Many popular exercises are performed incorrectly, often by people who probably shouldn’t be attempting them in the first place. This can result in injuries and futility at the gym. We talked to the experts to find out which exercises are the most problematic, and how to do them correctly.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
When it comes to our performance at the gym, it’s important to remember that we’re all at different stages in our fitness. Exercises are not universal; just because a movement looks great doesn’t mean we should try it. We should also be mindful of our physical limitations, especially our mobility and level of strength, or when nursing an injured body part back to health. Moreover, it’s crucial that we understand why we’re doing a particular movement, and what correct form is supposed to look like.
Sadly, as a visit to your local gym will attest, these common sense rules are violated all the time.
To learn more about exercises that are often performed incorrectly, I spoke with Jen Mark, an athletic therapist at York Simcoe Express and a certified personal trainer, and senior exercise physiologist Heather Milton, of NYU Langone Medical Center. We discussed eight different movements to understand why they’re problematic, how they’re supposed to be performed, and which exercises you can perform in their place.
Walking lunges can be performed with weights, but don’t go too heavy otherwise you’ll strain your back. Note how the front knee does not extend past the toe. (LiveStrong/YouTube)
Lunges are great, but they’re often performed incorrectly. To properly execute a lunge, a person positions one leg forward with the knee bent while the other leg is set behind with the heel off the ground. Unfortunately, some people have a tendency to extend their front knee beyond the toe, or push with their toes such that their weight is extended too far forward. The weight really needs to be on the heel.
“If you’re doing the lunge properly, you’ll feel it in the glute of the front leg and in the hip area,” says Mark. “If you’re not feeling it there, you’re not doing it properly.”
A properly performed lunge should target your hamstrings and your glutes. Mark says putting weight on your front toe instead of your heel engages your quadriceps instead, and puts dangerous levels of stress on your front knee.
“If you’re a runner or a sprinter, you have to be able to maximize hamstrings and glutes,” says Mark. “So if you’re doing walking lunges or a split squat and you’re using all quads, it’s not going to help your speed. You have to be able to work all those groups together to properly execute this dynamic movement.”
Mark says people with poor hip mobility and lower back flexibility tend to have difficulty performing lunges correctly. At the same time, there’s a popular misconception that people with knee injuries should actively avoid lunges. This isn’t always the case, she says, as long as the lunges are performed properly.
Sit-ups and Crunches
A waste of time? (U.S. Army/Flickr/CC)
Exercise physiologist Heather Milton says sit-ups and crunches are “not needed — ever.” Not only are they terribly ineffective, they tend to overuse areas already prone to abuse, such as the spinal column and lower back. What’s more, sit ups produce the same force in the spine that can create disc bulges and herniation.
“Think about what you’re doing when performing a sit-up,” says Milton. “You’re going from a neutral spine position where you’re lying on the ground and you’re creating a flexion [a bending] movement in your spine each time you’re coming up.”
Milton says that movements of flexion and extension are a normal part of exercise, but we should not be repetitively reproducing movements strictly in flexion. Many of us are
already in a near-perpetual state of flexion in our daily lives, due to the hunched positions that we assume while working on computers.
Sit-ups, in particular, put undue pressure on the anterior portion of the spine, which pulls on the lumbar vertebrae. What’s more, your basic situp only engages the rectus abdominis muscle — just one abdominal group in the entire group of core muscles.
“The rectus abdominis is supposed to control against extensive extension of your spine, so it shouldn’t be shortened as you contract with a sit-up, says Milton. “It should be able to maintain a good length all the time.”
Instead of sit-ups and crunches, Milton recommends the plank. The key to the movement is to keep the core engaged with the back and legs in a straight alignment. Arms can either be fully outstretched or bent at the elbows.
An excellent plank. Note the perfectly straight alignment in the back and legs. (Jaykayfit/CC)
Mark agrees that the plank is a good substitute. If you’re absolutely hell-bent on performing crunches, she advises holding the crunch position in order to limit the number of repetitions you perform. From this position, she says, you can engage your abs, hold your core, and move your arms and legs.
“That’s how I do my core work,” she says.
