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Do you lean on the hand rails when using cardio equipment? The bars should be used only for balance, not support, fitness experts say.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 3/4/2004 6:41:19 PM ET 2004-03-04T23:41:19

What are some of the most common mistakes people make at the gym? And how can a guy with "chicken legs" put some more meat on his bones? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To send an e-mail, click here . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: I've heard that behind-the-neck pull-downs and presses can be dangerous. That's true, right? And what are some other gym activities that can be detrimental?

A: Yes, behind-the-neck pull-downs and presses aren’t recommended because they can injure the shoulders, neck or back. And several other common practices can spell trouble, too.

A big one is jerking while lifting weights, says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise. People do this in an effort to lift greater amounts of weight, but they sacrifice proper technique in doing so, throwing the weight instead of lifting it in a controlled way.

The result? “Whenever you move weights quickly in an explosive manner, you’re putting more stress on connective tissue -– tendons and ligaments,” says Bryant.

In addition to potentially causing an injury, jerking weights also can prevent a person from properly working the intended muscle because other parts of the body are doing the work. For example, people doing biceps curls won't correctly isolate the area if they rock forward and throw their back into the movement.

Another practice that can lead to injuries is leaning on the hand rails of the stairclimber, elliptical trainer or treadmill, notes Bryant. Using the rails for support rather than just balance is hard on the wrists and back, and can make the workout less challenging, too.

Gym-goers, as well as outdoor exercises and athletes in team sports, also make the mistake of locking their knees, rather than keeping them in a slightly bent position to prevent injuries, says Patrick Mediate, a personal trainer in Greenwich, Conn., and a member of the board of directors for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Not getting proper rest before working out is another, often over-looked mistake, Mediate says.

“Most of the time people get hurt when they’re fatigued when they work out,” he says. “When you’re tired you’re not focused.” That can mean sloppy technique and injury.

Failing to properly warm up is yet another common gym goof, says Mediate. He recommends a 10-minute warm-up that includes low-intensity cardiovascular exercise, such as an easy ride on the bike or walk on the treadmill, and some "dynamic stretching," such as leg swings and arm circles.

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Bryant also advises taking a few minutes to cool down after a workout, to lower the heart rate and stretch the muscles to maintain flexibility.

“We live in such a time-pressured world and people are trying to get in and out” of the gym, he says. "If most people are going to cut a corner it’s going to be on the warm-up and cool-down sides.”

While being a creature of habit can be a good thing if it means a person faithfully works out, performing the same activities over and over may lead to a fitness rut. Not only can this cause people to stop seeing fitness improvements, because they aren't challenging themselves as much as in the beginning, it also can cause overuse injuries like tendonitis.

To stay in top form, experts recommend performing a variety of activities, what is known as cross-training. And when an exercise becomes too easy, people should ratchet up the duration or intensity of the activity, but by no more than a 10 percent increase at any one time.

Some final commonsense tips for the gym: Stay hydrated; for most recreational, non-endurance exercisers that means drinking 6 to 8 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes during physical activity, says Bryant. And don't forget to pack your flip-flops with your sneakers to protect against athlete's foot in the shower and sauna.

Q: I'm a 28-year-old man with "chicken legs." Even though I played soccer and basketball the majority of my youth, my legs are embarrassingly skinny. What's the quickest way to build muscle mass in my legs?

A: Not everyone has the same ability to build muscle mass. “There’s definitely a genetic predisposition to how big you’re going to be and you can only impact it so much, but you can impact it,” says Robert Fay, clinical director of Armonk Physical Therapy and Sports Training in Armonk, N.Y.

Two of the best exercises for building up the legs, he says, are squats and leg presses.

To boost muscle mass, Fay recommends working out with higher weights and lower repetitions. Aim for six to eight repetitions at a weight that fatigues the muscles by the seventh or eighth rep but isn't so difficult that you compromise good form.

And be sure to give the muscles a day or so of rest between strength-training workouts to allow them to recover.

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