If done correctly, strength training can have some wonderful benefits! It can help build muscle, increase strength, burn more calories, and it can even improve balance and coordination. But that is if it's done properly, meaning with good form and technique.
Unfortunately a lot of people, especially beginners, struggle with form. Some might even feel ashamed or embarrassed when someone tries to correct their form. If you feel that way, don't! If someone corrects your form it's to help you, so you can continue improving with your workouts and minimize the risk of an injury. Even experience lifters can have trouble with form because at the end of the day nobody is perfect. So if you're a beginner, don't be embarrassed, even the more experienced lifters aren't perfect!
It all takes practice. You know the saying, "practice makes perfect", well it applies to lifting weights too! You just have to keep practicing proper technique and form in order to make progress. A good place to start is by understanding why proper form is important, and learning about the proper mechanics of training so you can start getting the most out of all your workout sessions! Plus, I've even included the eight most common exercise form mistakes gym-goers make and how to fix them!
Why proper form is important
When you exercise using the correct form there is a higher chance that you are targeting exactly the muscle you are intending to grow. Poor form can cause poor muscle activation, which leads to other muscles picking up the slack. Thus leading to muscle imbalances and something even worse... An injury.
You've probably heard the saying "quality over quantity", it applies to a lot of things in life, even fitness. The quality of your training influences progress a tad bit more than the quantity. Meaning that proper form and technique is essential for success in fitness. Now this doesn't mean you have to aim for perfect form in order to achieve results, there's no such thing as perfect. Aim to follow key points and guidelines to make sure you’re practicing with safety and efficiency.
So what does good form look like? Well it depends on the person and their individual needs and limitations. Here are a few characteristics of proper form that applies to all types of movement:
- It minimizes the risk of injury for the person practicing the movement.
- It employs efficient body mechanics, to maximize the available strength and energy of the movement.
- Good stability and mobility, your body works together as a unit when exercising.
- Moving with control, rather than with momentum.
- It looks "pretty". If someone's form looks better (body angles and execution are steady) it's most likely that they're using proper form.
How to improve form
In order to execute good form and get the most out of all the time and hard work you're putting in, you have to understand the proper mechanics of training. Practicing these strength training principles will help you keep good form without having to think about it too much.
A proper training routine includes all of these principles that help you keep good form:
- A proper warm-up: Exercising with cold muscles can lead to injury. Warm-up cold muscles for 5-10 minutes before doing any type of exercise.
- Work for all muscle groups: A proper strength training routine will work all major muscles every week. That includes core, legs, chest, back, shoulders, and arms.
- Good posture: This is an important principle for everyday life, but especially when exercising. You want to make sure that your posture is in tip-top shape, no matter what type of exercise you choose to do. When doing cardio on a piece of equipment, make sure you're not hunched forward. Always keep your shoulders back and spine neutral.
- Time under tension: This refers to the amount of time a muscle is held under tension during an exercise set. Using an appropriate weight for your fitness level allows you to focus on form and move through the exercise slowly and controlled thus lengthening the phase of the movement. This forces your muscles to work harder in order to achieve muscular strength, endurance, and growth.
- Angle of movement: Muscles contract in the direction of the fibers, and not all of them run at exactly the same angle. Which is why it's crucial to exercise at different angles. Doing the same exercise at the same angle every week will result in building the most strength within that range of motion and build the most size at the particular part of the muscle. Working at different angles will help stimulate strength and muscle mass within the entire muscle.
- Range of motion: Moving through the full range of motion when performing exercises means moving as far as anatomically possible during a given exercise. Doing this results in better muscle balance, joint stability, proper activation of the working muscles, and better movement quality.
- Breathe: This one might be surprising, but a lot of people tend to hold their breath when exercising. It's tempting to do that, but you must exhale during the hardest part of the exercise to fuel the movement.
8 common exercise form mistakes
Understanding and implementing the above strength training principles is a good start in practicing proper form, but even those who train and understand these principles still make mistakes. So let's go over the most common mistakes people make while working out that way you can learn what to avoid when you hit the weights next time. Just keep in mind that everyone's fitness level is different, so although you might fall into one of these categories, you're not necessarily making a mistake. Your body might not be flexible enough or hasn't adjusted to certain movements.
Common exercise form and technique mistakes and how to fix them:
- Using inappropriate weights:
This one is first on the list for good reason... It's actually the cause of most of the mistakes below. It's too often that you see people at the gym swinging dumbbells up and down with no control. Or those who use too heavy of a weight that their body starts swaying in motion as a result of picking up the slack from the intended muscle group. This happens for one reason only: They're using the wrong weight. Obviously you want to pick a weight that is going to challenge your muscles, but also one that you'll be able to control.
How to fix this issue: Start light and work your way up to a heavier weight once you're able to control it. Here's an indicator that the weight you're using is good: You can do 8-12 reps with good form. If you're swinging the weight because they're too light then it's time to level up, if you're falling out of alignment or drop the weights before finishing your last rep then it's time to level down.
- Improper squat form:
The squat is an exercise everybody does, but everybody does them differently. Which is why there are always discussions about what the correct form is. There are two main forms: parallel and full. Parallel squats are performed by moving down into a squat position until the thighs are parallel to the floor. This form is considered to be the safest and most effective way to squat. Full squats are well below parallel to the floor, that's why they're known as deep squats. Neither of the two are necessarily wrong, but deep squats are better for building muscle and strength because they make your body go through the full range of motion. Some people can't do full squats because they aren't flexible enough or they may have issues with their knees. That's okay, it takes time and practice to get deep on your squat.