Chin-Ups (And Pull-Ups)
Many people try to do chin-ups before they’re physically ready to perform the movement safely. “When people who aren’t strong enough try to do a chin-up on their own, they tend to wiggle their legs a lot — as if they’re trying to climb a ladder to get up,” says Mark. “They’re not engaging their core enough, and they’re not holding their body.” This can lead to injury, particularly in the shoulders.
And then there’s the notorious kipping pull-up made famous by CrossFit. The kipping pull-up differs from a chin-up in two fundamental ways. First, being a pull-up and not a chin-up, athletes use a pronated grip (palms away) instead of a supinated grip (palms inward).
Second, it’s not a “strict” pull-up because it involves a hip-snap that lifts the body with minimal upper body pulling. This results in increased efficiency and a quicker rep count, which is why CrossFitters love it so much. (Animated image: Tee Major)
Mark described the kipping pull-up to me as “ridiculous.” Milton echoed her sentiment, pointing out that these movements put a considerable amount of stress on the shoulders and joints. These are areas that are already prone to injury during a standard pull-up movement, due to the pronated grip with which it is performed.
“When you’re in a kipping pull-up position, your hands are turned away, which decreases the space in your shoulder joint, so when you’re hanging from that position it puts a lot of stress on the tendons and the structures within your shoulder joint,” says Mark. “So anyone with shoulder issues is at risk of experiencing a lot of pain when they raise their arms overhead.”
Milton says that by turning hands inward for a more neutral grip, athletes can decrease some of the pressure.
As physical therapist and avid CrossFitter Dan Pope contends that kipping pull-ups tend to cause injuries because most people don’t have the requisite strength to properly pull them off. They don’t learn the proper technique, and they typically don’t realize they’re working in a poor position.
Demonstration of a supine pull-up (SweatPump)
In place of the kipping pull-up, Milton suggests standard pull-ups, but admits they’re not necessarily for everyone. For those not strong enough to perform a standard chin-up or pull-up correctly, she recommends a modified pull-up called a supine pull-up in which a person lies on their back, extends their arms forward, and grips the bar while pulling themselves towards it.
This decreases the gravitational force, while still providing a good workout to the latissimi dorsi, or lats (the broad muscles in the back), and without putting all that increased stress on the shoulders. Milton also recommends an assisted pull-up device, and using a more neutral grip.
Probably the worst deadlift performed in the history of the Universe.
The deadlift is a great full-body exercise, but it’s also an exceptionally technical movement, so it’s often performed incorrectly. And because it involves moving tremendous loads—usually 1–2 times a person’s body weight—it poses a serious risk of injury.
“The biggest problem with the deadlift is that you can blow a disk,” says Mark. “You can herniate a disc very easily, particularly when doing a deadlift that’s too heavy and with an incorrect position.”
Above left: the wrong way; above right: correct form, though it’s not a bad idea to look forward rather than down. (CrossFit Mildenhall)
Common mistakes people make when performing the deadlift include not keeping a neutral spine and using their back—or even a snap of the arms—to lift the bar. They also forget to engage their core when performing the lift. But if their core isn’t strong enough in the first place, they’re not going to be able to lift the weight properly, anyway.
Milton says she consistently sees people who don’t know why they’re performing the lift, or what proper form is supposed to look like. What drives her particularly crazy is how often she sees personal trainers incorrectly coaching their clients on the deadlift.
“Deadlifts are a core, complete body workout,” says Milton. “You should have your lats engaged, you should have your abdominal supporting structure engaged, you should be creating a hinge at the hips, contracting the glutes, and extending the hips.”
People who aren’t ready for the deadlift can start out by performing a simple hip hinge. To help her athletes learn to maintain a neutral spine, Milton has them stand about six inches from a wall, facing away. She then has them hinge their hips back as they let their hips fall back towards the wall, just tapping it before hinging back up by using their glutes and extending their hips. In this way, Milton’s clients learn the motions associated with a proper deadlift before doing one that’s weighted.
And as Mark pointed out to me, people can also do partial positions where the bar doesn’t reach the floor. As flexibility gets better and strength improves, they can start to go down further into a good squatting position.
The weighted squat is another excellent full-body exercise. But many people use a Smith Machine to do it, a device that can limit the range of motion necessary to perform the exercise.
