MATTERS OF FORM
Simply motivating to workout can sometimes feel like a major achievement — yet all of that dedication and hard work can easily be derailed if you're not exercising correctly. Without learning proper form for even simple exercises, you run the risk of injury — forcing you to postpone your fitness goals while you recover. Even if you manage to avoid a debilitating and painful injury, bad form can also keep you from getting the full benefit of your workout and working the muscles you're aiming to target. While it's easy to assume you're doing your exercises correctly, especially if you've been doing them for years or picked them from a class, we often don't realize we're making minor errors that can be easily adjusted.
"Most people are desk workers and have postural distortions because of it. Rounded shoulders, forward head posture, tight hips, ankle weakness, and inactive glutes," says Kelly Michaels Giordano, a certified personal trainer with over 22 years in the fitness industry. "Having the body in correct alignment, in my opinion, can help eliminate the 'problems or incorrect movement' that we see as professionals." The following are some common mistakes we've all made and how to fix them.
When the weather is bad, the treadmill is a good option to get your miles in. That said, avoid trying to go too fast or at too steep of an incline that you're forced to hold onto the railings. This affects your posture and puts strain on your back, while also decreasing the effectiveness of your workout. Instead, run at a slower pace or less of an incline so you can practice proper form.
According to Elizabeth Radinovic, a certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor, "An overwhelming amount of gym goers are not doing proper squats. Actually many are told to avoid squats by medical professionals, not because of the squat itself, but because it can be harmful with improper form." A squat is a "compound exercise" that means it works many muscles and has several moving parts. This is a great exercise for the leg and gluteus muscles if done correctly, but if done incorrectly all those moving parts risk injury.
"Common mistakes include arching the back while sticking the butt out too much, and another is leaning forward with the upper body and shifting into the knees," Radinovic says. Instead she recommends starting with proper spinal and pelvic alignment. "It's important to start with a neutral spine (no excessive arching in the lower back) Once the spine is in a neutral position, maintaining it while sitting back into the squat is so important. Also keeping the chest lifted helps to avoid leaning forward and shifting into the knees," Radinovic says.
Related: 14 Butt Exercises You Can Do at Home
Deadlifts are another compound exercise that Radinovic considers great time savers and muscle builders if done correctly, but if done incorrectly have a whole host of things that can go wrong. "Common mistakes people make with doing deadlifts include leaning too far forward and rounding the spine, which can lead to or exacerbate a back injury," Radinovic says.
To do these correctly, Radinovic says to focus on pulling your shoulders back and driving your heels into the ground. This helps avoid leaning forward, while also keeping the neck in line with the spine. Keep your eyes straight forward to do this. Keeping a straight back is essential. "Due to the advanced nature of this exercise, I highly recommend working with a professional to help master form before attempting to go it alone," Radinovic cautions.
Lower-back and shoulder injuries can be a risk with pushups gone wrong. According to Giordano, common pushup mistakes include the core sagging, hands placed wrong, glutes not engaged, knees bent, and feet placed too far apart.
"Lower into a pushup position with hands pointing forward and hands placed under your shoulders," Giordano says. "Bring your legs and feet together, activating your glutes and core and a flat back. Lower into a pushup position while squeezing your shoulder blades together as you are pressing away from the floor. Engage your core, glutes, inner thighs, and press back up to a starting position."
Sit-ups carry the risk of lower back or neck injury if done the wrong way. Tucking the chin into the chest, or pulling on the neck can cause strain, while arching the back or rounding it too much puts strain on the lower back.
The best way to do a sit up is to lie on your back, and bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the ground. Put your hands behind your ears, making sure not to pull on your head or neck. Slowly keeping your back straight, and stomach pulled in sit all the way up to a sitting position and then slowly keeping the same form lower back down.
Elbow injuries are a common issue with bicep curls that aren't done properly. Improper bicep curls mean you are swinging your body into the lifting movement, flaring your elbows, and/or lifting the weights above your shoulders.
To do this move correctly, you must squeeze your elbows into your sides and keep them there as you lift. You have to keep your hips stationary so you aren't swaying back and forth, and you should not be lifting the weight all the way up to touch your shoulders. In fact, if this exercise is performed with good form with your elbows glued to your ribs, you won't be able to lift the weights that high.
Another move that risks shoulder injury if done incorrectly, the overhead press has a number of things that can go wrong. Arching your back, leaning your weight back, straining your head up or down are common mistakes with the overhead press.
To do a correct overhead press, you must stand up straight with your shoulders relaxed. Keeping your back straight and looking straight ahead, press straight up instead of up and forward or up and behind you. Press straight up from the level of your ears.
The biggest problem with the lat pulldown is pulling the bar behind your head as you pulldown. This causes you to tuck your head forward and puts unnecessary strain on the neck, risking injury. The second biggest mistake is arching your back as you pulldown.
The latter can be corrected with lighter weight, while the first problem is corrected by pulling the weight down in front of you. To do this, tilt back slightly at the hips and relax your shoulders down. Pull the weight down and slightly in toward your chest to perform the lat pulldown correctly.
The rowing machine is a great option for a full body cardio workout, but proper form is a must. Common mistakes on the rowing machine include rounding your back and therefore putting strain on your shoulders and back, and pulling with just your arms which opens you up to shoulder injury.
Instead each row should be a full body movement. You should be pushing with your legs, engaging the core, sitting up straight, and pulling back while your shoulders are relaxed and down. If you can't do the exercise without hunching your back, lower the resistance level until you can execute the move correctly.
Like pushups, planks face similar problems with not engaging your core correctly, Giordano says. Instead, Giordano recommends going back to the basics. Turn over on your back and practice basic toe taps or Pilates toe taps. Another good one, lift up one foot to a 90-degree angle, inhale and hold for one second as you release your leg back down, exhale. Repeat 10 times on each side. Focusing on slow breath and slow movement, keeping your core engaged, Giordano recommends.
Once you've mastered those basics, then try a plank again. "Place your forearms on the ground, elbows under the shoulders. Draw your navel to your spine, tighten your glutes, and squeeze your inner thighs together," Giordano says. "Press your forearms into the ground as you are drawing the elbows toward the hips to engage the core more. Keep the head in a neutral position. Hold for as long as you can keep the position, and rest as soon as you feel your shoulders to lose stability."