5 Exercises You Might Be Doing Wrong
By Amie King, PT
So you’ve gotten yourself motivated, succeeded in getting yourself to the gym, and put in some great effort… but you are not seeing the results you want, and now nursing some new aches and pains. What gives?!
Perhaps you have fallen prey to poor form on some of your strengthening exercises.
As a physical therapist, it is difficult to go to a gym and not want to spend most of the time there correcting people with their form! Simply putting in the time does not always give you the results you want, and sometimes, instead of feeling stronger and more fit, you find yourself wondering why your knee (or back or shoulder, or wrist) hurts? We want to help you with that!
Form is everything.
Every single body is different, and there will be specifics that you may need beyond the scope of this post, but the following advice is appropriate (and necessary!) for everyone. We obviously can’t discuss every exercise out there, but here are a number of common ones that we see done improperly more than a few times.
1 – Squats
You know these – they are fabulous to tone your legs and backside, and you don’t even need to head to a gym to do them! They sure can get your knees screaming for help if you do too many improperly, though. The primary mistake that people make is keeping their weight too far forward. This pulls too hard on your patella tendons (see image) and causes increased pressure on the back of your kneecaps. Most have heard that you are supposed to keep your knees behind your toes; that is one way to achieve the right form. If that is hard to determine (it may feel difficult if you have not done it that way before), focus on keeping your weight in your heels, not your toes or the balls of your feet, or sit your rear end back as if you were going to sit in a chair. Be sure to keep feet about shoulder width apart. Too narrow can pull on those pesky IT (or iliotibial) bands.
- Keeping your weight too far forward
- Keep your knees behind your toes
- Focus on keeping your weight in your heels, not your toes or the balls of your feet (you should be able to wiggle your toes)
- Act as if you are going to sit in a chair
- Keep feet shoulder width apart
2 – Push ups
Again, such a basic, old school exercise – but there’s a reason it is still around! It’s an excellent upper body and core strengthening move! What a list of no-nos there are with push ups, though… Hips too high, hips too low, shoulders rounded forward or up to your ears (and actually, these same mistakes are issues when doing planks, too!). These exercises are actually moderately difficult, and you may have to modify them first to avoid compensating with one or more of the mistakes above. Having your hips too high not only reduces the benefit to your core, but it also places more stress on your shoulders. Hips too low causes an increase in the lordosis (curve of your low back – see image), and therefore increases pressure on the facet joints in your spine. Having your shoulders rounded or crunched up to your ears again diminishes the benefits to your core, as well as feeds into poor balance of postural musculature which can lead to neck, shoulder and/or back issues. Many know that you can modify push ups or planks by dropping to your knees, instead of being on your toes. This decreases the need to stabilize your entire body, so the exercise becomes less intense. However, the same mistakes can occur when on your knees.
- Hips too high
- Hips too low
- Shoulders rounded forward or to your ears
- If you feel that you are too weak to do it in full plank form, modify by dropping to your knees instead
3 – Lunges
Another excellent strengthener for your butt and legs. And unfortunately, another exercise that is easy to do incorrectly. The same mistake can be made with lunges that occur with squats, where your weight is too far forward on the ball of your front foot, increasing pressure on your knee. It is important to focus more on dropping down than leaning forward when performing lunges. This will help prevent knee pain. Lunges are not bad for your knees – bad lunges are bad for your knees. The other main issue with lunges is stepping out too far for your strength level. If you can’t step back with one smooth fluid motion, or find yourself lifting your chest and arching your back as you step back, you have gone too far. This puts strain on both your low back and your knees. A proper lunge is one done with an appropriately sized step, a drop down, not forward, which will keep your front knee behind your toes, and your weight balanced mostly on the heel of your front foot. Additionally, your core should be pulled in, and your spine straight throughout the fluid step forward, drop down and step back.
- Weight too far forward (on the ball of your front foot)
- Stepping out too far for your strength level
- Lifting your chest and arching your back as you step back
- Focus more on dropping down (vs. leaning forward)
- Pull core in
- Straighten spine throughout the fluid step forward
4 – Deadlifts
Are deadlifts a back exercise or a leg exercise? Many people state the wrong answer. Though your back certainly has to work to stabilize proper spine position as you do the exercise, deadlifts are an exercise for your hip extensors – that is, your glutes and hamstrings. The key issue with deadlifts is not keeping your spine in what we call “neutral spine,” namely, rounding your back forward. This creates a lot of increased pressure on your intervertebral discs, and can strain your paraspinal muscles. This is not as tricky of an exercise as lunges or push ups… all you really need to focus on to do a proper deadlift is to keep your spine straight/chest up and let all the movement come from your hip joints.
- NOT keeping your spine in “neutral spine” (see image)
- Practice “neutral spine” in the mirror until you can get the feeling for it, keeping your spine straight and your chest up
- Let all of the movement come from your hip joints
A great upper body exercise for deltoids and triceps, which can also, unfortunately, wreak havoc on your low back. The problem occurs if you choose weight that makes it too hard for you to stabilize your trunk. You should be able to keep your core tight, spine in neutral, and your trunk still as you press the weight up over your head. You should also be sure to lift weights straight up overhead, and not in front or behind the plane of your body, as well as be aware of not lifting your shoulders up toward your ears.
- Lifting weights in front or behind the plane of your body
- Lifting shoulders up towards ears
- Practice in front of a mirror so that you can make sure that you are lifting weights straight over your head
As always, if you have any questions or concerns regarding your exercises, feel free to contact us! Over time, incorrect form can be detrimental on your body, so start paying attention today!