can get work done and have fun with others without stretching your time committment into 2 hour gym marathons.

You cannot outrun your diet by doing more anyway. You have to be smarter and more effective with the time you have available.

A Productivity Tool

Give yourself an objective and a deadline.

Go into the gym with a plan written out and a realistic time limit to complete it in.

Adapt the plan based on the outcomes and tweak the plan next time or on the fly as needed.

#2 – Doing Single Sets

I still see this every day. People in the gym (especially dudes) who complete a set, and then sit around for 5 minutes on their phone. Before they go back and do another set. You’re hogging the equipment bro.

A1 is paired with A2/B1 is paired with B2

Even though magazine’s have been talking about the benefits of paired sets, super-sets, tri-sets and giant sets for years now. I still don’t see them utilized very much.

It’s not that single sets are bad. They are just time consuming. Best suited for the one lift you really want to improve max strength on only.

Paired sets have been shown in a few studies now, to illicit the same strength/hypertrophy gains as single sets so there is literally next to no downside.

Squats and Pulls, Deadlifts and Presses, Lunges and Pallof Presses, etc…etc…

That’s why I’ve been promoting the 2×2 training system. It’s perfect for beginners and intermediates alike. Or anyone else for that matter who isn’t or doesn’t want to compete in powerlifting, kettlebells or weightlifting.

It’s two paired sets. The time you’d normally take between sets is put to good use by doing a second exercise instead of resting completely.

You still get the required amount of rest between doing the same exercise but you get a lot more work done in less time.

Now I understand that the typical commercial gym setup makes alternating between exercises difficult. Here’s some tips for making it work:

  • Grab two good friends and hog up two pieces of equipment for 10 minutes then move on (don’t linger, nobody likes an equipment hog).
  • Grab one or two dumbbells and head over to the power rack or a landmine set up or a cable set up. Do rows with your barbell squats, or presses with your barbell deadlifts, and DB Romanian deadlifts with your Barbell Bench Press.
  • Program exercises that go together (cable arm curls with cable arm extensions, db curls with extensions, deadlifts and loaded pushups, etc…etc…)
  • Join a boutique gym/health club with fewer members and thus more equipment availability (you’ll pay extra for this privilege but it’s worth it if you value your time)

If everyone trained like this, equipment would be easier to come by in most commercial gyms. You wouldn’t get that one gym-bro hogging the cable stack or bench press for 30 minutes.

Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, a bodybuilder or olympic lifter and your job requires you to be at the gym. Get in and get out by using paired-sets.

#3 – Poor Understanding of Basic Training Principles

I watch space-cadets people go from bicep curls, to squats, to bench press, to triceps push-downs then lunges, and then lat-pulldowns? Huh?

Whatever looks good at the moment?

Literally the other day at the gym, a guy came in, did a single set of 8-10 with 115 lbs on the Bench. Then walked away for 15-20 minutes, without stripping his equipment — super douchey thing to do by the way.

I stripped the weights for him, but then he came back to the bench! 20 minutes later, guess what? I’m now using the bench and pairing it with deadlifts.

He asks if he could work in (of course he can) but then he does one set and leaves? He left after one set! Why even bother working in? Why did you take off for that long and come back for one last set? Makes no sense…

Gym Etiquette

Leaving your weights on a piece of equipment (or your towel for that matter) does not lay claim to that equipment.

Don’t be annoyed when you come back 15 minutes later and that piece of equipment is now in use. You should be visibly using a piece of equipment, try to do paired sets nearby and let people work in already. It’s just basic human decency.

This can only be explained as, ‘he didn’t have a freakin’ clue what he was doing.’ Poor guy really…

Throwing a bunch of random exercises together every time you go into the gym is a HUGE waste of your time.

It’s not your fault really, you just don’t know any better, but it doesn’t take much to learn. Use something incredibly simple 2×2.

It’s really not that hard to organize a decent workout with a few simple strategies.

  1. Use a simple continuum* for training: The most technical stuff is always done at the beginning (Read – Don’t jog for 30 minutes and expect to have an awesome strength leg workout after that) to least technical.
  2. Typically speed stuff first, then power, then strength (1-6 reps), they hypertrophy (6-12 reps), then muscular endurance (12+ reps), then energy system development (when you’re already tired).
  3. Heaviest weights to lightest weight (finish with body-weight stuff — or highest intensity low rep stuff progresses to lowest intensity high rep stuff). 
  4. Most complicated lifts to least complicated (Olympic Lifting before Bench Press before forearm exercises)
  5. The most important lifts go before the least important lifts, based on your goals/objectives
  6. Free weight exercises before any machine exercises (Machines are easier to operate under fatigue and don’t require stability)
  7. Multi-joint compound exercises before single joint exercises.** Or biggest lifts before smallest lifts (Bench, Chin-Ups always come before bicep curls or triceps).

*Note: These are guidelines not rules. More advanced trainees can deviate from them to force adaptation in unique ways. By definition, most people aren’t that advanced. If you know very little about training, these are the best guidelines to start with.

**Unless your priority is hypertrophy of a very specific area like arms or shoulders. In which case isolation can go before to prioritize the goal of your training. See point #4.

