When done correctly, strength training can provide an array of great benefits, like it can help increase muscle mass, increase strength, burn fat, improve balance and coordination, and so much more. Strength training involves lifting heavy weights, so when it's done incorrectly, it can get you some results, but it won't be as you hoped. Not only that, but it increases your risk of injury which can keep you out of the gym anywhere from a week to a few months! This is why taking the time to make small progressions and working on proper technique and form above else is important.
Taking the time to learn and nail exercise form will even lead to better results because it forces you to use various techniques like time under tension, moving through the full range of motion, and different angle movements all to activate and engage the intended muscle group. But sometimes even using the right techniques can lead to improper form. You might've noticed a few form mistakes walking through the gym from both beginners and experienced lifters, or you’ve committed some yourself!
So, to put an end to poor form, we put together a list of the seven most common exercise form mistakes, plus how to fix those mistakes, so you can build muscle and strength effectively and safely.
Going too heavy, too fast
This one doesn't have to do exactly with form on a specific exercise, but it is a common mistake that almost everyone makes that can lead to poor form. It's true that in order to build muscle and strength, the main focus should be on lifting heavy, but not if the weight is too heavy that you sacrifice form! This is working backwards, not forwards. You don't want to hit a heavy barbell deadlift without mastering your form first because you can strain your back or cause a really bad back injury that'll have you out of the gym for weeks or months!
How can you fix this?
The solution to this one is simple... Pick the appropriate weight for your fitness level! If you've never trained with weights before, start by mastering essential bodyweight exercises (squats, push-ups, lunges, etc.), move up to dumbbells, and then barbell training. If you're more experienced and you're trying to hit a personal record on a compound move like a barbell squat, then make sure you're able to do 10-15 reps with good form, good posture, able to go through the entire (or close to) range of motion, and able to move through it slowly (time under tension). Once you're able to do at least 10 reps implementing the proper techniques, then you can increase the weight on your next session. Just remember, starting at a heavier weight means you won't be able to do as many reps. So, don't force yourself to perform 10 or however many reps you usually do, instead, reduce the rep range to 5-8. Then work your way up to 10-15 reps, making sure to use proper form and technique, and increase the weight again!
Tip: Use controlled movements when performing any exercise, if you're swinging the weight then it's a good indicator that weight is too light. If you're falling out of alignment, feel something off, or drop the weights before finishing your last reps then that's a good indicator that the weight is too heavy.
Caved in knees
Some of the best lower body exercises are squats and deadlifts. That's because they're compound moves, meaning they work multiple joints and muscles at once. The thing is, most people have trouble nailing their form. In fact, the most common mistake with these exercises is letting the knees cave in. It's mostly common with squats, but it can also occur during deadlifts. This usually happens if the weight is too heavy, but also wrong foot placement, and overall body position. Letting your knees cave in could hurt them and cause an injury to the joint, and it can also limit the amount of strength and size you build in your legs!
How can you fix this?
To avoid practicing improper squat form and causing damage to your knees, make sure that your knees are tracked over your toes, but not blocking them. First, when doing a squat you want to push your glutes back and down as if you're about to sit on a chair and keep your weight on your heels. Don't bend at the knees. Go far enough into the squat, your knees should naturally align with your feet and hips. Once you're in position, try this quick test... Glance down at your feet, if you can see your toes then you're good. If your knees are blocking them then you're too far forward.
Tip: As you move through the squat, keep your spine in a neutral position (not overextended), and don't lean too forward or back. If you can wiggle your toes without losing your balance, you're in an optimal position. If you lose your balance, then shift your weight into your heels.
Arching or hunching during pulling exercises
When pulling exercises, like deadlifts, rows, Romanian deadlifts, are done incorrectly they can cause serious damage to the back. The most common mistake lifters make is not having a neutral spine, meaning their backs are hunched or arched throughout the movement. Doing this can damage the discs on your back, surrounding nerves, and pretty much your entire spine.
How can you fix this?
Before performing any pulling movement, brace and engage your core, and draw your shoulders down. If you don't know how to engage your core, simply squeeze all of the muscles in your torso and hold them in that tightened position while still breathing normally. It should feel like the muscles in your abdomen and glutes are tightened, stable, and secure from your pelvis all the way to your rib cage. Keeping a tight core neutral position with shoulders drawn down should keep your back aligned with the rest of your body during deadlifts and other pulling movements.
