When it comes to exercising, form is everything. “The better your form, the more effectively you’ll work the muscles you’re looking to target,” says Fitbit Coach and certified personal trainer Adrian Richardson. But some common form slip-ups tend leave people sidelined. Help eliminate exercise-induced pain by keeping these cues at the forefront of your fitness.
Rounding Your Back
Rounding your back is almost always a no-no when you’re lifting weights—no matter how light or heavy. “Repeated spinal flexion, especially under load, is a surefire way to provoke injury and could even lead to a herniated disk,” says Richardson.
Most Common Culprit: Deadlifts
How To Do It Right: When you’re setting up to pull from the ground, it can be easy to focus on lifting at the expense of proper alignment. A key way to make sure you lift with proper form on deadlifts: engage your lats. What does this mean? “When setting up for your lift, think chest up, shoulders down, long arms,” says Richardson, “This will force the bar towards the body and cause your lats to fire up.”
Stretching At The Wrong Time
Stretching is important, but making sure you’re doing the right kind of stretching is also crucial. Static stretching—or holding a stationary stretch for 10 to 30 seconds or so—before lifting weights can actually hurt your performance. A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that passive static stretching before lifting weights could leave you weaker and less stable (up to nearly 25% less stable) during your workout. It’s also a no-no to do static stretches before heading out for a run.
Most Common Culprit: Post-Workout Cooldown and Pre-Workout Warm-Ups
How To Do It Right: Before your workout, warm-up with dynamic movements that mimic the exercise you’re about to perform. You’ll get your blood flowing, warm-up the muscles you’re about to train, and even work to improve your range of motion while improving your overall athletic performance.
After your workout, keep your muscles flexible and strong, and hit that full-range of motion in your joints by incorporating mobility as part of your cooldown. It’s OK to incorporate static stretching post-workout—whether that means targeting your calves and hamstrings with a runner’s lunge, or focusing on your back and arms by holding Up Dog, a move borrowed from the yoga studio, for 20 seconds.
Flaring Your Elbows
Flared elbows don’t belong in your exercise routine. “Not only do they make your moves less stable, but over-flare—where your arms are positioned as far as 90 degrees from your torso—is quick way to injure your shoulder,” says Richardson.
Most Common Culprit: Push-ups and Overhead Extensions
How to Do It Right: Whether you’re targeting your chest with push-ups or training those triceps with dumbbell overhead extensions, keeping your elbows close to the body is a must. For overhead extensions, allowing your elbows to flare away from your head takes the focus away from the muscle you’re targeting: your triceps. Instead, cue yourself to keep your shoulders down and your elbows cradling your ears with each and every rep. When it comes to push-ups, think about pressing your elbows back (rather than out) on the descending part of the movement. For the most powerful, stable position, aim for your elbows to form a 45-degree angle with your torso.
Arching Your Neck
It’s perfectly normal to focus on your legs, arms, or glutes when you’re lifting weight, but you also need to think about maintaining a neutral head position.
Most Common Culprit: Squats
How To Do It Right: During squats, keep your neck straight and your chin tucked. “Avoid the temptation to look up by arching your neck, cranking your head up, and drawing your chin towards the ceiling,” says Richardson. Instead, protect the delicate structures in your neck by keeping your eyes up and maintaining a neutral spine position from your lower back to your cervical spine.
Ignoring Your Hips
Give yourself a quick form check when you get into a plank. Is your mid-section sagging toward the floor or is your rear end floating up? If so, you could be setting yourself up for unnecessary pain.
Most Common Culprit: Planks
“When you’re doing a plank, sagging hips remove tension from the area you should be targeting—your core—while hyperextension can place undue strain on your back,” says Richardson.
How To Do It Right: Get into proper position by making sure your body forms a straight line from the crown of your head to your heel. Check that your shoulders are stacked over your hands, not far in front of them. And keep everything contracted by drawing your belly button in towards your spine, tucking your hips, and contracting your glutes.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.