Always perform exercises with perfect form. You’ve probably had this phrase beaten into your head from every trainer and strength coach you’ve ever worked with. We certainly say it over and over again on STACK.com. And with good reason: Using poor form—or “cheating”—to bang out a few extra reps with a higher weight, will give you sub-optimal results from your efforts while also putting you at a greater risk of injury. You get less from doing more, and you’re more likely to get hurt.
To help you get the most out of your workouts and stay healthy, we polled 10 elite strength coaches to discover the most common exercise form fails they see athletes make. Here’s what they said:
Mistake: You’re not using your back
“One I see a lot as a coach is athletes failing to engage their lats during exercises like Deadlifts and Squats,” says Tony Gentilcore, co-founder of Cressey Performance (Hudson, Mass.). “The lats are a big muscle, with insertion points in the upper back all the way down to the lower back. It’s a huge muscle for providing stability to the spine.”
The Fix: Gentilcore says the key is to visualize. “If I say something lame like, ‘engage your lats,’ you’re probably not going to do it or understand it anyway. Instead, I tell athletes to pretend they’re squeezing an orange in their armpit. This will fire up your lats, create more supportive tension and keep your back flat during your lift.”
Mistake: Your hips aren’t moving
“I often see athletes rotate through their spine and not their hips when they perform rotational exercises like Med Ball Rotation Throws, TRX Rip Rotations or Resistance Band Horizontal Chops,” says Pete Holman, a physical therapist and creator of the TRX Rip Trainer. “Spinal rotation, especially through the low back, is unsafe and will lead to traumatic or chronic low-back injuries.”
The Fix: Think of your torso as a cylinder. Your shoulders, spine and pelvis should rotate as a unit toward the target. To do this, engage your abs to lock your spine in a neutral position and rotate off the ball of your rear foot toward the target as if throwing a punch.
Mistake: Your elbows are out of line when you Bench Press
Rick Scarpulla, owner of Ultimate Advantage Training, often sees athletes hold their elbows at a 3- and 9-o’clock position in relation to their head during the Bench Press. “This causes you to hit very high on your chest, which puts pressure on your shoulder and may cause shoulder tendonitis,” Scarpulla says. “It also limits the number of reps you can do and the amount of weight you can lift.”
The Fix: Your elbows should always be at the 4- and 8-o’clock positions relative to your head. Lower the bar down just below your nipples, which will help you maintain the appropriate angle. Pro tip: Put chalk on the bottom of the bar so you can see exactly where it touches your shirt. That will help you hit the same spot with each rep.
Mistake: Your elbows are out of place when you do Push-Ups, too
“Allowing your elbows to go outside of, or behind your wrists when doing Push-Ups places stress on your elbows, which increases the risk of an elbow overuse injury,” says Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance University. “It also makes the Push-Up less effective, because it reduces chest and shoulder involvement and makes it more of a triceps-dominant movement.”
The Fix: Keep your elbows above your wrists through the entire Push-Up. Also, your elbows should form a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the movement.
Mistake: About those Push-Ups. Are your hips engaged?
“The biggest form fail I see is sagging through the core and lower back in basic exercises like Planks or Push-ups,” says Mike Robertson, President of Robertson Training Systems and the co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training. “This is often indicative of someone who uses their lower back muscles instead of their core and abdominal muscles.”
Alan Stein, owner of Stronger Team and the head strength and conditioning coach for the nationally renowned DeMatha Catholic High School boy’s basketball program, agrees. He often sees this problem among the athletes he trains, and he works to address it. “Letting your hips drop during Push-Ups is a sign of poor core stabilization, which is particularly problematic for basketball players, because they are tall and slender,” Stein says.
The Fix: Robertson recommends getting into a Push-Up position with a PVC pipe along your spine, touching the back of your head, upper back and butt. From this position, exhale hard to turn on your abs. Hold for 60 seconds, making sure your posterior chain stays in contact with the pipe. Progress to doing Push-Ups as you get stronger, and aim to perform 10 high-quality reps. Stein, meanwhile, recommends athletes try the yoga series in this video:
[youtube video=”b0VhBBkjz7A” /]
Mistake: Your Squats aren’t low enough
Lee Boyce, owner of Lee Boyce Training, thinks it’s great if someone is doing Squats at all, but they limit their gains if they don’t squat low enough. “Partial ranges of motion will only load certain muscles and neglect others,” Boyce says. “As a result, you’ll have imbalances and strength deficiencies.” Athletes should lower until their thighs are parallel with the ground on every rep. If you can’t reach this depth when lifting weight, it’s too heavy.
The Fix: Regularly foam roll before and after your workouts to break up mobility-reducing knots in your muscles, and also make a commitment to performing a quality dynamic warm-up before each training session. You can practice full range of motion Squats using your body weight.
Mistake: The Kettlebell Swing shouldn’t be an arm exercise
An athlete who tries Kettlebell Swings and hasn’t received proper instruction typically will swing the bell with his arms,” says Rob DeCillis, who co-owns Training for Warriors Long Island (Bellmore, N.Y.). “The Swing is a hip-powered movement, not an upper-body exercise.”
The Fix: Hold a kettlebell behind your head and perform a Good Morning, focusing on hinging at your hips and engaging your glutes. Keep your chest up and perform slow, controlled reps. (Don’t exceed 10 reps per set.) Once you’ve mastered the motion, progress to Swings.
Mistake: You’re giving yourself a thumbs down
A common mistake I see is athletes rotating their arms inward on the downswing of kettlebell exercises. Their thumbs wind up almost pointing toward the floor as the weight passes through their legs,” says Michael Skogg, creator of the SKOGG System. “The shoulder will also drop, which forces the hip to do the same.” After enough weight or repetitions, this will torque your back and cause soreness in your shoulders.
The Fix: Keep your shoulders and hips square, and don’t allow your thumb to rotate down during your swings. The goal is to keep your hand level, with the palm of your hand facing backwards.
Mistake: You’re not “bringing it”
“When you ask a pitcher to throw a fastball, they will put a lot of force behind it. But when you put them in the weight room and have them do a med ball rotational movement, their intensity usually isn’t nearly as high,” says Miguel Aragoncillo, a strength coach based out of New Jersey. “Many athletes simply don’t know how to go hard, because there’s no competition or outcome that hinges on each rep.”
The Fix: “Envision you are in a game situation when lifting. I tell my baseball players to imagine throwing a fastball when performing med ball exercises,” he says. “Or, I tell my football players to image as if they are driving an opponent away from them on the Bench Press.”