Tip: When you're deadlifting, at the bottom of the move (before lifting), press your chest out and flex your pecs. It will help flatten your back and keep your spine neutral.
When it comes to upper body exercises, the mistake everyone makes is flaring their elbows. Curling too heavy of weight leads to wandering elbows, meaning they point out, which can damage the shoulders, neck, and back. This is also most common with the bench press, also known as the chest press. Most people naturally point their elbows directly to the sides, but this actually puts a lot of stress on the shoulder joint and can cause an injury.
How can you fix this?
When doing the bench press, keep your elbows close to your rib cage, so it looks more like you're forming an arrow with your arms, not a "T". This will help reduce the stress in your shoulder blades, and it'll make the exercise slightly easier too! For other curling exercises, like the bicep curl, make sure your elbows are tucked into the sides! If your elbows begin to wander then you should consider decreasing the weight.
Arched back on overhead movements
Overhead movements can cause a lot of strain on your shoulders, add in poor form and you're on track for a serious injury! The common mistake everyone does with exercises like the shoulder press and bench press is arching the back in order to push the heavy weight overhead. An arched back usually happens due to a lack of shoulder mobility and because the person is tilting their chest up to push the weight overhead. This bend or arch puts enormous stress on the joints in your lumbar spine, which can result in a serious back injury.
How can you fix this?
Similar to the previous mistake people make during pulling movements, you want to focus on squeezing and engaging your core. It will help stabilize your lower back, so you can safely push the weight overhead. If you are unable to push the weight overhead without tilting your chest up and arching your back then decrease the weight.
Tip: Having a weak core can contribute to this happening, so if you're a beginner, and find yourself still arching your back during these movements then take a step back and train your core. Implement core exercises into your workout routine, once you start building a stronger core, you can start tackling heavier weights!
Rowing without shoulder blades
Dumbbell rows, barbell rows, any type of rowing movements are key to building back muscle, but doing them wrong will get you little return. Many tend to let the elbow travel too far behind the rib cage, which leads to them missing out on the full benefits of strengthening their back and improving shoulder health.
How can I fix this?
When you perform a row, let your shoulder blades glide inward over your ribcage. As you reach the top of the movement, imagine pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades. This will ensure that your shoulders and back are doing the work, not just your arms.
Tip: Aside from making sure you're using your shoulder blades, a mistake many make with rows (and pull-ups) is having the ribcage flared up and out as they pull up. This can place an unnecessary strain on your back. So, start your row by keeping the shoulders and rib cage down, and they should remain that way throughout each rep.
Poor neck positioning
Where you're looking is important when working out. Oftentimes, lifters look up at the bottom of a squat or look ahead when deadlifting to check on the form, or simply turn to the side to talk to their workout buddy. This is a huge no-no. Doing this can strain your neck and tighten your body in so many ways, it can even cause a more serious strain to the cervical spine.
How can I fix this?
Pack your neck by pointing your chin down slightly. It should look like a double-chin. Keep your neck in that position throughout the movement. If you're worried about your form, have a buddy guide you. Remember, when doing almost any exercise your body should form a straight line, so make sure that your head and neck are aligned with the rest of your body!
Tip: When doing pull-ups or sit-ups, don't stretch or strain your neck to reach the top of the movement. Tighten and engage your core to raise your body, don't use your neck.
You've probably made one or a few of these mistakes, and that's okay! At least now you know what you need to do to fix your form, so the next time you hit the weights your movements will be more controlled and everyone will be admiring how pretty your form is.
So, remember to focus on the exercise you're doing, the intended muscle group, and keep these mistakes + solutions in mind! Aside from maintaining good form during your workouts, if you want to improve your workout routine as a whole, you should also practice good strength training principles! This includes having a proper warm-up, breathing throughout the exercises, trying different variations to target smaller muscle groups, and maintaining good posture (including when doing cardio). Focusing on improving your entire workout routine, opposed to just one part of it, will maximize the effort you're putting in and get you the results you deserve!
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