“This disassociates the movement of the squat,” says Milton. “Whenever I see somebody in a Smith Machine trying to do squats, they’re doing their squats in a very abnormal way — in such a way that it ceases to become a functional movement. And the squat is a very functional movement.”
Avoid the Smith Machine. (LiveStrong/YouTube)
The problem is that the machine constrains the movement movement of the bar to a vertical plane. On one hand, this serves to stabilize the bar, but Milton says it’s very difficult for most people to get into a proper squat position when they’re locked into a set range of motion. Frustratingly, the Smith Machine is also used to help people prepare for doing freely done weighted back squats — but it’s more hindrance than assistance.
Josh Henkin, a conditioning specialist from Scottsdale, Arizona agrees that the Smith Machine is problematic, and advises against it. The fix, he says, it to just do the free weight equivalent.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Careful, now. (Teresa Lopez/Youtube)
To perform a Bulgarian split squat, a person holds on to a pair of dumbbells and, with one leg placed back on a bench, performs a one-legged squat. This is not necessarily a bad exercise, but our experts say there’s no reason to perform it in place of a regular lunge.
“The problem is that many people don’t have the flexibility in their hip flexors to pull this off,” says Milton. “So the back leg is extended far back, and with tightness in the hip flexor or the back leg, it forces a lean forward and an arch in the back. Then, if you put any weight on that as well, then you’re putting more stress on all of the structures other than the goal of the exercise, which is to strengthen the glutes and quads.”
Milton says people should just do regular lunges, which get the job done and are considerably safer.
Strict Overhead Presses
CrossFit Games champion Annie Thorisdottir makes the overhead press look easy, but this movement is not for everyone. (CrossFit)
Anyone who has shoulder, neck, or upper back issues, like an instability injury, or who can’t hold their posture with their shoulders overhead, should avoid the strict overhead press. Also known as a shoulder press, this is a lift in which the bar is elevated fully overhead from the rack position without jerking or pushing; it’s strictly shoulders and arms.
“If you’re doing cleans and presses, you have to make sure you have good shoulder mobility,” says Milton. “If you have a 50-year-old person who has a desk job — and their shoulders are internally rotated, they can’t get their elbows up to their shoulder level, and they can’t bend their wrists to get into the right position to rack the bar — you’re putting them at risk for shoulder and back problems because the weight is not above their center of mass. Instead, they’re in front of it.”
As an alternative, Mark says people should work on their shoulder mobility and stability, which can be done with band work for the rotator cuff muscles and other muscle groups recruited to lift a weighted bar from the rack position to fully overhead. In addition, people can use stability balls, do wallball tosses, or perform seated rows. Milton also suggests performing the military press with a neutral grip.
Military press with neutral grip (TNation/YouTube)
“But again,” Milton cautions, “you first need good shoulder mobility to be able to do that before you have them push something straight over their head,” she added. “Many people are going to push it forward instead of straight up.”
Back extensions involve contractions of the spine that stretch and strengthen the lower back, Supermans and Good Mornings being two common examples. These movements can become problematic when people contract their back muscles to the point that it creates a severe arch in the back, turning a back extension into back hyperextension. The back-extension machine lends itself to this kind of abuse, which is known to aggravate the lower back owing to the exaggerated range of motion.
The back extension machine. Notice how this athlete does not hyperextend his back. (LiveStrong/YouTube)
This movement is also meant to be performed slowly. Some people do them so quickly they’re unable to properly hold their body structure, which imposes undue strain on the spine and lower back. The spine isn’t really meant to bear this kind of pressure. As Mark told me, this sets people up for fractures and slipped discs.
Some experts, such as kinesiologist Stuart McGill from the University of Waterloo, contend that back extensions shouldn’t be attempted at all due to the strain they place on the spine. Instead, McGill recommends the birddog position, pictured at left, to strengthen back extensors. [Photo Credit: ShiftingMyGears/CC]
In a birddog position, a person starts on their hands and knees. While engaging the core, the right arm is slowly lifted upwards until it’s straight and parallel to the floor, while the same thing is replicated with the left leg. After a few seconds holding the position, the limbs are lowered, and then reproduced with the opposite arm and leg.