Many people are deciding to embark on a fitness training program, but not everyone is doing it right.
I’ve often said that your form is the most important thing when exercising. Good form keeps you safe and makes exercises more effective. Bad form can lead to injuries and work different muscles than what you want.
I’ve been noticing a lot of bad form in the gym recently. It’s not that I think good form is starting to deteriorate, I just think it’s something I have been noticing more and more.
Why have I been noticing other people working out more and more? Well, first off it is my job to make sure my clients are using good form with their workouts, so I’m always evaluating their technique so bad form stands out to me.
Second, after many years of helping others with their fitness training I started taking a serious look at my own program. For years I would make sure my clients were safe but then would lift as heavy and hard as possible with my own workouts. The years of football and rugby have taken their toll on my body, so over the past few years I changed my approach to working out. I focused on form and have made that my top priority instead of the amount of weight I could lift. Since I’m thinking about good form more for myself, I see bad form more often, even when I’m just looking casually around the gym.
Since I started focusing on my form instead of the amount of weights, I am feeling better, more flexible and stronger. Yes, not focusing exclusively on weight has actually gotten me stronger. If better form helped me, it can help you too.
In this article I’ll focus on getting the most from your fitness training program by addressing some of the common workout mistakes.
Common Mistakes people make with their Fitness Training Technique:
1. Not Controlling The Weight
The biggest overall problem I see with most people’s form is control. Every lift you do should be in control. This includes explosive lifts like Power Cleans and Kettlebell Swings.
The control problem is usually more in beginners but can continue on for years if it is never addressed.
There are 3 parts to all lifts, the eccentric (when you go with the weight,) the concentric (when you go against the weight,) and the isometric (when you hold the weight.)
Most beginners will focus only on the concentric phase. (In a Bench Press this is when you are pushing the weight off your chest.) The more important part though is the eccentric phase. (In a Bench Press this would be where you are lowering the bar to your chest.) The eccentric phase of a lift is where more strength and muscle are built. It will also help to prevent injuries since the body uses an eccentric muscle contraction to decelerate the body. Most injuries will occur when the body decelerates incorrectly.
Certain lifts (like Kettlebell swings and dead lifts ) will not have a lot of deceleration during the eccentric phase but the weight should still be in control.
2. Lack of Focus and Tightness
Much of the control that I just mentioned comes from focusing on staying tight and keeping your muscles flexed through the entire exercise.
Many people will focus on that concentric phase then just relax and let the momentum of the weight do the eccentric phase. Like I said before, the eccentric part of the exercise is the most beneficial so you need to pay attention to this phase and keep your muscles working.
A common tempo to work out with is 4-2-1. This means lowering the weight takes 4 seconds, raising the weight takes 2 seconds and there is a one second isometric contraction after each rep. To use this tempo, you need to be stable and keep your muscles working for the whole lift.
When you stay tight through the entire exercise you increase your stability and that makes it less likely for you to hurt yourself. The tightness and stability starts with a tight core, upper back and grip then should radiate through your entire body, not just the muscles you are working. If you treat all your exercises like this, every exercise is a full body exercise (to some extent.)
A saying that I’ve heard a bunch of times is to treat light weight like its heavy and heavy weight like it’s light. The second part of that saying (heavy weight like it’s light) is more about the confidence when you are lifting heavy, but the first part relates to focus and tightness.
Treating light weight like it’s heavy is all about keeping your muscles tight and not taking any weight for granted, even light warm-up weight. Just because a weight is easy doesn’t mean that your supporting muscles should relax. Your form should look the same regardless of how much you are lifting.
3. Bad Posture and Alignment
When most people think of bad form they think of poor body alignment. This is another common problem for beginners but this is also very common for experienced lifters.
Putting yourself in a weird position before or during a lift not only makes you weaker but it is also more dangerous. This issue relates to the tightness you create in your body before the exercise. Again, the focus should start with keeping your core tight.
Sometimes people start off good but then will throw themselves into a weird position when they start to struggle with a weight. This issue has to do with the control you have during the exercise, so as you can start to see, all of these issues are related.
Most of the time these postural and alignment issues come from lack of knowledge. There are a lot of people that were never taught how to lift properly. This includes me because my football coaches focused only on the amount of weight and not on proper form.
It is really hard to progress your workouts if your form always sucks. I often have people take a step back so they can correct their form. Even though it kills the ego in the short term, in the long run they get stronger and see better overall results.
Some of the most common mistakes include a forward head, raised shoulders, over- arched back, rounded back, knees going in, knees going out and weight on the wrong part of the foot.
Each exercise you do will require different body positioning but in general you want to lift with your head straight and your shoulders down and back. Keeping your upper back tight helps to “lock” your shoulders into place so they don’t move around.
Your back should also be pretty flat for most lifts but an slight arch is ok for some exercises. Just make sure the arch is not too big because this can lead to an injury.