How to fix this issue: To practice going through the full range of motion when doing squats, start your leg workout with 2-3 sets of bodyweight squats and try to go as deep as possible - No weights make this a bit easier. Do this by keeping your entire body tight and core flexed, breathe in deeply and push your hips and your butt back (your knees will begin to bend as your hips descends), focus on keeping your knees in line with feet (make sure they don't cave in), and try to squat until your hip joint is lower than your knees. After doing a few sets of bodyweight squats, start your typical squat workout with heavy weights, but don't worry about how far you go down. Over time your heavyweight squats will get deeper as you increase in strength and size. Other ways to help you get deeper on your squat is by working on your flexibility in your lower body by regularly doing static stretches or other flexibility exercises. You can also practice by using a box or bench at the bottom of the squat, and progressively lower it until you're at a deep enough position.
- Hips raised in the air when doing push-ups and planks:
Push-up and plank positions are basically the same, except one requires you to actually push your body up. But most people seem to get the positioning wrong. Usually bottoms are raised in the air and the body hangs from the shoulder. It might make you plank for an extended period of time, but at the same time it can cause muscle and tissues from all over your body to become pinched.
How to fix this issue: A proper plank and push-up position looks like a body formed into a straight line from head to toes. You want your core to be tight and engaged, but not sucked in. You can practice this by grunting or saying "ha" while planking. Your core feels as if it pushes out, that's the feeling you want to maintain. You also want to keep your shoulder blades down, and make sure that hips aren't piked up or lifted higher than the rest of the body. Make sure that they are in line with your head, neck, spine and legs. So be focused on your core and your hips being in line with the rest of your body.
- Arching back when performing overhead push movements:
Shoulder press and bench press are two key exercises for shoulders and chest, but some tend to bend backward as they push overhead. That could be because they lack shoulder mobility or they just want to tilt their chest up to be able to push the heavy weight. Doing it puts a dangerous stress on the joints in your lumbar spine which can cause a serious injury.
How to fix this issue: As you push overhead, focus on squeezing your glutes and core. This will help stabilize your lower back and help you safely push the heavy weight overhead.
- Hunching back when performing pulling movements:
This one is similar to the poor form example above, but it has to do with pulling exercises like deadlifts. Deadlifts are another key exercise that many people struggle with their technique. Usually when lifting heavier weights the back tends to hunch over in order to lift the heavy weight. This is especially dangerous when performing a deadlift because it can damage your discs, the surrounding nerves, basically your entire spine!
How to fix this issue: Before starting each rep, squeeze your abs, keeping the core engaged, and draw your shoulders flat making sure that your back is neutral. Bend down to grab the bar (legs still straight), your grip width should be slightly outside of your legs. Now that you're holding the bar, move your hips down so your shins move naturally forward to touch the bar (once they do stop moving your hips). Lastly, before lifting, press your chest out and flex your pecs, this will help flatten your back and your spine should go into a neutral spine position. Once you're set up you're ready to lift!
- Poor neck positioning:
Many people tend to bend their neck in so many different ways while exercising, typically to check on their form or to talk to their workout buddy. Little do they know that by doing this they are practicing bad technique and straining their neck! Looking the wrong way while doing an exercise can have dire consequences like causing a strain on your cervical spine.
How to fix this issue: Instead of keeping the chin forward, pull the chin slightly down for a neutral posture. It will look like you have a double-chin, but keep your neck position like this while performing your exercise. Also make sure to avoid stretching your neck when doing pull-ups or sit-ups. People tend to stretch their neck to reach the bar or to rise into the sitting position. Instead keep your chin tucked into the neutral posture and focus on using your body to lift up.
- Wandering elbows:
Lifting a heavy weight can lead to wandering elbows. Wandering elbows just means that your elbows are pointed to the sides instead of tucked in. This is common while performing bicep curls with dumbbells and bench press with a barbell. When the elbows are pointed out, instead of tucked in, it can cause damage to your shoulders, neck, and back.
How to fix this issue: Use the appropriate weight and keep your elbows tucked in when performing a biceps curl. For bench press, keep your elbows near your rib cage to reduce the pressure on your shoulders and move the load to your chest and triceps. If your elbows start to wander then you need to decrease the weight.
- Using legs when bench pressing:
There's no doubt you've seen those guys at the gym that bench press and once they're on their last rep they get stuck and their legs start flailing all over the place. This wastes energy, and it also indicates that they weren't tight enough when they started. Not only that, but doing this can cause serious damage to your back.
How to fix this issue: Before you start the exercise, drive your feet into the ground while keeping your butt firmly on the bench at all times. This will help tighten and strengthen your lower-body while minimizing strain onto your back.
You can get results without practicing these techniques, but they'll be minimal, you'll increase your chances of getting a strain or injury, or end up hitting a plateau which can discourage you from working out ever again. Proper technique and form is needed in order to reap the all wonderful benefits of working out - Not just results. Just remember, practice makes perfect. Well your form isn't going to be perfect, but if you at least try to follow key points and guidelines I've listed in this article then you're headed on the right track!
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