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Unsolicited Fitness Advice to Ignore...or Not

author image Linda Melone
Linda Melone is a seasoned writer and certified strength and conditioning specialist specializing in fitness and health. She also holds a B.S. in nutrition. Her work appears on WebMD, MSN Health,, AARP, Oxygen and in many other online and print publications.

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Unsolicited Fitness Advice to Ignore...or Not
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If you’re just starting an exercise program, you’re bound to hear a lot of unsolicited advice from well-meaning people who want to help you (or want your money). Some may be friends who’ve been lifting weights for a while and feel qualified to dole out tips. Others might be fellow gym-goers who feel their years of working out justify them handing out free advice to strangers. And still others might be family members who read about a friend’s weight-loss “secret” on Facebook. Problem is, unless the person providing advice is a qualified professional, their advice can do more harm than good. Here are some typical words of wisdom that may or may not be in your best interest -- and how to tell the difference.

1. “Stand with your feet wider/closer.”
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1 “Stand with your feet wider/closer.”

Should you listen? Depends. You may hear this when doing squats, deadlifts or other standing exercises. Most exercises call for standing with feet shoulder- or hip-width apart, but that may vary. “It’s hard to go wrong if you place your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart,” says Stephen Holt, ACE-certified personal trainer. “The key is to make sure your knees can stay in line with your feet and hips in squatting types of movements. Too wide a stance makes that difficult to do, and too narrow a stance takes away much of the contribution of your glutes (which can be either good or bad, depending on your goal).”

Related: How to Get Started With Weightlifting

2. "Don’t round your back.”
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2 "Don’t round your back.”

Should you listen? Yes. Straight-leg deadlifts and many free-weight back exercises like barbell rows require a straight back with your shoulder blades retracted. Rounding your back can seriously compromise your spine, says personal trainer Stephen Holt. “You can’t go wrong by following the ‘law’ of never rounding your back.” Holt compares the disks in your back with jelly donuts. “When you round your back, the ‘jelly’ in the disks is pushed toward the back of the ‘donut,’” he says. “When that happens too many times or too forcefully, the result can be a herniated (often called ‘slipped’) disk.” In general, always remember to engage your core muscles and keep your back straight before lifting a heavy weight.

3. “You’re doing that machine wrong.”
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3 “You’re doing that machine wrong.”

Should you listen? Maybe. Sitting on a machine backwards may be a creative way to hit different muscles, but it could also lead to injury. But you have to know what you’re doing. In most cases, you’re better off using the equipment as recommended, especially if you’re a beginner. “Most standard exercise machines at the gym have placards that show you exactly how the machine was designed to be used,” says personal trainer Stephen Holt. If someone tells you you’re doing something wrong, ask them to explain their reasoning. “If they know what they’re talking about, they should be able to go into at least two sentences giving you a plausible reason why,” says Holt.

Related: 10 Machine-to-Free-Weight Swaps

4. “Use more weight if you want results.”
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4 “Use more weight if you want results.”

Should you listen? Not if you’re new. Starting with heavy weights before your body has had time to adapt sets you up for injury. “You need to gradually work up to heavy weight,” says Jimmy Minardi, certified personal trainer and founder of Minardi Training. “I tell my clients to practice ‘effortless effort’ as much as possible when you’re exerting yourself -- especially in weight training, where stress-loading your muscles is the quickest way to injure yourself.” Plus, keep in mind your body goes through an initial phase called neural adaptation, in which your nervous system adapts to the new stresses placed upon it. This process takes several weeks and occurs before you’ll notice any substantial changes in muscle.

Related: 9 Essential Strength Benchmarks for Men

5. “Do lots of crunches/sit-ups for a flat stomach.”
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5 “Do lots of crunches/sit-ups for a flat stomach.”

