This time around we’re talking about poor exercise form and the common mistakes that almost everyone makes when working out. Over the years I’ve seen the same exercises repeatedly performed incorrectly by a great many people. This is largely due to misunderstanding what the exercise is trying to accomplish which prevents people from feeling the movement properly. And since a lot of us “learn” new exercises from friends in the gym, the quality of what you learn is only as good as the person teaching you.
So here’s my list of the 10 Exercises You’re Probably Doing Wrong… how many apply to you?
1. Lat Pull Downs – This is one of the standbys of back training and is basically a modified version of Pull-ups for those that can’t do them. When performed correctly, Lat Pull Downs work the entire back, your arms and shoulders quite effectively. But many people slouch or roll their shoulders forward when seated and pull/push the bar to their mid chest or even their lap!
Instead you want to sit up tall, shoulder blades retracted (like you’re gripping a pencil), and pull the bar to just under your chin/top of your chest. Imagine pulling with your elbows and that your hands are hooked on the bar and you should be able to feel the squeeze.
2. Lunges – Whether you do the forward or reverse style, chances are your form is a bit off. Lunges are great leg developers, work the glutes and are good for balance. But most people don’t step forward or back far enough placing undue strain on the knees. Also, the tendency to lean at the waist should be avoided.
The proper form is to make your step big enough that your knee, when in the end position, is placed over your ankle, with your upper and lower legs making right angles. Your upper body should also be kept almost straight throughout the exercise to reduce stress on the lower back.
3. Plank – In my opinion this is one of the hardest exercises to get right but one that’s crucial to a basic foundation of core strength. I’ve seen a lot of people performing the plank, on their elbows and toes, with a “banana”, sunken back. This places tremendous strain on the lower back, stretches out the abs and doesn’t work the intended muscles at all.
You must flex the abs to take the sagging out of the lower back, with your body parallel to the floor and your legs and glutes tight. Also, avoid hiking your butt up into the air to make the exercise easier.
4. Biceps Curls – It drives me crazy when I see this one done wrong, especially by men trying to show off by lifting absurd weighs they can’t handle! Curls work the biceps, and to a lesser extent the forearm, but most people doing them get a better shoulder workout! That’s because many people move their elbows forward as they start the lift in an effort to cheat the weight up. That means your front shoulder is actually doing a lot of the work.
The correct form is to pick a position for your elbows, either at your side, or slightly in front/back, and PIN them there. Then curl the weight up with no elbow movement and squeeze at the top. Chances are you’re going to have to reduce the weight to perform Bicep Curls correctly – but if you really want those guns this is the way to achieve them!
5. One Arm Dumbbell Rows – Here’s another exercise that’s often performed incorrectly as most people pull the weight with their biceps instead of the intended large muscles of the back. What you want to do is plant one hand on a bench, with a FLAT erect spine, grab the weight and pull it towards your hip bone while squeezing your shoulder blade. In the finished position if your upper and lower arms are not near a right angle, you have pulled with your arms and barely used your back. Lighten your weight and try again!
6. Crunches – This is probably the most overused exercise in the gym, but still millions of people perform Crunches in their quest for flab abs. Problem is most do it wrong and end up either straining their necks – or overdeveloping the muscles on the front of them!
Think of your abs as an accordion. When you crunch, the accordion pulls the muscles together, thus flexing your spine. The idea is get your upper back up off the floor, and not to come forward as you would at the beginning of a Sit-up. I see a lot of people pulling their heads back and fourth looking like bobble-heads, and doing hardly anything for their abdominals. A good trick is when lying flat, look far behind you at a spot on the ceiling, as you crunch up continue to focus on this spot and this will help keep your head steady.
7. Dumbbell Side Laterals – This exercise is great for strengthening and adding some shape to the side of the shoulders when done correctly, but unfortunately it’s mostly performed wrong. I see people once again using too heavy a weight – which leads to plenty of cheating in an attempt at completing the motion.
Pick a light weight, say maybe 5 or 8lbs, stand up straight with you hands and dumbbells at your side. With an erect spine and feet shoulder width apart, lean forward ever so slightly, and raise the weights out to your side, leading with your elbow, and with parallel knuckles. Lower the dumbbells down but stop before reaching your hips to keep tension on the muscle. I tell my clients to imagine a string on their elbows pulling them up. Also don’t lead with a ‘thumbs up position’, as you’ll end up working too much of the front shoulder.
8. Chest Press/Flyes – I’m combining these two because the same mistake is seem commonly in the finish position. Both exercises can be great for chest development and strength, but they both require that your shoulders stay back continuously throughout the movement. Too often trainee’s protract, or round their shoulders forward. By not keeping shoulders retracted, or pulled back, the chest muscles effectively get “shut off” and most of the work is accomplished with the shoulders. Make sure when pressing or performing flye’s to squeeze the chest muscles together.
9. Ball Wood Chops – This is a great core conditioning exercise that has its roots in chopping wood – and is a good mix of cardio and strength. I see many people almost getting it right – but not quite! The main problem I’ve encountered is that people don’t bend their legs during the swing, and in an effort to get the ball closer to the ground, bend too much at the lower back – increasing their risk of injury. Make sure that you are bending at the knee in addition to the low back, and pivoting the feet, so that all of the muscles work together to accomplish the task instead of one area doing too much. Check out my YouTube video on how to perform chops correctly.
10. Squats – Squats are the king of lower body development and strength, and work the entire body (see my Should I Squat Or Not Posting for more squat benefits!)
But, in my opinion, Squats are one of the most dangerous, and incorrectly performed exercises out there. The risk for a disk, low back, or knee related injury is substantial due to the fact that your legs can handle a lot of weight – but your back can’t.
The biggest issue with Squats is that most people lack the ability to maintain correct posture throughout the movement, with their chest up high and their butt pushed out. Additionally, most people have de-conditioned glutes, which makes it very hard to stabilize the knee, and squeeze out of the bottom of the lift. I recommend squatting with just your bodyweight first, with feet shoulder width apart and toes slightly turned out. While trying to stay as upright as possible, sit back on your heels like you’re sitting in a chair. Remember at the top of each lift to finish and stand up completely straight.
With all of the above, the number one factor in poor lifting form is the use of too much weight. I tell people – “lift the weight, not your ego”. The number of sets and reps can and should be varied to keep your body on its toes. I generally recommend 3 working sets of a particular exercise, and anywhere from a low of 8 reps to a high of 20.
If you are questioning the importance of good form, you must recognize that in addition to making you look and feel better, exercise is also maintenance that when done properly, can help to correct muscular imbalances and promote proper spinal alignment. When exercises are done with poor form, you run the risk of potentially making an imbalance issue worse, or even creating one. And nobody wants that.
But what do you think? Have you suffered an injury from bad form? Do you have another commonly mis-performed exercise to add to the list? Start commenting everyone…