Maintaining proper form when working out is not only crucial to your gains, but for keeping you safe. Form mistakes can lead to injury, which usually means any future plans for whatever goal you had in mind (be it a race or a PR) are put on hold indefinitely. Talk about soul-crushing.
While workout injuries occurring mid-session can happen for a number of reasons (muscle imbalances can be common causes), oftentimes, poor form is to blame, according to the American Council on Exercise.
“If we repeatedly perform movements incorrectly, we lay the groundwork for future injury or a lack of results,” explains Norma Lowe, C.P.T., owner of Norma Lowe Fitness. “The top two reasons for poor form are, paradoxically, inexperience and experience. The person is either just learning the movement or they perform it too quickly because they’ve gotten comfortable with it.”
According to one study published in Injury Epidemiology, the vast majority of gym injuries occur during free weight and bodyweight movements. And while these types of resistance training are designed to give the exerciser a more versatile range of motion while mimicking real-life movement patterns, they can also leave a bit too much room for interpretation—and sometimes result in snafus.
In order to avoid injuries while working out, it’s important to ensure you’re using the right form. While it’s ideal to perform strength exercises under the supervision of a professional when you’re just starting out (though many seasoned exercisers could probably benefit, too), understanding proper movement patterns—and what movements contribute to injuries—can give you a solid baseline for stepping into the weight room safely.
Here are top form mistakes trainers want you to stop making, plus how to fix them fast.
1. Your Knees Cave in During Squats
While squats might seem like one of the more self-explanatory exercises a person can do (after all, the vast majority of us sit down and stand up multiple times daily), there’s a lot that can go wrong—namely, when it comes to your knees, according to Lowe.
If your knees start caving inward as you descend and your load (or weight) is heavy enough or rep count is high enough, you could do some serious damage to them.
The Fix: If you suspect your knees are caving in during squats, take off any load or weight you’re using ASAP. Then, as you squat, make sure you’re set up for success with these steps:
- Plant your feet firmly on the ground, shoulder-width apart and turned slightly outward.
- Engage your core muscles.
- Keeping your chest up and forward, push your hips back and slowly bend your knees. (Don’t worry if your knees extend beyond your toes!)
- Once your thighs are parallel to the ground, drive through your heels to stand back up again.
If you notice your knees starting to cave at any point during the squat, slow down and don’t worry about hitting a parallel depth just yet.
2. Your Elbows Flare Out During Triceps Extensions
On top of reducing the effectiveness of this (usually) high-impact triceps move by diverting attention toward surrounding muscles, flaring your elbows out can quickly cause injury if you’re not careful, says Danielle DeAppolonio, C.P.T., group fitness instructor and The Vitamin Shoppe trainer.
Another sign of form mistakes when it comes to triceps extensions? “Arching your back or using momentum to assist the movement,” DeAppolonio explains.
The Fix: To set yourself up for an ideal triceps extension, it’s important to pick a weight that won’t force you to use your body’s momentum. Start small and build up to heavier loads with these steps:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms overhead, holding a dumbbell between them. Keep your gaze forward, your shoulders down, and engage your core.
- Keeping elbows pointed straight forward, bend arms to release the weight down behind your head. Then, keeping the elbows still, extend upward.
3. You’re Taking On Burpees Too Quickly
If you’ve ever wondered mid-HIIT class if you’re flailing while doing burpees, you probably are, says DeAppolonio. “The primary mistake is that you’re progressing through them too quickly,” she explains. Signs you’re going too fast: You hike up your hips while in the plank phase of the burpee, land hard with straight legs after you jump up into the air, or lean forward and arch your back in the plank phase.
The Fix: While it’s entirely understandable to want to rush through burpees as quickly as possible, 10 slow-and-steady burpees (versus 20 fast-and-furious ones), with correct form, are your best bet. DeAppolonio recommends mastering the three moves contained in a single burpee (jump squat, plank, pushup) before tying them all together. (Don’t worry, you’ll still get a killer workout separating them!)
Before jumping into burpees, try the following:
- Start with jump squats. From a squat position (see form cues above), jump upwards using your arms to build momentum. Land softly on your feet (think: first toes, then ball of foot, then heel), keeping your knees slightly bent as you land. That’s one rep. Complete 10 to 12.
- Then, perfect your plank. Place your hands directly under your shoulders and jump your feet back. Splay fingers and press them into the ground, push your heels towards the back of the room, keep legs straight, and engage your core (picture drawing your belly button up into your spine). Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. That’s one rep. Complete two to three.
- Finally, your pushups. Start from a plank position and bend your elbows to slowly lower yourself towards the ground. When your chest almost touches the floor, press back upwards. That’s one rep. Complete 10 to 12 reps. (You can also do this one on your knees.)
Once you’ve mastered the three moves above, you’re ready to tie them together into a burpee. Start with a pushup, kick your feet in towards your hands, explode up to perform a jump squat, then jump back down into a plank to start your next pushup. Ta-da!
4. Your Stance Is Off In Lunges
As Marisa Golan, C.P.T., owner of E(M)POWERED training and The Vitamin Shoppe trainer, explains, there’s a lot going on in a lunge—so naturally, a lot can go wrong. Some tell-tale signs you’re making form mistakes with your lunges? Your stance is too narrow or too wide. (You should maintain a shoulder-width stance). Many people also lean too far forward, keep their back knee too high, don’t step their front foot out far enough, and allow their back knee to collapse inward or outward.
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The Fix: Follow these steps to execute your lunges perfectly and avoid form mistakes:
- Start with feet hip-width apart and engage your core.
- Take a big step forward (or backward for a reverse lunge). Keep your chest up and your shoulders back and down.
- As you descend down into the lunge, make sure your front knee aligns with your ankle and is facing forward. Both knees should form 90-degree angles, so your front thigh is parallel to the floor and your back knee hovers just above the floor.
- Keeping your front foot planted on the floor, press down through your heel and engage your glutes, quads, and hamstrings to stand up. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 12 reps.
5. Your Back Rounds During Deadlifts
Deadlifts may be one of the most beneficial exercises we can do, but there are a number of form faux-pas that can occur in the movement. “If you’re rounding your spine or have an arched back with an upwards gaze, your shoulders are hunched over, or you’re squatting and then locking out your knees, you’re not doing a deadlift quite right,” explains says DeAppolonio. Do this movement improperly and it can quickly result in neck or lower-back strain.
The Fix: Use the following cues to avoid deadlift form mistakes:
- Hold two dumbbells with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your shoulders rolled down and back, your core tight, and your knees bent ever-so-slightly.
- Press your hips back to lower the dumbbells towards the floor, keeping them close to the front of your body.
- Lower roughly three-quarters of the way down your legs, then reverse the movement. Squeeze your glutes at the top.