From squat form to barbell row form, there are so many things to keep in mind when doing strength training exercises (and a whole bunch of conflicting advice) that it’s easy to fall foul and go a little freestyle. No-one’s perfect, but what we don’t want is for you to end up with any permanent damage. Plus, for those of you with goals in mind, performing exercises incorrectly could hinder you from hitting them.
In a dream world, you’d have a PT on hand to coach you through every rep, but your girl knows that’s not possible for most of us, so we’ve got the next best thing: advice from none other than Luke Worthington, a sports scientist, PT, nutritionist and strength and conditioning specialist who works with the likes of Dakota Johnson, Rooney Mara and Winnie Harlow. Here are the exercises he sees people doing wrong time and time again, and what you need to do to fix them.
Squats are one of the moves you reckon you could probably do with your eyes closed, but turns out there’s more to them than meets the eye. ‘A very common misunderstanding with squats is the assumption that your feet have to be parallel and that your knees can’t travel forwards,’ Luke explains.
‘One of the first laws of biomechanics is keeping the centre of gravity over the base of support. If you don’t allow your knees to come forwards in a squat, your centre of gravity will be behind your base of support (your feet), and you’ll fall over! The only way to counter this would be to lean forwards and place a lot of stress on the lower back.’
The tip: Allow your knees to travel in front of your feet.
2. Barbell row form
If you’re swotted up on flexibility/mobility, you’ll know about ROM (range of motion). Luke tells us that while going further is the goal in mobility and stretching workouts, this is actually what causes the biggest problems with rowing (both with dumbbells and barbells).
‘The error is assuming that more is better,’ he says. ‘When our upper arm bone passes behind our midline, the head of the humerus (the ball of the ball and socket joint) rides forward and slightly out of the shoulder socket. This can stress and damage the delicate structures as the front of the shoulder, and lead to instability of the joint.’
The tip: Stop at the point that the elbow comes in line with the back of the ribcage, keeping the shoulder ‘stacked’ and maintaining a full contraction of the working muscles.
3. Push-up form (regressed)
The obvious ‘regression’ of a push-up is to drop your knees to the floor, but Luke explains that this changes the mechanics of the move entirely. Instead, you’d benefit from ‘bringing the floor closer’ so that you’re working the muscles in the most similar way. ‘Elevate your hands on a bench or a step (or even a wall if you’re a beginner),’ Luke advises. ‘This reduces the workload of the exercise but keeps the same body mechanics.’
The tip: If you need to make a push-up easier, elevate your hands to a raised surface, rather than dropping your knees to the floor.
4. Lunge form
On average, 60,500 of you search Google for advice on lower back pain, with 14,800 hunting for lower back exercises. There are certainly moves that can help, but others can exacerbate the problem if they’re not done correctly. Case in point: lunges.
‘One of the most common errors in lunges is keeping a bolt upright torso in between your two feet,’ Luke says. ‘This can cause an overextension of your lower back, as your rear leg can’t extend without compensation elsewhere.’ His advice? Lean slightly forward over the front foot. ‘This removes the need to overextend the back hip and lower back, and also distributes the centre of gravity over the working leg, making it a genuine single leg (unilateral) exercise.’
The tip: Lean slightly forward over your front foot in a lunge, rather than aiming to keep your torso completely upright.
5. Hip thrust form
Hip thrusts have gained some serious traction as one of the go-to exercises for a bigger butt, but Luke says you could be completely disengaging your glutes without even knowing it. ‘A lot of people allow their pelvis to drop back and down, and their ribcage to lift up,’ he says.
‘This means that the load is more likely to be carried in the lower back than the glutes, and often comes from either poor core control, or using too much load too quickly. Try to think about lifting your belt buckle towards your chin, and keeping it there throughout the movement. This’ll encourage a slight posterior pelvic tilt, which will protect the lower back and allow the glutes to do their job.’
The tip: Tuck the pelvis under and avoid flaring your ribcage at the top.
6. Overhead press form
If an overhead press is one of your fave moves, fine. If not, and you’re only doing them in the hope of building upper body strength, Luke has some news: ‘Most people don’t need to be doing them, and can develop upper body strength from moves with lower angles that they can do with more control,’ he explains. ‘And a big no-no is overhead pressing for max reps, at max speed in a circuit class. The only people who need to be overhead pressing are overhead athletes such as tennis, volleyball or netball players, or competitive Olympic lifters.’
As we always say though, the exercises you should do are the ones you’ll enjoy, so here’s Luke’s form tips if you’re not intending on giving up overhead presses anytime soon: ‘The most common issue is finishing the movement by leaning back, and so extending through the lower back. This is usually because of a lack of core control and a lack of extension in your upper back. Make sure your ribcage and pelvis are stacked on top of each other.’
The tip: Don’t lean back as you finish the movement, rather make sure your ribcage and pelvis are stacked from start to finish.
7. Burpee form
This one’s less of a form fixer and more some straight up advice: ‘No one needs to do these, ever,’ Luke says. ‘Burpees are a squat, press up and a jump performed fast and often to failure. Both squats and press ups require a good deal of strength and coaching, so performing them quickly and under fatigue isn’t a good mix.’
The reason people seem to do them so often, Luke wagers, is that they’re hard, but he’d recommend doing ‘a good squat or press up, and then getting conditioning from another activity that you can do well and safely, like cycling, or running on a treadmill.’
The tip: Don’t do them if you don’t like them.
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