Conventional wisdom says that any exercise is better than no exercise. But while there’s a good deal of truth in that sentiment, there should also be an invisible asterisk noting that the exercise in question needs to be done correctly; otherwise, it may be doing more harm than good.
Nobody observes more exercises (and, therefore, more exercises done improperly) than a personal trainer. So we talked to several to find out the common mistakes that arise in a variety of popular exercises — and how to eliminate them.
Supervisor of cardiac rehab – The Wellness Center at St. Catherine Hospital, East Chicago
In general, Gonzalez believes that most people don’t stretch nearly enough before and after exercising. But even those who do take the time to stretch may be confusing when and how to stretch.
Gonzalez says many people tend to do static stretching — including quadriceps stretching (pulling a heel to the lower back) and hamstring stretching (leaning forward to reach toward the floor) — and thus elongate their cold muscles before they exercise. But static stretching should be a post-workout routine. Before the workout, movement-based dynamic stretching — including side shuffles, backpedal jogging and knee-to-chest stepping — is a better choice.
Moderation is a good thing to keep in mind when it comes to weightlifting.
Gonzalez says many lifters have the mistaken belief that more weight is better, and they add too much too soon and end up compensating by using muscles other than those they’re trying to work. A good example is a simple dumbbell curl. Too much weight can cause a person to contort their body to compensate, resulting in an ineffectual workout for the muscle in focus and increasing the potential for a lower-back injury. Instead, Gonzalez recommends starting with less weight and focusing on the muscle you’re trying to work, building up to heavier weights by doing more reps at lighter levels.
Personal trainer – Purdue University Northwest Fitness Center
Among the most functional exercises that people can do, Gold says squats are also likely to be done incorrectly, with many people putting all of the weight on their toes instead of their heels or buckling at the knees.
She says to start with your feet about shoulder-width apart, making sure to push your hips back and then descend at the knees instead of folding at the hips — think of it as if you’re sitting back in a chair and keeping the weight on your heels. As you come up, press your knees outward and keep your chest up. Gold recommends practicing while facing a wall, allowing enough room to sit back into a squat, but staying close enough to not fall forward into the wall.
Personal Trainer – Franciscan Health Fitness Centers Chesterton
Bales sees the popular pushup as one of the most improperly executed movements in fitness, with flaring elbows and bending hips among the common mistakes. “Most people are unaware that a pushup is a full-body movement when done correctly,” he says.
To correct the errors, he recommends starting in the up position, with hands about shoulder-width apart and directly underneath the shoulders (any wider than this puts unnecessary stress on the shoulders). Your back should be flat, with your spine in a neutral position, and your glutes and hips in direct alignment or slightly higher.
In the up position, focus on tensing your abdominals, glutes, hips, hamstrings and legs to stay as tight as possible throughout the movement. Then think about pulling yourself down into the floor by tucking your elbows and pulling them back into your upper back until your chest is about an inch off the floor. While maintaining tension, you can now press your hands through the floor and bring yourself back to the up position.
Situps can do more harm than good if done with bad form, Bales says, especially if you don’t breathe properly, round your lower back or get too much forward head tilt.
For proper situps, the back and spine should stay in a neutral position, and you should not round the lower back. While many people like to put their hands behind their head to pull the neck forward as they perform the movement, this puts a lot of unnecessary stress on the neck and spine. Situps should be performed slowly and with the focus on maintaining a neutral spine and neck. Bales says to start by lying on your back with the knees bent, and think about pulling your chest up to meet your knees. Then slowly descend back to starting position. While the first rep or two may seem easy, he says the missing component for most people is the breathing.
“Improper breathing is detrimental to the situp,” Bales explains. “Take a deep breath at your starting position and tense your abdominals as you ascend to the top position. You can then breathe out as you descend back to starting position.”
Exercise specialist – Purdue University Northwest Fitness Center
People with bad knees or a weak core often don’t attempt lunges, but Perez says that with proper alignment, they can strengthen ligaments, tendons and muscles supporting the knee and lower body, while improving balance and core strength. Common mistakes to watch for with lunges include not distributing pressure across the entire foot for balance and control, hunched shoulders, concave knees that underutilize the lower body muscles and leaning too far forward, which puts too much pressure on the knees.
Once you choose your lead leg, Perez says to start your body check with the feet. Spread the toes and keep them straight forward as you feel the ground with the entire front foot, while the back heel is elevated. Keep the front knee directly above the ankle and the back knee under the hip to make 90-degree angles with both legs. Slightly pinch your shoulder blades to lift the chest and keep your shoulders in line with the ears. Keep your eye gaze forward and locked onto a focal point. Take calm, controlled breaths as you lower your body like an elevator straight down until you reach 90 degrees and your rear knee is slightly above the ground. Exhale to push away from the ground and push straight up, contracting all muscles to return to the top starting position.
“As you push through your feet, keep the knees in straight alignment and do not let them come close to each other,” Perez notes. “Training them to stay in alignment teaches the muscles to stay activated throughout the exercise and stabilizes the knee joint.”
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