6 Fundamental Exercises You're Probably Doing Wrong — And How To Do Them Right
Whether you’ve been working out for decades or you’re just getting started, you may not be doing every exercise on your workout plan correctly.
Thankfully, some subtle adjustments can make a world of difference in protecting your muscles, joints, tendons, ands your morale.
We spoke with two personal trainers about the most common exercises people get wrong. Here’s the lowdown on how to do them correctly so you avoid injury.
What it’s supposed to accomplish: “Squats work your core, glutes, quads, and hamstrings,” says New York City-based NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Holistic Health Coach Sarah Grimaud. “They also engage the muscles on the inside and outside of your hips and thighs — your adductors and abductors.”
Moving your knees towards each other
Moving your knees forward, past your toes
Lifting your heels off the ground
Rounding your back
Pushing your head too far forward
“Sometimes clients lift their heels off the ground, round their backs, or push their heads too far forward,” says Grimaud. All of this strains the back, neck, and knees and may cause more severe injuries like ligament tears or herniated discs. Keep in mind that your head shouldn’t be moving in a squat at all. Instead, keep it in line with your spine.
The right way to do a squat: “Start standing up straight with your core engaged and feet shoulder width apart and parallel,” advises Grimaud. Lower your hips back and down as if you were sitting in a chair. “You don’t need to go any lower than the point at which your thighs are parallel to the ground,” she says.
Engage your abductor and adductor muscles to ensure your knees remain in the same plane as your toes (not moving inwards towards each other) and be sure your knees don’t jut forward past your toes. To come back up, drive the movement from your heels and engage your glutes. Repeat 10-15 times.
“You can arch your back slightly if this is helpful and comfortable to you,” Grimaud adds. “But it’s best to maintain as straight a back as possible, with your chest up. If you have lower back or knee problems, don’t go down as low. And if you find that you're leaning forward a lot, it may be because you have very tight calves. Try foam rolling and stretching the calves to alleviate this.”
What it’s supposed to accomplish: Strengthening the bicep muscles (but you probably knew that).
Using weights that are too heavy
Swinging the weights
Using your back or shoulders to assist you with moving the weights
Moving your wrists during the exercise
The right way to do a bicep curl: Stand up straight with soft knees (not locked) and an engaged core (straight spine, supported by contracting your abdomen). With your palms facing forward and your arms straight, bend your elbows and flex your biceps to raise the dumbbells towards your shoulder.
“Pretend there’s a steel rod running from your elbow to your hand — the wrist shouldn’t move at all,” advises Grimaud. Your lower arms can be slightly skewed away from your body or they can be facing the same plane as your face, whatever is more accessible for you. Lower the weight back down with control and repeat 12-20 times.
“If you're trying to build strength and can't do 12 reps with safe form, try a lower weight,” says Grimaud. “If you get to 20 reps and feel like you could do many more, try a heavier weight.”
What a plank is supposed to do: Planks help strengthen your core, glutes, quads, shoulders, and arm muscles.
Arching your back
Dropping your hips
Lifting your hips
Moving your head and neck up or down
The right way to plank: “Start on your hands and knees with your palms in a direct, straight line below your shoulders,” says Grimaud. “Bring your legs back so you're on your toes and have a straight spine and straight line from your head to the top of your heels. Hold for 30 to 60 or more seconds, but not past the point where you lose form,” Grimaud advises.
Don’t stress if 30 seconds is out of reach. Safe form is of utmost importance, Grimaud says. “If you can hold the plank for 10 to 15 seconds only with same form, do that and then hold the plank again after a short rest.”
If you have bad wrists, you can try fists instead of palms, and you can hold the plank on your lower arms (keeping the elbows in a straight line below the shoulders and lower arms and palms parallel to your body). You can also go on your knees, forming a straight line from your head to your knees.
What a push-up is supposed to do: Push-ups strengthen the chest, core, glutes, quads, shoulders, and arms.
Common mistakes people make when performing push-ups:
Not maintaining a straight spine
Jutting your head forward
Lifting your hips too high
Arching your back
Hiking your hips up
Letting your hips sink down
The right way to do a push-up: “A push-up is essentially a moving plank,” says Grimaud. “You want the body to move as one unit.” The big difference between a plank and a push-up is hand placement. In a plank, your palms are in a straight line directly below your shoulders, but in a push-up, your hands come out wider than your shoulders.
Set yourself up for a plank, but make sure your arms are positioned slightly wider. Engage your core, glutes, and quads, and bend your arms to move your elbows out to the side (perpendicular to your body) at a 45-degree angle and allow your body to descend towards the floor. Return to start, with control, by extending your arms and squeezing your chest. Repeat 12-20 times, depending on how accessible this exercise is to you.
“If you can't do 12 reps with safe form, finish the rest of your reps by modifying this exercise on your knees,” says Grimaud. And if one push-up is too challenging with this form, drop to your knees from the start.
What they’re supposed to accomplish: “Lunges work your core, hamstrings, inner thigh, glutes, quads and hips,” says Vancouver, Canada-based ACE certified Personal Trainer Monica Straith.
They can also help you develop endurance and lower body strength. Plus, they’re great for beginners and experts alike, because there are many modifications and advanced forms, she adds.
Common mistakes people make when performing lunges:
Too narrow of a stance
Dropping your upper body forward
Rounding your back
Using too much weight
The Right Way to Do a Lunge: Step forward with one leg and lower your hips until both of your knees are bent at a 90 degree angle, says Straith. “Be sure to keep your front knee over the top of your front ankle (slightly over is actually okay).” Come back up to your starting position all while keeping equal weight in both of your heels.
Alternatively, you can step backwards, about two feet, keeping your hips facing forward while your back toe touches the floor. Once your back toe touches the floor, descend your hips towards the floor until your back knee hovers just above the floor. To return to the starting position, press up through your back foot.
You can perform the lunge with or without weights — dumbbells in each hand or a weighted bar balanced on your shoulders. “If your form starts to suffer, that’s when you know you’re using too much weight,” says Straith.
What it's supposed to accomplish: “A proper crunch works both your rectus abdominis (the muscle running from your rib cage to your pelvis) and your transverse abdominal muscle (a muscle that lies underneath your rectus abdominis and helps to stabilize your spine as well as assist in breathing),” says Straith.
Common mistakes people make when performing crunches:
Using your hands to pull your head
Curving your neck
Arching your back off the floor
The Right Way to Do a Crunch: Lie on the floor, on your back, with your knees bent and your heels touching the floor. Place your hands behind your head, ideally under your neck, or on your thighs. Looking at a spot on the ceiling behind your head (to help keep your neck straight) contract your abdominal muscles and press your lower back into the floor as you lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the floor. Hold for one second. Then release downwards, with control. Repeat 15-30 times.
About the Author
Katherine Schreiber is a contributor to the Public Goods Blog, a publication about health, sustainability and people making an impact. Check it out for a wide range of topics: everything from the anti-fluoride movement and upcycling to product reviews and food.