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Paige Waehner

Mistakes We Make During Exercise

By February 13, 2013

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"My god, would you shut up?" That's what one of my clients suggested after I spent some time giving her a few form pointers during an exercise. To the best of my recollection, I think I told her to do about 15 different things, including: "Engage your abs! Squeeze your glutes! Keep the weight in your heels! Pull your shoulders down! Head up! Don't stop, you still have two more reps! Stop looking at me like you want to punch me in the face!" I probably said a few more, but it's all a blur.

I'm sure many trainers are told, aloud and silently, to shut up already, but there's a very good reason we harp on the importance of good form: The human body is a big fat cheater. When given the chance to move, the body will find the easiest, least strenuous way to do so. The problem? Those little shortcuts can sometimes lead to pain and injury. Not only that, but you may not get as much from each exercise when your body tries to find those shortcuts.

Below are some of the most common mistakes we make during exercise:

  • Locking the joints and pausing between reps - I see this the most during pushups, although I also see it in other moves like squats and lunges. After completing the pushup, many of us lock the elbows at the top of the movement. This not only lets the muscles relax, as the joints take all the weight, but it gives you a little rest between reps. Locking the joints is almost always a no-no during weight training - you want to keep all the focus on the muscles you're working to protect those joints. Instead, keep a small bend in the elbows when you come up and go right into the next rep. Yes, it makes the move feel harder, but you'll get much more out of the exercise.
  • Hanging your head - This is another issue during pushups. The body starts in a nice straight line, the arms are pumping and all is right with the world...until about halfway through the set when the head starts to hang a little lower...a little lower...a little - ouch! Yes, that was the floor. It's important to keep your head and neck in alignment during pushups, not only to keep the move effective but to avoid putting a strain on the neck. Rule of thumb: If you can see your feet (or knees), your head is out of alignment. Try looking at a spot on the floor just in front of you when doing pushups.
  • Clenching the shoulders - Most of us keep plenty of tension in the shoulders and this becomes apparent during certain exercises - Rows, dips and rear delt squeezes, to name a few. The tendency is to shrug the shoulders up when doing these exercises, but all that does is put even more tension on the traps, while taking away from the muscles you're trying to work. It's a good idea to watch yourself in a mirror when you're doing these exercises to make sure your shoulders are down and relaxed.
  • Rounded back - This is a particular problem with bent over moves like dumbbell rows or deadlifts. The back should almost always be straight during any strength exercise, but especially when you're bent over. A rounded back means your spine is pretty much hanging out there all alone with nothing to support it. It's even worse when you're holding heavy weights. Try watching yourself in a mirror when you're bent over and use the hip hinge technique to ensure your spine is supported when doing these kinds of exercises.

I could go on and on, of course, but I want to hear from you. Are there exercises you struggle with? Do you find yourself cheating during certain exercises? Leave a comment and tell us about your experiences.

February 13, 2013 at 11:55 am
(1) USAnn says:

Kudos to your client. It’s very interesting that every one of your statements to them ends with an exclamation point. You want to give an intelligent adult instructions about form and function? Fine, but please do not shout and/or speak in a condescending manner. I for one neither need nor want to hear the rah-rah! ranting rhetoric that all trainers seem to feel a need to utilize with every sentence they utter. It’s a huge, annoying distraction and if it continues will likely stop me from returning to the gym, which makes the methodology completely counterproductive for everyone.

February 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm
(2) Irwin says:

I am well aware of the point being made about locking the elbows when doing pushups, same a knees when spinning.
My question is that when doing Pull-ups on a chinning bar, is it good form to lower yourself all the way to straight arms or should there be a slight bend left in the elbow, then pull up?
Is it more productive or is there elbow damage given the two options; down all the way or up & down without the arm perfectly straight?

February 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm
(3) Exercise guide says:

Response to Irwin regarding Pullups: After a little research and asking some fellow experts, most suggested stopping just shy of locking the elbows, which is what I would normally recommend. I did find some suggestions for locking the elbows…my concern there would be putting too much stress on the elbow joints. Does that help?

Response to USAnn: You make a very good point, which I do appreciate. I was dramatizing the actual event for the purposes of entertainment in my blog, so you’ll be relieved to know that I don’t really shout at my clients in such an exclamatory way. :-)

Sincerely, The Exercise Guide at About.com

February 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm
(4) Fitness fan says:

For the longest time I exercised at home with no one to critique or correct the things I was doing or how I was doing them. The same for the fitness center for the first year when I worked out strictly on my own.

For the last year (second year at the center), Iíve been enrolled in two workout classes. The first instructor pointed out that I shouldnít lock my elbows at the top of my push-ups, along with not bending my head downward. She corrected my posture when using free weights in a standing position. She also explained the breathing method during hard exertion, which she left to me to use or not. The other instructor knows how I love to push the envelope with hard exercises, and has shown me additional exercises to keep up the challenge.

Both instructors recommended, in a positive way, taking brief breaks between sets and exercises. Iíve also slowed down the execution to maximize the benefit of each rep. The adjustments Iíve made in my exercises in both content and form will minimize strain and injury and allow me to maintain my level of workout for the long-term.

Thanks, Paige for bringing up the topic, and offering hints on what to avoid.

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