You don’t have to hire a personal trainer to start a new exercise program, but it’s important to realize that there is a science to each of your favorite strength-training moves. As a trainer, I see many people depend on their own knowledge and very few professional resources to guide them, and these are the most common mistakes I’ve watched people make. When performing these 10 strength-training exercises, the main thing to keep in mind is that the beginning of all movement starts with the core. By engaging your core, these exercises can be executed with more stabilization, power and strength.
1. Single-Arm Back Row
Although the biceps and forearm are also being used in this exercise, the primary muscle is in the back, so the focus of this exercise needs to be on the back muscle pulling the weight in the hand up from its starting position. Often, people just contract their biceps muscle to move the weight without using much of their back muscles at all. To perform this move correctly, the arm must remain relaxed with no intentional contraction of the biceps. The back is flat throughout the exercise with minimal to no torso rotation, with the back doing the majority of the work.
The common mistakes I’ve seen made are: lifting the heels by putting the weight on the toes; allowing the knees to move out over the toes; and not keeping the torso upright. Doing squats in that manner puts too much pressure on the knees and can cause serious injury, especially when weight is added. The muscles being used in a squat include the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. When squatting, think of your butt reaching for a chair to sit down in, with all of your weight distributed to your heels. The hips hinge at a 90-degree angle, the knees should be at a 90-degree angle and the torso should remain upright.
This hamstring-dominant exercise is often done in a way that can cause injury to the back. Although the back is involved in this exercise, the typical mistakes include bending over too much, rounding of the upper and/or lower back, not keeping the weight close to the body and contracting the shoulder blades back together. However, the shoulders need to be stabilized, arms straight, lower back in its natural curve and neck in a neutral position. The hands remain close to the legs throughout the movement. Your legs are slightly bent, and your core is tight as you hinge forward at the waist and push the glutes backward. When coming up from the bent-over position, squeeze the glutes and bring the hips forward.
What’s the typical bad push-up form? A minor bend of the elbows while the hips dip toward the floor and the head hangs. Instead, have your hands placed parallel to your chest on the floor. Angle your elbows out for a chest-focused push-up or right next to the body and pointing back for a triceps-focused push-up. Think of pushing your body away from the floor using the chest muscles with a neutral head position, and then lower the body back to the floor in a controlled manner.
5. Stability-Ball Chest Press
The focus of this exercise is also the chest muscles, but many people make the mistake of not stabilizing their shoulders and allowing their arms to drop too far back on the ball, creating the momentum by bouncing the arms on the ball to lift the weights. For this exercise, the shoulders need to be stabilized and the elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. The contraction should be of the chest muscles while the arms are straightened over the chest (not the face) at the top of this move. Return back to a 90-degree angle at the elbow and repeat.
6. Front and Lateral Shoulder Raises
When executing this move, many raise the weights too high and go beyond the contraction needed to strengthen that muscle. To do it correctly, stand with your feet at shoulder width, core tight, your knees slightly bent and arms straight down in front of your legs. Raise the weights to the height of your shoulders, engaging the anterior deltoids, and then return to the starting position. The same goes for the lateral shoulder raises: The arms should remain slightly forward without contracting the shoulder blades back. When raising the weights, the pinky finger is slightly higher than the rest of the hand.
7. Biceps Curls
This seems too simple to be done wrong, but people still find a way to mess it up, like not keeping the elbows down next to their sides, allowing their arms to swing using momentum to move the weight and not taking the elbow joint and biceps muscle through the full range of motion. I also see people curling their wrists during this exercise, which works more of the forearm. The start of the movement is with the elbow somewhat planted at your side with a straight arm. Think of a string running from the front of your shoulder to the weight in your hand. That string should pull the weight in your hand toward your shoulder while you squeeze the biceps at the top of the movement. That is the concentric part of the exercise. The eccentric motion is lowering the weight back down to the starting position, which must be controlled because it’s still an important part of the exercise.
8. Triceps Dips
While some people avoid this move because of the pressure it puts on the shoulders, many people are doing it in a way that can cause shoulder injury. Some make the mistake of overextending their shoulders by not keeping their torso and butt close to the bench or step. If it’s too hard with your legs straight, modify it by bending your knees, not by moving further away from your stable base. Perform this exercise using a bench, step or chair with your torso upright and close to your stable base. Start with your arms straight and hands facing forward. Bending at the elbow, lower your body toward the floor and return to the starting position by contracting and pressing through the triceps.
9. Stability-Ball Crunches
I have seen people pick up a heavy medicine ball and go to town doing what they think are crunches on a stability ball, when, in fact, they’re working more of their hips and calves than their abs. If you’re not feeling the burn in your abs, you’re probably doing something wrong. For stability-ball crunches, your hips must remain stabilized. Have your head in a neutral position to take the strain off your neck. Your abs should be engaged and your focus on using the contraction of the abdominals to lift yourself up.
The common form mistakes people usually make are: not keeping the shoulders and elbows aligned; hanging the head; holding the breath; allowing the hips to hang; and not engaging the abs. During the plank, which is a static exercise, the elbows need to be directly under the shoulders, hands separated and head in a neutral position. Keep the body flattened by engaging the core and squeezing the glutes to keep the hips from sagging and to support the lower back.
What Do YOU Think?
Have the above corrections and explanations helped you improve your form? Have you tried these exercises again to see if you feel a difference when focusing on the actual muscles being used? What other exercises would you like to know about that you are currently doing wrong? Let us know.
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