ESD has a little more flexibility than that image dictates.

If doing sprinting on the same day as lifting, you probably want to do the sprints first. Sprints likely train your ATP-CP and Glycolytic systems but get lumped into ‘speed work.’

I would still generally plan on the fastest intervals (0-20 seconds in duration) being first in the session, then to glycolytic work (20-60 seconds), followed by any aerobic (60 sec+) exercise.

As opposed to getting into ‘Fartlek styled,’ random energy system training, which is a topic for another post. It’s far more specific to endurance training athletes than the general weight-loss population.

# 4 – Lack of a Plan

This is a buzzkill for many. Wingin’ it is so much easier. I see 50 people doing this when I step into a typical commercial gym.

They have no idea what to do, so they just try to do what they see the person next to them doing.

“Failing to plan, is planning to fail.”

~Winston Churchill

Learning how to workout, makes having a plan, much easier. See the above.

I’m a trainer, a skill I’ve developed over the years is programming. I can throw together a training program in a matter of minutes, most people can’t.

I’m like the robot that can put it’s arm back on. Play safe.

If you can’t do this, I highly recommend you hire someone to do it for you.

At a minimum find a good book or training program online.

If you’ve mastered the basics, buy an existing program from a reputable trainer (Read: Not the shake-weight, Brazilian butt-lift program, or anything else you’ve seen in infomercial format or on late night TV).

You wouldn’t pull your own teeth out right?

You’d probably go to a dentist because they have the equipment and skills necessary to complete that task effectively. Not having a plan, is like trying to pull your own teeth.

Here are some decent run of the mill programs that’ll set you back $25 and help you get a heck of a lot more out of your $60 a month gym membership.

They may not be as good as an individualized program or even a modular program but it might be a good starting point for some especially intermediate and above lifters:

  1. Skill Based 2×2 Training – By Yours Truly (free)
  2. The New Rules of Lifting For Women – By Lou Schuler, Alwyn Cosgrove and Cassandra Forsythe
  3. The New Rules of Lifting – By Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove
  4. Maximum Strength – By Eric Cressey
  5. Starting Strength – By Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore
  6. Built For Show – By Nate Green
  7. Huge in a Hurry – By Chad Waterbury
  8. Scrawny to Brawny – By John Berardi and Mike Mejia

#5 – Bad Technique

This is a huge problem at most gyms. I’m almost tempted to put this first on the list. Racing through anything, and ignoring your technique is going to yield a problem eventually. It’s typically only a matter of time.

ALWAYS, Always, always, think Quality Over Quantity.

I worry about people bouncing weights off their chests, getting their low backs into those bicep curls, rounding their backs when they deadlift and other decidedly basic technique cues, that people still want to argue about or completely ignore.

Not only will injury keep you out of the game and take you away from the gym completely, it was most-likely completely preventable in the first place.

I’ve seen some pretty nasty things results from bad technique, improper spotting, and host of other basic safety cues to consider at the gym.

If you don’t know, most gyms can and should be willing to show you the ropes for an hour with basic safety considerations and some basic lifting cues.

There is a continuum of learning, you need to master moves at slower speeds before increasing the speed.

It is a basic learning patten of life, you crawl before you walk and you walk before you run.

That’s just how your body learns best. Please take the time to build your foundation before getting to more advanced speeds.

You’re not getting a whole lot out of things, not done well, anyway. You don’t have to be perfect, but aim to be optimal.

#6 – Too Much of What You Don’t Need

Some long aerobic work is good for you, but that doesn’t mean more is better. If you’re trying to gain some muscle mass or just improve your health then 1-3x a week of a non-weight bearing activity is probably enough.

If you’re an endurance athlete, you’ll need more, you need to put in a certain amount of mileage to perform well.  The flipside with endurance athletes is that they ignore other good training tactics like weight/strength training and technique training (both shown to improve performance extensively, even in endurance athletes).

Simply getting your distance in, is not the answer to improving performance, yet so many endurance athletes make this mistake.

You also need technique work, mental training, mobility training and speed work.

Likewise resistance training advocates will often over-do resistance training at the expense of energy system work. There is a sweet spot for everything. If you want to gain muscle, then more resistance training than aerobic training is needed but not at the expense of.

If you want to lose more fat, than higher intensity forms of exercise can help but are harder to recover from.

If you want to improve your endurance, don’t forget that neurological efficiency matters and strength training improves that.

If you’re pressed for time consider interval training periodically. A 20 minute bike ride isn’t as hard to fit in as you think though.

Training is a balancing act, you have to transition to ideals based on objectives and experiences but don’t give up on other physical qualities outright.


If you are new to training, work your way up to high intensity forms of exercise.

It works on any piece of cardiovascular equipment and is actually a type of interval training anyway. Get your mechanics/technique checked too. I highly recommend an interval protocol (you can use a piece of gym equipment if you must, I’d go with the rower, bike or incline treadmill if you must) of 15 seconds hard, 45 seconds easy to start before you work your way up to anything else. By week 8-12, you should be able to up the intensity a fair bit.

If you want to run, use a typical walk/run work approach and build slowly. Maybe I’ll write an article on that some day.