While a slight arch is ok, unless you are a high level power lifter you should never ever round your back. Looking like the Hunchback of Notre is NOT ok. This is especially important in exercises like a dead lift or bent over row where the back is already in a vulnerable position.
The knees should be in line with the toes. This means if your feet are straight then your knees should be straight. If your feet are turned out then so should your knees. It is very common for people’s knees to buckle inward so a prompt I often give is to “push your knees out.” This doesn’t mean I want knees to going outside the toes, it just helps so the knees don’t cave in. The stabilization for the knees comes from the hips so keeping your butt tight will help you to control unnecessary knee movement.
The knee alignment is not just for side to side movement. The knees should not shoot forward past the toes for most lifts. This is something I see with squats a lot. When the knees come forward you shift a lot of the tension to the knees instead of the hips. The hips are a lot stronger than the knees and should be doing most of the work.
It is important to know which part of the foot to push from. You should be pushing from the heels on some and the toes on others. There are exceptions, but you’re usually going to want to push from your heels on squats and their variations and pushing from the toes for a calf raise or an explosive jump. Pushing from the heels will help to keep your knees back when squatting, thus putting more of the tension on the hips instead of the knees.
Sometimes having bad posture and body alignment during an exercise is not a matter of a lack of knowledge. For many people, it’s about chronically tight muscles that throw the body into a bad position. Most of these issues can be solved with corrective stretching which involves loosening the muscles with static stretching and by using foam rollers and lacrosse balls to release some of the tender spots.
4. Poor Range of Motion
Poor range of motion is where my own fitness training really struggled for a while. A poor range of motion could come from a lack of flexibility, a lack of confidence, or plain laziness. In my case it was a mix of all 3.
After I herniated a disc in college it took some time to gain the confidence to lift heavy again without getting hurt. Instead of doing it the right way, I was so eager to lift heavy that I rushed it and my range of motion started to suck. My flexibility started to get bad and it took a lot of work for me to get back to using the proper range of motion.
Rushing into lifting heavier weight is not just a problem I had, it’s something I see every day in the gym. People not squatting, benching, or rowing with a full range of motion is very common.
The full depth for a squat is to get low enough so your hip crease reaches knee level. To get that low, your thighs need to be around parallel to the ground or lower. I’m really into squatting so every time I see someone squatting in the gym I look at their depth. It is very rare for me to see someone hit the full depth. To me, the person that squats to depth or lower with one plate is more impressive than someone that is doing half squats with 4 plates.
As for the bench press, the full range of motion is the touch the chest, sternum or whatever part of the torso you touch. Every day I see people load up the weight and then do 1/4 or 1/2 reps. There are times when this can be useful but I think most of the people that are doing this are just trying to use as much weight as possible.
Another exercise I see a lot of people with poor range of motion is rows and all its variations… especially dumbbell rows. I see people grab the biggest dumbbell they can find. Instead of lifting it correctly the only move the weight a few inches then drop it back down. They are not squeezing their lats or upper back at all. Most people’s backs will respond better to higher volume instead of higher weights so partial reps on rows seem pretty silly to me.
A good thing to think of when lifting is that it doesn’t count unless it’s full range of motion.
With all that being said, there times when it can be more beneficial to use an incomplete range of motion.
The first example is when you’re injured. Injuries suck and using a partial range of motion can allow you to work out while you are still healing. The main thing is that you do not want to aggravate an injury and prolong the recovery time. If you are doing partial reps because of an injury make sure you are stretching and doing whatever else you need to do to return to a full range of motion. Don’t do partial reps exclusively even after you’re healed. That’s where I went wrong.
Another good time to use partial range of motion is to work through sticking points of a lift. If you’re having trouble at the same position of a lift, adding more resistance and/or more reps at that position can help you blast through the sticking point. An example is if you are getting stuck at the end of your bench press, doing lockout reps with a higher weight than you would normally use will help increase your strength at the part of the lift that you are having trouble with.
I also see bodybuilders do partial reps to get a better pump. This makes the exercise a lot harder in my opinion. Usually this involves a relatively light weight they can control for a lot of reps and get a lot of burn. This is a different than doing partial reps to make an exercise easier with relatively heavy weight, which is why most people use partial reps.
So that’s it. If you want to take your fitness training and results to the next level, you need to use proper technique when you work out.
If you want more detail about lifting with the correct technique I recommend reading Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. This book goes into so much more detail than I can in a blog article. He covers every detail on the bench press, squat, deadlift and press. (He also covers the clean & jerk and the snatch, but I don’t do them anymore and I don’t have my clients do them either.)
If you are having trouble correcting your technique by yourself you can hire a personal trainer to help. Here are some of my tips for choosing a good personal trainer.
Also if you haven’t already, make sure you also get my FREE eBook about the biggest mistakes people make in the gym and what to do to correct them.
Thanks for reading and get to the gym and SMASH IT!