Should you listen? No. Doing hundreds of crunches in an effort to flatten your stomach is a waste of time, says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of “Beat the Gym.” “You can’t spot reduce (get rid of fat in one area) by doing crunches, planks or any other abdominal exercise," he says. "You need to take a look at your diet.” If you’re striving to lose belly fat or overall body weight, ditch the junk food and fast food, go easy on alcohol and eat clean. This, along with regular cardio and strength training that includes abdominal exercise, all contributes to a flatter stomach, says Holland.

Related: The 41 Hardest Ab Exercises

6. “Lift the weights any way you can, even if your form isn’t great.”
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6 “Lift the weights any way you can, even if your form isn’t great.”

Should you listen? No. No matter what equipment you’re using, whether it’s a treadmill or free weights, proper form is paramount to avoiding injury over the long run, says personal trainer Jimmy Minardi. “If you’re consistently hunched over when you run or leaning back when lifting, that puts extra pressure on your lower back and can cause injury. Remember: Form over ego.” Your set should end when you can no longer do an exercise with correct form. In addition, when you sacrifice form by using momentum -- like “tossing” the leg extension up with each rep -- you take away from the strength-building benefits. Check with a qualified personal trainer if you’re unsure how to perform a particular exercise.

Related: 3 Exercise Myths Busted

7. “Wear different shoes for running and Zumba.”
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7 “Wear different shoes for running and Zumba.”

Should you listen? Yes. Just like if you were to wear high heels when you have a long shopping list, wearing the wrong shoes to the gym can leave you feeling the negative effects for days, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, AL. “You need more cushion for higher-impact activities like jogging and running to protect you heel and foot bones from each heel strike.” Zumba or cardio kickboxing classes require support with enough maneuverability to perform dance steps without slipping or twisting an ankle. If you’re unsure which shoe is right for your particular workout, ask someone at a reputable running-shoe store.

Related: The 30 Best Fitness Accessories and Equipment You Should Have in Your Gym Bag

8. "Don’t arch your back on the bench press."
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8 "Don’t arch your back on the bench press."

Should you listen? Yes. Arching your back on the bench press may enable you to lift more weight, but it puts your back and spine at risk of injury. In addition, the reduced range of motion means your muscles are not challenged through their full range, so muscle-building potential diminishes. “Arching increases pressure on the lumbar disks and essentially makes the lift easier by elevating the ribs and turning it into a decline press,” says Mark Nutting, CSCS, fitness director of Saco Sport and Fitness. “This changes the point of doing the exercise in the first place.” Keep a neutral spine with a slight arch throughout the move.

9. “Put your feet up on the bench for barbell presses.”
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9 “Put your feet up on the bench for barbell presses.”

Should you listen? No. Performing a bench press with your feet off the floor takes away the traction you can get from the ground, which can make your lift weaker. “You have greatest stability with your feet on the floor, and there’s no real point to challenge your balance on a bench press,” says personal trainer Mark Nutting. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends a five-point body-contact position on a bench: 1. Head should be planted firmly on the bench or back pad. 2. Shoulders and upper back are firmly and evenly on the bench. 3. Your butt is placed evenly on the bench or seat. 4 and 5. Your feet are flat on the floor.

Related: 6 Gym Exercises You Are Doing Wrong -- and How to Fix Them

10. “Lean way back when you do lat pulldowns.”
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10 “Lean way back when you do lat pulldowns.”

Should you listen? Maybe. Leaning back while doing front lat pulldowns in itself isn’t dangerous or wrong, it simply changes the angle of the pull, says personal trainer Mark Nutting. “Leaning back with momentum is another story, however.” You shouldn’t be yanking down the pulldown bar quickly then allowing it to snap back to its starting position, swinging your body back and down in the process. Momentum carries an inherent greater risk of injury and doesn’t allow you to gain the full benefits of a controlled movement. Instead, tighten your core muscles, lean back about 10 percent and hold this position throughout the movement.

What Do YOU Think?
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What Do YOU Think?

What advice have you been given while working out? Was it good or bad advice, and how did you know? Share your stories of unsolicited advice and how you responded in the comments below!

Related: 20 Fitness Myths

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